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Why Being Poor is More Expensive: The Economic Theory of Boots

9 minute read

Devon Taylor

By Devon Taylor

Have you ever heard someone ask “why is it so darn expensive to be poor?” It’s not just a piece of bitter complaining from someone who is down on their financial luck. The truth is that it is literally more expensive to be poor. That, in turn, makes it almost impossible for people with less money to ever turn their financial situation around.

This isn’t even a brand new realization. English author Terry Pratchett first popularized the “economic theory of boots” in his 1933 novel Men at Arms. These days, you can see Pratchett’s boot theory all over the place. Once you understand what it means and where to look, you might need to reconsider your previous views on being rich, being poor, how money works, and even how society functions overall. Let’s get into it.

What is the Boots Theory?

In short, the Boots Theory of Economics is a simplistic explanation for why some people struggle to break out of a situation of poverty. In Pratchett’s book, one of the characters is a lower-class sea captain named Samuel Vines. He’s about to marry one of the richest women in the world. His upcoming nuptials cause his to often reflect on what it means to be poor versus what it means to be rich. In particular, one famous passage focused on spending habits.

Here is the birth of the Boots Theory, a direct quote from the novel:

“The reason that the rich were so rich…was because they managed to spend less money.


“Take boots, for example. He earned $38 a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost $50. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about $10.


“Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.


“But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford $50 had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in 10 years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”

For Captain Samuel Vines, socioeconomic unfairness boiled down to it being more expensive to be poor. And he probably has a point.


Modern Examples of the Boot Theory

So maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, WalletGenius, what does some random passage in a century-old novel have to do with my budget?”

Okay, that’s a fair question. But there’s also a good answer. While Captain Vines makes a simple point about boots, the concept extends to a lot of things related to your spending, saving, and overall financial situation. It’s often about having to decide between what is better for you in the short term versus what is better for you in the long term. Unfortunately, these two decisions are often at odds with each other. Let’s examine some of the ways that Pratchett’s Boot Theory can be seen in modern life, along with other reasons that being poor is so expensive.


Buying Inferior Goods

Let’s start with the obvious. The classic phrase “you get what you pay for” is often at least partially true in real life. For Capt. Vines, the focus was on boots. But the same concept holds true for almost anything we spend money on — vehicles, clothes, furniture, electronics, appliances, and a whole host of things.

If you can only afford the cheapest version of whatever it is you need to buy, it probably won’t last very long. Then you have to replace it, probably with another inferior version. It boils down to simple math. If you really want a new iPad, but can only afford a cheap, off-brand knockoff, it will probably break, stop working, or become obsolete faster than a higher end tablet. Sure, you only spent $200 instead of $500. But the $200 tablet could only be useful for a couple years, and then you need to spend again to replace it. The new iPad, on the other hand, could last for at least seven or eight years (maybe more). Spending $500 once is better than spending $200 three times.Shutt


Not Affording Smaller “Fixes” Early

You’ve probably been in this situation before. Your car starts to make a concerning rattle, but you ignore it because you simply don’t have the $500 to get it fixed. The rattle gets louder, your steering wheel starts to vibrate when you corner, and a nasty grinding noise joins the party. The car finally breaks down and you have no choice but to tow it to the nearest mechanic. The estimated cost to fix the now-much-more-serious problem? $2,500.

It’s not just material goods, either. Plenty of uninsured Americans will ignore something like a sore tooth, because they can’t spare a couple hundred bucks to visit a dentist and get a filling. Soon enough, they are in agonizing pain and need an emergency $2,000 root cannel.

Not being able to afford smaller fixes or expenses (which will prevent larger expenses down the road) is one of the prime reasons that being poor is so expensive. A person with more financial means would just get the $500 car fix or the $200 filling. Meanwhile someone counting every single penny ends up forced into debt to cover the larger bill down the road.


Not Being Able To Buy in Bulk

There’s plenty of memes about going into Costco for just one thing and walking out with a cart full of item an hour later, after dropping $400. And yes, trips to Costco can get expensive — but for good reason. You’re buying a lot of products in bulk. So instead of paying $10 for 18 rolls of toilet paper, you’re paying $20 for 48 rolls. You’re paying $10 more on that specific day, but the cost per unit is going way down. You can buy plenty of stuff at Costco with the same concept, from food, produce, batteries, socks, pharmacy items, and almost anything else.

If you focus on the cost per unit (and the product won’t go bad or spoil), why not buy more of it all at once? It saves you money in the long run, because you don’t have to restock as often. Unfortunately, many people can’t afford to buy 12 toothbrushes, three bottles of Advil, or a dozen chicken breasts all at once. So they spend more per unit buying single packages, until they get paid next.


Household Tasks and Storage

Another issue with buying in bulk is storage space. If you’re living close to the poverty line, you’re more likely to live in a smaller house or apartment. If space is already tight in your closet, pantry, or freezer, there’s not much point in stocking up on bulk items. You don’t have anywhere to put them, even if they do save you money. Having ample cooking space to actually make meals with your bulk products is another constraint for some people.

Moving past storage, a lot of other household tasks actually cost more money if you’re poor. Take laundry as a prime example. If money is really tight, you probably rent a small apartment that doesn’t have an included washer/dryer. There may not even be a laundry facility in your building. Many poorer folk are forced to drag their dirty laundry to the local laundromat and pay per load. In the long run, cleaning your clothes this way will end up more expensive than just having your own washer and dryer. But when you don’t really have the choice, you’re forced to pay that price.


The Time Suck

Time is money. That’s the popular saying, anyway. And while it’s true that everyone has the same 24 hours per day, it’s actually not a fair way to compare. Unfortunately, poor people have to spend more of their time (one of their most valuable resources) doing things that take richer folk a fraction of the time.

Let’s go back to the laundry example. Those who can afford to have a washer and dryer in their house (and a house large enough for them) don’t have to waste time travelling to the laundromat. They don’t have to wait around while their clothes finish. They can start a load of laundry at home, and then go back to work on their laptop. Or get dinner started. Or tidy the living room.

Transportation is another big one, especially going to and from work. A person who can afford a car might only need to drive 20 or 30 minutes, directly to their employer. Someone who can’t afford their own vehicle probably need to take the bus, street car, or subway, which takes an hour or more. Or a taxi, which is arguably more expensive in the long run than owning a vehicle.

These things ultimately leave a poor person with less free time every day, which is the one thing they routinely trade for wages. No wonder they can’t earn more money.


Low Credit Scores Costing You More Money

While it’s not universally true, those closer to poverty tend to have lower credit scores. Like the other things on this list, it’s yet another example of how being poor actually costs more money. You may have a low credit score for reasons you can’t even control. Simply not having much of a history of using credit cards can cause your score to be low. Maybe you sometimes fall behind on your bills, paying them late. Regardless of the reason, a low credit score will cost you.

People with lower credit scores are charged higher interest rates for things like credit cards, auto loan, or mortgages. They may also be turned down for certain jobs and even be rejected from various rental units. All of these things have a direct or indirect impact on your financial situation.

Woman Thinking About Credit ScoreShutterstock

How to Combat The Cost of Being Poor

We wish there we had some magic, foolproof advice to combat this cycle. Unfortunately, the current economic system in America (and other countries, quite frankly) seems designed purposely to keep people down. You can’t simply pick yourself up by your bootstraps and turn your financial situation around. As the examples in this article have shown, it’s almost impossible.

Our best advice is to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You won’t be able to tackle every one of these problems at once, so don’t try. Instead, try to chip away at them slowly. Maybe the next time you need new boots, you budget for a slightly better quality pair. Or you start putting aside a small amount of money every month so that you can afford that next “small fix.”

If you experience any sudden windfall, like an unexpected bonus from work or an inheritance, try not to spend it impulsively. Figure out whether you can use it smartly, in a way that will actually save you money down the road. If you can, that money you save down the road can be used to save you even more.


The Bottom Line

We won’t lie. Clawing your way out of poverty isn’t easy. It’s takes a lot of work, sacrifice, and (if we’re being honest) a bit of luck. But with some smart choices and careful planning, you can hopefully start being more mindful with your money. Once you can start thinking beyond short-term concerns like “I need to afford groceries and rent this month” and focus more on “is this car loan a good deal?” or “is getting a Costco membership worth it?”, you’re on your way.

Pratchett and Captain Vines weren’t wrong back in 1933, when they suggested that being poor is actually more expensive than being rich (or even being middle-class). There are tons of extra costs, fees, time sucks, and hidden expenses built in to being financially disadvantaged. If you’re struggling from paycheck to paycheck, try to keep these things in mind the next time you are faced with an important financial decision.

Devon Taylor

Managing Editor

Devon is an experienced writer and a father of three young children. He's simultaneously trying to build college funds and plan for an eventual retirement. He's been in online publishing since 2013 and has a degree from the University of Guelph. In his free time, he loves fanatically following the Blue Jays and Toronto FC, camping with his family, and playing video games.


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