I grew up with very little material wealth. My father was a minister and a social justice activist. My mother was an elementary school teacher. We grew most of the food we ate, including meat. We raised rabbits, which we ate, and my dad hunted deer, turkey, and pheasant. He didn’t hunt duck. He said it was too much work, for so little meat.
He had five kids and a wife to feed. And a roof to keep over our heads.
I was the oldest, so I got a front-row seat to our diminishing fortunes. Every time another mouth was added to the flock, we had to tighten our belts a little more. We didn’t get a lot of presents for Christmas. We got one big present, and another small one (if it was a good year). One year, my parents scrimped and saved to buy me a doll that I knew wasn’t cheap. It had hair that got long if you pulled it, and if you cranked a knob, the hair got short again. I hated getting that doll because, well, it was a doll. And I hated them. I also hated that my parents had spent money on something that I didn’t want, to begin with.
The pain lingers, to this day. I felt such intense guilt at getting that doll, at not being able to be enthusiastic about it, at not wanting to play with it. They were disappointed. They’d spent money. It was crushing for me.
Until I realized the hair mechanism. Then I spent hours and hours just pulling out the hair and winding it back up… pulling… winding… pulling… winding… pulling… winding. It drove my mother crazy. “Why don’t you just play with that doll like a doll?” she said. What was that supposed to mean? “like a doll”? How exactly was that?
I was fascinated by the mechanism, and I took the doll apart, trying to figure out how it worked. I pulled off the arms and the legs. The head wouldn’t come off. (I tried.) But I could see through the arms and legs sockets that there was a mechanism in there that wound up the hair, and when I pulled it, the hair got long.
Mystery solved. I put the arms and legs back on the doll, and continued to pull and wind… pull and wind… pull and wind…
And then I lost interest. And that was that.
I have never had much money… for long. Once upon a time, I had a Really Good Job. I made Really Good Money. I had a whole lot saved, and I was going to pay down my house and refinance, and then just do whatever work I wanted to do. Then I lost it. The pressure of the job was too much. The interpersonal confusion was too much. I melted down in a very public way. And things were never the same. I was told I had to find another job at the company.
Ashamed and humiliated and completely debased, I just quit. Moved on. “That’ll teach them!” I thought, as I took a temp job making 60% of my former salary.
That taught someone. And that someone was me.
Ever since that experience, I’ve been gun-shy about work. I’m not that enthusiastic about permanent positions, anymore, but somehow convinced to take one, every couple of years or so.
And then I suffer. The first six months are exciting and fun. Then the confusion sets in. The delays. The frustrations. And it builds up. It adds up. And I just want to leave. All over again.
Over the years, it’s been hard to build up any kind of nest egg or retirement funds. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m old. Probably eat instant black beans and rice with some sausage pieces mixed in. And frozen vegetables. Or I’ll grow my own salad greens and other vegetables. If I can. We’ll see. I just don’t know how I’m going to make ends meet, to be honest. But that’s later. Not now.
Now, I have a sweet life. I’m saving money a bit at a time, and if all goes well, I’ll have my house paid off by the time I’m 67 years old. I live in a nice part of a nice town, and as far as anyone is concerned, I have money. Because I learned early on, how to act the part of a wealthy person, how to carry myself, speak, and interact with others, as though I have money. I also know how to make the things I own last. I buy decent clothes that don’t go out of style, and I wear them for years and years. I’ve been wearing the same outfits to work for something like 10 years, now. And they all still look great.
I’m very careful with the stuff I own.
My cars are very, very late-model vehicles that are very common, so are easy to maintain. I always buy older cars, and then take good care of them. I have no kids, so they don’t get too beat up. My partner isn’t the best driver, and her minivan shows the signs of it. But it’s no worse than any other vans on the road.
We look the part. We act the part. And nobody knows just how close to the bone we live. That vacation we took at the beach for a week? We saved and saved for year, so we could go. My credit rating got trashed by medical problems and an bunch of jobs that didn’t pay me what I actually earned. The few meals we ate out, we had very basic dishes. Most of the time, we made our own breakfast and lunch, then did a very cheap takeout for dinner. But we were at the beach. In a nice condo with a water view. Living the life.
On the cheap.
I have to say, growing up with nothing taught me how to take care of the stuff I have. I don’t get new stuff whenever there’s an upgrade available. I still have an old flip phone. Much of the stuff I have, I got second-hand, including the books on my shelves. I look for deals. I look for great deals. And I don’t pay more than I absolutely have to. I usually just do without.
And that works for me.
Because the things that I really spring for… well, they’re investments, not expenses. The big-ticket items are bought if they have some sort of return — a laptop computer that lets me blog freely. A tablet that lets me listen to music while I exercise and check Twitter during presidential debates (so I don’t have to watch them, myself). A laptop bag that’s conservative, sturdy, roomy, that looks professional. Shoes that will match any outfit I have in their color range (I have two pairs of dress shoes – one black, one brown).
I don’t need a lot. I don’t acquire a lot of stuff. I live my life and I carry myself like I have money. And I make do. It’s a skill.
Maybe that’s one of my superpowers.
Being poor. But living rich.