A Tongue In Cheek Guide For The Working Poor
There’s an old truism we had in the used and rare books business: The secret to having a small fortune? Start with a large one.
Similarly, most of the advice on how to get rich starts with the word “Invest”. This is at one and the same time entirely truthful and completely useless. Only around one in ten Americans feel they have the luxury to invest anything; the rest are living paycheck to paycheck (or, truth be told, well beyond their means just making do).
So here’s some advice from a writer (who is definitely not rich — note the logical flaw here?) on how best to become rich:
1. Start With Rich Parents
This first step cannot be overvalued. If your parents have access to money, there’s a decent chance they can afford to help you get a college degree, assist with your first car, help out with the down payment on that starter house, and so on. More rich people in this country are white than not, but the benefit to success is the same regardless of race, color, or creed. Once you’re at this point, most of the “Think And Be Rich” advice that’s already out there will be of great use to you, and you certainly won’t need my counsel.
However, for the majority who are unable to achieve hereditary wealth, there are three alternate paths to Step 1:
- Scholarships, if you’re insanely smart, a hard worker, and willing to also work full-time, will be enough for a degree from a state college.
- Certain trades, such as welding, plumbing, electrician, and so on are fairly lucrative, and the training is much less expensive than a Bachelor’s Degree.
- The lottery is, by and large, a tax on the poor. If it’s your only hope, however, so be it.
Any of these can permit you to generate enough income through your own labor to make ends meet and maybe even save a little for investing, just so long as you don’t have kids. If you do have kids but none of the rest of this, it’s up to you to keep them alive long enough for you to profit off their labor, the which practice is after all the heart and soul of capitalism.
(It’s important to note that bank robbery is no longer a reliable path to establishing a nest egg. The average bank robber only gets a couple thousand bucks from each job, and there’s even odds of getting caught each time. Long term, it’s a mug’s game, so don’t bother — leaving aside entirely the questions of legality or morality. -Editor)
If none of the above steps can be said to apply to you, it’s time to drop back and punt. Since we started at Step 1, there’s only one place to go back to. That’s called Step 0.
0. Reduce Your Living Expenses
You may think you’re living close to the bone, but you’re not. The poorer you get, the more you realize what you’d previously thought of as necessities are, in fact, luxuries. These include such obvious aspects as a cell phone, internet access, eating out, and entertainments, but even once those are gone you’d be amazed what need can compel you to cut back on. While one does require shelter to survive, for example, it needn’t be a lovely apartment with two and a half baths and plenty of space for your kids to have a sleepover. Those cost far too much in any market where you’re likely to be able to find a job.
The trick to benefiting from this is to make sure you make the cuts voluntarily, before poverty compels you to. That way you have the option of saving up rather than watching it all go on necessities.
Some ways to cut essentials are as follows:
- Cars are for sleeping: They’re heated, they lock at night, and they have a trunk for storage. If you’re paying for auto insurance, why go any further? Besides, a monthly gym membership gives you a locker for fresh clothes plus a handy place to shower — and it costs one heck of a lot less than rent.
- Roommates: Unless you’re living in your car, it’s possible to slash expenses by splitting them with someone else in similarly dire circumstances. Bear in mind, they’re as desperate as you are to save money, so be prepared for them to steal your spaghetti from time to time. The best defense against this is to never buy any food that contains actual nutrition.
- Work perks: Most jobs have unexpected advantages. It’s easy to sneak the odd roll of toilet paper home, but it takes real genius to fully exploit all the possibilities. Even if you’re a mere intern, a couch in the break room is an invitation to sleep outside of your car from time to time; also, the coffee cart contains some actual nutrition. Moonlighting can also be useful here; a job in the food service industry can get you access to stale donuts, pizza mistakes, and so on. It’s important to never steal anything of actual value from your employer, especially if they’re a small business; they’re as interested in shaving nickels as you are, and they’ll notice if you start walking off with bottled soft drinks and so on. Instead, stick to what might legitimately be considered perks and you’ll do all right.
- Side gigs: There’s a physical limit to the amount of time a person can spend working. I knew one guy who spent a year with three full-time jobs, one as a night watchman so he could keep up with his sleep. That’s overdoing it. On the other hand, if you’ve got a hobby that pays for itself — crochet or handmade jewelry sales on Etsy, technical or opinion writing, small appliance repair — you can very probably bring some of that with you for those hours in the dead of night you spend alone behind the security desk.
- Charity: If you’re reading this list and taking notes, swallow your pride and accept that charity might be of use to you. There are food pantries around for people in need, and organizations like St. Vincent de Paul will even sometimes help out with the monthly bills, or a new suit for that job interview. It’s what they’re out there for; use them. If you feel like giving a little back, they mostly use volunteer labor. Helpful links are at the end of the article.
1a. The Shotgun Shack
There exists an alternative to buying a house, and it’s called buying land to sneak a house onto. This will not work for everyone due to zoning or land-use regulations, but it’s possible in some areas. If you’re willing to sleep rough for a little while (and, let’s face it, you at least seriously considered moving into your car half a page up, so you’re willing), the Amish build storage sheds for a couple thousand bucks. They’re reasonably sturdy, dry enough, and keep some of the cold out. Invest in a couple of cinder blocks and you’ve got a fine shelter where you can unroll your sleeping back and stay dry, and not have to worry about starting the car every time it gets chilly.
It’s tough to manage even a small land purchase when you’ve got no money. I want to be clear: I do not recommend using public land for this purpose. If you put a “City Public Works” sign on the door, pretty soon someone from Public Works will stop in to take inventory. “Forest Ranger” is even worse, since technically that might be impersonating law enforcement. And going to that defunct construction project with a sign saying “Site Engineer” will eventually end up with your shed being fought over by a couple of hungry lawyers — not a fun place to be.
On the other hand, if you do manage to buy a tiny slice of land, you’ll be amazed how good it feels every time you can make an improvement. Building a set of steps, for example, or installing a window… putting in insulation… laying down drainage and gravel — it all adds up, and it’s all yours. The joy you’ll feel when you convert from a bedpan to a real outhouse is like nothing else, except of course once you make it from outhouse to running water and a septic tank — or, even better, city sewer.
The Bottom Line:
It’s tough out there, people. So many of you volunteered for Bernie or Andrew Yang in the hope that somehow, things might get a little better on the bottom of the heap, only to have that hope dashed. Memos from the Biden White House to various states strongly suggest we won’t even see the Minimum Wage move any time soon, so you can be sure we’re a long way from single-payer healthcare or Basic Income payments.
The important thing is, don’t lose hope; things are due to get easier any time now. In the mean while, it helps morale to have a plan. Come up with one by picking through the useful tips and tricks here, and if you’ve got something better feel free to list it in the comments. Then, when the revolution finally does come, you might even have saved up enough for your very own wall to be lined up against.
In the mean while, if you can, find something you enjoy to fill your time. Many find manual labor highly satisfying; there’s real joy to be had from building something. Personally, I always took great pride in making an excellent pizza and delivering it promptly, or in matching the right person with a book I knew they’d love.
Above all, remember this: We really are all in this together, and most of us are in the same situation. Do what you can to improve the world around you, and if you can give someone else a hand up, do that too.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a charitable organization affiliated with the Catholic Church. Unlike many similar groups, SSVdP actually uses their donations to help people.
For those under the age of 18, I heartily recommend Covenant House. They’re a great place to volunteer, too.
Not too long ago, the Salvation Army got some well-deserved bad press over their attitudes toward the private lifestyles (and so on) of those they were established to help. Fortunately, that served as a wake-up call, and they’re quite inclusive these days.
If you enjoyed this article, there’s probably something wrong with you. Which is excellent news, by the way; the world’s got far too many boring ‘normal’ people without adding you to the number. If you’re rich and found this entertaining, feel free to support us, or buy us a coffee. We can use the morale boost — and the caffeine — even though, at present, none of our staff is actually living in their car. If you’re extremely well-off, permit me to recommend the three organizations listed above; they all do good work with negligible overhead costs — unlike most of the ‘charities’ out there. If you don’t have spare money, you can always volunteer.
One final note on dark humor: Like enough to live on, not everyone gets it. That’s fine; this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. On the other hand, once you’ve lost everything but the ability to laugh, that chuckle — however dark — can be invaluable. So don’t knock it.