When I was 21, I lived with a friend in London for a while. We lived in the East End, which is still about as unsavory as it was when Jack the Ripper was picking off his victims there. I never saw any prostitutes, but there was a Bangladeshi teenager who made drug deliveries on a bicycle and towards the end of my time there a man was murdered about 25 feet from our front door.
I moved in with her in September. We had little money. She was a student and worked part time. I worked in a bookstore for minimum wage, and then had sporadic temp work for not much more. We ate peanut butter and jam, salami sandwiches made with salami her parents gave us, and the fried chicken her boyfriend brought over.
One day I dropped my toothbrush out of the window onto dirty ground and didn’t have money to buy another. A few weeks later there was a Tube strike, and I had to walk the four miles to work. On the second day, my shoes broke. I wore my only other pair of shoes, which were too tight, and cried the whole walk home because of the pain. I had no money for new shoes, or a cab.
But we lived this way by choice. For the three months we were struggling, we had a purpose. In January, we went to Egypt. It cost 300 pounds each, and in spite of the privation it required, I still think it was some of the best money I’ve ever spent. Our apartment was not heated, and we didn’t have money for the electricity to run space heaters, but as we shivered under multiple blankets we told each other we were going to Egypt in four weeks, three weeks, two weeks and then we would be warm.
A few months after the Egypt trip, I had to leave London, and my friend left her unheated apartment for a richer lifestyle.
Poverty for a purpose, as long as you really believe in that purpose or want your goal, is bearable. Poverty without a goal or without an end in sight is much more difficult.
A few years later, my friend’s father lost his business. She left an apartment and neighborhood she loved and sold her piano. She began supporting her parents and her younger sister. She was only 25. They lived in one room in an apartment shared with college students. They ate tuna and canned ham. When her bike was stolen, she couldn’t buy another.
I watched her grow bitter and angry and start to seem old. Her purpose—taking care of her family—was much less tangible than a trip to Egypt and much less her choice. Neither of us knew whether her struggle would ever end.
I can save 70% of my salary, I can make a game of trying to live on $1000 a month, because I remember the sweetness of Egypt, remember finally being able to buy a bed in my first U.S. apartment after saving for weeks, remember the joy of moving to Chicago and not having to worry about money because I’d saved enough. Every time I’ve lived below my means, I’ve had a goal to work towards. All I’m doing now is stretching it a little longer.
And when I think of my old friend, I remember that being poor by choice is one of my many luxuries.