Learning how to be poor is a skillset everybody needs

Picking fruit is a fun and cost-effective way to keep kids busy on a Saturday. If you do it right, they won’t realize you have actually put them to work until they are 10 or 12 years old.

I raised three kids as a self-employed single mother. On the hardest days, I had my hydro shut off and coasted to the curb as my car ran out of gas.

The inconvenience of having a credit card declined paled in comparison to the day Bell cut off my phone, hours after I signed the biggest contract of my career. I woke up terrified that my gigantic new client would call me to find my phone out of service. I laid in bed sobbing at the imagined humiliation.

After a while, I realized, crying in bed had not changed anything. So, I got up, swallowed my pride, and went to a friend to borrow the money to pay the bill.

These are not experiences I would wish upon anyone; however, they didn’t kill me, either. They didn’t even make me a bad person: they made me a broke person.

“You need to know how to be poor,” I advised my kids as they grew up. “Being poor is a skillset. You have to know how to deal with it. You’re not bad, or stupid – you’re broke. Temporarily. Get up and fix it.”

Post-COVID-19, millions of Canadians are about to find out what it means to be broke through no fault of their own. It’s gonna be ugly, and painful. Credit cards will be declined; phones will be shut off; friendly banks will start bouncing payments and adding $40 NSF fees with gleeful abandon. There will be bankruptcies.

(Tip#1: immediately stop automatic payments from your bank account and make payments yourself only when the funds are there – or you will NEVER get out from under the NSF charges.)

Those who have never learned how to be poor risk confusing being broke with being worthless. Don’t make this mistake! Don’t confuse the consequences of the approaching economic pain with your own self-worth. The two things are mutually exclusive.

The true mark of your character over these months won’t be whether you endure financial hardship; it will be HOW you weather financial hardship. This will be especially true if you are a small business owner, self-employed, or working in a service deemed non-essential.

The night I ran into a pharmacy to buy lice shampoo so my kids could return to school and had my credit card declined, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. (Tip #2: Cash is king. Hoard it.)

Thirty years ago when I was scrambling, there was very little talk about the horrific mental health impacts of financial hardship. Now we know it is a major cause of depression and even suicide.

The ones to suffer first and hardest will be the entrepreneurs and risk-takers that drive wealth creation in our society. These people aren’t worried about numbers on a balance sheet: they are terrified that both their dreams of success and their worth as a person are evaporating before their eyes.

My advice to them is: don’t confuse being broke with being worthless. Fear and stress will harm you more than penalties and interest.

Swallow your pride. Avoid credit cards. Avoid alcohol. Embrace overtime. Love your family.

Adjustments end; life does not.

As Major David Smith points out whenever I talk about rough times when they were younger: “Don’t worry, Ma. It all worked out.”

 

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