[The following blog post is part of The Road to Financial Wellness blog tour. The Road to Financial Wellness is a three-month, grassroots campaign promoting financial empowerment on a national level and encourages people to pursue their dream lifestyle. Find out more about local events near you.]
When I find myself among a group of fellow New Yorkers talking about money, the conversation invariably gets to how expensive the city is, with everyone in the circle agreeing that they can’t imagine living in this city earning less than they do — whether that number is $60K or $150K.
I squirm a bit when the conversation heads this way for a couple reasons. First, because some 45 percent of New Yorkers live near poverty by the City’s official measure. And second, because for two years, I was one of them.
In the two years that lived near the poverty line, I learned valuable lessons about money that will forever shape my definition of what it means to be financially free.
1. Even expensive places offer inexpensive options.
While it’s true that the cost of living here is higher than nearly all U.S. cities, New York has a vast range of diverse neighborhoods, with each block offering different options for apartments. It’s also got a 24-hour public transit system that makes it easy and affordable to get to work from most neighborhoods.
With the expense of living in a city, also comes variety — there are thousands of restaurants, bodegas, street vendors, and specialty shops that operate day and night, giving me choices at every price point when it’s time for a meal. After working late, I can choose whether to go for the quick, $15 takeout, or to get groceries that will yield six meals for that same price. The same goes for buying drinks at the bar rather than taking a big bottle home, taking cabs rather than waiting for a train and more. Even places like Tilly’s can offer bargains if you look.
With all those choices, I can see how someone who always chooses the more expensive options would get a skewed view of how expensive life is here. When people say they can’t survive on less than a six-figure salary, I imagine they’re doing exactly this.
And knowing that almost half of the population is getting by on near poverty wages (most of them not by choice), I don’t feel like it’s crazy that I spend so little.
2. There are many free resources available for staying afloat.
Whether it’s formal assistance like Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or less formal assistance like free classes at the public library or food pantries, there are many programs available to help people with little or no income better their situation.
I didn’t take advantage of every program available, but don’t feel guilty about the ones I did.
Try thinking of it this way: You pay into these programs when you are making money, so when or if you fall into hard times — you or a spouse gets sick, or you are out of work for a long stretch of time — that money is there to help you get back on your feet. Programs like unemployment assistance, for instance, are designed to let you hold out for the right opportunity, rather than having to settle for the first opportunity that comes your way, regardless of how bad a fit it might be.
For me, having a government-sponsored health plan allowed me to take lower-paid freelance positions to build up the writing experience I needed to leverage a better position later. Learning to seek out the resources available to me helped me make the smartest move for myself, and showed me how important it is that everyone gets that opportunity.
Perhaps most importantly, I’m happily paying it forward now by helping out the institutions that helped me out along the way.
3. There is a line between wants and needs that is easily grayed when you make more money.
This might sound obvious, but when you have more money at your disposal and options all around, it is easy to lose touch with the line between want and need. Becoming reacquainted with the difference between the two was both grounding and empowering.
What I found is that you actually need very little to survive — to live well, even. I realized that nearly all of my needs were being satisfied by my meager income; that meant most of the things I was fixated on having were wants, and when I got them, each one was just the cherry on top of an already satisfying life. There’s a reason people often say, “It’s the simple things that matter.” The trouble is that many people never actually learn what that means. One way to find out is by facing your needs and your wants and asking yourself to draw the distinction. You’ll likely be pleased with your fortune.
4. Working hard for what you want makes getting it feel that much better.
Once you can identify the things that you want, it is much easier to set your sights on those that matter most — and work for them. My friends and I might attend a dozen free or cheap concerts throughout the year; these are always fun and occasionally lead to a new discovery, like finding a new band I like. Then, there’s the one concert that we will all splurge to see, and going becomes an event that we really treasure and talk about for ages, in part because we invested ourselves in getting there.
The common thread through all of the lessons I learned in the last two years, though, is that while people often associate “living frugally” with deprivation by choice — with giving things up — after living it, I can honestly say that even on my lowest of salaries I have very rarely felt like I was missing out. My life actually felt quite full, and if anything it’s taught me — with a little extra cushion — how much more I can do.