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Living On A Tight Budget ?— And Finding The 'Silver Lining' ?— During COVID-19

A person wearing a sleeveless shirt.
Erica Heilman
Ronald Burns, who lives in St. Johnsbury with his mother, spoke with Erica Heilman about affording groceries during the pandemic, managing diabetes and lessons learned through homelessness.

Ronald Burns lives with his mother in St. Johnsbury. They’re both diabetic, and while his mother receives disability, Ronald’s income from his part-time job has dwindled since the onset of COVID-19. Erica Heilman met with Ronald to find out how he and his mother are getting on (and brought along her socially distant, makeshift mic boom).

Ronald: “My name’s Ronald. We’re in St. Johnsbury at the Community Restorative Justice [Center] parking lot, and there is a Swiffer in my face.”

Ronald and his mother live on a tight, fixed budget at the best of times. Ronald is 26 now, but he was homeless from the ages of 14 to 19. And I was wondering if he learned anything in those years that’s serving him well now.

Ronald: “We kind of live month to month. So when we get our money towards the beginning of the month, we go shopping, we grab everything we’re gonna need for the month, then we only go out after that when we need small things.”

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Me: “Is it fair to ask how much money you’re working with every month to get through the month?”

Ronald: “Between me and my mom’s income, about $1,400 to $1,500 a month.”

Me: “So can you talk about how the epidemic, when we all suddenly – when all our lives changed, how did it impact your income and also your buying habits?”

Ronald: “So my work is very hands-on. I have to touch the things I work with. So that really put a dent in my work. And at the beginning of every month, we do like a specific shopping – like we always have a list. And the prices have increased exponentially.”

Me: “Give me an example. The prices for what?”

Ronald: “So we could go get three pounds of hamburger ordinarily for $13 and change. And we went to the store two days ago and it was almost $22. And we only buy a specific brand of dish soap. One of it lasts an entire month. So we went out to get dish soap, and the entire shelf was empty. There was nothing.

“So we’re having to make more trips because we have to call these stores and see when they’re getting a restock… what days specifically, what time they get the restock. And we don’t have a running vehicle right now, so we have to pay for a taxi every time we do this.”

Me: “And so now both prices are going up and also the things that you need aren’t available.”

Ronald: “Yes. We have quantities and pricings mapped out. So when those are both thrown into the fire, so to speak, we have to figure out quantities and pricing all over again.”

Me: “So you said before that you and your mother both have diabetes. What kind of concern is that causing for both of you?”

Ronald: “We have kind of a fallback, if we’re not able to eat necessary meals a day. And that’s sugar and carbs. So we get chips. We get beef jerky. So like, we want to make sure if we’re broke and not able to get to the store, at least we have something to make sure we’re not going to be unhealthy. Sometimes the food that we’re eating to maintain our sugar levels aren’t the healthiest, but it’s the fact that we’re not getting low blood sugar levels – that’s healthy.”

"I know how to look at $1.50 and basically say, 'I can get one big thing of this with this $1.50 or I can get three small things of this with the $1.50.'... I know how to wake up in the morning happy because I know how to go to bed at night happy. I'm a silver lining kind of person. Like I see good in a situation, regardless of how bad it is." ?— Ronald Burns

Me: “You spent most of your youth bouncing around or homeless. Does this event or these pretty dire financial challenges compare in terms of just the level of insecurity? What is it doing to your psychology and your mom?”

Ronald: “Being homeless, whether you’re a youth, young adult or an adult, it looks like struggling to figure out what you’re going to eat, it looks like struggling to figure out where you’re going to sleep at the end of the night. It looks like struggling to figure out who you should trust and who you shouldn’t trust. Wondering if you leave your things here this night, if they’re still going to be here when you come back. It is a constant struggle.”

Me: “It’s a full-time job.”

Ronald: “It absolutely is a full-time job. Even if you know that you‘re safe and you have a roof over your head and you have eaten, you’ve still got to wonder, am I still going to have this place to live tomorrow? Am I still going to be able to eat tomorrow? It is a consistent struggle.”

Me: “So what do you know that I don’t know? What’s the muscle you have that I don’t have that’s making this easier for you than it might be for me?”

Ronald: “I guess to get down to the nitty-gritty, I know how to make a meal out of a bag of chips, cheese and a can of beans. I know how to wash my clothes in the bathtub if I don’t have a washer and dryer or any cleaning supplies to wash my clothes with. I know how to look at $1.50 and basically say, ‘I can get one big thing of this with this $1.50 or I can get three small things of this with the $1.50.’ I know how to practice self-care without having things to care about my body with, like soaps and hair stuff. I know how to be basically be mentally aware and prepared for things that could happen. I know how to wake up in the morning happy because I know how to go to bed at night happy. I’m a silver lining kind of person. Like I see good in a situation, regardless of how bad it is.”

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Me: “What good are you seeing here?”

Ronald: “Well. You don’t really have to run into any crappy people because there’s so much social distancing.”

Ronald and his mother used to go out once a month for dinner, but it’s not in the budget anymore.

Ronald: “Me and my mom have this thing where we go out once a month. We’re kind of stuck between Chinese and pizza food unless we go to an actual fast food restaurant. We would budget it because we make sure it’s financially doable. But having it be affordable? There’s never been more of a struggle right now to make sure that we can afford something. But it’s definitely something I miss. It was a gift to ourselves, essentially. To be able to get something we don’t usually have.”

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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