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Embracing Poverty

Posted by on Mar 17, 2013 | 8 Comments

The last two months or so have been an interesting experience. Due to a lot of miscalculations, we’ve been rather poor lately. It’s a strange twist to our hobo adventures in that we’ve been able to look at our situation with a degree of objectivity without falling into a serious panic. It’s taught us a great deal about ourselves and others that may be in a similar situation.

So how did we slip into poverty?

It started with the last few months of our travels. We ran into a catch-22. The majority of our income came from running clinics. We had to do clinics to survive. The distance between clinics increased, which burned more gas. We create a deficit, which required using credit cards. Since that was a big no-no, we decided to stop to pay off the debt. We decided on the El Cajon area (just east of San Diego) because it was warm and cheap.

The plan was simple- get temporary jobs to earn enough to pay off the debt, then hit the road again.

Initially, we were rather lackadaisical about our employment search. Some would say we were cocky. Both Shelly and I have master’s degrees, after all. How hard could it be?

As it turns out, not knowing anyone with employment connections coupled with a desirable area is a bad recipe for job hunting. We expected the process to take about a month. That was a serious underestimate. We were going to work as substitute teachers… until we realized the process to get certified in California would take upwards of three months.

It took me a month to land a temporary near-minimum wage job for UPS. Eventually that led to an equally low-paying part-time job at a lumber yard. Shelly finally landed a part-time job this last month. We had a trickle of income from Shelly’s freelance online work and my limited running-related income, but it wasn’t nearly enough to pay the bills.

Our spending habits didn’t really slow down until we realized job hunting was going to be an arduous task… which occurred right around the time our savings was close to exhausted.

Our lifestyle is pretty much set up to dramatically scale back our spending, which we had to do. Still, we were running a serious deficit. The last two months have been difficult financially, which has been an interesting experience.

The first things we did were to cut unnecessary spending. I pretty much stopped drinking beer (easier than expected.) We changed our diet to include mostly beans, rice, potatoes, eggs, and corn tortillas. We stopped dining out, which included hanging out with friends. I started walking to work. We changed our Internet provider (a necessity for our businesses.) We changed our cell phone plans. We stopped running at the mountains that were farther away. Even with all these measures, we still had to take a few drastic steps. Some bills went unpaid. We had to cancel our health insurance. We had to sell some of our already-limited possessions.

We were quickly moving toward the point where we could no longer afford the cost of the campground, yet couldn’t leave the area. Having three kids dramatically limited the possible options. We also had to consider potential issues that would arise. We had a few already, like needing new tires for the ‘Burb. We solved the problem by buying used tires.

The experience has taught us a lot. Here are a few of the lessons:

  • There’s a big difference between stupid poor and poor poor. The experience of spending all of your paycheck on dumb stuff (stupid poor), thus having no extra income is fundamentally different than having no money for even the most basic needs (poor poor.) The former makes you feel like an irresponsible idiot. The latter is scary as shit.
  • We need a lot less than we think we need. This goes without saying, and should have been a lesson we learned by moving into the RV in the first place. However, the poverty experience has taken it to a whole new level. I LOVE coffee. In the beginning, we had to shift from occasional Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to home-brewed. Then we had to shift to cheaper home-brewed. Then we had to switch to the cheapest home-brewed. Finally we had to only drink it when the budget allowed. Sort of like giving up beer, you realize coffee isn’t a necessity.
  • Ultrarunning actually HAS taught us the important skill of getting shit done despite seemingly insurmountable crap. In hundos, you learn to just keep moving no matter how bad it gets. Our poverty experience was the same. We had to just keep plugging along. The desire to curl up in the fetal position and bursting into a hysterical sobbing mess trailside is pretty common- but it doesn’t get you any closer to finishing. You have to keep moving. Poverty has been the same experience- no matter how much we wanted to just bury our heads in the sand, it wouldn’t solve our problems. Relentless forward progress was the only option.
  • You start appreciating simple things. You also get a lot less picky. Food became an issue. In order to make sure the kids had enough to eat, I started eating the leftovers nobody wanted at work. Four day old donuts? They became a delicacy. Food that passed the expiration date? No problem, it’s just a recommendation. Our kids got a lot less picky, too. They started to learn that the previous variety of food we enjoyed was a privilege. When we DID get ‘good” food, we savored it.
  • You get creative. When things go wrong, you can’t simply buy your way out of the situation. You learn to improvise. When something breaks in our trailer (which happens a lot with kids), we fix the problem with stuff we have on hand. We also learned not save things that may have a future use.
  • You develop a whole lotta empathy. I have a lot of rather wealthy conservative friends that spend significant time blaming the poor for their own plight. Since Shelly and I come from rather humble backgrounds, we’ve never really fallen for the “blame the poor for their plight” trap. However, our recent experiences HAVE reminded us that people sometimes get thrown in shitty situations that are out of their control, and responding with empathy is far more human response than responding with disdain. We live in an area with a huge homeless population and an even bigger poor population, which we interact with on a daily basis.
  • Poverty can be good for fitness. Giving up most alcohol, eating significantly less, walking to work, and having a physically-demanding job have resulted in some pretty decent weight loss… around 15-20 pounds thus far. Having no entertainment budget helps, too. We’re more likely to exercise since it’s free. Overall, the poverty experience has been a fitness “plus.”

So how will this turn out with us?

Pretty good. I’m increasing my hours and received what amounts to a promotion. Shelly is starting a well-paying job. The Squirrel Wipe project initial release did well, and the future ebook releases should also do well. We have a few other book projects in the works. I have a potential coaching gig with a local parks and rec. department that should take off soon. BRU will get some advertising in the near future. All will be well.

We’re fortunate in that we have the means of ending our poverty experience not long after it started. The short-term nature of the experience has given us a valuable experience since we could step back and treat it like any other adventure. Poverty sucks, but not as bad as most would think. It forces growth. As much as I would like to recommend everyone try poverty, I suspect there would be few takers. 🙂

Any thoughts from the audience?


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  1. John
    March 25, 2013

    Nice article. The vast majority of our nations population would benefit from reading it.

  2. StaceyLynn
    March 21, 2013

    I remember going from a nice income to two years of unemployment. It can come as quite a shock. Like you we learned we didn’t need a lot. And even though we felt poor, I know people who look at all we had and would see us as well off. I live in a neighborhood where people often choose which utility is going to be paid that month. And we learned that it can be expensive to be poor. Markets close to impoverished areas are often more expensive. It didn’t help that our local school was one that combined a very low income area with an upper middle class area. Kids who didn’t know what extra money looked like and kids who though $20 a tooth from the tooth fairy was normal. Sometimes it really reminded the kids that they didn’t have much since we were in the first group.

    Some days it sucked a lot, but for the most part it taught us some stuff that has been good. The whole how to fix almost anything without paying someone to do it. The value of food “reduced for quick sale” and that fun doesn’t have to be expensive.

    More importantly my children learned the empathy that comes from being there. My oldest daughter has a good job and could really spoil herself if she choose. She does have fun, she does save, but she also donates quite a bit to local charities like food pantries. My youngest always shares her lunch if someone at the table doesn’t have food or money that day. It’s just a way of being for them that they might not have developed if we had kept the nice comfortable middle class income.

    As street performers we often mix with the homeless and panhandlers while out busking. What bothers me most right now is the number of new faces I see among them. Young people, with families who have reached the point of total desperation. I’m lucky. I know how to turn a simple piece of rubber into a dollar or three. Dan is almost done with his PhD and we will always get by. So many of these people don’t have any real skills and a lot few choices.

  3. shacky
    March 18, 2013

    Did you look into workamper opportunities in the San Diego area? If lucky, you could land one that gives you a free place to park the rig, full hookups, and a supplemental salary.
    Of course gigs like this in San Diego may be few and far between.

  4. Barefoot Running University » Your Perspective is Wrong: The Reason to Experience New Things
    March 18, 2013

    […] last post on our temporary poverty situation led to reflection on a variety of things related to my experiences over the last few years. […]

  5. klanger
    March 18, 2013

    Welcome to a typical third world country day-to-day life style.
    I hope you will be back on propper financial track soon.

    After all, you are living in America, a country that was and still is a symbol that you can start from nothing and be a millionaire 🙂

    • Jason
      March 18, 2013

      This is a point we try to teach our children that’s completely lost on most Americans- our perception of “poor” is nothing like poverty around most of the world. Even our homeless have a decent lifestyle.

      Having said that, the “nothing to millionaire” idea is a bit of an illusion.

  6. Frank Higgins
    March 18, 2013

    Having gone through the harrows of loss of income myself, together with homeschooling our youngest of 3, I do have a couple of suggestions. One is that, a year ago, it turned out my primary job as a consultant to a small community bank did not have the health insurance benefits at the price I had bargained for. With a bit of chagrin, I buckled down and found a job at Starbucks, as a barista. Working part-time, 20 hours on average qualifies you for health insurance for the family. You read that right, part-time work yields full-time benefits. Granted, my portion of the cost is about $500 a month, but it is first class Fortune 500 caliber health insurance. It is at least equal to, or better than the coverage I would have gotten at the community bank for $1,600 a month. It does not pay a tremendous amount, but it does slightly more than cover the health insurance when you only work 20 hours a week. Fringe benefit that may be key for you – one pound of coffee FREE per week! Second point, is that as you are working part-time, you can arrange your availability to allow a second job. I don’t know how the company might look at someone who free-wheels across the country as your family does, but my experience is that if you establish a strong work ethic locally, your ability to fit in to a new location away from your current location should be good. There is always turn-over of staff and existing staff frequently need substitutes. Applications are ONLY taken on-line, but can target multiple locations with a single app. If you need a bit of rationalization of who can work at Starbucks, go to your local library and checkout – How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else. I read this book several years ago, way before I took the job at Starbucks, and it taught me that: 1) I could do it, even if I was a banker; 2) Starbucks can be a good place to work. Check it out.

    • Jason
      March 18, 2013

      This is an excellent suggestion- and I had already applied. 🙂

      Jobs like Starbucks are shockingly difficult to get here unless you know someone on the inside. We’ve been working hard to make those social connections, which was a disadvantage of being new to the area.

      UPS offers the same deal- good benefits for about 20 hours per week. Working as a seasonal driver’s helper gave me the connections, now it is just a matter of waiting for them to hire.

      If I DO get a job with UPS, the hours will allow me to work there and continue with my current job (which I enjoy.)

      This is one of the reasons I say we’re not in that bad of a position- both Shelly and I have ample training and experiences that can easily be leveraged for income. There are a lot of others in similar financial situations that do not have that benefit, which causes a “Wow, this would really suck if it were the only option” reaction.