The Privilege of Buying Cheap Toilet Paper

Have you ever heard the phrase “It’s really expensive to be poor?” Think about it for a minute. There are a lot of ways to save money on everyday items and activities, but oftentimes, the ability to take advantage of those savings requires abundance elsewhere in your life.

Take, for example, buying toilet paper. Costco has famously excellent toilet paper that is really inexpensive for such a quality product! If you’re the kind of person who has a Costco membership, you might be shocked at how much a roll costs at the local drug store.

But in order to be able to take advantage of the savings of Costco toilet paper–not to mention all of the other things you can buy for less in bulk–you need a few things first. You need a home with enough storage for all of that backstock. You need room in your budget to purchase your annual Costco membership when it comes time to renew. You need a way to transport 30 rolls of toilet paper from Costco to your home–something that’s difficult to do by bicycle or city bus. All of those things require financial resources.

But there are other costs as well, costs that are higher when you’re poor. One of those is mental bandwidth.

A way to think about mental bandwidth is how much space you have in your mind for remembering things, taking in new information, planning, strategizing, solving complex problems, and making sound decisions. Even if you haven’t experienced financial poverty, you’ve probably had periods where your mind was struggling to focus and stay caught up due to lack of time or sleep or attention.

Let’s return to our toilet paper example. What looks like a simple weekend errand to restock on cheap toilet paper to a financially secure person is a deeply complex task to a person who lacks the same resources. It’s not just “Do I have time to run to Costco before that birthday party this afternoon?” but “How much will I save on the toilet paper? How much can I realistically store? Do I have money in my budget this month to pay for my Costco renewal that’s due? Is it worth the cost of the Uber ride, or should I try to bike, or call some friends to see if we can carpool? If I use the extra room in my budget to stock up on toilet paper this month, what does that mean I have to put off purchasing until next month?”

We often hear that poor people make bad decisions that result in their staying poor. A person might be inclined to ponder, “Why would so-and-so spend their little extra money on such expensive toilet paper when they can get something cheaper at Costco, and keep their savings for a rainy day?” Without understanding the costs of poverty or other lack of resources, the behaviors we see from people facing scarcity may seem irrational. 

But the mind just does not work like that. Many research studies have shown that being chronically mentally taxed, like when you live in poverty, makes long-term planning and strategic thinking really difficult, even if you’re otherwise really good at it!

What does this mean for you? Well first, I hope it inspires some compassion for others and for yourself when you’re feeling taxed. Second, if you’re in charge of processes, think about how you can modify them to limit the amount of mental bandwidth it takes to complete them. When you simplify processes and use the art of nudging, you make it easier for people to do beneficial things. For example, send a reminder, and maybe even a calendar invite, with a link to your application when it’s time to enroll in your program. Don’t make it three separate things that need to be kept track of. That’s just one example, but it’s the kind of barrier that someone who is poor in mental bandwidth may not be able to overcome.

If you’d like to read more about the psychology of scarcity, check out the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives.


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