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Am I Poor?

alec vanderboom

I'm sensing a lot of negatively about the central question "Do I have the right to call myself poor?" Also, a related question "You are only poor because of your own stupid financial decisions. Stop tormenting your children, start living "smarter" and then you won't be poor anymore."

I'm not really good at answering these sort of questions, but I'll do my best.

I feel poor. Objectively, I'm at the 165% of the poverty level for my family size in America. I'm not qualified for Food Stamps. There are many needy families who struggle far below me. Yet, 165% of the poverty line--that's not "nothing." If I was a single person at that level I'd make $17,000 a year. I could be a total idiot, but living comfortably on $17,000 for the rest of my life--that would be a struggle for me.

I also feel poor because my childhood was spent among the Upper Middle Class. I totally lack good financial savvy skills to live on a tight income. I also have a lot of vague worries about parenting--like am I being a good parent if the child who really loves music doesn't have a piano to take lessons on.

Am I stupid for renting a cello? Yes and no. I rented a cello for three months. There's not guarantee that I'm going to be able to keep it. I might lose it in March, but man has it been heavenly! I truly benefited so much from having a dream come true at age 38. I benefited so much from having my stress level go down to zero after playing the cello while I dealt with some emotional painful stuff over Christmas.

The bigger questions is "if you're poor are you allowed to have some nice pleasures in life?" I think holy recreation is great. One of the things that is unique about me is that I'm an artist. It doesn't make any logical sense, but seriously, I am a better human being if I buy $3 worth of flowers and put them in my kitchen windowsill each week. I love flowers. I love beauty. That little "perk" I get when I come into my kitchen it is a smile. That smile is tangible--that means more love and more gentleness in my heart for dealing with the toddler having a tantrum on the kitchen floor in front of me.

"But you are doing so many things wrong! You could be saving money left and right. You could grow your own flowers and bake your own bread and use cloth diapers." Yes and no. I'm in a hard season in my life. I'm alone for 14 hours each day with 5 kids under age 10. Two are having fits with teething. Two are having fits with homeschooling. I recently moved to a new city and have yet to find that easy friendship to swap free babysitting services. I'm starting a new life in West Virginia from scratch--and its a little rough at the beginning. Getting into a smooth "cost effective" rhythm is going to take time.

So, yes. I have done quote "better with cost saving measures" in the past. We've done cloth diapers. We've boycotted McDonalds for five years and Wal-Mart for ten. We've baked our own bread. Right now my approach is "easy does it." I try my best to save money, but I'm not going to kill myself with stress. At this moment, I still have a young infant who is high needs. I have a new house that needs much renovation. I have a husband who has a very hard commute--and a marriage that really needs tending too.

For me, it's really about getting back to basics. I need to pray regularly. I need to shower and fix my hair. I need to run in the morning. Honestly, I need time to relax after tending to Baby Abigail and Toddler Tess. I adore my girls. Yet they are both intense. Part of my money management challenges is the simple sounding, but hard for me task- of not overspending simply because I've had a hard day. So at stupid as it seems, building in planned "Abigail's sanity money" into the monthly budget helps me save tons of money from impulsive spending trips to Target. For example, I did one session of fencing this summer at $40 per month. It was awesome. It got me back into shape after the baby and helped me cope sanely with her colic. Right now, I'm running in the morning. That is free.

I feel like living life "well" on a small budget is a work in progress. I do a step. I refine it. I try again to make it cheaper, easier, better. My goal as a Carmelite is not--we're going to eat beans and hotdogs for the rest of our lives every Monday. My goal is we're going to create some new family patterns that are efficient, affordable, and sustainable for life.

"Why are you so calm? Aren't you excusing yourself for the double sins of sloth and mismanagement of God's material resources?" I wasn't always calm about money problems. This is very new. I have patience with myself while learning a new skill. I have patience with myself during a time of major transition.

This is the very first home my husband and I have ever owned. For the past 11 years, we've been renters. Rent in our Metro-DC area was much higher than our current mortgage, but it meant we never had to worry about home maintenance issues. When the heater broke in the past, I simply called the landlord. Right now, my husband and I are trying to figure out "what needs to get fixed", "how it needs to get fixed" and "how do we pay for it." That means hiccups.  I write about the hiccups in our financial life because I'm a writer. The hiccups are the story. I don't write blog posts that say "yes, we cleared all the bills this month and had extra cash to spare. Score!"

"Lay Carmelites don't really take a vow of poverty." Yes, I did. My order is the "discalced" Carmelite, which means "shoeless" in Spanish. We're the poor ones, in the tradition of the Carmelite reformer St. Teresa of Avila.

"What does that mean to have a vow of poverty as the Mother and Father of a family." I don't know. I'm figuring it out slowly in prayer. This is not how I was raised. It doesn't feel "natural" to me yet. It's an exciting journey, and I look forward to seeing what God has in mind for us.