Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Life After Being Poor

A few months ago, I referred you to the fantastic piece of prose 'Being Poor' by John Scalzi. At the time, I admitted that even though I thought the words were powerful, and that I knew people in my life that where poor, that I personally had never experienced it, thus could never properly relate. The closest that I had ever been to being poor is my post secondary years, and even then, I always had the giant cash sewn safety net that were my parents. I didn't ever feel the true panic and humiliation that being poor can be for many. My biggest issues where that I may have had to pass on the Friday Night movie or not buy that Goliath sized bag of cheese snacks rather than real issues like trying to brainstorm which bill you pay this month or how you stretch out a box of Kraft dinner to feed your family for the week. Despite not having any personal experience with being legitimately poor, I've known and know people who are really in that situation, and they're just trying to survive from day to day. But I also know several people who at one point in their life (usually when growing up) were in spots where they were truly 'this flap of cloth will have to do for shoes for now' poor. Being poor definitely gives you a different kind of perspective and appreciation for money. It really changes things once you are able to turn things around, and get in a spot where you start to become much more financially secure.

Based off the people I know who were once poor but eventually were able to better their money situation, I've learned there is often two type of people who are formed from the ashes of poverty. Now, what I am talking about here is people who were once poor, but through their own work did gradually drag them out of the abyss. I am not talking about an overnight tranformation such as winning the lottery. In those cases, I think the shell shock and massive overhaul can have entirely different effects on a person. What I am talking about here, is a person who over time starts garnering more and more money until it was abundantly clear they are the opposite of poor. Of course, people are not pre-programmed robots that follow a strict guideline, and thus there are definitely formerly poor people who don't fit into these two groups, but from my experience, these are the two groups that are most common.

The first group is the formerly poor people turned currently wealthy people who are close to the dictionary definition of frugal. I am not talking Ebeneezer Scrooge level here, but they are people who know were every single penny goes. For them, they lived a childhood and young adulthood where they had to be aware of the coming and goings of every single cent. The pinching of pennies and careful spending is a large reason why they were able to afford post secondary and maybe even buy their first house. They got to this point in their life because they were careful with money, and now it is a habit that is almost unbreakable -- or maybe even one that they have no interest in even trying to stop. They will occasionally buy a big ticket item (not a blender), but they will then use that item until the point it self destructs. And even before they make the purchase, they'll have done hours of research to make sure they need this item and it is the best value for what they are spending. They definitely don't buy things they don't feel they absolutely need, and every purchase is a very big deal. Even though they are well off, it is still ingrained in them to find the deals and sales, and so they will continually hunt for them. In the equation of time vs. money, money will usually win, because they grew up knowing that this was the commodity they needed to survive and get where they are now. When they were poor, they knew things would be different if they could just have a bit more money, and now that they have it, there is not way they will squander or lose it.

The second formerly poor person is quite different, because this person will try anything to avoid the stigma of being perceived poor or financially tight. I am not talking about reckless spending, but this person would not be considered frugal. They probably have a lot of nice things in their house, and may be willing to replace items even when the previous worked just fine. They aren't going to bother spending time looking for the best deals, but would rather make a purchase as quickly as possible. If they want it, they will buy it. They aren't looking for bargains, but rather just for what they want. They may even make a purchase without ever even looking at the price tag or being aware of the actual cost (even after purchase). For this person, they can't forget what it was like to be poor, but they want to think about it as little as possible. They don't want to be reminded about it daily, and now want to make it clear that they permanently moved past that time in their life. They don't want to waste time shopping for deals or trying to find ways to cut costs, because they spent time doing that their whole life prior to being wealthy. They will blast the air conditioner and use up energy without any major worries, because they know they can afford it. Most importantly, they would never try to give the impression to anyone that they are trying to cut costs, but rather make it clear they can afford to live extremely comfortable without worrying about money. For them, they don't want to be reminded about what they were, and being frugal would be a nasty time machine for their mind. Instead, they try to make things like time and convenience as the most important commodity, and see money as a secondary item.

This is not an indictment or criticism on either type of person. And also, rarely will someone completely fit into the types I described. Because people are complex beings, and usually don't follow broad descriptions very well. I am sure sometimes the non frugal person will have moments where they do try to find a deal or even openly admit they got a great price on something. For the most part, finding a deal is a major achievement for the former person (and they will see it as a victory to share with others), but for the latter, such things are just seen as a painful reminder of a previous life. I don't think either person is necessarily wrong. I know for a fact that both will give to charities and be willing to help those in need. They can both be good people. It is just that their life has lead them to view money differently.

The interesting thing is that a similar childhood and young adulthood can effect people differently. Two groups of people both experience the humiliation and suffering that is being poor, but once they achieved the long desired wealth, they responded in very different ways. I am not sure if a certain response is inherent to a particular personality type. Or if each person gained their wealth in a different way, which caused the different views of how to handle wealth. I think, it is fascinating how people from similar financial backgrounds can end up having completely different worldviews when reaching similar levels in society. In both cases, I am sure they will always be incredibly influenced by once being poor.

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