Why You're Better Off Broke (Or Why It's More Sustainable to Be Poor)

Teenage Mom and Baby
I've made it no small secret that I spent the early part of my adult life broke. It wasn't the temporarily-down-on-my-luck broke either.

At age 18, as I was lying in a hospital bed, emotionally and physically exhausted after giving birth to my son, my father warned me "Well.... you've got a tough road ahead of you now kid." And the ten years that followed proved that to be a horrific understatement: never quite making it from paycheck to paycheck, scrounging together money for decent school lunches while foregoing meals myself, dodging threatening phone calls from people wanting money, and more teary conversations with landlords than I care to remember...

I've learned a bit about being- chronically, persistently, cripplingly- broke. And it's in part because I've succeeded in changing my circumstances that I can share some lessons of broke-ness with good humour:

How to Live For Less

Empty PocketWhen you have very little, you become an expert in conserving what you have, and learning to live without what you don't (PS, there's a great educational opportunity in that for the sustainability sector).
Fancy electronics, a huge house, expensive getaways, luxury vehicles... those things just aren't on the radar.
Food, hygiene products, clothing, and having a stable place to live- THESE are the humble goals, and you work to make it all last when you don't know how, or when you can get more.

How Not To Be a Pretentious Jerk

There's nothing that can teach you humility in the extreme like barely having enough to get by. The more broke you are, the harder it is to invest in presenting a facade of super-inflated importance, wealth, and success. In short, you just don't have a lot of where-with-all to pretend you're above others when you're just barely scraping the bottom.

The Spirit of Generosity

"Everything bad that's ever happened to me has taught me compassion."
Ellen DeGeneres
While poverty is a life most of us would never enter willingly, it does present the opportunity to develop profound compassion for the struggles of others. More importantly, knowing what it's like to be without can be a compelling argument for sharing what you've got (or not taking so much to begin with).

Perhaps we don't aim at compassion as often as we aim at wealth, but it's in compassion we stand far more to gain.

Luxury is Not Sustainable.

The truth is that we can't have it ALL. With limited resources and a world population of over 7 billion people and counting, clearly we cannot all live like the richest among us. Of course, it doesn't mean that many of us aren't desperately trying, despite almost certain failure, and the added side effect of constant dissatisfaction.

For each and every wealthy person, many, many more of us MUST be poor. It's a pretty simple game of numbers. The more I take, the less is available for you.    


Although the life of broke seems a distant memory to me most days, these lessons press upon how I interact with the world, the choices I make, and the way I raise my children. And what, more than anything, is the moral of this story?

Don't pity the poor, learn from them.