Lessons from trying (and failing) to live on the poverty line

I’ve always considered myself a frugal person, so at the end of 2020 when I went over our family’s bloated finances, I was shocked, not only by how much we spent in comparison to when I was a broke college student, but also by how little we gave outside our family. If our spending reflects our values, then our 2020 values were servicing debt, pre-school tuition, driving and take-out. Motivated to make a change, I asked my husband if he would do an experiment with me to drastically reduce our expenses and help us reprioritize the things we actually value: giving more, building community and freeing ourselves from debt. After prayerful discernment, we decided to live on the poverty line for 2021 and reorient our spending to align with our values.

It’s been nine months now and our family has spent nearly $25,000, which should put us roughly $2,000 over our $31,040 goal for the end of the year. So far, we’ve donated more to charity, given more to friends, and fed more people in our home than we have in any other season of life. Since my husband’s salary covers our new poverty-line paycheck of $600/week, we decided to use the excess to pay off the principal of our mortgage and donate more to our community.

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When we realized we couldn’t resort to eating out with friends because our budget wouldn’t allow it, we welcomed friends into our home, slowly and humbly learning how to cook simple meals for those we love. We borrowed everything from ladders to shop vacs from friends, who gave us more than just tools — they gave us true community. My husband and I both started weekly Bible studies in our home, and we now regularly contribute to “family” meals with friends, where we pool together shared resources and sit down to a meal that is more about our desire for communion than merely showing off cooking prowess.

When we started earlier this year, I was already looking forward to the day I could go back to my previous spending habits. I looked forward to not being limited by our $20 a day grocery budget or our dependence on bikes, but I’m beginning to realize that coming to peace with my own poverty is, ultimately, the work of my life as a Christian. Instead of using money to gloss over problems (like getting take-out on a stressful night or buying a new dress when I don’t like how my body looks), living on less means confronting myself, just as I am. More than that, it means learning to open myself up to the love of God, especially in those moments when I feel like I’m not enough. If I’m a pilgrim, then at some point I will be confronted with all the junk I’m carrying around, especially the things keeping me from heaven, and if I desire to approach God empty handed, the winnowing process starts now.

For me, the biggest culprits of that enslaving and compulsive consumption manifested in my dependence on automobiles and convenience foods. As I moved away from gas and instead relied on my own body (to walk to the store, bike my son to school, and ultimately even to mow my yard), I saved money and started feeling more connected to my community and to my family.

With my consumer purchases, I attempted to in-source as much as I could. At first it was as simple as eating at home, but quickly I began making more and more things from scratch and even growing more food in our modest garden. My husband’s love for baking grew (breads, scones, cookies, pretzels), and we started making pierogies together, working side-by-side with our children to turn a 99 cent bag of potatoes and some Costco flour into a week’s worth of meals for our family. We went berry picking in the summer, and we all anxiously awaited the first apples of fall. I accepted the limitations of the seasons and, in the case of transportation, accepted my own physical limitations. Sometimes — many times — this meant saying no to things (like running separate errands across town or strawberries in February), but it also gave me the freedom to slow down and live my life in a more intentional and mindful way.

Our experiment to live on less will eventually fail. Honestly, we are only one “emergency” away from blowing the rest of our discretionary income in one single day, but our lifestyle changes are far from over. At the end of this year, I hope to still have the courage to live into the truest desire of my heart: the freedom to love God, uninhibited by the slavery of this world.

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