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Surviving on $3 a Day and Hope

The seven life lessons I've learned living in poverty


Like many of us approaching retirement age, just hearing the word retirement triggers my anxiety, particularly when I hear experts say how much boomers my age should be saving. The fortunate boomers have cushions of 401(k)s, pensions and real estate. Then there are the survivors — like me, living in poverty — who society considers as “others.”

I’m 58, never married, underemployed and been living without the financial means to save for emergencies, let alone retirement. There are plenty of Americans just like me. According to the National Council on Aging, more than 28 million older adults are economically insecure. And 6.1 million Americans age 60 to 64 are either living at, or below, 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The ‘Loud Silence’ Living in Poverty

Many are in severe financial distress, struggling to find a full-time job and make ends meet. In my case, I’ve applied to countless jobs, receiving countless rejections from recruiters. They’ve told me “You are overqualified” or “This job is too junior for you” or “The salary is too low for someone at your level.” My age and experience have not been welcomed.

Elizabeth White writes eloquently about situations like mine in her new book, 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal, saying: “As a country, we are facing a retirement income crisis of mega-proportions. It is America’s big denial issue, what a friend of mine calls the “loud silence.”

I’ll break that “loud silence,” by telling you what it’s like trying to survive on $3 a day and food stamps and the seven life lessons I’ve learned living in poverty.

Struggling for several years to regain a full-time job that would lift me up, I’ve eked out a living from sparse gig income (freelance writing, cat sitting, apartment cleaning and social media management), SNAP (known colloquially as food stamps) and a spending budget of about $3 a day. That daily allowance affords me a tube of toothpaste one day, toilet paper the next or one cup of coffee in a public place where I can bring myself out of social isolation.

My poverty has accompanied depression and anxiety, often bringing me to the painful experience of being the “other” in social settings and relationships. Financial distress, and the way that society views the economically disadvantaged can take a brutal psychological toll, damaging your concept of self-worth and value.

The 7 Lessons I’ve Learned

These are the seven lessons I’ve learned and how I’ve changed my life based on them:

1. Strive for quality friendships. Friends who stick by you and give you the dignity you deserve in times of hardship are blessings. Sadly, there are also fair-weather friends who seem only to want to spend time with you when you have money to spend.

Thanksgiving dinners have taught me a lot about friendships. One Thanksgiving, a single friend wanted to go to an expensive New York City restaurant, even though she knew I couldn’t afford it. I proposed having Thanksgiving dinner together by cooking turkey at my apartment or eating at a diner we enjoyed. She refused and opted to dine alone at the bar of the expensive restaurant, leaving me home alone. No pay, no play.

She missed the point that someone with limited resources values having company just as much, if not more, than a pricey restaurant.

After experiences like that one, I learned to let go of superficial friends and to strive to elevate the quality of future friendships.

2. Remember that nature belongs to us all. I’ve learned to appreciate that the most beautiful things in life are free, particularly nature. During my most intense times of financial despair and depression, I’ve found solace and a sense of belonging by walking through an urban park, along a public beach or on a nature trail. In places like these, your socioeconomic status doesn’t matter. Rich or poor, we have equal access to sunsets, sunrises, the ocean tides, flowers and trees.

3. You can find peace through spiritual fulfillment. Faith has carried me through my unemployment, poverty and dark days. I believe God loves us all. I’ve found spiritual fulfillment by listening to church sermons and music as well as by volunteering — making food for the homeless and building homes through Habitat for Humanity.

4. You can live just fine with few possessions. I’ve turned to a minimalistic life, though not a monastic one. These days, I have fewer possessions than in the past, fewer clothes, not junk. But I treasure what I have.

The walls and floors are nearly bare in my one-room apartment in Washington, D.C., and I’ve embraced the goal of a capsule wardrobe. I’ve followed designer Justine LeConte’s videos on how to have a French style with only 10 essential pieces. I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the Dress for Success organization’s mission in helping disadvantaged women dress professionally and achieve economic independence.

5. Your voice matters. How we express our thoughts and feelings can help others like us, and be our legacy — as beautiful works of art. You can find your own channel through making music, singing, dancing, writing, photography, painting or crafts. I have found my form of expression through writing. Even if I die penniless with no material possessions to leave behind, my voice will be found in my writing.

6. Appreciate the powers of creativity and resourcefulness. Many of us had mothers, grandmothers and other relatives who were survivors turned DIY masters during financial hardships like the Great Depression. My mother and aunts sewed clothes and linens; another aunt quilted her bedspreads and canned preserves. When my financial circumstances forced me to sell all my furniture on Craigslist, I became a DIY decorator extraordinaire. What started as a necessity has become a creative outlet that has brought me a touch of self-worth.

7. The most important word for survival: Hope. Do we as humans possess innate survival skills? Perhaps. But in my experience, only one word keeps me afloat. Hope. I know that as long as I have opportunities to learn and grow my knowledge, there is hope. I’m working at balancing my hopes for future livelihood with the unfortunate realities of age discrimination, which will likely intensify in my 60s. But becoming an entrepreneur would let me parlay my gig work into an enterprise so I can earn a living without my age becoming a setback. I’m eager to work with the Small Business Administration and get free counseling from the retired business owners in its affiliated resource group around the country, SCORE. That’s my hope.

Holly Lawrence
By Holly Lawrence

Holly Lawrence is a freelance writer and contributor on well-being and issues affecting older adults. Twitter: @hollyjlawrence and connect on LinkedIn.

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