I was very fortunate to have grown up in relative comfort as a kid. While my family wasn’t exactly wealthy, there was never a question of whether there would be food on the table or bills would be paid. I was encouraged not to live wastefully and to be smart with my money, but it was never a situation where we were conserving energy for fear that we wouldn’t be able to cover the electric bill.
Then I went to college.
Many of us get a pretty good dose of living the “poor college student” life, then graduate to join a workforce that pays a reasonable—if modest at first—salary and holds the promise of future growth and prosperity (though that seems to be the case less of the time these days). But I didn’t do what most people do. I chose to pursue the artist’s life, one that all too often lives up to its “starving” cliche.
And so I’ve spent the better part of my 20s being poor. Sometimes it’s been broke-ass, knee deep in credit card debt, holy-shit-what-am-I-going-to-do-about-rent poor. Other times I’ve done OK, but anything beyond basic needs and a few small luxuries here and there has been out of the question. It didn’t help that I lived in two of the most expensive cities in the country (Boston and Los Angeles) from college onward.
As with any situation, I’ve tried to make the best of it whenever possible. Looking back, I think I’ve learned some valuable lessons from being poor. Some of them are in tune with the old “money doesn’t buy happiness” adage, while others are the result of the harsh realities of living paycheck to paycheck. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:
Being poor makes you crafty and clever
You often have to get creative when you don’t have much money. I’ve seen some of the most creative DIY projects made by college students who couldn’t afford the normal, store-bought versions of appliances or gadgets. (Just do a web search for DIY air conditioners.) Sometimes these solutions are way more satisfying because of the ingenuity you put into them. Sometimes they are completely unsatisfying and you just wish you had the real thing.
I don’t need much to get by
I’ve proven that I can do without many things like a smart phone, cable TV, etc. Society is set up in such away that it makes us want more than we actually need, to the point that we really believe we need all these extra things. But I’ve learned to narrow down the list to the few things that really do give me satisfaction, occasionally by living without something only to realize that I really do want it around. Sometimes the key is simply resisting that initial urge to buy a cool, new thing. It usually just goes away after a while. Besides, something even better is just going to come along later, anyway.
Some things aren’t worth skimping on
Food, for example, was one of these things for me. Even when I wasn’t that interested in eating healthy, it never seemed worth it to me to tighten my wallet when it came to food shopping. I’d try to shop smart, for sure, but I wouldn’t buy shitty food just because it was cheaper. Cutting down on eating out at restaurants was a much better idea.
Being in debt sucks
Borrowing sucks, too, even if you’re not expected to pay someone back. There’s no way around this.
Not having stuff that everyone else has makes you really appreciate it when you do have something
I resisted getting a smartphone for years because I knew I couldn’t afford the more expensive plan. I proved to myself that I didn’t absolutely need one, and now that I have an iPhone I appreciate the hell out of the things that I find genuinely useful.
Convenience is a luxury
Some things I didn’t have as a kid but have now are super convenient, but they haven’t actually changed my quality of life that much. I remember when I had to take a bulky Discman, batteries and CDs along with me any time I took a trip somewhere. That certainly was less convenient than an iPod, but I’m not really any better off today as a person with that added convenience. It’s very nice for sure, but if people could be happy back when they only had record players and radios, I can’t really say my life is particularly enriched from these conveniences.
It’s a lot less stressful to go out with friends and socialize when you’re not worried about how much money it is to buy alcohol, gas, movie tickets, etc.
It is so much more fun and relaxed to enjoy a Friday night with my friends when my heart doesn’t drop every time I pay $7 for a beer or $12 for a movie.
Money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy freedom and comfort
Billionaire Mark Cuban once said that he was perfectly happy back when he was poor. For a while I didn’t believe him—how could someone who has clearly worked so hard to get so much money possibly have not cared about being poor? But I realized that even if he was working toward success and money, what we will be later has nothing to do with what we are now. He wasn’t focused on what he didn’t have when he was poor; he was enjoying what he did have while throwing himself into projects that eventually panned out and made him a ton of money.
The only thing I genuinely look forward to in the prospect of making money is the freedom it can give me: freedom to not stress about paying rent, freedom to take time off or even quit a job to pursue a creative project, freedom to travel the world and experience all it has to offer. But even these things can be done without a lot of money if you just get creative.
Happiness is a choice, so I’ve chosen to be happy instead of saying that I would be just a little happier once I got back on my feet financially. That kind of thinking is toxic. Money is a reality that we all have to face whether we like it or not, but it has no more to do with us as people than the things we buy with it. My iPhone sure is convenient, and I can do a lot of cool stuff with it. But I can have a fucking blast living my life without it.