Thoughts on my year of poverty in a time of inflation

One year ago, my family did an experiment to live on the poverty line, which at the time was a little over $30,000 a year. We blew the budget by a few thousand dollars, a pretty hefty sum considering its overall percentage, but I considered the year a success. We wasted less, donated more, and lived in alignment with our values. The year stretched me, in all the best ways, and it also helped me discern a charism of voluntary poverty.

But after the year was over, we loosened the reins on our spending and have been living on an inflated budget ever since. In some ways, we’ve used our excess resources to fuel positive spending. For instance, we’ve spent more on ethically and locally sourced products (all of which have an understandable and well-worth premium). But we’ve also wasted a lot of money this year, buying impulse purchases that brought a serotonin hit, immediately followed by the inevitable return to equilibrium. The extra spending is not just a poor use of the resources God has given me; it’s also a twisted form of self-imposed slavery. When I can’t help but consume and buy things that I don’t actually need, I’m giving up my own freedom to choose. During our year of poverty experiment, I had such freedom in knowing that I could respond generously to any situation because our own expenses were so low. I was truly free to pour myself out because I had a better idea of how little I actually needed.

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In addition to some controllable expenses, we’re also experiencing a global inflation rate (don’t know if you’ve heard) that is constantly forcing me to readjust what a “normal” food budget looks like. Our current cost of groceries makes our family’s year of poverty daily food budget of $20 a day look like a complete joke. I truly don’t know how families who were already stretched thin are making it right now. And the truth is, they aren’t. They’re burdened by a weight that most of us can’t understand — always one emergency away from not being able to pay a bill, using all of their resources to solve transportation problems, navigating sick children and rigid work schedules. The families living in poverty in America are far more resilient and creative than I am. They have found a way to survive in a world I have only attempted.

I say this because the previous year and our “success” is not a fruit of our own effort, but a grace from God. Only one year later, the task seems legitimately impossible given today’s economic situation and my own fatigue; turns out, it is mentally and emotionally taxing to always wonder whether you have enough money to pay for the things your family needs (again, this is nothing compared to the legitimate anxiety of those who are living in involuntary poverty). The opportunity to live with less was a gift given to our family in order to give back to the world, which is true of so many of the gifts God so generously gives us. It wasn’t a chance to pat myself on the back (though I’m sure in my pride I did my fair share of that); it was a chance to marvel at what God can and will do through us.

The charism of voluntary poverty, statistically speaking, is probably not your specific gift. If you read about my experience and think, “there’s no way in the world I would ever want to do that,” then congratulations, you have clarity that voluntary poverty is not your charism. You can freely direct your attention to whatever else God is asking you to do right now. My story is still only a recipe, not a replacement for an intentional relationship with God. For many of you reading this, God isn’t asking you to embrace Gospel poverty in a radical way, but he is asking you to do something; something that will light you on fire and leave the rest of the world scratching their heads; something that truly only makes sense in light of Jesus and his radical love for us and our radical love of his body present here on earth.

I think many of us, myself included, all too often diminish our giftedness. We’re afraid of living into the fullness of who we were made to be. Maybe that’s someone with the gift of prophecy not sharing the particular message God has placed on their heart; maybe it manifests in not sharing a talent for music or writing because this isn’t your “season” for that; or maybe it’s someone (not me, just some random person) with a desire to live simply who’s afraid to talk about it because it might make others uncomfortable. Whatever your gift is, if it’s truly something God has given to you, you won’t be able to rest until you are using that gift for the good of others.

If you’re like me, if you’ve spent a lot of your life afraid of your own giftedness, afraid of your voice, my prayer for you today is that you can live into the unique human God created you to be. When he does ask you to step out in faith, to share your giftedness with your friends and family, even (and especially when) that gift makes them uncomfortable or challenged, I pray that you keep faith. As my confessor recently said, “Our life here on earth is one giant movement from fear to faith.” I don’t know about you, but I could use a little less fear and a whole lot more faith in my life.

I probably don’t know you, but I am truly excited to experience the sheer joy of your giftedness, if not on this side of heaven, then certainly in the fullness of time.

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