On the experience of being dirt-poorish, for people who want to be
Being dirt-poor might not sound very appealing. But living a life of relative poverty can be liberating of sorts.
Resident Contrarian once wrote an article on the experience of being poor-ish. It was well-written and received a lot of well-deserved publicity. It also kick-started his career as a Substacker and, ironically, raised him to such fame that he was offered a new well-paying job that made him no longer poor. A modern day fairy tale, if you wish.
When I first read Mr. Contrarian's post about poverty I thought it was, you know, lame. Not that his writing was lame, it is not, at the very least it is superior to mine. But his poverty struck me as not that poor. Of course, he is American and I am European, meaning he should make more money than me while I should feel more protected by a comprehensive social security system. Even so, I had the clear impression he lived a much wealthier life than me.
For some time after reading that article I thought about writing something on the subject myself. I always decided against it since I was afraid it would deteriorate into a poverty contest. Yet here it is. I will do my best to not make a contest out of it. Not because I would not win, because I would, but rather because it is, in fact, not a contest. We can all be dirt-poor together.
I am of solid upper middle class stock. My father was a pilot, a profession which not only netted him a more than decent income but also allowed him to take his family, including me, on countless foreign vacations all through my childhood. My mother was a teacher which, although not as highly paid as a pilot, was still very respectable (and came, and still comes, with more paid holiday than any other full-time occupation).
To cut to the point, I had a very privileged upbringing. No one, not even an affluent American, could call it poor. I also had a bright future ahead of me. Being academically gifted and with plenty of tuition-free university educations at my disposal there really were no obstacles for me taking up my very own position in the upper middle class.
This was not to be. Not because I suffered some tragic accident or otherwise was cheated by life. I have no one and nothing to blame. It just turns out I was unwilling to make the quite limited effort required of me. Most people would assume I am spoiled and lazy. The former is probably true, the latter less so. More than anything I think I have a serious problem with authorities. I am a rebel without a cause.
Quite early on I also found out that I did not have to take up my place in the upper middle class. Class is a very relative concept. Upper class is only better than lower class because we say so. Most people fight their way up the greasy pole, not out of necessity or for survival, but simply because society tells them to. Being openly contemptuous of society I had no particular urges to do what it told me. Rather the contrary.
After high school I did my best to not climb the ladder of social success. I studied obscure subjects at university. I held a variety of odd jobs. And I did a lot of rather pointless traveling around the world. I was drifting.
When I was 23 I met Tove. To discover your soul mate is an incredibly liberating feeling, a feeling I suspect many people go their whole lives without ever experiencing. Tove was definitely another rebel without a cause. Together we could do anything.
Doing anything turned out to mean drifting to the very margins of society. To a small and ramshackle house far out in the woods, in a part of Sweden where no one else wants to live. Instead of competing for a position in society we took whatever position was left for us. The time and resources this saved us we used to do things that we personally liked to do, foremost a lot of intellectual pursuits but also a fair amount of procreation.
Third world in the first world
The other week I was walking down the aisle of the grocery store when I suddenly realized I could not remember the last time we had meat at home. As I tried to recall any recent meat dinners it hit me that this was probably not something that the average first world person usually ponders while grocery shopping. I should write about this.
Just to get things straight from the start: There are many reasons we do not eat meat. Meat is sort of difficult to cook right. I also have a picky wife and a number of picky children. One of them is even a borderline vegetarian. But the main reason is definitely cost. Meat is expensive.
Thinking of it, there are a lot of things other people do that we do not, mostly due to economic restrictions. In his article about being poor-ish, Resident Contrarian writes quite a bit about fixing his own car. I fix our car when it breaks down, of course, but it does not break down very often. Probably because we do not use it very much because, you know, driving is expensive. Our family of seven only drives around 5000 km per year with our only car.
Instead we use bicycles. Every day we use bicycles. Especially since we bought our first electric bicycle six years ago. The e-bike is a game changer of sorts. Using electricity and our bike trailer I can pedal the 25 km return trip to the local town and do some heavy grocery shopping while there. In fact, the main electric bike rolls 3000-4000 km per year, almost as much as the car. And it does so at less than a tenth of the cost.
The art of being dirt-poor
People these days have incredible amounts of money at their disposal. Sweden might be poor compared to the United States (or compared to Denmark or Norway for that matter) but even here the median monthly wage is 33 200 SEK, corresponding to a yearly salary of 40 000 dollars. It is a lot of money to spend. Especially considering that most households in Sweden have two full-time incomes.
Nevertheless, people do spend most of their income. The saving rate in Sweden is only 13.9%, which is actually a very respectable number compared to most OECD countries. Even so, most of that 40 000 dollar salary ends up as consumption each month. Consumption that people undoubtedly think they need.
How do you survive when you have no income to spend? That is a very good question. I am not in a position to answer it since we do, in fact, have some income. Each month the very generous Swedish government gives us no less than 600 dollars in child allowance. We also have some other incomes from book sales and irregular jobs. And we do have savings, larger than we like to admit, which in good years give capital income and in less good years give a cushion to take from. All in all our seven-person family has around 1400-1500 dollars in monthly expenditure.
Most people will find this sum ridiculously low for such a large family. So how do we do it? Well, for a start we cheat, blatantly and unambiguously. We might not work for money, but we work for subsistence. In the summer we have a full range of home-grown vegetables and even in the winter we are well stocked with apples, leeks and other storable plant foods (we do not grow potatoes, having decided it is too cheap to buy to warrant the acreage and work it would require). We save even more on heating. For heating we use wood that we get from the surrounding forests more or less for free (just insert physical labor).
But these are only the "noble" ways of saving money. Almost everyone approves of some small-scale farming and responsible wood-burning. The problem is you only save so much on them. To make real savings you have to stop consuming. And I mean that literally. It is not enough to just consume less. You have to question every single expense, not once but every time you make them.
This is also where it starts to hurt. Not physically (most of the time), but I have already mentioned not eating meat and not driving very much, things that undoubtedly affect your quality of life and makes everything a little bit more complicated. For example we do not have mobile phones in this family. Or, rather, we have two Nokias that anyone who leaves the house can use. But we do not have what normal people call mobile phones, namely smartphones. Partly because they are fiddly things that distract you more than they aid you. But mostly because they cost several hundred dollars to purchase and at least ten dollars per month in subscription fees. Four or five of those would easily cost us 1000 dollars per year.
Not having a modern phone is a very visible sign of poverty. Being known as poor is generally seen as shameful. But it can also be beneficial. People like to give things to poor people, something that we experience quite a lot. Clothing most of all. We have several people who regularly give us clothes. Mostly children's clothes but one relative (who is probably some sort of shopaholic) gives us women's clothes that Tove and the teenage daughter can pick over. One time last autumn we even got a few bags of clothes from a neighboring lady intended for Ukrainian refugees but which the refugees did not want or need. We gladly took them in. Basically, we do not spend money on clothes (although shoes do cost money, unfortunately).
These days it is usually possible to shroud your money saving efforts as environmentalism. While wearing second hand clothes would have been seen as shabby only a decade or so ago it can now be viewed as sort of cool. The same logic of recycling can be used on many things, with varying degrees of social acceptance.
Me and Tove have five kids aged 1 to 16. Last year we bought Christmas gifts for these children for a grand total of 40 dollars. One child got some computer accessories from the second-hand store, another got some books from the used books store. These were the only gifts that cost money. The toddler only got some recycled old toys from the attic. The teenage daughter got nothing at all since we had pre-knowledge of her receiving an excess amount of gifts from her grandparents (as far as I know she never noticed that her parents cheated her on her gift rights). The last child received a series of children's books I had found at the local garbage station. I have no idea why people throw away nearly new books, but as long as they do, I intend to profit from it (me and the environment, remember).
Will someone please think of the children?
By this stage some readers might already be looking for the contact information to the child protection services. Giving garbage to my children for Christmas. I should be ashamed of myself. But, am I? Do I feel guilty for the sub-standard childhood I am providing my offspring?
The short answer is: yes. I would have preferred to give my children a higher material standard of living. The longer answer is that given the actual circumstances I do believe I provide the best possible conditions for my children. And these conditions do not prioritize material well-being. It would have been easy for me and Tove to improve our financial situation substantially by just taking a job. The labor market is very accommodating at the moment and in Sweden there are only living wages. With one or two salaries a lot of things that are currently out of reach for us would suddenly be affordable.
But then again, affordability is not everything. The real obstacle for buying Christmas gifts is not lack of money so much as lack of time and engagement. I know some parents' idea of Christmas gifts is to go to the nearest toy store and grab an appropriate number of toys while spending as little time as possible there. With plenty of money you can do like this. But I doubt I would do it no matter how much money I had at my disposal. I believe there should be some sort of meaning behind a gift. And this opinion of mine is only partially based on frugality.
I am well aware of the fact that I give my children a worse than average upbringing, materially speaking. They lack a lot of things like a fancy house and expensive gadgets that most other children have. Instead they have both of their parents nearby for most of the day, ready to dispense parental advice and well-intentioned banter. I am not sure if this is a bad deal for them. At least I hope it is not.
Apart from parental support I also give them something else: The very real possibility of outdoing their parents, socially speaking. Or refraining from outdoing their parents if they so choose. In practice they have more options for their futures than their upper middle class peers. In this very sense, I give them freedom.
The poverty of the upper classes
Growing up upper middle class and going to some fancy Stockholm schools I faced a lot of pressure to "realize my potential", meaning becoming upper middle class myself. I mostly brushed aside these expectations on my person because, well, I am pretty good at brushing things aside. But I also brushed them aside because I could.
My friends from childhood and high school were all upper middle class like myself. They lived in nice houses and their parents were engineers, doctors, lawyers and things like that. I should have been quite similar to them, culturally speaking. In many ways I was similar to them, but not always.
This became more clear as we finished high school and left home. I had of course noticed before that many of my friends had more profligate leanings than myself. But it became much more obvious when we were all responsible for our own households. They were used to a level of everyday affluence that I seemed to lack.
The truth is that when I grew up my parents were obsessed with thriftiness. They still are. Tove has some name-based sobriquets she likes to throw at my relatives when they are not around to hear it. On paper I had a significantly more privileged upbringing than Tove, who is from a working class background, but you would not know it from our families' spending patterns.
In my family we spent money on housing (which was treated as an investment, and therefore not subject to frugality), computers (because my father liked them and might have persuaded my mother that they were a kind of investment in their children's future) and trips to foreign lands (which, because of my father's staff discounts were so cheap that my mother probably regarded them as bargains to good to miss). But apart from this we lived a frugal life. During most of my childhood in the 1980s and 90s we did not have a microwave oven (you could just as well use the stove), cable television (waste of money and time) or even a CD player (what use is a CD player if you do not buy CDs). During one period we had a car that was so wretched that the door would not stay closed but had to be secured with a string (admittedly this was our second car and only for a limited period of time). I imagine most upper middle class families did not have that kind of problems.
Despite my somewhat destitute upbringing I am not disappointed in my parents. On the contrary. They provided me with everything I needed and also a very valuable education. My vertiginous fall in social class does not feel very vertiginous at all. Mostly because I live according to the same principles of life that I learned growing up in the upper middle class. My mother, who always had high expectations of me, probably rues this fact, but she did prepare me very well for a future on the very bottom of society.
If I have any regrets it is that I can not spend money on the few things my parents actually spent money on. My children are not able to see the world the way I did because we can not afford trips to foreign lands. More importantly, my children will not be able to go to fancy schools because we can not afford to live close to fancy schools. Tove, who has only ever attended un-fancy schools, keeps telling me that what school you go to does not matter as much as how you study, but I have my doubts about that.
A word from the frugality expert
When Resident Contrarian wrote his article on poorishness, more than two years ago, being poor might have had more of a stigma than it does today. In our times of inflation and cost-of-living crisis, frugality seems to be in vogue. Googling on "extreme frugality", which I suppose is what my family is practicing, gives 37200 hits, most of them from the last year.
Having spent a lifetime honing my frugality skills should have given me an edge in the current environment. Maybe even a monetizable edge. Unfortunately, frugality is cheap and there are already a number of sites out there presenting bucket loads of money-saving tips, all for free. I am not overly impressed, almost all of them can be summarized with "do not spend money if you can avoid to".
In fact, most people know very well how to save money, they just like to spend money more than they like to save money. Since they have jobs that give them money to spend, they can just as well spend them. Of course there are people who can not hold down a job or who have a job that does not give them as much money as they want. But even these people will have money to spend, they just have to spend a bit less than other people.
Many people, probably most people, although I have no way of proving this, have a job not primarily to get money to spend, but rather to have a social context. They like socializing with their colleagues, they like the identity their jobs give them and they like feeling appreciated by society.
The truth is that jobs cost. They take their physical and mental toll and they cost enormous amounts of time. But they also cost money. Quite a lot of money.
The elephant in the room
Cutting your showers short or not throwing away left-overs are simple ways to save money. But they do not save you very much. Most people spend most money on two things: housing and transportation, most of it on housing. If you want to save real money you need to lower your housing costs, which means moving to a less attractive area, and your transportation costs, which means moving around a lot less.
Both of these, living in an attractive, usually metropolitan, area and physically transporting yourself long distance multiple times a day, are prerequisites for a successful working life. It costs a lot of money to make money.
This is something you do not hear very much about. Probably because paid work is such an integral part of our lives that many find it difficult to contemplate a life without it. Unlike many, I have actually thought about it.
Ten years ago I was, unexpectedly, offered a job as a software developer in Stockholm. It was only entry level but the salary was still decent, meaning about the national median. I did some calculations and, assuming we should have the same standard of living in Stockholm as we have here in the woods, mostly meaning an equally big house, my conclusion was that we would have an equal or slightly worse economic situation if I took the job. I would be working 40 hours a week and would get exactly nothing out of it, financially speaking.
This is sort of insane. And I am not talking about the house prices in Stockholm, which are factually insane, but rather about the fact that people accept a deal like this. Having a job that technically gives you a salary but at the end of the day costs you money. Not only do people accept a lousy deal like this, in many cases they have also spent significant resources on preparing for this lousy deal, through college education, unpaid internships and the like.
Of course there is a more positive side as well, foremost the prospect of a profitable career. My calculations were based on an entry level salary. Had I actually taken the job, ten years ago, I would probably be some sort of senior developer by now making at least twice as much. That would have made the job financially rewarding. But the risk-reward ratio would still not have been good. The financial reward would only have paid out had I avoided the risk of incapacitating illnesses or accidents (probably not a great risk) or the risk of pissing my superiors off (a much greater risk since I am notoriously good at offending people).
Free at last
I did not take the software job in Stockholm and here I am, still in the woods. Instead of earning money to spend I try not to spend what I have not earned. This can be viewed as a job in reverse. Living without spending takes some time and effort, just like a job. But at least it is a job I can perform at the time and place of my own choosing. It is almost as if I had been self-employed, only I avoid all those pesky customers.
A life without money is different from a life with money. But it does not have to be a worse life. Many enjoyable things are free or almost free. Economic progress has made absolute poverty non-existent, at least in the developed world. No matter how poor I get I will always be able to feed and clothe my children. And living in a first world welfare state (which arguably includes America) I will always have access to health care and education as well. These days money is not a necessity as much as a status symbol.
I guess this is what it all comes down to. Money is what decides your place in the social pecking order. If you want respect from your peers you need money and to get money you need to do what your peers tell you to do. If the esteem of others is important to you, a prestigious job is your best way to success. But it is not the only way to a successful life. Especially not if you are of the obstinate type who values your independence. After all, being dirt-poorish is a small price to pay for freedom.
Changelog: The original sub-heading of this article was “A report from the bottom of society”. Some readers remarked that this was outright false. Which it was. This article is about voluntary poverty, and no one who has the ability to make voluntary choices can really claim to be at the bottom of society. The new sub-heading will hopefully do a better job of describing the actual contents of the article.
On opening this post and beginning to read I see Resident Contrarian's post on poverty mentioned, and feel moved to remark that Resident Contrarian has recently been 'laid off' and is looking for a new writing job.
Without reading further, my experience of life as a somewhat downwardly mobile middle class adult is because I don't make choices that optimise for the current social status norms. That I have successfully maintained a long marriage and reared 4 kids with my wife is because other people have recognised and needed my abilities. Some of that is my raw intelligence and chances are without the intelligence I would be childless and miserable.
In a different society, more compatible with my character, I expect I would have been more successful.
That's the value of genetic variation in an unstable environment.
Why do you consider only two alternatives: 40+ hour corporate grind and being unemployed?
Time commitment, I think, is more of a spectrum and these two options are opposite ends, but there are a lot of alternatives in between them. Especially with programming, there are freelance and project work and NCO jobs which can be anywhere 5-30 hours a week. Post-Covid remote options definitely exist, so you don't have to relocate to a big city (which definitely encourages 40+ hour corporate grind).