Monday, April 12, 2010

Uniquely Qualified to be Poor

As I crept out the unemployment office, minus the earlier optimism, I pondered surviving on my meager new “salary”. The monthly dole amount? Equivalent to three days at my old job.
Reality check: Just how does one cut 90 percent from the budget? Ninety percent!
This situation would require a lot more gumption than just giving up restaurant meals or skipping massage appointments. Extreme measures must be taken immediately.
New mantra: I can do this. I can do this.
My mind reeled, but I remembered: my life hasn’t always included domestic help, European vacations, restaurants and mindless shopping . In fact, most of my life included none of these.
And, then it hit me: I really can do this. In fact, I may be uniquely qualified to be poor. I have the genes, background and experience for it.
My grandparents married in the Depression. With little education, Grandpa quickly learned that “smarts” are the key to survival. Even without formal education, he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. With education, I’m sure he’d have rivaled Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
While others couldn’t find one job, he worked three, supporting his family and three others. He held lowly jobs: sharecropping; saw milling; fishing. Granny cooked for a boarding house; Grandpa gigged frogs for a fancy restaurant featuring fried frog legs and, in his spare time, gathered and sold moss to a mattress company. One harvest year, while sharecropping they earned only enough to have cash left to buy two small items: a tiny pouch of tobacco for Grandpa; a small jar of peanut butter for Granny.
Grandpa felt strongly about three things that he tirelessly reiterated to me: get an education; buy property; save money. He left behind a daughter with a master’s degree, a granddaughter in graduate school, a paid-for home, no debts and money in the bank.
His other legacy was a daughter with his no-nonsense monetary values. In the 1960s when my parents married, Baby Boomers were opting out of rampant consumerism and living “green” before it got labeled green. They were into organic before most people knew what it meant. They were on board with compost making, herbal teas, canning and preserving, baking bread, home sewing, and most of all, not buying.
Life choices determined where family money went. My parents invested in what  mattered to them: mostly me. While “women’s libbers” stormed off to work, my mom gave up a promising banking career to stay home with me. She ran various home-based businesses long before it was “cool”. We certainly weren’t rich, but our family gave money to causes we believed in while paying bills on time and buying a house (a FHA repo they bought for a mere $12,000 long before most people even knew you could do such a thing).
I didn’t actually know we had less money than most of my friends. When I needed something, I got it. We had yearly vacations just like everybody else. True, our vacations were only to Florida.  Also true: my mother carried an electric skillet in the trunk of the car. She actually cooked our vacation breakfasts right there in our room.
I learned early on that one sure way to rile up my mother was to mention the unholy trinity: Izod, Jordache or Reebok—all her sworn enemies. We did not wear brand names on our buttocks or our feet.
“They can splash their names on our chests or rear ends when they pay me for the privilege,” she told me firmly when I even dared express a wish for such things.
As an adult, I tried to follow my parents’ example. (Okay, I’ve fallen off the wagon from time to time and been seen in public sporting a famous logo or two, but I’m too much my mother’s daughter to enjoy it).
As an adult, I, too, lived below my means, turning down bank offers of a heftier mortgage and paying extra principle each month (against the advice of my friends). While acquaintances racked up debt (bigger homes and ever-larger luxury SUVs), I paid my credit card balance each month, drove an older car and set my sights on burning my mortgage by age 45. And, while I enjoyed nice vacations and employed a maid (mainly because I was at work too much to clean), I also donated to causes and charities and, most of all, my own savings account.
Lurking always in my brain was the thought that anybody’s lifestyle—including mine—could change dramatically with job loss. While I was, according to economic experts, employed in the “most stable” industry (healthcare), I woke up one day and my job was gone.
As I exited the Department of Labor parking lot, determination overrode the discouraging afternoon I’d endured. I knew--not in a silly Pollyanna way but with realistic certainty--that I have the skills to succeed in my new role as a (relatively) poor person.
My life’s résumé proves I’m uniquely qualified to be poor. But, more importantly, I’m uniquely qualified, just like my grandparents, to work my way out to the other side of poor.
And, then it occurs to me: I am The Little Engine That Could: I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.
I know I will.


An HR Weaver said...

Congratulations on this new venture - you are a terrific writer. You are speaking for a lot of folks who have found themselves in your same shoes. Some of them have the resume to be poor and some are simply learning on the job. But most of the folks are working hard at doing their best, just like they did when they had a job. We're taking it "one day at a time" and hoping this too will pass....

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