I was raised in a household with an income that fell below the poverty benchmark. Dad’s upbringing was in a home with an even lower income. He only achieved an 8th-grade education, and because of that, he had to be one of the hardest workers I have ever known. Mom was a dedicated stay-at-home wife and mother.
We had only one vehicle, so Mom and I usually drove Dad to and from work. One of the images engraved most indelibly in my mind is Dad walking toward our car, his clothes soaked with sweat from an honest-to-goodness hard day’s work. On payday, his wages seemed so meager and unequal to the amount of himself he poured into earning them.
Seeing Mom and Dad constantly worry about making ends meet no matter how hard Dad tried to provide for us lit a fire of dogged determination inside of me. I made up my mind that when I grew up I would do anything I had to do to rise above such intense struggle to survive, even if that meant living above my means and financing everything I owned. That strong-willed sense of resolve to avoid “poverty” was alive and well when I met the man of my dreams, fell in love, and got married at the age of 21.
For the first several years of our marriage, my husband and I successfully accumulated the stuff that makes up the American dream. We both worked hard to meet the demands and expectations of what that “dream” should look like—home ownership, two jobs, two cars, lots of physical possessions, and a lavish amount of available credit to make it all come true. All along, it seemed so important to me to have the things I thought my parents “lacked.”
Then, while we weren’t looking, those long days turned into short years, and life had progressed to middle age. Dad, who had always been strong and stout and the hardest worker I ever knew, passed away long before his time. I watched as the ensuing sadness of widowhood consumed Mom’s heart and life, and then, after nearly twelve years of profound loneliness and health issues, she, too, passed away.
Standing beside both of my parents’ bedsides as their beyond-valuable, earthly lives came to an end, knowing they would no longer be a part of my everyday life and feeling that sense of finality forced me to face my own mortality and was the most sobering thing I have ever experienced.
Suddenly, the fact that my parents lived their entire lives being “poor” didn’t seem so important. It didn’t seem so sad that they owned very little because they were not able to take one single thing with them from earth to Heaven anyway. They left this world just like they entered it. They brought nothing into it, and they carried nothing out. As their final breaths were breathed and their last feeble good-byes were spoken, the fact that they were poor was the farthest thing from our minds and meant nothing.
What did matter and what firmly remained was the strong foundation of faith they had so thoughtfully laid and upon which they had taught me to build, the value of hard work they had instilled in me, and the deep bond of love that even death will never be able to sever.
After Mom died, it took us only one day to go through her tiny apartment and pack up her, and what was left of Dad’s, belongings. There was no cause for beneficiary rivalry or squabbling over their possessions because living a life of necessitated minimalism removed that prospect. At that point, the fact that Mom and Dad were poor brought a great sense of relief.
Not long after Mom passed away, my little family and I felt an impassioned call toward a simple, minimal life. We sold what we had to pay what we owed, and with reckless abandon, gratefully released the “American dream” and all it demanded of us. We are now three years in to this amazing adventure, 100% debt-free and have never been happier or more at peace.
The nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from being raised in a low-income family are countless, and I wouldn’t trade those life lessons for anything. Here are ten of them.
1. People are worth immeasurably more than things.
2. Teaching your children how to live is much more important than anything money can buy.
3. It’s amazing how little it takes to survive if you learn to “make do” and improvise.
4. You don’t have to own something to love and enjoy it.
5. Experiences with the ones you love create the most precious memories, and most of the time cost nothing. Memories are lightweight, take up zero space, cannot be stolen, do not have to be maintained, and never cause worry. To invest in them is infinitely wiser than accumulating stuff.
6. It is smart to rent a home if “ownership” requires going into debt and living above your means.
7. Holding a clear title to one car is wiser than incurring debt to have two.
8. Grieving loved ones should not be laden with the added burden of dealing with excess, left-behind possessions.
9. Working hard never hurt anyone. In fact, there are few things more gratifying than the completion of a hard day’s work.
10. When you die, you take nothing from earth with you, and the main thing you should leave behind is the legacy of a life well-loved.
The other day, it occurred to me that we are, by choice, living a life that looks very similar to the life my parents lived, by necessity. It seems that I have come full circle in my way of thinking, and those childhood lessons were not lost after all. I finally fully appreciate their wisdom for what it’s truly worth.