When I was 9, I began dreaming of all the amazing things I would do as an adult. My fantasies included traveling the world, helping save lives and always having the freshest ingredients to cook with. At the same age, I began picking huckleberries and making crafts to pay for my own clothes and shoes; I wanted so desperately to avoid the ridicule that came from showing up at school in homemade or second-hand clothes and off-brand footwear. I have never stopped working since and truly cannot remember ever being bored.
Although I got perfect grades and a full-tuition scholarship through my terminal degree, a glance at my resume will reveal that I tend to toggle between low-paid work and volunteerism. My career has ranged from serious roles such as nonprofit director, political campaign manager and adjunct professor, to artistic jobs like being a sushi chef, model and ethnic hair stylist. Over the past 10 years of career-juggling several bodies of work at once and not pocketing much pay, I have invented some solutions to make life rich even when you’re poor. Perhaps others living on or over the edge of poverty will find some of these creative strategies useful:
1. Don’t take it personal. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, you don’t have to look far to find company. Just think: It takes about 81 hours of work per week on minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Washington and 73 hours in Idaho, so if it requires two full-time jobs to pay your bills, you’re exactly at “normal” for this region.
2. Eat more donuts. You only live once, and it’s cheaper to buy a donut and a drip coffee than a latte, mocha or complete breakfast. Eggs are healthy, but at least one day a week, you’ve got to live a little, right? Hint: The coffee stand on Grand Avenue by 30th has free-donut-Friday.
3. Splurge big… but only once a year. I know this sounds irresponsible, but there are tricks to making saving not only possible but also preventative for more frequent retail therapy moments. I follow this plan: $1 the first week, $2 the second week, all the way up to $52 on the last week of the year. This results in $1,378 in your savings jar on Dec. 31.
4. Invest in a Cause. We all need a reason to live, and financial stress can make us feel less than useful to the people around us. If you can fit in some volunteerism for a local nonprofit, that’s always a great way to pay it forward and reaffirm your dignity by helping others.
5. Save the World. I know this sounds unrealistic, right? It’s true that Bill Gates might be a better candidate for making a mega financial impact than you or me, but through Helen Keller International, you can help raise girls’ IQ in developing countries (by increasing levels of iodine to maximize nutrition) for as little as a couple pennies per person per year.
6. Learn how to cook. Not from recipes with fancy ingredient lists, but learn what to do with the basics. Do you know how many things can be made with just flour and water? It’s quite amazing, really. From tortillas to pot sticker wrappers to crispy crackers, a little creativity can make snacking quite exciting. Add in oil, a couple eggs, sugar, salt, rice, beans and milk, and you skyrocketed your options into hundreds of possibilities. You will never eat boring food again.
7. Invest in a needle and thread. Fashion design is too often associated with high-end circles and expensive fabrics. But you can employ your grandmother’s tricks for mending and darning and still bring the sexy back into your wardrobe. Last year, a line of jackets came out with sweater sleeves. Do you know how easy it is to take sleeves off a sweater and repurpose those sleeves? In fact, many steampunk, vintage or hipster lines of clothing can be easily recreated with that $3 sewing kit at Walgreens and a couple dollar bag sale days at a thrift store.
8. Streamline products. Instead of having a dozen household cleaners, I use Windex or 50/50 vinegar/water as a universal cleaner. I am fascinated by the array of products at bath and body stores, but I have found that products like body wash or salt scrubs can be made from the oil, salt, and flavorings in my kitchen cabinet. I also use olive or almond oil as a hair and body moisturizer and to polish furniture and leather shoes.
9. Recycle without using your bin. I’ve made a number of useful things like plant containers, toy bins, garden tools, and pillows from plastic jugs, boxes, cans and old clothing. With a good eye for design, you can appear to have a middle-class lifestyle on a below-poverty-line income.
10. You’re never too busy or too broke. Sure, there are real limits to your available resources and time, but not to your imagination. Whatever your goals are, there are ways to experience them, even if for only five minutes at a time. You always dreamed of being a humanitarian? Great; take one girl off the street in Cambodia and send her to school for $2.50 a week. You want to get in shape? Try a four-minute workout of fast-paced jumping jack burpees with just 10 seconds of rest between each minute of maxing yourself out; it will raise your heart rate and increase muscle strength. Need more sleep? Your body can rebuild energy even in five minutes when you shut down your muscles and breathing to mimic a sleep state. Can’t travel? Keep your dream alive and start learning the language of a place you’d like to go; grab some books from your library and skip the Rosetta Stone fees. When you are able to go abroad, you will be ready for it. Whatever it is that you want to do, even if you can’t achieve the total plan right now, you can experience it one little piece at a time.
If all else fails and finances are driving you to consider the unthinkable, keep in mind that death would be the most boring and broke experience. As the great Alice Walker said, “Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.” ♦
Rachel Dolezal, formerly of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d'Alene, is an award-winning artist and activist who teaches courses in art, Africana history and culture at area universities.