The Modern Survival Guide #100
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And one of the reasons I’ve felt qualified to write something so pretentiously all-encompassing is that, by and large and taking one thing with another, and with due consideration to circumstances… I’ve done well. My life is in good shape, at least for the moment.
But it wasn’t always like that.
I’ve been through my ups and downs like everyone else, and I’ve had the full Millennial experience of working too long for not enough money. I didn’t come from wealth. I was not handed my financial portfolio on a silver platter. My mental health has not always been great. My personal life has not always been great. I’ve had my moments close to the edge. I’ve never been in poverty,¹ at least not for very long, so take everything I say for the rest of this article with a grain of salt... but I’ve been close enough to look over the edge, and it has shaped my attitudes and assumptions about life.
Most of us will tiptoe up to the edge of personal sustainability at some point in our lives — we will lose that key person, good job, important safety net, or positive frame of mind that keeps us from tumbling into poverty. These circumstances are extremely likely, especially when you’re young, unless you life a charmed life as a trust fund baby. And even then you’ll probably get depressed at some point because you failed to find meaning in life as you ride a hovercraft around your indoor alligator arena.
So let’s talk about survival on the edge. We will likely walk this blade at some point in our lives, and it’s important to keep our balance because one tiny slip will pitch us off the edge and into an unsustainable situation. This will impact our survival and quality of life, and we are pitifully prepared by our society to navigate this situation. But walking the edge until it turns back into solid ground is a survival skill, and that’s the name of our game.
Most of us, particularly us Millennials, are intimately familiar with the concept of poverty. It’s hard not to be. Many of us followed the advice of our elders and committed to a course of study at college, with little to no guidance on how student loans would cripple us later. Many others of our generation did not go to college, only to get caught in the 2007 recession. Poverty, and especially working poverty, has claimed a huge section of our cohort.
There is a reasonable chance that you, or at least someone you know, either started out in poverty or will become poor at some point in your life. This is the first time in recent history that the trend line has been for people to do worse than their parents. Take that seriously, because all of us are just a few life events away from poverty the way things are currently set up. And let’s go ahead and dispel a popular middle-class myth while we’re at it: the majority people who are in poverty are working.
So let’s be brutally honest for a moment here — America is not kind to poor people. Not even slightly. We actively discriminate against and punish poor people on a regular basis, and justify it with the laughably false narrative that good people succeed. And on top of that, one of the most unkind things that America does to poor people is to fill their ears with the message that if you just work a little harder, a few more hours, if you just impress your boss a bit, you’ll get out of poverty.
This is balls-out blatantly untrue. If you are a WalMart stocker, you can work as hard are you like, and you will never advance. If you are a supermarket cashier, you can pull all the shifts you want, and you will never advance. Not through hard work alone. That’s because — and this is important — most businesses are not incentivized to give hard workers promotions. They want you to stay in that slot, working hard. Good low-level workers are extremely hard to find.
Living in working poverty therefore becomes a balancing act. One the one hand, you have to survive. On the other hand, you have to find some way to change your situation enough to get out of poverty.
There are all kinds of articles offering all kinds of bad advice on this subject. Financial planners love to tell poor people to save money. As I have discussed in other articles, that’s just kind of a sick joke. The whole point of being poor is that you barely have enough to support yourself, how the fuck are you supposed to put money aside?
The sniveling directive proposed by rich people is to say “Well, just stop spending money on that iPhone or new clothes, stop smoking, and quit eating avocado toast.” This is bad advice because it is exactly the same thing as saying “Well, just do away with the minor perks that enable you to get through the day and feel OK about yourself for five minutes, we’re sure that won’t have any major repercussions.”
So rich people: do kindly shut the fuck up. Just because someone is in poverty doesn’t mean that they should not have a smartphone (which is absolutely necessary for all sorts of things in the modern world) or decent clothing (which is absolutely necessary for getting and keeping a job) or some form of entertainment (which is absolutely necessary for remaining sane).
OK, the rant is over.
So how exactly are you actually supposed to survive being poor? Well, it’s more an art than a science. But it can boil down to some common points:
- Survive today, plan for tomorrow
- Maintain a bank account
- Avoid large costs as much as possible
- Use public resources
- Stay sane
- Stay as healthy as possible
- Take advantage of sales and freebies
- Practice urban scavenging
- Use small-scale farming
We’ll cover each of these, then talk about some ways to actually get out of poverty.
Survive Today, Plan for Tomorrow
This is the first and most basic point about survival on the edge, the one that better-off people always forget: you can’t invest in tomorrow if you can’t survive today. So survive today. Whatever that means. Credit card debt is bad; not having a phone is worse. Payday loans are bad; not having a roof over your head is worse. Always survive first.
But once you have survived today, that’s when you start to plan for tomorrow. Note the verbiage: plan, not invest. Try to figure out your next move; it will probably be non-monetary because… you know… you have to have money before you can make an investment. But you can still make moves. Always, always plan.
Maintain a Bank Account
Keeping a bank account open, even if you have to pay $10 a month to do so (the price of “service fees” on many checking accounts) is a good idea. Keeping money under the mattress is risky, and worse yet not having a bank account disqualifies you from many jobs because you can’t do direct deposit. Maintaining a bank account also at least theoretically gives you a way to acquire credit, via credit cards and loan packages through the bank. These are usually better deals than what you get in the mail.
Avoid Large Costs Where Possible
Cook at home, avoid eating meals out. Put money into large-volume, cheap, reasonably healthy foods — beans, eggs, greens, rice, carrots, potatoes, chicken. Avoid trendy foods like the plague, it’s all made up marketing anyway. People have survived on rice and beans for thousands of years and I don’t care what Karen says on that subject. Avoid sugar like the plague, except for treats — it’s OK to have ice cream from time to time, but stay away from processed foods that use sugar as a primary ingredient.
Cook in large batches whenever possible. You’re not going to have huge amounts of time, so cook things that keep and that allow for multiple meals. Soups, casseroles, stews, etc. are relatively easy to make, can be easily frozen, and keep for a long time if stored properly. This will save you from more expensive, less nutritious processed foods that lead to obesity and diabetes.
Take on roommates and avoid large rent checks when possible. This will usually mean dealing with low-income buildings, which is an entirely separate article. If you are lucky enough to own property, rent out rooms. Avoid property costs as much as you can by spreading the burden as wide as you can. This will inevitably cause some drama, but that’s the price of doing business.
Use public transport wherever possible for longer trips. Use bikes instead of cars when you can for shorter trips, buy or lease used Toyotas or other high-reliability vehicles when you can’t. Try to avoid long-distance travel. It is possible to pick up used cars that will run just long enough at county auctions and similar liquidation events. You’re going to have to seriously consider every single maintenance cost, so it may frequently make more sense to sell your current vehicle — even for scrap — and buy another heavily used car.
Take advantage of clothing resellers and thrift stores — even for high end items. If you know where the rich part of town is in your area, visit their thrift stores. Rich people donate barely-used stuff all the time.
Buy refurbished electronics instead of new products. This can cut hundreds of dollars off the bill for common items like televisions, cell phones, and computers. And I know I already said the thing about iPhones, but smart people who are money-conscious do not buy iPhones. Buy Androids. Same functionality, and you can replace the battery instead of replacing the phone. I know, right?
Use Public Resources
This crosses a lot of lanes, but public resources like public transportation, food banks, free clinics, libraries, and free entertainment sources can save you lots of money.
Food banks are excellent sources of free or extremely cheap calories. Free clinics are very important for maintaining health, and especially when you are on the edge it is very important to stay healthy. And libraries are just awesome. They’re free internet, free entertainment, free research, free education, and community bulletin boards all rolled into one package. If you’re on the edge, a library is a godsend. If you’re not on the edge, please support your local library.
What all of these things usually cost you is time. That sounds like a minor inconvenience, but if you’re working two shifts a day it becomes a major issue, and there’s not a lot you can do about it.
This reinforces a point that’s going to come up a lot: planning becomes a major part of your life when you’re on the edge. Well-off people have the luxury of being able to do things on the fly. People on the edge do not. You’re going to have to structure your day as best you can to hit all the things you need to do, in the order you need to do them. Sometimes a pencil and paper are your best tools to navigate the edge.
Living on the edge is obviously more stressful than not living on the edge. That means staying sane becomes an extreme sport, which is something that people who decry poor people paying for cable don’t understand. You’re going to need escapist activities. The real trick is to find healthy, cheap activities.
Try to avoid drugs. To paraphrase the old joke, drugs are addictive because they work. Want to bliss out for half an hour? Drugs. Need energy? Drugs. Need to stay awake? Drugs. Need to fall asleep? Drugs. You see the pattern here? Drugs are a perfect solution for problems, except that they aren’t, because they’re a temporary and expensive solution to problems which creates a real and nasty dependency on the drug.
That being said, it’ll be hard to avoid alcohol, tobacco, and weed. These are the three most common, most available drugs for reasons which should be totally and blindingly obvious. Try to use in moderation, but do what you have to do to stay sane.
Otherwise, it’s worth remembering that antennas are a thing for TVs, you can get almost all TV content over the internet for a fraction of the price of cable, and you can buy used books and board games for practically nothing. And again, there’s always the library.
Quick, what’s one thing that’s guaranteed to bankrupt you? Did you say a major health issue? You’re right! So when you have no money in the first place, staying healthy becomes a major survival issue. This falls into two main actions that you can take that will make your life better: (1) get physicals and (2) take care of your teeth.
Getting a physical at a free or subsidized clinic, at least once per year, with blood work if possible, is extremely important. You can nip a lot of health problems in the bud early on if you detect them in a timely fashion. Diabetes, for example, is a serious concern for America’s working poor, mostly due to diet, and if it’s not caught and treated it is a death sentence. Not an easy one, either. Diabetes is fucking scary. But it’s preventable and treatable if you catch it and take appropriate action. Same for lots of other things. Never, ever think that ignorance about your health is bliss.
Taking care of your teeth is one of those things that a lot of people take for granted, but it becomes a major issue if you don’t have dental coverage. You don’t have to buy the most expensive brush, toothpaste, or floss to take care of your teeth, but you do need to buy and use a toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss. Brushing at least twice a day and flossing at least every few days will keep your teeth from falling out.²
Well-off people tend to forget how important this is — you can’t get a LOT of jobs with bad teeth, particularly in customer-facing positions in the service industry. If at all possible, keep your teeth healthy.
If your teeth are already in trouble, it’s worth your while to ask around the dentists in your area and see if anyone is offering or knows about free clinics or similar services. Treat what you can, when you can.
In any case, if you need healthcare and aren’t sure where to go, it is worth your while to simply visit doctors’ offices and ask. Lots of places have arrangements in place for low-income people, or at least know of other offices that do. It never hurts to ask.
And last but definitely not least, figure out Medicaid as soon as possible. If Uncle Sam is going to give away free money, it’s worth your while to see if you can have some.
Take Advantage of Sales and Freebies
Grocery stores offer discounted products on the days when they rotate their stock, and you can find out which days those are by asking. Coupons are still a thing, and lots of them are available online if you have a smartphone. Keeping an eye out for promotional events can get you free entertainment and free stuff — farmer’s markets, book fairs, and county events are often free entry and have booths with giveaway items (shirts, cups, bottles, paper, pens, etc.).
Estate sales, yard sales, and church sales are also good targets for heavily discounted items. You would be amazed at the high-quality items that people (especially old people) sell for pennies on the dollar — especially furniture and otherwise hyper-expensive kitchen gear.
This is good advice for just about anyone and should go without saying, but keep an eye out for sales in general and avoid buying things for their normal list price. Remember that most stores will sell their floor models, and these can be significantly discounted. At the same time, avoid the heavily advertised sales seasons — these are fake sales, and you’re looking for the “I need to clear the stock” sale, not the “I need to advertise to meet my holiday quotas” sale.
Practice Urban Scavenging
If your community recycles, you can probably earn a little bit of money by collecting recyclable products and turning them in. Cans and bottles are almost always easy to find in an urban setting, and a few pounds of aluminum can pay for a meal.
It’s also worth identifying areas where people leave free stuff on a regular basis. Apartment complexes and college campuses on move-out days are prime targets. People leave all kinds of things behind when they move, and some of that stuff can be surprisingly high-quality. I’ve seen TVs, furniture, kitchen appliances… you name it and somewhere, someone is leaving it out for other people to take away.
It’s also worth remembering that small stuff adds up. Condiments, for example, are expensive at the grocery store but free for the price of a meal at McDonald's. Nobody’s going to notice or care if you take a handful of salt or ketchup packs out the door with you. If you’re at a place with butter packs, even better. As any good cook knows, a little salt, pepper, and butter can turn almost anything into a decent-tasting meal. Never dismiss the value of making your food taste good.
Use Small-Scale Farming
If you’re in a rural setting, small-scale farming can be a very cost-efficient way to get some fresh food and extra calories. Any area of property you have that has dirt and sun exposure can probably be turned into a small garden with a little water and fertilizer.³ Even an herb garden is better than nothing — herbs can be expensive, after all, a little mint goes a long way, and there’s always time for thyme.
If you have space and a bit of chicken wire, keeping hens is a good way to get extra protein and potentially produce a marketable product. Hens eat almost anything and lay eggs. Eggs are easy protein, and rich people like to buy weird looking free-range eggs at farmer’s markets. Eggs are not a trifling thing.
Beyond that, a space as small as half an acre, if well-tended and protected, can produce enough food to feed a small family for weeks. The trick becomes keeping the animals away from it and canning the produce. On the plus side, “keeping the animals away from it” can be another way to say “supplementing your diet with protein” if you have access to a hunting rifle.
And if all you’ve got is swampland with no sun? Mushrooms and crawdads. The point is that almost every biome allows you to grow or raise something. The catch is finding the time, energy, and seed capital to do it.
Finding the End of the Edge
The end of the edge is that magical point in life where you are finally earning enough money to not worry on a regular basis. That’s all it means. You may not be doing well by society’s standards. You may not have the cash to buy all the pretty things. But if you’re not worried most of the time, that’s more than enough after months or years on the edge.
Is that to say that you’re in excellent financial health? No. It’s just to say that you can reliably make rent, buy food, have access to some healthcare, and you can make the occasional impulse purchase. The end of the edge is the start of upward mobility — that’s it, that’s all, and for a lot of us, that’s a dream come true.
So how do you get there? Not through hard work alone, we established that. You’re going to have to think sideways, because for most of us upward mobility is accomplished through changing jobs. And the point of changing jobs is that you’re trading a bad job for a better job.
There are two primary ways to trade up in jobs:
Go Into Management
For many service industry jobs, the only upward path is going to be moving into management. Now for the worm in the apple: most upper management jobs require a college degree. Fortunately we’re not talking about upper management right now, we’re talking about getting you off the edge. That means line management. We’re talking about assistant store managers or similar positions here.
These jobs are usually accessible for people who have demonstrated competence in a customer-facing position, but the catch is that someone has probably already taken that slot at your job. This is the bit about getting a new job — you’re going to have to look around. That means using the internet, more than likely, so you’ll need a smartphone or time at your local library. The good news is that these positions are often high-turnover, so unless you’re living in the back end of nowhere you may be able to find an open slot.
But what if you can’t or don’t want to go into management? Well then…
Get Training for a Better Position
Remember, hard work alone doesn’t advance you. You have to prove to an employer that you’re worth a different position. That means, more often than not, training.
There’s good news and bad news here. Bad news first: if you’re on the edge already, finding the time and money for training is going to be very hard. You’re going to have to plan very carefully. That’s simply all there is to it. With that being said, keep an eye out for grant programs, scholarships, and need-based programs. A lot of this is just a matter of asking someone at your local community college. Most people want to help; let them.
The good news is that getting a four-year college degree is not required (and in some cases is arguably detrimental) to get training. Certification courses are all over the place. You can get certified in many, many different trades at your local community college by taking night courses. You can get certified for an enormous variety of computer skills as well, often through primarily online courses. You don’t have to have a computer science degree in order to run an Excel sheet. Definitely ask at your job to see if there are any sponsored courses.
It’s worth remembering that the average wage of a plumber in 2017 was about $57,000 a year. That is a huge jump for almost anyone who’s been living on the edge (hell, it’s a huge jump for most college graduates), and the nice part is that while it might take four or five years to become a fully licensed plumber, you’ll spend at least part of that time as an apprentice, and apprentices get paid. A lot of trade jobs work like this, and make them very shiny opportunities.
But what if you don’t have the time or energy to take a certification course? This is where your local library comes in again. You don’t have to get a formal certificate or degree in order to enhance your skill set, and there are a lot of programs available through public libraries to help you gain skills that you can use to improve your value to employers. Again, you don’t have to have a computer programming degree to learn to type, or use Microsoft Office.
Both of these paths to a better job and better conditions are valid, but there are a couple of other things we need to talk about as well. You’re going to need to stay mentally strong, and you’re going to need to know when things simply aren’t working and it’s time to leave.
Believe in Yourself
Applying for any new job or changing your employment circumstances in any way is already a stressful, sometimes demeaning experience. Doing so while living on the edge, even more so. It’s going to feel like no one wants you. It’s going to feel like you’re treading water. It may cause slips into depression and complacency as time goes on and you don’t get hired.
This makes it super important to believe in yourself and stay strong. If you have a supportive friend or significant other, that’s a godsend. If not, try your best to keep your eye on the prize and don’t let the world get you down. You can do it.
Now for the counterpoint:
Know When to Run
Sometimes you can try your best and it isn’t enough. Sometimes you may find yourself living in the middle of an economic desert, or in an area of full employment where there just aren’t any jobs to be had. If you have tried your best, if you have acquired new skills, applied for new jobs, and nothing is working, it may simply be time to leave.
There’s a harsh truth to face here: American small towns are in the middle of an economic shift. Areas that used to be employment hubs no longer are. If this is happening in your town, the sharp end of the stick is probably that the jobs are leaving and not coming back. This is a recipe for shrinking employment options, and if you see this happening and you’re not already in a good position, odds are that you’re in trouble.
In this kind of situation, it’s time to leave. That’s going to be painful and difficult, but sometimes it must be done. In this kind of a case you do what you have to do to leave. If that means going into debt, go into debt. If it means selling property, sell property. When it’s time to go, don’t let nostalgia hold you back. There are tens of millions of people who won’t leave their family home, and starve for it. Your ancestors probably got here by crossing an ocean; they wouldn’t want you to suffer because you think not moving fifty miles is somehow honoring their memory.
Sometimes the best path off the edge is to walk on a different road.
The End of the Edge
When you’re living on the edge, you do what you need to do to survive. Getting off the edge requires that you do more — you do what you need to do to get better circumstances. When you reach the end of the edge you’ll know because you will have stopped worrying all the time (note that you’ve still totally got the option to worry some of the time), you will be able to start paying down debt and making some impulse purchases without killing your money, and you will probably be down to one job and maybe a little side-hustle.
That’s it; that’s all. It’s not the the end of your story, it’s the start of a better chapter.
A final point — once you’re off the edge, it is worth your time as an adult and a citizen to think about what got you on the edge in the first place. This should have some impact on your life. It should change how you think, how you feel, how you act, and especially how you vote. And once you have the free time and money, it is a good thing to try to alter those circumstances for others.
We’re not alone. We’re all in this together. So pay it back, pay it forward, and pay attention.
¹For the purposes of this article, poverty in the US is considered to be any income level less than $25,000 per year for a married couple in a rural area. For a city, bump that up to $30,000.
²Now here’s the dirty little secret that Colgate doesn’t want you to know: all toothpaste if functionally the same (whitening features aside). It doesn’t matter what you buy. It really doesn’t. Same for floss — functionally speaking, floss is just thin string that you’re using to fish undigested food out from between your teeth. It really doesn’t matter if you buy the cheap floss or expensive floss, it all works.
³Don’t bother buying expensive garden-store fertilizer either. Almost any food waste is plant food. Keep a compost pile for your food waste, let it sit in the sun for a few weeks, and you’ll have fertilizer that will grow your tomatoes to man-eating size.