How to get by being broke in Portland, Oregon

When I moved to Portland, I didn’t have a place to live, a job, health insurance or any friends. All I had was my love and some blind faith that it would somehow all work out.

I am in a better place since I moved, but if you’ve been reading this blog, it’s still pretty shaky. The economy here sucks. I know it sucks everywhere, but there really are so few career jobs here and it is hard to get those unless you know someone.  It is possible though.

Having lived a previous life with a career, health insurance and a place to myself, adjusting to this new found uncertainty has been difficult. All risks have some gains and some losses, and I’ve had both.  At the end of the day, I realize how lucky I am to have a roof over my head, food on my plate, and love in my life.

While acclimating to this new way of life, I have learned a few things along the way on how to get by with minimal resources. Perhaps this can help others living in Portland who are also broke, but also inspire others to find resources in their own city.

Food Stamps (or EBT): I am not proud to say that I have been on food stamps. It’s something that I never thought would happen, to be honest. As I said, I moved here without a job, and the first job I found my first week here (see there is some luck!) was a part-time job as an administrative assistant making $10/hr.  It was difficult to take that job after getting my master’s, but I knew it was better than nothing. Working part–time at that pay rate, my take home pay was about $800 a month.  My rent is half of that, so things were pretty tight.  I applied for food stamps right away and got approved within two weeks.  Because I was working and did not receive my paycheck yet, I had to ask my new boss to write me a letter stating my hourly rate and scheduled hours for the EBT office. It was embarrassing, but something I have come to learn here in Oregon, is that being on food stamps is (sadly) pretty common.  When you apply, they will want to know everything about you. Who is living with you, where you work, your social security, who pays for food, what you pay in rent. Be ready to have all this information handy, or you will be frustrated with the application.  The EBT card can be used just like a credit card, and you press the EBT food option, then enter your pin number.  It’s kind of funny, the food stamp card here is called an Oregon Trail Card.  One thing to note is that food stamps are awarded based on income, not on savings. This has caused some scandal, in case you heard about the millionaire who was on food stamps last year. If you claim you have no income, and your bills are high, it is easy to get through the system. The system is not perfect, and I know there are tons of people who abuse it. It should be there for people who really need help, to ensure they can pay the rest of their bills and not go hungry. The awesome thing about food stamps in Portland is that you can use them at local farmer’s markets! How rad is that? Also, Portland has such a great arts scene, that they have adopted a program called Arts for All. If you show your Oregon Trail Card (food stamps), you can get $5 tickets to the Oregon Symphony, theatre shows, and the Opera. I have taken advantage of this perk and I must say it is really incredible.

Groupon: I’ll admit, I have used groupon to buy some awesome deals on food. But mostly, I have used it for practical stuff…like going to the dentist. I currently don’t have health insurance, so going to a new dentist without being covered would cost me around $200. The last two times I’ve been to the dentist, I’ve found a deal on groupon for around $70 for a cleaning and X-ray!  I’m scoping things out for my next one, because I am one of those people obsessed with my teeth and I have always gone every 6 months for my whole life…up until about two years ago. Now it’s once a year, but I want to maintain good oral health. I’ve never had a cavity and want to keep it that way.  To be fair, my parents spent enough on getting me braces and I went through three years of torture, so I’m pretty proud of my teeth.

Planned Parenthood: Thank goodness for Planned Parenthood! I almost had a panic attack after I graduated and my fancy school insurance ended. Without a job, and with my massive student loans, I couldn’t afford the $400 a month rates (for anything decent) for an independent plan. What was I going to do about my birth control?  Go to planned parenthood! They also have an amazing program that if you make under a certain amount of money, you are eligible for a year’s supply of birth control, for free.  The whole process was hassle free, easy and pretty freaking rad. They asked for a donation at the end, I threw in $20 and had a year supply of birth control!

Transportation: Bike or walk (almost) everywhere. This is for people that live and work near the city center. I live 1.5 miles from where I work, and I walk everyday. In the rain, in the cold, I walk. Taking the bus is a luxury for me, and one that I only afford if it is truly nasty out or if it’s more than 4 miles away.  Walking instead of paying $2.50 a ride, or $100 a month saves me so much money! In comparison to a car, the savings is ridiculous!  As an example, I spent $15 total on transportation this month and that was to go to work somewhere that was 5 miles away.

Low cost counseling:  When I first got to Portland, I had a real hard time adjusting. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, life wasn’t working out the way I wanted and I was feeling pretty down. It was also affecting my relationship.  Not having health insurance, I wondered how it would be possible to talk to someone and NOT pay $100/hr. I found that PSU had a graduate student counseling center that charged $15 per session. It was great practice for the students and it was low cost for the patients. I was even able to negotiate the price to $5 per session. I highly recommend looking into this option, if you really need to talk to someone. There is no reason someone shouldn’t go to therapy, because they can’t afford it. I think everyone should go to therapy and talk to a non-biased third party about their issues.

Visit to the ER: If you are unfortunate enough to have to go to the ER, without having insurance, I am sorry. But I have lived to tell the tale and there is some hope! Last year, I was violently ill and feeling awful. My partner was worried about me, so he called an ambulance and we went to the ER and spent 4 hours their getting tested, and having an IV. It was such a blur and I could hardly think about the money, but only that I wanted to feel better.  I went home later feeling better, but feeling sick about what was to come. A hospital bill for $1600 arrived, already with a $500 uninsured discount on it. Yikes! I spoke to some very friendly personnel from the hospital and they encouraged me to apply for their financial assistance program. Similar to food stamps, they will want to know everything about you! And everything about anyone that you live with too. In the end, my bill was covered 100% by the hospital! Unfortunately, I did have to pay $1,000 for the most expensive car ride of my life (see ambulance). Note: If you are sick and can take a car or taxi, do it!

The items above have helped me get by in Portland with relatively meager resources. I am not trying to glorify being broke, or even say that I have it that bad…but there are things you can do to make being broke easier, to continue to fight the good fight and live a good life.


7 responses to “How to get by being broke in Portland, Oregon

  1. Oregon trail card (that’s so funny to me, I loved the Oregon trail game as a kid). I had food stamps when I was doing a volunteer year in Boston. Americorps actually encouraged all of us to apply. I was a little nervous at first, but figured I was eligible and could use the help since we were paid $12,000 a year (my rent was $1000 a month at the time). As for the tickets to the symphony, that’s so awesome, and something other states should start doing.

    • I played the Oregon Trail game too! I’d love to read a post by you on how you got by on your Americorps salary. Perhaps you already have one? I think that would be so informative! I never did anything like Americorps, because I don’t know how people do it, but clearly people find a way.

  2. That’s kinda funny about the Oregon Trail card – I loved it but always died. That’s so awesome that you can use it at farmer’s markets, though! You can get fresh food and help out the local economy, so it’s a win-win for Oregon. I’m a big proponent of Planned Parenthood and community-based counseling – I used that a lot in my mid-20’s and the sliding scale payments really helped me out, so I support them 100%. Sorry to hear about your ER visit – that sticker price is painful, but on the flipside I’m glad you’re alive and healthy so hard to put a price tag on that! 🙂

    • The oregon trail card is pretty hilarious! I agree, supporting the local economy and people with healthy, fresh food is a win win situation!

      Totally agree with the awesomeness that is Planned Parenthood and community based counseling. It’s nice to know when you are low on resources, you can still get help! Happy Easter, dear!

  3. It’s unfortunate that things are so rough in Portland. For some reason I’ve pictured Portland to be my dream city for quite some time now. I didn’t realize the economy was so bad there. The economy has more than recovered in my area. Have you considered moving? I’m glad you can take advantage of a rough situation. That shows a lot of resourcefulness. In the long run with an attitude like that, you’re going to go a long way.

    • Portland is still a wonderful city– green, biking, beer, coffee, friendly people. There are jobs, especially in the service industry, but not so much in my field which is non-profit administration. I’ve heard good things about entrepreneurs and people into technology here. I have considered moving and probably will once my partner is done with school in three months! I only moved here to be with him as we were doing long distance for so long. Also, thanks so much for the encouragement, I am going to keep on moving along 🙂

  4. I am so happy that you took advantage of the services that were available to you in your area. Your health and wellness are the most important things to take care of and thankfully Portland has a lot of quality, low cost options. I’ve been broke as hell too and have been fortunate enough to use some of the services you mentioned. Last time I checked I paid taxes for my entire working life so I didn’t feel any discomfort at all when using some of these services.

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