Being Working Poor – My Story

As we continue along this week discussing the working poor I thought I would share a little more of my own history of a time when I would have been considered poor.

It all began the year I graduated university and got married. You see neither my wife or I were able to get jobs in our field right away after graduation. So we needed some income to live while we continued to look for jobs in our field.

I actually still recall the interview I had for a cook’s job I had applied for. It mainly consisted of a the usual few questions followed by just one more “You realized your way over qualified for this job. So why do you want to work here?”

I replied “I still have to eat and pay rent.” Apparently that satisfied his curiosity because he then offered me the job at a whole $6/hour (just above minimum wage at that time). My wife was working at a similar job with low pay.

Despite the fact we made around $1500 a month after taxes of which $550 when to rent and another $400 when to paying down my student loan, I experienced something very profound. I was very happy during this time of my life. Till this day I still look back at the time period with some fondness.

Why if I was flat broke near constantly was I that happy? I think it was because several different things. One was without much for extra money life was fairly simple.  You pay your bills, rent and buy food.  With the small amount left over you buy a few extras like a night at the cheap movies.  Today life seems more complicated mainly from the additional choices that more money brings: should you put in the RRSP, pay down the mortgage, have a nicer vacation this year or perhaps fund the RESP more?

Additionally during our broke period we came to use any help that was ever offered to us.  We weren’t to prideful to reject any help that came our way.   So we got rides to events around town from friends, we borrow my dad’s truck for a few months when he could spare it and I’ve fairly sure I never turned down a invite out to supper with anyone.

After about a year this period of my life came to a close.  I got my first engineering job and we moved to Edmonton. Yet being poor to me was a incredibly useful experience at that time of my life.  It taught me that money does not have any relationship to happiness beyond providing the essentials (shelter, food, love).   To this day I give credit to this period to showing me I can live off a low amount of expenses which is partly why I know I can retire with a spending budget of around $26,000/year.

So rather than pity someone with low financial resources I tend to study them and learn from them.  I ask myself how can I be so creative with so little money, how can I reduce my spending on things that don’t matter to me, how can I help support others around me to create a more sharing group of friends and family?  In the age of excess consumption, the working poor may very well be some of the best teachers of how to have a happy life on a shoestring budget and thereby show you the key on how you can become financially independent.

7 thoughts on “Being Working Poor – My Story”

  1. This is a great story. A strongly felt experience will leave a permanent mark. It seems to be frugality for you.

    For me, I had my stuff thrown out of a house where I was being allowed to stay by the “thrower’s” father. This happened so many years ago, and ever since I have never ever stayed in anybody’s house except my own or a hotel.

  2. I resonate with your experience. There was once my wife and I just made enough to survive and we drove a 15 year old Toyota with bad tires. We were very happy and didn’t have to research what kind of tires we were going to put on.

    However I’m not sure the happiness came from less choices back then. I’d say my satisfaction coming from very low expectation, especially out of the material world. I was not expecting an expensive vacation, nor was I thinking about an ipod or any kind of fancy gadget. All we did is go to the campsite and stare at the night sky for extended period and that’s wonderful.

  3. I know working for minimum wage sucks (my husband has been doing the bartending/hotel job for the last nine months since being laid off from his “real” job, and is really feeling the stress – and his feet hurt) but I’m sympathetic to the notion that with college-level literacy and confidence one may have nothing in the bank but have assets that those stuck in poverty don’t have – whether that be confidence, middle-class family support, education, health, whatever. I read somewhere (and don’t ask me where at this point) that the “average” member of the American working poor is an unmarried 50-something woman with minimal education, no drivers license and bad health; Which is all to say that I’m not sure a lot of the articles doing the rounds are relevant to that individual.

    I agree that a lot of us middle-class professionals romanticize our broke or manual labour periods, whether as students or right out of college, forgetting that we were young enough to handle anything, our confidence was through the roof knowing we’d be moving up, we had no obligations, etc. I’m not sure many of us took lessons like frugality away from that, so more power to you. (It’s a little different proposition to have that lifestyle as a thirty something, of course).

  4. I share Guinness416’s thoughts. While I do look back on the time of my life of my first (low paying) job out of college with the same type of fondness that Tim describes, the big difference between me and the, basically permanently, working poor, is that I had hope. I knew my life would get easier because my career path was one that would grow and grow. I fantasized about that future with excitement (and that was part of the reason it was so easy to be happy–the excitement of what my future might hold for me.) For those that fit the “average” working poor (which I do think to have less education), they don’t feel that sense of hope, I think. Life feels like it won’t get better, like they are treading water.

    I do, still, romanticize those days, however, because my life was a lot more about the important stuff (relationships with people) and less about acquiring stuff (because I couldn’t afford to). Life was simpler in many ways, and there was no “keeping up with the Jonses” ’cause all my friends were as poor as I was.

  5. A very good distinction is drawn about young professionals who have the hope of everything ahead of them and the working poor who are treading water.

    On another note..

    PC wrote: “happiness came from .. very low expectation, especially out of the material world. I was not expecting an expensive vacation, nor was I thinking about an ipod…”

    Syd wrote: “those days… my life was a lot more about the important stuff (relationships with people) and less about acquiring stuff (because I couldn’t afford to). Life was simpler in many ways, and there was no “keeping up with the Jonses” ”

    It’s kinda crazy, fellas, that you should feel so trapped in your affluence. What about a return to simplicity?

    I guess it comes down to what is really important to you.. (I could be wrong, but it doesn’t seem that keeping up with the Joneses is, so why is that part of the equation?)

  6. PC,

    Perhaps lower expectations help as well. Now it seems everyone wants the standard of living their parents have now, not realizing it took them 40 years to get there.

    Syd & Guinness,

    Mmm, you have a point. The post sounds like I am romanticizing those days a bit. I also recalled a good lot of stuff sucked too. Working different shifts than my wife and only having one day off in common. Hauling groceries by foot wasn’t much fun either.

    I would also agree that having hope and/or confidence goes a long way to getting out of that situation. I can see easily becoming stuck if you feel like you have nothing to gain by hoping.


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