Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Absolute Poverty vs Relative Deprivation

I've been working on my online classes to get them ready for winter term. I came across this question that is posted for the unit on social class & mobility:

"Because there is such great wealth in the hands of some in the U.S., and a great deal of commercial exposure to the range of material goods available, those who live modestly may feel poor even if all their basic needs are met. Different people have different ideas about what standard of living is “good enough” for them. What has had the greatest impact on how you feel about your own material circumstances in relation to your community and/or other family members? What factors do you believe have the greatest impact on whether or not a person will feel satisfied with what they have?"

That question got me thinking...

I grew up poor without the advantages of summer camps or music lessons. I wore hand me down clothes most my life as a child and didn't have much in the way of pretty things. I used to think having matching furniture and wall to wall carpet in your house meant you were rich.

I've heard lots of people who grew up in similarly humble circumstances say that in retrospect they realized their family had been poor when they were little, but that they had never really been aware of that at the time. That was not the case for me. I was very, very aware of my family's low status. My parents fought incessantly about debts and things we could not afford. I heard snide comments from other people about the way we lived. Even when I was quite young, I defined my life as lacking basic things other people took for granted. I used to dream of one day living in a pretty house and having enough - not being RICH necessarily, but simply having ENOUGH.

I left that home at sixteen to marry my first husband. During that volatile seven year marriage we lived pretty much hand to mouth, bouncing around from one rented hovel to the next as my ex husband seldom held a steady job very long and a lot of what money he did bring in went to getting high. We were on food stamps most of the time and had no health insurance. We took our kids to county hospital if they got sick.

Fast forward several years to when I married my current husband. We struggled our first 10 years together, but it was a different kind of struggle. Once all the bills were paid and the groceries bought there was not much of anything left over. But the key thing is all the bills WERE paid on time and we never had to worry about having enough groceries. We bought a house and were stable in ways I had never known. We NEVER had shut off notices from the utilities and our standards were about establishing decent credit and putting away a little saving for the future. (Savings? Unheard of in my former life.)

Then there were some promotions for my man and eventually our kids were emancipated. Since we no longer were paying for the many expenses of raising our boys and then I was available to start working full time suddenly we had a level of discretionary income I'd never known before.

We were always pretty scrupulous about living within our means and having some savings. To do that we had to watch the budget closely. We seldom went to the movies or out to eat. We did not buy a lot of "STUFF". It took a while to pay off my student loans and pay for a car - but we did it. Eventually the only debt we had in the world was our mortgage, and that was manageable. We had two or three credit cards and used them plenty, but always made sure they were paid off in full every month.

Once we got to that point my man and I started taking some trips - Costa Rica, Fiji, Hawaii, Alaska. Every year we made sure we had a vacation for at least a week to ten days somewhere. We still had to watch the budget closely to make this possible, but it WAS possible. With both of us working full time we had a pretty comfortable lifestyle according to our level of expectations. We knew people who had a lot more than us, we knew people who had much less. But for us, if felt like we had just enough to truly appreciate our abundance without so much to let it go to our heads.

We had a handful of fat cow years during which we were able to do more things, help others, and dream of a cushy retirement.

Now the lean cow years are here, or so it seems. Due to some unforeseen circumstances beyond our control, our financial picture has changed. Some of our long range plans will have to be scrapped and others adjusted significantly. We're still doing ok, but the balance sheet definitely isn't as promising as it once was. And that triggers a fair amount of anxiety for me.

I don't need a pile a cash or stacks of shiny THINGS. But I do need to know that we will always have a secure place to live and be able to pay our bills on time. I never want to go back to the marginal way of living I came from.

So long as we both work full time we could continue on pretty much as we have been, minus any exotic travel anytime soon. But my husband is 63. At some point the time will come for him to step away from his job. Also, just from a point of prudence, I'd like to be in a position so that if something were to happen to either one of us (or to the jobs we hold) that we'd still be able to manage.

That was a big part of why we chose to sell our place in Athena. To get out from under the mortgage and to free us up to be able to choose to stay here or leave to another area depending on what opportunities came up.

But now that we are in the process of selling that house we have to decide what next.
Do we buy some tiny little place here locally that we can get for $120K or less? Or do we keep the money in the bank as a parachute against potential woe in the future and continue to rent our current place out at the farm?

How do I feel about where I live? I admit I do miss having my big fancy house where I was comfortable doing lots of entertaining. But I've kind of gotten over the worst of the homesickness I initially felt when we left it. I've come to appreciate the snug house we are in now in a lot of ways, even though I don't have walk in closets or a garage. (With all the snow we have now I REALLY miss the garage!)

As I plan for the future, what factors will determine how much is enough in what sort of house I expect to have or how much wiggle room I need in my budget to feel comfortable rather than stressing over the wolf at the door?

My ideas about this are in flux at the moment - shimmering with iridescent contrast between wanting something VERY simple and basic on some days while other days I long for something more upscale. Also the level of anxiety I feel on a day to day basis over the current financial crisis in our national economy varies a lot. At this point I don't even want to open up the statements for our investment savings. I just want to stick them in a box for later, cover my eyes and ears and shout LA LA LA LA so I don't have to see or hear about the decline anymore. Some days it makes me crazy, and I fret hopelessly about having 30 years of hard work and savings go up in smoke. Other days I'm more serene, trusting that even if we have to adjust our lifestyle considerably from what we had planned, God knows our needs and will provide for them. We may not get much extra, but I generally have confidence that we will have enough.

How much is enough? As I come to know more and more people who are living in serious poverty I see my grumbling about giving up the excess of my former abundance as rather petty.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having abundance. But as I wrestle with how I feel about what I have now, what I most appreciate, what I long for, what I think of as futile pipe dream that I NEVER expect to's interesting which things land on which lists. How DO I decide how much is "enough"?

How about you?


Torchwolf said...

Hi Belladonna.

Long time, no speak.

Skimmed through your post thinking it would be about Kiva or something. I feel for you being financially stressed.

One thing I have discovered is that lots of money doesn't automatically bring happiness, and not having a lot doesn't necessarily bring unhappiness either. Most of that is in your attitude and the way you see things. Like that old saying: "I was miserable because I had no shoes, until I met a man that had no feet."

Dwelling on how it used to be, or how it should be, or how other people are doing better than you is what mostly makes people miserable.

Focusing on the blessings you have, what you can do for others, how you can use the talents that you have, that makes people happy.

That's not to say don't try to figure out how to make more money.

But a good place to start is by appreciating just what you do have in your life, and all the great things that are available to you, given that your finances are where they are.

For folks like us, we could be happy with a good book from the public library, and a cup of coffee to drink while we read it.

And nowadays we can talk to all our friends and family everywhere practically for free.

We can be part of online communities, and make a difference to issues half a world way.

That's a pretty good quality of life I'd say.

Belladonna said...

Hey, Torchwolf, ever so nice to see your name up on the screen. YES, it has been a while.

I whole heartedly agree, that each person's attitude is far more important in satisfaction/security than what the numbers are on a balance sheet.

I'm working hard to maintain connection with gratitude, to deeply feel appreciation, to savor all the blessings I have.

Some days I'm there. other days not. Lessons still to learn.

fillyjonk said...

I grew up in a family that was comfortably well off, but that did not believe in "wasting" money. At times I think I felt "poorer" than we actually were, because we lived in a very affluent and conspicuous-consumption related community, and I did not have the designer jeans, or ski trips, or riding lessons (not that I would have wanted them) that my peers at school had.

Looking back on it, though, we had something that I now prefer: we had security. My dad put away enough money that during "bad times" when other people had difficulties because they were spent to the hilt, we remained comfortable. And we had all the necessities and some of what I now regard as luxuries: I got to take gymnastics lessons because I wanted to (and showed a small talent at it), we bought books, we ate pretty well.

More importantly, what I got from growing up were several important ideas, that have been very good for me over the years:

1. Just because someone has stuff you don't have, doesn't mean they are happier than you are. (I know a girl whose divorced mom bribed her with six pairs of Guess! jeans for her not to come and visit her mom one weekend)

2. Recognizing when you have "enough" and being able to be grateful for it is a great blessing.

3. Not being in debt (if you can at all avoid it) is far more enjoyable than whatever the latest fad or gadget will be.

I know people who are in pretty tough circumstances these days - and it makes me incredibly grateful for what I have: my sweet little house, enough funds to buy the food I want without worrying, the ability to replace my shoes when they wear out, the ability to buy books or craft supplies once in a while without wondering how I can pay for it.

I have a good life. It may not be luxurious by some people's standards, but it is luxurious by the standards of probably 90% of the people in the world. And I have what I need, and some of what I want.

I've also recently rediscovered the luxury of paying cash for things - I can't always do it but I find it feels a lot better to me when I can than using a charge card does.

Belladonna said...

Greetings Fillyjonk,

I could not agree with you more regarding the reality that more money does not buy more happiness. We all need to have our basic needs met. But once that is established, there really is a point of diminishing return.

I have a family member who has a pretty cushy lifestyle - big beautiful house on extensive property, a vacation home, lots of shiny things. But I know they fret over money issues far more than I do and I actually have a higher credit rating even though I have a lower bank account.

I am convinced living on less that we earn is the ONLY sane way to live. There is a difference between being frugal and being miserly. I keep learning more about mindful simplicity and discovering the peace of mind that comes from having LESS things. Sure, there's time my "I WANT" voice gets rather petulant. But more and more, I'm able to quiet that with the certainty of peace of mind that comes from being debt free.

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