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8 Tips for Surviving Genteel Poverty with Grace and Ingenuity

Once upon a time, a man was having a pleasant chat with an extraterrestrial. Yeah, yeah, I know. Work with me here, okay!?! If it helps, imagine tea and crumpets being involved.

The point is that this man claimed the extraterrestrial, we’ll call him Bob, telepathically asked him, “Why do you have to pay to live on your own planet?”.

Why do we have to pay
to live
on our own planet???

The longer you ponder on that question, the more it gets under your skin. I don’t mean this as a political or economic question, but rather as a recherché philosophical idea to mull over on long Winter evenings. Although I can’t remember where or when I first heard this (supposedly) true story, it’s haunted me ever since.

Bob ET made a good point. If you’re impoverished and homeless due to illness or ill fortune, you’re made to feel unwelcome in your own city, your own country, your own planet even though you’ve been a hard-working, tax-paying, vote-casting member of society who faithfully served your country in the military…until life handed you financial lemons. Suddenly you’re unwelcome on the planet. It could happen to any of us. It happened to my Michael as a young man.

Over the past few years, Michael and I have made rather more lemonade than we wanted from more lemons than we ever expected to have. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how to survive in straitened circumstances on this planet we call Home.

Many of you may have recently and unfortunately also found yourselves shocked by a reversal of fortunes and suddenly found yourselves in “genteel poverty” due to the sad events of this unprecedented year. It’s a shock because, having previously been gainfully employed, the answer to most problems has always been, “Throw Money at it.”

That’s all I knew to do in my former life as an IT Business Analyst in the Twin Cities. That’s all my family knew how to do as well. Our nuclear and extended families rarely offered a helping hand. If anyone had a problem, they threw money at it, hired a professional, fixed it alone, etc.  We were rarely helped by family and never by our neighbors.

So what do you do when the money dries up?

#1. It’s Just Numbers

The first lesson of Genteel Poverty is to think of money as only Numbers. A Numbers game, if you will. That removes a lot of the pain simply because the word “money” is imbued with loads of emotion, social strata, assumptions, judgments, ego, self-esteem, blah, blah, blah.

So don’t call it “money” anymore. Call it Numbers.

You give so many Numbers to another person in exchange for food. They want your Numbers. You give your Numbers. When you provide a service, someone gives you their Numbers in exchange. And round and round it goes, everyone exchanging Numbers rather like a remote village I once heard of that used written-out personal checks as homemade fiat currency. The checks were never cashed at the bank. Just exchanged between the village people as payment for goods and services, around and around and around.

What do you do when you no longer have the Numbers in your bank account to put in someone else’s account in exchange for whatever you need? They want your Numbers. You don’t have the right amount of Numbers.

Everything has to change…your viewpoint, your ingenuity, your lifestyle and your state of mind.

#2: A State of Mind

Someone once said, “Boredom is a state of mind and I’m not made that way” or words to that effect. I kind-of see poverty that way too. Just because your wallet is empty doesn’t mean you are poverty-stricken. Although, to quote Almanzo Wilder, the “rich may get their ice in the Summer” the fresh air, the sunshine, birdsong and beauty are free for us all to enjoy. Many small towns have Little Free Libraries full of free books of every genre.

When Michael was homeless, or rather chose walkabout to escape abuse at home, he still still stayed clean, was kind, polite and intelligent. He washed in gas station bathrooms or frigid remote streams, got clean clothes from the Salvation Army, did odd jobs to afford haircuts and dumpster dived behind fast food restaurants to provide food for the other homeless people, most of them veterans, on the streets of Colorado. He didn’t have a sou but he didn’t let poverty change his character.

In fact, poverty made him a better person. It grew his faith. On the day he lightened his backpack and threw all non-essentials in a dumpster, he kept his Bible.

#3. Grow Your Faith

Sometimes losing your Numbers can be the best thing that ever happened to you. When it happened to me, I realized that I’d always put my faith in Numbers. Money wasn’t my god, but I’d unknowingly trusted in it. Money seemed to be the solution to everything. It could buy almost everything including temporary happiness…but not love.

When I no longer had income, it put money in its place. It’s a tool. Not a security blanket, not a lover, not a caregiver, not a god. It can be stolen. It can be devalued. It’s fickle.

That’s when I really placed my faith in God and, when the chips are down, He always provides.

#4. Shop At Home

This is one of my mother’s favorite quotes: “Shop at home.” And she doesn’t mean QVC or HSN either! What she means is that the solution to your need or problem is probably already in your home. This is why the Depression generation and those who live in/near poverty tend to have a lot of “stuff.” It’s not that they’re necessarily packrats. They’re just being pre-thrifty. They know that in their Junk Drawer is the perfect doohicky or thingemabob to fix next week’s Domestic Disaster.

Over and over, I’ve been surprised at the objects I already owned that I was able to re-purpose, re-imagine or torture into meeting a need. Thrift store tablecloths ($2) become pretty curtains. Kitchen utensils hang on shower hooks from the kitchen curtain rods. A bar stool found at a garage sale became a bath stool. (Really, really bad idea!)

Don’t be ashamed to grab things, especially appliances, that are offered for “Free” on curbs. Appliance break-downs are one of the worst stressors on finances because they’re always unexpected and impossible to budget for. So grab multiples of every appliance whenever you find them cheap or free, even if you don’t need them yet. Sometimes you can “Frankenstein” together two appliances that don’t work to make one workable unit. Michael plans to do that with multiple air conditioners we found on local curbs. Second-hand appliances are often offered for $20-40 at your local home improvement store, appliance store or Habitat for Humanity Re-Stores.

Medical bills are a constant concern for many of us and I wasted thousands of dollars paying for health insurance I couldn’t use (because of my deductible.) Now I kick myself for not realizing my state offered free insurance for low income Minnesotans.

Of course, hospital co-pays can be egregious but our local hospital is wonderful about forgiving co-pays for those who are disabled or low income. Your hospital probably has a similar program. Check into it!

#5. Never Buy New and Always Offer Less

Looking back on my old City Slicker life, I shake my head at the thousands of dollars my family and I spent by (almost) always buying everything new. Of course, Craigslist and the Facebook Marketplace weren’t available in the 1990s…more’s the pity!

In genteel poverty, Rule #1 is never, ever shop for new things. Thrift stores. Garage sales. Auctions. eBay, Etsy, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Mercari and other sites like these are your best friend. Luckily, Google Shop includes these sites in their search results. Always filter by price, lowest to highest.

Need a dishwasher? Found mine on Craigslist for $20. Yes, that’s right. Two-Oh. Twenty dollars. The seller was unhappy with the color (beautiful white.) Heck! The detergent cost more than the washer!

Need furniture? Michael’s big La-Z-Boy cost all of $40. It’s okay to be choosy. For every black, grimy chair for sale on FB Marketplace, there is a pristine chair in your color scheme coming down the pike with your name on it. Pretty stuff doesn’t cost any more than ugly stuff. Be patient and wait for the right thing, at the right time.

Where legal, there’s no shame in a little dumpster diving. My Dirt Devil was in a dumpster…and all it needed was a new belt! My previous kitchen mixer…in a dumpster. Worked great too! I’ll never forget holding onto my Amish friend’s apron strings while she balanced on her stomach on the edge of the dumpster, gleefully helping herself to discarded English novels. Like Helene Hanff, I too prefer used books. They have so much more character. As Helene wrote…

I do love secondhand books that open to the page
some previous owner read oftenest.
The day Hazlitt came he opened to “I hate to read new books,”
and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.

Wherever possible, always, always, always offer less. You’ll be shocked how often a seller will accept a lower offer, sometimes a ridiculously low offer. I remember one garage sale where I offered $7 for a bar stool. The lady of the house looked at me so sweetly and asked in an injured tone, “Don’t you think it’s worth $10?”

“Of course I do!” I exclaimed, “But Grandma always told me to offer less.”

She accepted the $7.

#6. Go Vertical or Go Home

Ugh, downsizing. Never fun. But a lot of us are finding we can only survive financially by downsizing to a smaller home…with no storage space. It’s not nearly as fun as the Small House people who live out of a pick-up topper would like you to think!

But if you, like us, have downsized, there is one cardinal rule: Go Vertical. It’s your only choice. If you have any chance of living “in your means and between your seams,” Go Vertical.

  • Over-the-door hooks/racks: Use them on every door for clothes, curling irons, dusters, brooms, etc. If it has a handle, hole or hook…hang it up!
  • Hanging Shoe Rack with Pockets: You will bless these things. Hang them on doors or walls to store shoes, umbrellas, dog leashes, all the flotsam and jetsam of life.
  • Hooks, hooks and more hooks: Wall hooks are your friend. Just remember to use anchors.
  • Curtain Rods with Shower Hooks: Perfect spot to hang all those kitchen utensils
  • Sheets/Shower Curtains for Walls: Visual clutter can be distracting and proper shelving is expensive, so hang cute sheets or shower curtains (from the thrift shop!) from hooks or ropes to disguise those stacks of boxes or create two rooms out of one.

The ceiling’s the limit on verticality, so be creative!

#7. Make It, Grow It or Wait for It

Feel like going to Arby’s for a roast beef sandwich, onion rings and a Jamocha shake? Me too! But Arby’s is a 110 mile round trip and will cost us $20 + gas. So make it at home!

The thing I miss most about not having a lot of Numbers is eating out. But yens being the mother of invention, I’ve been able to recreate almost every fast food joints’ recipes, sides and special sauces at home for pennies on the dollar. Here are just a few of our “copycat” favorites.

  • Arby’s roast beef (steamed a small roast to a perfect, juicy medium rare) with copycat Arby’s sauce
  • French Fries (I use Ruth Reichl’s method for best results.)
  • Tempura onion rings
  • Big Macs with copycat Special Sauce
  • White castle sliders (easy midnight snack!)
  • California Rolls

Fruits and vegetables are nearly as damn expensive as junk food, but you can grow fresh Basil like crazy under an incandescent lightbulb! If your apartment has a balcony, you can grow pretty much any vegetable including tomatoes and potatoes, in pots, ice cream buckets, anything that’ll hold dirt.

But sometimes, you have to wait. Just wait. Someday the thing you really want or need will come around. If real estate is all about “location, location, location,” Genteel Poverty is all about “timing, timing, timing.”

#8. Allow Kindness

When I threw money at my problems, I cheated myself. I was insulated and isolated from my friends and neighbors. I had no idea how much kindness there was bouncing around in this Big, Beautiful World.

Before GoFundMe, you had to save like crazy for every ill that might befall you on your journey to the grave. Saving is good but it’s not the fool-proof insurance it used to feel like. It tricks us into placing our Faith in money that can let us down. That’s when we discover the kindness of strangers and they can be blessed with the joy of giving. (Don’t expect your narcissistic family to donate one slim dime! In my experience, they may even try to prevent anyone from helping you out.)

But when people do donate to help you out, and they will, always pass it on. Even if you can only afford $5. Always give a little to someone else in need from what others have given you. You’ll be blessing them as well as yourself and if/when you get back on your financial feet, you can help out other people even more. Helping others is good for the soul. It’s a tangible way of expressing Faith. There’s something to that “casting your bread upon the waters” thing.


Life is hard. Perhaps harder than any of us expected it to be when we were growing up. But the kindness of good people is greater than the difficulty of life. It blessed my soul to see people in isolation post needs on Facebook…and to have their neighbors meet those needs seconds later.

That’s how life should work. Even as life returns to normal, let’s keep the kindness going so no one feels unwelcome on their own planet, on Beautiful Planet Earth.

This post first appeared on Narcissism Meets Normalcy, please read the originial post: here

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8 Tips for Surviving Genteel Poverty with Grace and Ingenuity


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