Reader Request Week 2009 #5: Having Been Poor
Reading your ‘being poor’ topic and having been under-monetized at points in my past, I’m wondering how you think that affects/should affect a person’s current lifestyle. Could being a packrat be related to that? Habitually looking at the price of everything just another case of OCD? How about being traumatized by the thought of throwing away leftover food?
It’s an interesting question. I don’t think having been poor at a certain point in one’s life should have to affect one’s lifestyle on a day to day basis; having been poor doesn’t necessarily have to afflict one with something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder when it comes to money, or have caused lasting damage to one’s psyche. I’m aware the sometimes it does, of course. But I’m also aware of people who handle that aspect of their past just fine, and don’t let their previous poverty fill with with either shame or apprehension. I’m pretty much in that boat, as far as I can tell: Having been poor when I was younger was not fun, but it’s not something I dwell on day to day. I have other things to fill up my time.
That said, speaking on a personal level, I am aware of some behaviors that I suspect have at least something to do with having been poor when I was a kid:
- I tend to save a lot more of my income than most people I know, so that if the bottom drops out of my life, I have a cushion. And when I say “I” here, you should understand it to mean “we,” as it’s actually my wife who handles the family finances. Without going into actual figures, I suspect we save about 20% of our income on a yearly basis; the current national savings rate is about 4% at the moment (and not too long ago was rather a bit under that). Now, one reason that we can do that is that we make a comparatively large amount of income relative to the national average, so doing a large amount of saving does not cut into our spending on essentials or even much on our frivolities. But even when we made substantially less we were saving quite a lot.
- I’m notably debt-adverse. Having seen first-hand how debt screws with people, neither I nor Krissy has much in the way of consumer debt. I use my Amex for most purchases I make so that I can have a paper trail for my accountant, but the Amex is a charge card, not a credit card, and I have to pay it off every month (Amex keeps trying to enroll me in the program that lets me carry a balance; I keep telling them that’s not why I use them). We have Visa cards as well and also use them, but keep the balance on them low enough that we could pay them off at once without making a dent in our savings.
- Likewise, we don’t get fancy with the debt we do have, namely our mortgages: We have stable, predictable, boring 30-year mortgages on our properties, thus avoiding the drama of ARMs and other dumb ways to finance the place one lives.
- I buy for value over flash: I’m not particularly cheap when it comes to high ticket items, but I also have a tendency to buy solidily performing objects over the hottest and coolest thing, partly because I intend to use whatever I’m buying for a fairly long time. This is why, as an example, the average life expectancy for a car in the Scalzi household is 12 years and climbing and why I still use a television I bought in 1991, and also why, when I buy a new computer, I pass the old one down to Athena. It’s also why I mildly resent cell phones at this point, since I know the Blackberry Storm I bought last November will have a usable lifespan of about two years, which doesn’t fit with my lifestyle choices, those bastards.
- Related to the above, while not notably cheap in a day-to-day sense, you’re also not going to be seeing me spend conspicuously; my tastes and most of my enthusiasms are notably middle class at best. Part of this is the financial section of my brain asking “why are you spending money on that?” and if I can’t come up with a good answer for it, I tend not to buy it. Part of it is also a practical aspect of my personality (“what are you going to do with that?”) that keeps me from collecting things if I don’t have a use for them in more than a “gee, that’s pretty” aspect.
(This isn’t always true, of course: I bought the original artwork for the Old Man’s War hardcover for about half the advance for the book, primarily because you only have a first novel once, and I wanted a physical commemoration of that. On the other hand, that’s also probably the single most expensive thing I have in the house. The thing I spend the most on is books, which drives Krissy a little nuts, because I already have enough of those.)
(Related to this: I’m a bit of a packrat, but I don’t think it’s because I was once poor, it’s because a) I’m lazy and getting rid of stuff takes time and thought, and b) I tend to associate things with events around the time I got them, so it’s like getting rid of memories, and I’m sentimental bastard. I sort of need to get over that; at this point I have more crap than clear memories.)
All of the above can be summed up, I think, as: Don’t buy what you can’t afford, don’t buy what you don’t have use for and have enough on hand for when life whacks you upside the head. Which I think in general is good advice for anyone, but in practice tends to be an attitude of people who have experience with poverty one way or another.
(But not the attitude of everyone with experience with poverty, to be sure: there’s the flip side of this attitude, in which people who were formerly poor feel the need to show off their new perceived wealth through ostentatious display. I’ve been fortunate that my showing off gene did not feel the need to express itself that way.)
Note I don’t think these attitudes of mine are particularly virtuous one way or another; they’re simply attitudes that I’m comfortable with and which work for me. But I don’t doubt that the reason they are there has something to do with where I have been before in my life, in terms of poverty. There are worse ways for poverty to mark someone, to be sure. In this as well as in other ways, I’ve been pretty lucky.
(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else.)