Saturday, October 18, 2014

How Not to Be Poor

I've said it a few times, I'm pretty sure - poverty is not a state-of-being, rather it is a state-of-mind. I don't know how many times in my life, I've heard people who lived during the Great Depression say "We were poor, but I didn't even realize it." As children growing up in the Depression, these people had a home to live in, plenty of food, and adequate clothing. More often, rather than lamenting all they didn't have, they praise the ingenuity and frugality of their parents - the mom who never wasted anything, even making clothes out of feed sacks and soup out of onion tops and potato peels, and the dad who was a mechanical genius and could make a simple machine out of old screws and bailing wire.

Poor people today aren't like that. Well, actually, that's kind of a generalization and an unfair one, at that, but having been a poor person in America, my personal experience was more in keeping with being poor like the families discussed in this article.

My mistake was not just that I wasn't living within my means, but that I was trying to live at the income level I hoped to achieve once I was graduated from college and working in a full-time, professional position. One can not live on a $42,000 annual salary when one is only earning $8500 a year.

Getting into debt, I was encouraged to believe, was part of the ideal. Any debt I incurred during my undergraduate days would be magically erased (or at least manageable and nothing to worry about ... ignore-the-man-behind-the-curtain) as soon as I graduated. There was never any discussion about the time lag between achieving that coveted degree and actually having a job ... or the fact that once I graduated, I'd need to move, and moving costs money.

Oh, yeah, that.

As a college student living below the poverty line, even with my supplemental student aid money, I did not have the savings to move. Frankly, I didn't have any savings. At all. Nothing. I was not living paycheck-to-paycheck, but rather, quite literally, borrowing against next semester to get through the current one.

I ended up in the same kind of situation that is described in the article. I wanted all of that new stuff, and I never thought much about the debt I was incurring by financing stupid things, like furniture. Even worse, I was paying two to three times what those things were worth, after I paid all of the interest due.

Yes, I was guilty of renting-to-own.

I won't make excuses for myself. I was young and, in spite of being a college student, not all that smart about money-related things. Because I was a student, I was never able to fully admit how poor I was, but when $10 lost in transit from my bank to my house is a devastating loss and really does mean that food will be scarce for the week (and this was back in the 1980s), one knows things are pretty tight. I wouldn't admit that I was poor back then, because I was still living the lie that being poor was a moral failing, and also, because I couldn't be poor. I was doing all of the right things, right? I was going to college and ... you know ... making myself better.

And so, I did as much as I could to avoid the appearance of being poor.

Fast forward many years, and my attitude has changed, a lot. Deus Ex Machina and I furnished our first apartment together with furniture that was either given to us or purchased second-hand. Even today, most of the furniture in our house is either second-hand or was given to us, including this gorgeous farm table. We've bought a few new bookshelves, most of our beds were bought new, we have a couple of new office chairs, and the two five drawer chests were purchased new from a local carpenter who hand built them for us. I joke that our interior design scheme is shabby-shabby.

The point is that it doesn't matter, and frankly, if I ever replace the couch that has been repaired once and cost me $400 for the whole set of three (couch, loveseat and chair) at a yard sale, I'll probably buy the new one from a second-hand shop or yard sale. These days, between the second-hand stores, yard sales (both virtual and brick-and-mortar), and free-on-the-side-of-the-road opportunities, there is simply no reason to go into debt for furniture.

It was probably true back then, too.

There has to be a shift in attitude, and we have to let our kids know that it's okay to wait for stuff. It's okay to do without for a little while. It's okay to sleep on a mattress on the floor in the home office while one takes time to complete the renovation using cash rather than credit - and doing things the right way the first time so that ten years down the road, they don't have to be done again.

I am inspired by Johnny Sanphillipo's story of building his mortgage-free tiny house in Hawaii. The house is 480 sq feet, but he lives alone. If he wanted to make it big enough for a small family, he could add a second story and end up with a 960 sq ft house. Still small by today's McMansion standards, but my family of five shares 1500 sq ft (well, right now it's more like 1200 sq ft, because we had to do some extensive repairs of the back room and it's currently gutted), and we have plenty of room.

Sanphillipo spent ten years building his house, and he had to do some wiggling around building codes and such to get the project done, but it's done ... and it's gorgeous ... and it's two blocks from the beach ... um, did I mention in Hawaii?

I love what he says in the video about how the average person will take out a 30 year mortgage, but that no one pays off a house in 30 years. What usually happens is that the house will end up refinanced, and then, after having lived in the house their whole adult lives, at retirement, most people find that they are still paying a mortgage.

The bottom line is that there really are very few people in the United States of America who are living in soul-crushing poverty. Most of us, even the poor college-student me, end up making ourselves poorer by the very unwise financial choices we make. Spending money on ridiculous wants, like a new sofa for the living room, is a good example of that kind of short-sighted and ill-fated decision that pushes one further and further down the ladder of wealth.

In the end, not having money to spend on luxuries, like furniture, isn't what makes us poor. It's the belief that, without that couch, something is missing from our lives. If we allow ourselves to fall into that debt trap, that's when we become poor - not because we don't have money, but because we believe that having money to buy more is what makes us worthwhile as humans.

I think we can have it all ... just not right now, but it's the right-now attitude that creates poverty and keeps people poor.

This past summer we broke the handle on our wagon. It's been rusting out for a while, and so it wasn't a big surprise when it happened, just an inconvenience. In days past, we would have run out and purchased a new one, because, of course, we need it. Having the wagon allows us to make the most efficient use of our time, which means we have a better chance of being successful at this suburban homesteading thing while simultaneously living our full-time modern lives.

Deus Ex Machina and I are getting much better about knowing when to spend money getting something new and when to make use of the wealth of resources we have available to us for free. Like the cedar fence given to us for the cost of hauling it away that has been repurposed into all sorts of amazing things here on our homestead, including a piece being fashioned into a new wagon handle.


  1. Good post. The whole rent to own thing, I think, is a lack of education and the need for instant gratification. Most American are good at that. The media applauds it. My husband and I really taught our kids about finances while they were still in high school, and really warned them about credit card debt in college. I wish someone had taught me at that age! While, on the surface, people might very us as very middle class I buy most of my clothes, home decor, mics. stuff at thrift stores. I buy a lot of groceries at the "grocery outlet", can, dry, and raise as much produce as we can squeeze in. We'll expand to the front yard next spring. We paid cash for big ticket items like our couch and bed and bought quality so they will last (and protect our backs). We also sell things on Craigslist and eBay that we don't use. We refurbish/repair items rather than replace them. We just live differently than the "average american". And happy to do so.

  2. I'm going to do a link back to your post!

  3. I am loving watching my newly adult son, who now lives in another state working at his first job, becoming as thrifty as I am. I did wonder a little how it would all pan out when he was a teenager, but I am so impressed to discover that he really was paying attention to our way of life, and he is now a great home cook, very thoughtful and thrifty consumer, pays for everything with cash, and decided against getting a credit card. Oh, the relief!