5 Things Financial Struggle Taught Me (Thus Far)

I’m not poor. Low income, I guess. Ever since I met Laura, the single, Mexican mom who was raising her four children on $400 bucks a month, I’ve known I wasn’t poor. I’ve even climbed my way above the Canadian poverty line, now that i’m a pill-maker by trade (the legal kind).

But I’ve struggled lately–partially because I still don’t make a lot of money, and partially because I dream big and publish novels, and partially because I’ve tried to look like I’m not struggling. Well, time to be honest. For the last six to nine months I’ve barely gotten by. Its one of at least four spells of financial hardship I’ve lived through–others included college and unemployment–and now that they’re passed I look back on them with a measure of pride.

Financial struggle is a hard taskmaster, but it does impart valuable lessons. Here are 5:

Never Give Up. I’ve often reminded myself that though things may not be comfortable, I will not starve. I may lose my job, my apartment, or my car, but I will live through it, and I will come through it stronger. One day, this will be a good story, so don’t give up.

Be grateful. Ingratitude will only dig the hole deeper. HECK YES! I dug my financial hole in part because I was materialistic, unsatisfied with the many good things i had. I’ve learned much about gratitude in the last six months, but I have a long way to go.

Being resourceful is like being a hunter, artist, and a mathematician at the same time. Fellow Mennonites may have the same pastime of cruising the grocery store, hunting for those pink ‘30% off’ stickers. This is how I bring home meat for my family. I hunt it!

I love the show Masterchef. In that show, the contestants are often given a ‘mystery box’ full of food items, and told to cook a gourmet meal with it. That’s a bit like shopping on a shoestring. Here are my odd items of meat and (eureka!) 30% off mixed greens. What healthful, tasty dish can I make from it? My meals are sometimes simple, but I’m proud of the healthy lifestyle my sister and I maintain on a tight budget.

It’s like being an urban survivalist, in a way, and it’s something to be proud of.

Ask yourself, “What can I do right now to help myself?” I lost my job in spring 2012 under bad circumstances. My confidence suffered to the point that when I tried to revamp my resume, I cried to my Mom “There’s nothing I’m good at.” And because she’s my Mom, she was able to list things off. Looking for work slammed my wavering self esteem over and over again. But, as my bank account dwindled, I forced myself to do something every day to find a job. Meanwhile, to pay the bills, I posted on Facebook that I was looking for odd jobs. I painted a lot that spring. I mowed grass. I took on casual work as a gardener. Every week I scraped together the money to pay my bills.

In my most recent financial hardship, I drew on this experience when I was low and desperate. I’d ask myself: “What can I do right now to help myself?” This translated to selling things on Varage Sale (any clothes I didn’t need, books I wanted to keep but I knew would sell, and even Christmas presents I didn’t like…sorry!), working overtime, and, once again, doing odd jobs.

Once again, by God’s grace and hard work, the bills are paid.

You can still do great things. Dreaming big can be expensive, but it needn’t be. I published Sons of Earth for about $600 bucks, for instance. I ran my first three 5K races in $80 dollar shoes, and cheap athletic gear.

In my city, Library memberships are free. Thrift stores are packed with cheap books. You can get free podcasts on whatever topic you want. This means you can get an informal, self-directed education for almost nothing. Sure, you don’t get a certificate on your wall, but you can study whatever your passions are and become a better read, better spoken, productive citizen without the approval of so-called experts.

You can give up a couple hours a week to volunteer with a church or organization, babysit your little cousins or neighbour kids, or visit the elderly. In doing so, you can leave a lasting impact on your town.

In the last financial struggle, it was impressed on me that this was a lesson, and I needed to learn. If I didn’t learn, this would keep happening, and happening, and happening. I needed to acknowledge my greed and materialism and swap it for gratitude. I needed to stop taking the easy way out, to work hard, and to be resourceful.

Above all, try not to worry. It’s not helpful.

The Bible says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25-27, New International Version)

Hope for Those of Us Without a Degree

If you’re like me and never finished–or never started–your degree, and now feel like you missed the bus, I’d like to encourage you with this quote by business leader and author, Chris Brady:

“Those who deliberate, dilly-dally, hesitate, ponder, get bogged down in analysis, or have to be sure everything is perfect before taking action might do a very good job at what they do; they just don’t get much of it accomplished… It is almost always the go-getters who become the biggest leaders. To lead implies action, and leaders are people of action. There are usually people who have more talent, more time, more connections, more means, and more information than the leader, but the leader emerges to influence events because he or she takes action while others hesitate,” –Chris Brady, Leadership Lessons from the Age of Fighting Sail. 

I spent four months working with a gentleman with a masters degree in physics. His wife has her masters in mathematics. They are immigrants, and in the courageous way of immigrants, they took the jobs they could find so that they could begin a new life. So he is now a pharmaceutical coating operator like me.

But I do feel woefully undereducated, with my two-year diploma in Biblical Studies, when I compare myself to him. I’d love to have a degree–heck, in almost anything. In fact, I’d be a student for life it just paid better. But circumstances don’t allow that right now. Sometimes I get an inferiority complex because I don’t have the education, it seems, to do anything other than manual labour.

But there is something I do have: initiative. According to Mr. Brady, that’s a big part of being a leader. Initiative: something that doesn’t require a student loan, four years of school, or a certificate from the government. It just takes courage and action.

In a caveat, Brady says, “This is not to imply that all leaders are reckless or reactive–though some may be–but rather that leaders err on the side of decisiveness. Over time, the tendency toward action builds ability, so deficiencies of talent or means are eventually overcome.”

Or deficiencies of age, as I continually remind myself.

So, if you’re undereducated like me, take heart because, “There are usually people who have more talent, more time, more connections, more means, and more information than the leader, but the leader emerges to influence events because he or she takes action while others hesitate.”

By the way, can I just say that if you can get your hands on a copy of Leadership Lessons from the Age of Fighting Sail, do it! Anything by Chris Brady is worth reading, and this latest release is a thrilling way to learn leadership principles. If you are a history buff, you’ll love it. Find it at his blog, here.

‘If’ is Risk’s Purgatory

“Risk comes in all shapes and colors: bankruptcy, heartbreak, failure.  The alternative is a world without risk, without color, without knowing if you could have made that business work, if she would have truly loved you, if you would have finished that race or project or garden or painting or triathlon or… whatever.  If, in other words, is risk’s purgatory.  I know I don’t want to spend any time there.”  Georges St. Pierre

Don’t we all have these ‘ifs’ buried deep in our memories?

I have a business I tried to start.  I know I didn’t give it my best.  I was too afraid.  Every now and again I pull it from my memory vault, polish it up, and wonder could I have made it work?  Did I blow my only shot?

What IF?

In The Magician’s Nephew, the first of the Chronicles of Narnia, Polly and Digory come across a bell with this inscription:

“Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;

strike the bell and bide the danger,

Or wonder, till it drives you mad,

What would have followed if you had.”

“What if” is the purgatory of risk, as St. Pierre said.  If we, because of a lack of courage, take the easy road, we get to live with nothing but ‘ifs’ for the rest of our lives.  We live in a vaguely comfortable world without danger, but we become “cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat” (Theodore Roosevelt).

It breaks my heart to see so many ‘cold and timid souls’ among my peers.  They’re too scared to commit to a relationship.  They’re scared to quit their job and go to school.  They’re scared to move out of their parent’s place.

Because what IF it doesn’t work out?

What if it does?

No joke: the world is a big scary place.  I’ve got to acknowledge that not all risks are worth taking.  The Georges St. Pierre quote comes after an explanation of his calculated risk.  In Narnia, Polly and Digory awake a wicked witch when they strike inscripted bell.  In other words, I’m not advocating ‘YOLO’ (though a little of that spontaneous spirit is a good thing for homebodies like me).

I’m reminding myself that fear is inevitable, but I need to look past the fear, or the complacency, or the discomfort, and make a calculated choice.  Then, when ‘if’ comes calling, I can at least say “it wasn’t worth it” not, “I should have tried.”

It may be as small as engaging your new coworker in conversation, even if his accent is difficult to understand.  That’s my adventure this week.

 

Don’t be Chicken, Said the Mouse

Image from the cover illustration by Stephen Lavis

“‘Use?’ replied Reepicheep. ‘Use, Captain? If by use you mean filing our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventure. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours'” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis).

If you don’t know your Narnia, Reepicheep is a mouse–a walking, talking, sword-fighting mouse. He is one of the most noble, courageous, and brash characters of the series all while being the smallest. And here he calls his shipmates to be brave.

Where are they? They are sitting at the edge of the Darkness. “For a few feet in front of their bows they could see the swell of the bright greenish-blue water. Beyond that, they could see the water looking pale and grey as it would look late in the evening. But beyond that, utter blackness.”

Everyone says ‘stay back,’ but Reepicheep says, “I hope it will never be told in Narnia that a company of noble and royal persons in the flower of their age turned tail because they were afraid of the dark.”

Ouch, Reep.

This was ‘my quote’ in the yearbook when I graduated from college. I’ve repurposed it for my use as a call to courage and honour when I am tempted to turn tail. Oh, maybe it would be easier to turn back. Oh, maybe there’s no ‘use’ in it. But if I turn back, that mars my honour.

Not that I’ve done crazy stuff like sailing into a darkness on the water. But, I’ve done things like singing competitively in festivals… which may be just as scary. I couldn’t say no to my teacher just because i was scared, so I had to say yes, and sing. And I loved it–shaking knees and all.

I wonder what else I would have done if I hadn’t been ‘afraid of the dark?’

What about you? What have you done, though you were scared, that paid off in the end?