On the hidden benefits of being poor

Home-brewed coffee

So I recently expended my entire life savings on writing a book and making a film, which was exactly what I wanted to do and why my life savings existed. As a result, however, I find myself in the not unfamiliar situation of needing to stop arsing around and make some cash.

This is not a complaint, lest it sound like one. Nobody talks about the details of their personal finances. Nobody blogs about it. There is an enormous social stigma attached to being cash-poor. To ask for free hot water in order to brew your own instant coffee on the train, for example, is to invite looks ranging from pity to gloating to disgust.

I don’t see it as shameful at all. My attitude was born from years of pedalling the globe on a thread of a shoestring, eking every calorie out of every penny, itinerant and jobless and sleeping rough, and finding more contentment and happiness in it than being wealthy and career-driven and settled could ever serve up.

So when I’m forced — by my own idealism, stubbornness, lack of planning, dismal abilities as a businessman, whatever — to do the same within society instead of on its edge, I see it as just the same game of initiative and lateral thinking and resourcefulness as before, scoring counter-cultural points against consumerism and very much enjoying doing so.

There’s one big problem with having cash in abundance. It invites you to buy into convenience, into the ‘easy life’ that the pursuit of money promised in the first place.

This happens oh-so-gradually, but it doesn’t take long before you’re conveniently buying coffee on the way through the ticket barriers, upgrading your phone so you can use all those convenient apps, grabbing a convenient takeaway on the way home, and getting convenient open-returns instead of booking trains a month in advance. You can afford these conveniences now. So why not?

It’s not that paying for convenience sucks away every last penny — it usually doesn’t. It’s that it makes you lazy. Life isn’t quite as full of those immediate little victories as it used to be.

You miss the satisfaction of successfully procuring an extra discount from the yellow-sticker-man in the clearance aisle.

You no longer pop into charity shops, just-in-case, and so you don’t find the mint condition made-in-England 45l Berghaus rucksack that’s just gone on sale for a fiver.

You forget that it’s stupidly fun to boil up a brew in a parkful of folk too busy swilling from Starbucks flagons to notice the smoke.

You can’t remember how to quarter the price of train journeys through cunningly combining advance fares between ill-frequented stops.

You feel strangely helpless when your smartphone battery dies and you can’t remember how to navigate the city streets without a little screen telling you which way to go.

You don’t have time to grow your own food on the windowsill or beneath the skylight or in the vegetable patch because you’re too busy maximising your post-work free time to have time to do so.

And you’re no happier than when you were scrimping and saving, because happiness is mostly genetic, and an easy life that doesn’t test you or teach you misses the mark of what humans really find satisfying anyway.

I’m not saying poverty should be anyone’s goal, and I know some of these examples are at the extreme end of things (relative to life in the UK, in any case).

But I am saying that having the rug of financial stability pulled out from under us — even temporarily, for example in the form of a big bike trip — has a lot to teach us about navigating life.

It simply depends on the perspective with which we approach it.

What do you think?

Comments (skip to respond)

41 responses to “On the hidden benefits of being poor”

  1. I know exactly what you’re talking about, Tom.

    I utterly enjoy this kind of frugal low-level living, but on the other hand it’s so energy consuming living this lifestyle in a western society. Why? Because nobody cares. Nobody!

  2. Hi Tom, I can relate to the pleasure you describe in bargain hunting and circumventing the consumer vaccuum. People generally earn more so they can spend more. Why not spend less so you need less! I’ve just transitioned from a well paid full-time job in London to zero income whilst bicycle touring Latin America. My outgoing total monthly expenditure now is much less than what was I paying for monthly rent alone in London! However, I must admit I’ve not yet been able to transition to instant coffee!

    1. A happy medium — pack your own espresso pot!

  3. Love this post Tom. It came at a time when I really needed it. You meet so many wonderful people when you are relying on the kindness of strangers to get by.

  4. bikerwaser avatar

    great blog and theme. wondered if any of you know about the president of Uruguay, named as the “poorest president in the world”:

    i have been poor , then i had quite a few quid, now i don’t have so much but when i look back over my life the best times i remember were always with friends or family and loved ones. never are the best memories to do with money. i have met people with nothing sharing their metophorical last bean with me. those are the memories i treasure.

  5. André avatar

    Tom, there’s a massive personal finance blogging scene out there. Google for: Mr. money mustache. Especially his early posts are worth reading.

    1. Any blog with a name like that has to be worth checking out — thanks!

  6. Saeid avatar

    I just want to say some thing and be with you in this topic, Tom. All of my friends wrote the most important ideas and comments.

  7. Andrew avatar

    I can’t help but see the ‘Poverty as a Game of Lateral-Thinking’ theme as indicative that you aren’t flat-broke yet. I lived in Sweden for a year and that was probably the poorest I’ve ever been; then-girlfriend was a student and I was clearing tables in a cafe. There was no seeking out budget rail tickets or rejoicing at finding an item on our shopping list on special, there simply were no rail tickets, and our meals were whatever was on special. 

    The poverty is confining not liberating. I have virtually no memories of Sweden that year beyond overtime and arguments (based largely in financial stress) and the walls of my flat. Eight years and thousands of miles later I have a good job and whenever the ‘convenience vs. cash’ debate comes up I will side with convenience. I can always make more money, I can’t make more time.

    1. Andrew avatar

      Although actually now I think about it, when it comes to the day-to-day stuff I actually don’t value convenience. I prepare all my food from scratch, brew my own beer, repair my own bikes, decorate my own flat, cycle rather than own a car etc. I even make coffee at work rather than go to Starbucks. Huh.

      I appear to favour convenience so that I can free up my time to then spend that time inefficiently pottering about fiddling, tinkering and making stuff.

      Though I would argue that none of these activities would be possible if I was still as poor as I was in Sweden. I would have sold my bike to pay the rent long ago.

      Interesting post!

    2. When you’ve taken out a new credit card to pay the rent and you’re mail-ordering out-of-date food in bulk to feed yourself, I’d call that flat-broke!

      1. Andrew avatar

        That feels eerily familiar, though I was pinching out of date food from the cafe, rather than mail order. I chucked some cash your way for a download of Janapar a while back, hope it helps. 

        Chin up, and good luck.

        1. Cheers, Andrew. It helps a lot to see it as a game rather than a source of stress, and I’ve been here enough times before to know that it’s temporary 🙂

  8. Trevor avatar

    I’ve always wanted to exhaust my small amount of savings to go on a long backpacking or biking trip, but I always find myself falling back into my comfort zone. It’s definitely reassuring to know that other people do these things with little money. One of these days I’ll commit and hopefully I can replicate the happiness of the others that do this. Great post!

    1. Why not set a leaving date right now?

  9. I often think about the relative benefits of lots of money / no money in the context of adventure travel. I have a relatively ok budget for long distance bike trips nowadays at age 32 but i haven’t always. I read a Carl Jung quote which sums up my opinion on the matter: “everything new worth having is paid for by the loss of something old worth keeping”. It’s not that smart phones, hotel rooms, etc are bad. They’re worth having…in one sense. But they replace other experiences that may be worth more, in another sense. It just depends on your priorities.

    But I personally that that both rich and poor can be seduced by convenience and the ‘easy life’. Mollycoddling oneself with hotels and restaurant meals every day is convenient, easy, and ultimately unfulfilling, but then so is sleeping behind a bush every night, eating bread and jam. Routine is the enemy, not money.

    ps — (i will never ever get a smart phone!)

    1. To clarify, I mean camping behind a bush, eg. on a bike trip!! I’m not suggesting being homeless is easy…

    2. Might I disagree on one point and say that sleeping behind a bush every night is actually a rather fulfilling practice?! 😉

      I got a smartphone recently. Broke within a few weeks. Sold it for parts on eBay. Don’t miss it one bit!

  10. We live in an age of convenience to the point where I’ve seen more and more people trying to eliminate elements of convenience (and in turn, technology). I think it becomes a necessity if you are cash-poor, or trying to work within a budget; but it is catching on. People are viewing it more about regaining control though, rather than breaking out of laziness.

    1. I suppose laziness was the wrong word. What I really meant was that your wits become gradually blunted or dulled by living this way. Stripping convenience keeps them keen and sharp. (Don’t think I can take the knife analogy much further.)

      It’s not directly tied to money, of course. But having money tempts you to convenience, whereas (as you rightly said) not having it forces you to get resourceful, and fast. And that’s a great teacher.

  11. Richard avatar

    When given the classic dilemma: unlimited money or unlimited happiness, I always advocate happiness. Money might make you happy (it also might not), but if you’re happy you don’t need money.

    1. I’m with you, Richard.

    2. A nice summary of the dilemma.

  12. Tom, A very well written and presented article. I have had the opportunity to travel around the world, through work. I have associate with some of the worlds most wealthy and influential people and also some of the planets poorest and often unforgotten. Whilst I have met lots of nice people with and without money I have to say that those with the least have been the most sincere, caring and generous of them all. 

    It’s far better to enjoy life and have less money than to have plenty and be unhappy.

    1. Absolutely. I’ve spent time with wealthy people who make a point of sharing it for the benefit of others, and who derive obvious happiness from doing so. I’ve met others who are too wrapped up with protecting their wealth to get any enjoyment from it at all. And I’ve met plenty more who, with nothing to lose or protect, have been the most open and sharing of all. The bottom line is that money and happiness don’t seem to correlate on any level.

      A great quote I once heard was along the lines of “the happiest of all are those who either have everything or need nothing”.

  13. lilalia avatar

    Love your blog post. I have been fortunate to know wealthy people and those who were strapped for the price of a bus. It is not possible to decide if wealth makes a Happy Man. Even though I was never wealthy myself, I have dug deep in my pockets for that bus ticket on occasion, and still my life has had its fair share of adventures and moments of blissful appreciation for the common doings-of-the-day. Finding a sense of purpose or meaning to one’s life stems more, in my opinion, in being someone you aspire to be and not having something others blindly run after. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. “It is not possible to decide if wealth makes a Happy Man”: Nail. Head. Hit.

      1. dexey avatar

        I’ve never been wealthy but I have been poor. Overall I much prefer the being comfortably off that I currently enjoy.
        Wealth may not make a happy man but on a cold, wet night with food in his belly and in shelter the wealthy man can choose whether to be miserable, or not. :0)

        1. Aren’t food and shelter basic human needs rather than luxuries of the wealthy…?

          1. dexey avatar

            They are, but surely a wealthy man has choices about whether to do without them or not. You just don’t get the choice if you are poor.

          2. I’d say food and shelter are non-negotiable, no matter what your circumstances…

  14. Senenca’s “Letters from a Stoic” indeed… nicely put.

    1. I’ll be reading that — thank you!

  15. Interesting topic. To me, whether or not you view “paying for convenience,” or not taking the time to hunt around for bargains, to be the result of laziness really depends on what your goals and ambitions are (and I think that often depends on where you are in your life).

    1. You are right. My polemic was far too black and white!

  16. Hi Tom. I agree wholeheartedly. On my adventures one of the key disciplines is to cut up the credit cards and hand over the cash on day one! The last walk was 1200miles/92 days without a single penny, relying on the kindness of strangers. It means that everyday one questions what is important in life and how much we lean on this crutch of money. It makes us confront our fears and enjoy the unknown. It allows us to focus on the now and appreciate the small things whilst smelling the roses. My partner and I will be challenging this again this summer when we leave the UK to walk to the Pyramids for peace…again without money and relying on the kindness of strangers.

    1. That’s an incredibly brave thing to do. I am not sure if I’d have the balls to go that far. Very inspiring indeed!

    2. Wow, I commend you for this journey. That is amazing. I’ve learned to live on very little and when traveling I rely on the kindness of strangers as well.

    3. Victor Charly avatar
      Victor Charly

      I’ve read a few stories of folk travelling through countries living by their wits and the generousity of other and it strikes me a being a bit off. I’d be reluctant to set off and leave my cash behind and take advantage of people who have less than me just because I deliberately put myself in the position of needing it.

      1. It depends whether you see the act of giving as a grudging forfeit or a gift in itself…

    4. Chris Clarke avatar
      Chris Clarke

      Gotta say that is truly inspirational. I write this note sitting at my desk willing my days away. Very envious of your sense of purpose and adventure. Bon voyage!

Something to add?