practice-poverty

Why You Should Practice Poverty For One Week This Year

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I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I first head about the idea of practicing poverty on the Tim Ferriss podcast.

Tim says that, every so often, he’ll take a week to “practice poverty”, in which he actually lives out the worst-case scenario of life as though he had very little to no money.

Unlike a shopping ban, he doesn’t just forego dining out and shopping. He also commits to wearing the very basics when it comes to clothing and even takes his meals down to cheap staples like rice and beans. Now, you might be wondering why a millionaire would try living like he has so much less, but Tim’s rationale is sound and its worth copying his practice yourself.

Canada seems reluctant to call anyone “poor”, but there is the low-income cutoff (LICO) which seems to be the polite way of doing exactly that. The LICO is determined as half the median household income. This number can vary from province to province, but the national average for a single person it is $13,650 or about $1,140 per month, and $41,568 or $3,464 for a family of four. Depending on where and how you live, this might not be enough to cover your essential bills, which is humbling in itself. The very fact that you enjoy a lifestyle unaffordable to more than 10% of the population suggests that things probably aren’t half bad.

This Week: choose 3 outfits from your closet, give yourself $50 for groceries & personal care, and forego any form of entertainment or leisure that costs money.

Despite your deepest secret fears, it’s probably very unlikely that you will ever go hungry or homeless. Your personal worst-case scenario likely consists of dramatically scaling back on non-essentials, particularly clothes, food, and entertainment. It probably means dining in for every meal, and taking public transit. It means giving up your pricey gym membership, and never shopping at your favorite stores. But you don’t have to wait and worry about this reality coming true in the future, you can test this out now.

To practice poverty for a week (or two, if you really want to get into it), all you have to do is select a limited number of clothes from your closet, shop the grocery store as if you are on the strictest budget imaginable, don’t drive your car, turn off your TV, and cut out any extra spending from your budget. You will be left eating ramen while reading a library book and wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday.

But that’s it. That’s as hard as it gets. 

One week is enough time to give you perspective without drastically upsetting the rest of your life. It’s like the next-level of a spending fast or shopping ban, and you’ll probably get more out of it in a shorter amount of time.

You will overcome your fears of scarcity.

This is what you’ve been so afraid of, and it isn’t scary at all.

Many of us, myself included, worry incessantly about not having enough money. We’re afraid of not having enough money now in the short-term, and in the long-term when we retire. We fear what life will look like if can’t afford the things we think we want, and are forced to subsist on the bare necessities. If you actually make the effort to live as though you had no money, you realize that it’s not as scary as you might think.

No one cares about the clothes you wear. I learned this when I spent the better half of 2015 in the same t-shirt and jeans. You’ll also find that while simple meals may be boring, they can still make you full. But most importantly, you will probably find that you feel approximately the same amount of happiness living on less as you do when you have it all. In fact, virtually all evidence indicates that buying more actually makes you unhappy. In other words, spending a week practicing poverty might actually make you richer!

But seriously, there is something very powerful in arriving at the place you were so afraid of, only to realize you imagined the worst of it. Reality is not that scary at all.

You will feel grateful for the abundance that you have.

I was surprised to learn when researching for this post that 1 in 7 Canadians live in poverty. I’m typically looking for the figures that define the top 1% in wealth and income, that I rarely look at the other end of the spectrum. Realizing how many are struggling just to put food on the table makes me feel guilty for lamenting that I can’t max out my RRSP.

Taking the time to live with less — much, much less, not just going down to the basic cable package or only buying clothes from your favorite store when they’re on sale — will help you realize how much luxury you enjoy every single day. Some of these are small, like being able to buy coffee on Friday mornings, but others might be huge, like driving a reliable car. Chances are, you have more luxury and abundance in your life than you even realize, and going without for a week will help you remember!

You will be able to make a difference.

I typically spend $200 to $400 each week on “luxury” purchases. New clothes, books, take-out coffee, restaurants, bars, and travel are major spending categories in my budget. This means spending a week practicing poverty will leave me with at least $200 to donate to a good cause, preferably a non-profit working to combat poverty or homelessness in my city. You can choose to do the same with the money you save, or use it to bolster savings or pay down debt in order to relieve some of the financial stress you’re experiencing in your own life. You really can’t lose!

At the end of your week, you will have the luxury of going back to your rich life — something those really living in poverty don’t have.


25 Comments

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  1. It’s hard for those who haven’t been in a form of poverty to understand what it really feels like. I know this idea will help them get an understanding of it but it’s going to be hard to understand the full scope in one week.
    It is important though that those who have much appreciate it and this will help them to do that, this is a wonderful thing to try and I think everyone should do so, especially if they have no idea what poverty feels like.

    Reply
    • I agree! Practicing it by choice is not the same as doing it out of necessity and having to deal with the stress of facing real financial hardship, but it’s still a worthy experiment to learn to live with less.

      Reply
  2. Susan

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/youth-homeless-issue-taken-to-the-streets-1.1077363

    This post made me think of this experiment. I can’t remember if it’s still ongoing.

    That’s definitely an interesting experiment. I think I’ll try and plan to do this later the year. I imagine it would be quite the eye-opening experience.

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    • They always did an overnight stay outdoors on my university campus as a fundraiser for youth homeless. It was a great project.

      Good luck with the experiment!

      Reply
  3. Ramona

    Looks like we did this for years and not even realized it. Since we’re both working from home, we can be pretty frugal with clothing, we do all our cooking at home and, with a 2 year old, it’s pretty difficult to bee too socially active. Anyway … amazing idea. It’s really good since it ‘trains’ you for having less money and it also eases your fears. Have a great 2016 and zero chances to really need to practice scarcity :)

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  4. Giovina

    This would be an interesting experiment but not that drastic for me. I already live on about 1,400/month, though I suppose cutting out 250 would be a challenge. I also have the peace of mind of knowing that it isn’t the last of my money, and if I really needed more I could just save less that month. But I have a lot of sympathy for those on the lower end of the income spectrum. Most of us don’t think twice about picking up a new dress or going out to eat a meal in a restaurant, but for those living on the edge those aren’t even options, let alone bigger indulgences like vacations. Having very little money is actually more expensive in terms of fees and interest rates, minor setbacks become huge problems very quickly, and the stress of living on the edge is bad for the health.

    Reply
    • $1,400/mo is amazing. That’s a really strong defense against financial catastrophe.

      I 100% agree with you that having little money actually costs more. It’s like how if you’re over-drawn on your bank account there’s a $44 insufficient funds fee — if your balance is already $0, you don’t need another $44 charge on top of that.

      And you’re right living on the edge is very stressful and bad for your health. In one of the articles I read it said there is a 21 year life expectancy gap between the poor and rich!

      Reply
  5. Oh gosh, what a timely post. I am already doing this, due to my current (and hopefully very, very temporary) state of unemployment. Luckily I love rice and beans. :)

    But your overall point is well taken — it would be a valuable exercise to do this at any time, regardless of your actual financial situation and prospects.

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  6. Tammy

    I think I’m just lazy. I already spend $50 per week on groceries/gas/cosmetics/going out — $400 a month is my budget for these things, and that includes a weekly latte and going out to eat. I also tend to wear the same pair of pants more than three times per week, haha. But I make $68k per year. I definitely don’t feel poor.

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    • My share of groceries is at least $300/mo so it’s hard to imagine being able to afford everything including dining out on $400/mo! Great job! You’re definitely living with a big buffer between your salary and your expenses!

      Reply
  7. I always think about trying something like this out because I truly forget how lucky I am. But mostly because I actually love ichiban and would love an excuse to eat it every single day.

    Are you doing this currently, or are you planning to do it? I feel as though $50 is a lot but at the same time, it would go by much quicker than you’d think. I mean, when you break it down that’s less than $3 per meal. Definitely a good idea for anyone who is frivolous with their spend and don’t seem to budget.

    Reply
    • bahahaha I love mac & cheese and would love to eat it every day.

      I am not doing it currently. Think I might start in the next few days. Hard to plan when you’ve committed to events so I’m a bit stuck this month. I’ll do it in February for sure.

      Reply
  8. I will definitely follow through with this experiment, and if it works out I may implement it in my life permanently. I can already feel the benefits!

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  9. I like the way you wrote about it, rather than how I’ve read some other people write about it. When you only have to do it for a short period of time and it’s a CHOICE, its so different than when it’s your reality with no end in sight. I cringe when people who are privileged enough to never have suffered true destitution get really haughty about how poor people have a lot of credit debt, or use payday loans, because they don’t understand that many people don’t have much of a choice, or are so beat down they feel they will never get ahead.

    I really like your call to action to donate more. I’m selecting my second monthly recurring donation program now (I currently donate to the Toronto Wildlife Rescue) and I know I could do more with the money I have, and I want to.

    Reply
  10. Carol

    I love this idea! This is a great way to not only gain a greater appreciation of what you already have, but also see how little you can truly survive on. It’s a good reset of both your mind and wallet. Fantastic post!

    Reply
  11. Hi Bridget – Living off the basics for a while can definitely give you a new perspective on what’s important in life. My husband and I fell victim to poor Albertan economy and have had to scale back on most everything. While the last year has been challenging for us, it’s taught us that we can live off much less and still lead a good life. Cheers!

    Reply
    • It is so awful right now in Calgary… I feel so bad for the tens of thousands of families that have been affected! It’s good to hear you’ve found you can live off much less and lead a good life! I think that is a difficult but valuable lesson many people are learning right now.

      Reply
  12. SR

    This is so great- it’s important to recognize our individual privilege!

    I have been enjoying your blog for a few months now! I currently work in rural Ghana, and get paid the same as my local coworkers- 160/month, but I hope to use your advice in the future.

    Reply
  13. Meagan

    I think this is a genuine attempt to understand how others live, and certainly a worthy exploration. What one cannot simulate is the hopelessness and stress that come with poverty. It’s not that rice and beans are hard to eat, it’s not knowing how you will find/create the resources to give your kids 3 more bowls of rice and beans before payday. Compassion, hope and education are the concrete gifts we can give the poor.

    Reply
  14. StayAnon

    From 1991 to 1995 I received welfare in the amount of $486/mo for myself and baby. I received another $120/mo food stamps and yearly clothing allowance in Sept for $150. My rent was $375 for two room apt. It was not fun but gave me the time to go to college as a teen mom with no family resources. Since then, I try to be thankful I found employment and had shelter. I hate my student loans but hate living off the govt more! Now all these years later I am thankful for that experience since I know how bad it can be. Every dollar I earn is appreciated and even if I lost my higher paying job,I feel comfortable working at McDonald’s because working is everything. I really feel for those who can’t get a job, but get angry when they say they are above working minimum wage! Minimum wage is better than welfare any day! I love the idea you present here to help others know the ‘feeling’ of poverty.

    Reply
  15. I love this idea. I just read an article by a college journalism student who lived on $20 for groceries for 10 days (the numbers were based on some poverty stats). She learned a lot about how hard it is to focus on the future when you are hungry and worrying about your next meal. Although we’d never claim to be practicing poverty-level living, this post explains some of why we write about “pretending to be poor” as a way to wealth, instead of pretending to be rich.

    Reply
  16. Jack Costello

    The Stoics were proponents of this idea thousands of years ago. Tim Ferris has done a great job of putting these guys back in the spotlight along with Ryan Holiday.

    Reply
  17. This is an interesting post Bridget, and think a lot of the active approach helps change one’s perspective after experiencing an event. In addition to practicing, I would also urge others to either volunteer in the states or abroad and help those in poverty. When you see the reality that is the daily life of those less fortunate, you look at everything in your world from a fresh and grateful perspective as well.

    Reply