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Leveling Up: Thinking Less Like Poor Folk

Poverty changes how you act, in non-obvious ways.

It’s clear that the good quality screwdriver which will last a lifetime, for $6, is better than the junky screwdriver you’ll have to replace in a year for $3.

What slips past folks who’ve never lived in poverty is that if your choice includes “and the other $3 will buy flour so you can bake bread all week, otherwise, you get no bread” then you buy the cheap junk screwdriver.

And then again next year.

Multiply that by every single small purchase decision you make and you’ll quickly see that when there isn’t enough money, it can be almost impossible to escape.

image by gvdvarst

Some folks could stop drinking soda, or quit smoking (the single worst intersection of bad health choice times waste of money in the universe.) Some folks could drive less, or quit eating out.

I’ve lived in poverty for two separate long stretches, years, separated by the greatest wealth I’ve ever had, and a divorce, which is the opposite of wealth. I couldn’t give up any of those things because I didn’t do them.

The primary reason we’re climbing out of the hole is our creative solution: stop living in a house for a while. During our 5 months in New Jersey, I genuinely believed that our lot in life would be forever renting spare rooms in someone else’s house, and we’d never have a home of our own again. Eighteen months was enough of a breather to get just enough put by so we could rent a house.

If we’d had slightly different work or family circumstances, this could have been even harder than it was, even impossible.

But we done clumb outta that hole and we’re finally standing upright. Not swinging from the trees just yet, but upright.

I’ve had to back up and adjust my thinking about those small purchases.

Stopped at the hardware store for a putty knife. They had junky plastic disposables for 99 cents. They had the store brand for $3.49. And they had the professional brand I used when I worked for a plastering company for $7.49.

I stood and mulled that extra $4 far longer than it deserved. But now I own a 1″ putty knife I’ll have forever (because I don’t intend to lose every tool I own in a divorce; once was enough.)

Someone just recommended a book of such value to them professionally that they never ever loan their copy. I found it online for $4 and bought it on the spot, something I never would have done a year ago.

I’ve been sitting in a kitchen chair for 10 hours a day at my desk. Bad for me, bad for the chair.

Now I’m sitting in a leather executive chair. We got a great deal, about half price, but a year ago I would have been sitting on an upturned plastic bucket if I didn’t want to sit on a kitchen chair.

This year, Best Beloved took me to 3 concerts. We haven’t seen live music together since the first year of our marriage, despite the fact that music is intricately interwoven into every fiber of my soul. Was it expensive? Well, more than buying a CD, but less than any other life-altering never-to-be-forgotten experience I’ve had.

Living poor changes how you act. It changes how you think. Research shows that chronic poverty affects cognition as much as chronic alcoholism. It can cost a person 13 IQ points.

Lately, chats with my brain have been smoother, faster, crisper, more productive.

Welcome back, 13 points. I’ve missed you.

6 thoughts on “Leveling Up: Thinking Less Like Poor Folk

  1. Very good points, Joel! So happy to hear that you’re getting more outta that hole than just the hole!!

    I can believe the “13 points” too – stress costs brain-energy – that just isn’t there for any other decisions and actions.

    1. Where are YOU on this continuum, KJ? Do you feel like your financial situation drains your brain, or is it something you can rely on for your foundation?

        1. There’s some truth to the aphorism that poor people spend time to save money, and rich people spend money to save time.

          I know how hard it is when both are in short supply. But pause and look at your budget and your schedule. List the 3 biggest time sucks. See if there’s a small expenditure which could reduce or eliminate one of them.

          More time in your time budget will get you out of the hole faster than more money in your money budget.

  2. “More time in your time budget will get you out of the hole faster than more money in your money budget.”
    ~ that, my friend, is what they call “eminently Tweetable”! :)
    ~ also, very true!

    1. Excellent :)

      I would love to hear whether my advice ends up being realistic, applicable in your real life, and if not, what makes it unworkable.

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