Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Hidden Benefits of "Poverty"

I put poverty in quotation marks because we haven't really been poor, but for the last 11 years that my husband has been in school, our income has been below what is considered the poverty level for a family of our size in the US. We have taken out student loans in addition to having a stipend and various other means of income through the years, but it hasn't been easy. Still, as we near the end of this stage (my husband defended his dissertation on Friday, so except for maybe some administrative details, he is done with his PhD!), I have discovered that there have been blessings that have accompanied our financial struggles.

1. I wasn't able to sign our kids up for every class or activity that sounded interesting. This is a benefit? Yes. I recently read the introduction to Einstein Never Used Flashcards where the authors discuss how children these days aren't given enough time to just play. Our society today encourages parents to sign kids up for every class imaginable as young as possible. I definitely would have fallen prey to that idea. If we had had enough money I would have been tempted to involve my kids in way too many activities. Luckily, I had the benefit of a tight budget to control me. I believe that the kids and our whole family have benefited from this. The kids have had lots of time to play and our family is not stressed out from a too busy schedule. Over time, I have some to realize that that we are happier not having our kids in tons of activities and they are growing up just fine without them.

2. I have had to control my urge to spend tons of money on homeschooling stuff. Oh, there were times when I didn't think of this as a benefit. But because of financial constraints, I had to search, ponder, and pray over every curriculum choice. In the end I realized that I didn't need every wonderful homeschool product to teach my children at home and I saved tons of money by not buying impulsively. I had to really want something before I would buy it. Every once in a while I would buy something that ended up not working for us or wasn't as great as I expected. Then I would feel guilty and be even more careful with my next purchases.

3. I have learned that we can have fun family vacations without spending a lot of money. We have done a lot of camping and visited many National Parks. Luckily we love the outdoors :) We have also taken road trips to different cities and eaten the local food. We have been able to explore this beautiful country of ours without spending money on every attraction and activity.

4. I have learned to live without. Our world today teaches us that we "need" certain things. Kids "need" their own room. We "need" nice cars to drive. We "need" a big house. Our kids have become closer from sharing a room. My car, as ugly as it might be, gets me where I need to go. The places we have lived, though mostly small, have given us a roof over our heads. We adults may feel crowded at times, but the kids have been just as happy wherever we have lived. Now that I know that we can be happy without, I feel like I am in a better mind set for not spending frivolously once we have a larger income.

5. I have been taught humility. If I had gone straight from my parent's home to being able to buy a home with my husband and live comfortably, I would have felt a sense of entitlement. Like I somehow deserved to have a financial advantage. Living below the poverty level has humbled me. I can empathize with those that struggle financially. I realize that I am no more deserving of monetary comfort than anyone else.

Sometimes I wonder why it took me 11 years to learn all of this. About 5 years ago, I thought, "O.K. I've learned. I'm humble. Now can I be done with the financial struggles?" But it wasn't time, yet. Recently, I realized that I had stopped coveting other people things. I used to seriously covet other people's houses. I wanted to buy a house, so badly. Then suddenly in the last few months, I discovered that although I appreciate other people's nice houses, I no longer covet them. Same with cars and furniture and people's ability to go on fancy vacations and sign their kids up for lots of activities. Maybe this was the end result that these 11 years have been leading me towards. As this time in my life draws to a close, I feel strangely grateful for what I have experienced.


Michelle said...

This is a fantastic post. We're in the same position financially and I totally agree with everything you've said. We live in such a consumerist society and it's damaging to kids. I think it's good for kids not to have everything they desire (and good for us, too!). Staying home and engaging in imaginative play is far more beneficial than millions of activities.

There's a real lack of appreciation for what one has these days. Even though we don't have much, we have far more than many people in this world and I'm very grateful (but not grateful enough, I'm sure)

Kids get burned out with all those activities and books and materials can go to waste. I have about 100 books in my Amazon wish list, but when I place an order, I have a budget and I have to choose the very best ones. I find I use most everything. A good trick I've learned is to 'sit' on an item for a while. I put it in the wish list and if I still want it a few weeks later, I'll get it (if I have the money, lol). Often I forget why I wanted it in the first place, so I delete it.

Your kids are going to grow up valuing family and togetherness instead of the almighty dollar. They're going to value the natural world rather than shopping jungles. Kudos to you. :)

Heather said...


We're now finally out of this position... we own a nice home, we have more rooms than kids, and we can afford the activities the kids want.

But, we've learned those lessons from the many, many years of 'poverty'... so we don't sign up for ALL the activities we could, just the very few ones the kids really want and benefit from (my son is a talented competitive gymnast, for instance).

And we appreciate what we now have so much more. Like you said, we don't have that feeling of 'entitlement'. It's more like a feeling of 'we made it!!'.

And actually, our frugality means, I think, that we have a better home than others at our income level have. We're not in the habit of spending money mindlessly, on junk food and toys and name-brand clothes and all that. So even though our income level, while good, is less than "average", we still live a frugal life but have a nice home in a great neighbourhood with a huge backyard with lots of trees...

So we're living very comfortably on just one full income, as a WAHM I contribute only several thousand per year and am free to stay with my kids. I hadn't really thought about how the lessons we learned while still "poor students" helped with this!

Blessed Mommy said...

Well said. Stumbled upon your site from another blog, sorry, I can not remember which one. Love your blog. This post says it all. Many blessings.

Andy Grund said...

Hi Michelle, great post. Struggling is not nice. Not knowing how to pay this month's bills or how to get food on the table is the absolut horror. But living below one's means is virtuous and more than necessary in these times. Most likely the lifestyle of the future. And it can be a great motivator and a motor for creativity!

"That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest".

That's Thoreau. I stole it from here


Nancy said...

Michelle...I stumbled upon your blog today...and I really love this post!
Would it be ok if I linked to this post on my blog? I won't do it unless you give me permission. Your post has confirmed for me some of the things that God has been trying to get me to see....
Although I don't home school (I want to so badly but my husband is not really "on board"), this still applies to our daily lives BIG TIME!
I want so much to live a simpler have all of us understand the difference between wants and needs. I want my children to learn restraint and to put others first.
God Bless you for writing this!
Oh...and congratulations to your husband for completing his defense!

Tam Pham said...

Great read, glad everything worked out for you :)