Ever heard those “I had to walk five miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways” stories from your parents? I have, too. Of course, my father’s stories were real. He grew up poor. Very poor. I’m talking soda and peanut butter were considered luxuries poor. Like wearing clothes with holes in them that two of his brothers had already grown out of poor. Like putting feathers in a corncob and tossing it in the air so he had something to play with because his parents couldn’t afford to buy him any toys poor.
Happily, since he was born in America, being born poor didn’t mean that he had to stay poor. He started at the bottom with a company (manually punching holes in carpet), moved on from there to become one of his company’s best salesmen, and actually made it to vice president of the rug division near the end of his career. In addition, he served in the military, had four kids, and played his way into the North Carolina Softball Hall Of Fame.
Happily, because of my father’s work ethic and determination that his kids were going to have it better than him, I didn’t have to grow up with the kind of grinding poverty that he did. Yet and still, I remember a conversation he had with me when I was young and he was still working his way up the ladder. He told me that at his income level, I qualified for the free lunch program at school. He asked what I thought about that. My response was, “I’d rather just not eat lunch.” Even then, I could tell he was pleased with that answer and we never applied for any kind of free goodies at school. As I got older my father started climbing the corporate ladder and money ceased to be a big problem, although he remained very frugal.
Then, as I flew the nest and went out on my own, I got to experience my own struggles with money. I rolled pennies for grocery money and went whole weeks on nothing but baked potatoes along with 3-for-a-dollar burritos and pot pies. I drove around in a car with bad brakes that would overheat if I didn’t drive fast enough to cool the engine because I couldn’t afford to repair it. I once had to borrow gas money to take a date out to dinner at a cheap restaurant. I had checks bounce because I had no float money and was regularly dipping below the $5 line to pay bills. I took day laborer positions at temp agencies and had to do things like lay sod to make ends meet. When I was out of town, I once slept in an elevator all night because I was too proud to crash with friends without paying. At one point, I kid you not, I seriously considered living in my car for a couple of months to save up some money.
So I do know what it’s like to be poor, and while I can’t recommend the experience, I can tell you that it is not all bad. There are actually some benefits to it. For example…
1) Once things have been really bad, you’re not as frightened of tough times and risks.
When you run your own business you have to make big decisions that can make or break you, cash flow can pick up and slow down, and sometimes you have to make choices today that will reverberate for years to come. In other words, it requires a high level of risk tolerance. Even if you don’t run your own business, you have to worry about getting fired or getting hit with big bills that put you in a really tight spot.
Well, the nice thing about having been so poor that you’ve had to sleep in your car multiple times (yes, really) is that you already KNOW that if worse comes to worse financially, you can handle it. That means when the storm blows in, the lightning flashes, and the tide gets high, you KNOW that you can swim even if you get swept off the boat because you have done it before.