When I was five years old, my father chose to start his own business so that he could be free to follow his religious convictions. Finley Screw Machine Products was launched with two loaned machines and my grandpa as the only employee.
While the business would eventually grow to 45 employees, those early years were lean times for our family. We lived in a simple home with a postage-stamp yard that was crowded between two other houses. Yet what I remember most about my early life is not what we lacked but what we had. A sense of warmth, optimism, and laughter pervaded our home. Through the years, whether we gathered around a Christmas tree laden with gifts or opened a few presents wrapped in newspaper, our quality of life remained the same. Our deeper values transcended material things.
Similarly, having established my own home and family as an adult, I can look back at both lean and comfortable times. For the first four years of our marriage, my husband attended school to pursue pastoral studies while I worked—first as an elementary school teacher and then as a writer for the public relations department of a university. We took out no school loans, accepted no credit card offers, lived in two-room apartments, and portioned out my monthly paycheck into manila budget envelopes. If the money ran out at the end of the second or third week, we ate what remained on the shelves and limited our entertainment to games of Scrabble and Mastermind.
When finally assigned to our first church, we found ourselves facing a six-week lag before the first paycheck. A church member offered us some late squash from his fall garden, and we boiled, fried, and mashed our way to one month of sustenance.
Later, through pastoral appointments and a series of moves, our economic status varied as I chose to work part-time, full-time, or not at all. I quit a job as a copywriter when the second hand smoke became too much for me to bear. I was released from college positions as an adjunct faculty member when enrollments declined and courses closed.
Spread across the two pages of my Social Security earnings report, the story is played out in the peaks and dips of salaries throughout the years. Reflecting on all this, I find myself filled with gratitude for the times when money was tight. Specifically, I count ten blessings that result from not being wealthy.
1 I receive a great deal of pleasure from the simple “luxuries” of life.
While a student at Boston University working on an advanced degree with two children at home, I drove a car with no heat for two months during the winter. On my drive into the city I wrapped up in a blanket. I’ll never forget the joy with which I devoured a bagel and cream cheese at a crowded deli for lunch, relishing the thought that for just $1.50 I could eat and be filled. To this day I don’t cease to marvel at how richly I’m blessed when I download a new book to read, stop for a sandwich on the road, or purchase a potted plant on impulse.
2 I’m an expert at cutting and slashing a budget.
During the lean years I sat for hours each month wrestling with an unwieldy budget. Somehow, after teasing a few dollars from this line item and a few cents from that one, I made things work. Breathing a prayer of thanks, I’d slip the scratched and blotted budget into the “bills drawer” and forget it for another four weeks. Even today I know that whether a car breaks down or a dog unexpectedly winds up at the veterinary clinic, I can cut and slash my way to a leaner, meaner budget that will get us through.
3 I can find low-budget or no-budget entertainment.
When we lived in New England, we took a week’s vacation in Florida with our two small boys on money I’d saved from two published articles and a half-month’s grocery budget. We stayed with friends along the way, endured a 45-minute promotional for four free nights in a hotel, ate out sparingly, and visited only one theme park. Today, as a resident of the state, I’m even more creative in identifying alluring spots with no price tags attached. While tourists lay down $400 for a day’s entertainment, I take my family “resort-hopping,” discovering the giraffes that nibble leaves behind Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park or riding the free shuttle boats between Universal’s three posh hotels.
4 I have a deep sensitivity for people who struggle.
Early in our marriage I decided there was nothing more exquisite than a plastic ice cube tray that could produce miniature, round cubes. Each month I determined to fit the under-$5 item into the budget, then wincingly slashed it when the inevitable became apparent. Twenty-five years later I haven’t forgotten the minister’s wife who surprised me with the coveted item. The memory prompts me to perpetuate such acts of joy, filling me with richness each time I share.
5 I’m not afraid to cut loose from an unpleasant situation and risk the unknown.
Answering an advertisement for “head of school” once, I found myself plunged into a long-raging battle between elitist factions of a posh nursery school. Two years into the job I realized the situation would never change, searched out my options, applied for the doctoral program at Boston University, and embarked on an adventure with no clear path for financing. Four years later I humbly accepted the doctoral hood, a symbol of the Lord’s rich blessing in my life. With each job I accept, I know I have the freedom to stay or to go, to accept a paycheck or cut back, and rely on faith alone to sustain.
6 I’ve learned to mine my talents in order to fund an endeavor.
Eager for a vacation with my husband a number of years back, I discovered that the hotel where we’d honeymooned was running a writing contest. Eight paragraphs later we were enjoying three days alongside the Atlantic Ocean, courtesy of the hotel. My sister-in-law tells me that in the early years of her marriage she baked her way to an oak dining room table with eight chairs. Through the lean times I’ve learned that I don’t always have to do without; a focused effort can yield results.
7 My sons weren’t raised with a high bar of material expectations.
I’m grateful that when they were young, Eric and Jeff stashed their clothes in the dressers I had when I was a teenager. Hand-me-downs allowed them a carefree childhood to play and get dirty. Today both are happy with the simple things in life, and they don’t need expensive things to buoy their self-worth as young men.
8 I’m not afraid of what the future holds.
Recently I visited a friend who’s a single mother with a minimum-wage job. Seated on her worn but comfortable couch in a two-room apartment, I looked around and decided that I, too, could be comfortable here. I’ve learned, through the years, that no matter how many pennies I have to pinch, certain facts always apply. A church congregation will open its arms to me; every town has a public library; and given time and a keyboard, no limits exist to what I can write.
9 I’m not constrained by the limitations imposed by money.
Money doesn’t dictate whom I select as my friends nor whom I feel comfortable inviting to my home. I derive deep fulfilment from spending time with those who have very little, and I unabashedly serve the wealthy from paper plates in my dining room. Economic status simply doesn’t enter into the equation.
10 Like the apostle Paul, I’ve learned to be content in whatever state I find myself.
Twenty-five years after my father took out a loan on two automatic screw machines, he decided to sell his business and retire. A lifetime of dedication was eradicated by a dishonest buyer who instantly destroyed his life’s work. “Bruised but not broken,” Dad began a new business, running a few automatic screw machines with my mother in an unheated building. Within the next five years that business, too, had thrived, and Dad retired—only to lose his savings through the mismanagement of funds by a financial advisor. Undaunted, he and my mother moved into an apartment, purchased a small recreational vehicle, and began driving it to Florida each winter.
In 2003, Dad decided to permanently establish the RV in Florida. I drove to Punta Gorda to see my parents’ pride and joy, watched my 80-year-old father work in 90-degree heat attaching sheeting, and photographed my parents flushed and smiling in front of their simple winter home.
Later, I saw those photos again, alongside more recent pictures. Beside my photos with the RV gleaming in the afternoon sun, the new images stood in stark contrast. The vehicle had been thrown to the street by Hurricane Charley, a gaping hole in its roof, an insurance claim number spray-painted across the top.
The blue book value didn’t cover the replacement cost. But such things never deterred Dad. “What we’ll probably do,” he thought aloud, “is try to find some kind of trailer in the area for rent, come January . . .”
Brightening, he threw in a little humor: “I lost my bicycle too. The neighbor’s shed blew over on it. But I figure I won’t ask him for anything, seeing as he’s the one who gave it to me in the first place.”
My parents—as expected—were able to restart once again, reminding me that in the end, resilience and flexibility override material things.
Some things don’t depend on money—an indomitable spirit, a deep-flowing optimism, a sense of humor, and a rock-hard faith. For such things I will always be grateful to God and to the people and circumstances that have shaped my life.