Karen Datko at MSN Money writes that she had “a comfortable life with decent pay and health insurance”. Now she finds herself in survival mode. She wonders: “I make $6.50 an hour. Am I poor?

I lost my job as a managing editor at a small newspaper in Montana after the ownership changed hands. Six months later, I moved to Pennsylvania to take a similar job. My living arrangements fell through, and as I searched for a rental that would accept my three dogs, I lived in a campground. When it became clear that I’d be a campground dweller for a while, my boss fired me, telling me my living situation was “bad for business.” I sold off my household goods — everything from a sofa to pots and pans — and drove back to small-town Montana.

I still own a house here. And I have a network of loving friends. But now I know why most of my single women friends here work two or more jobs and think about the prospects of a bleak, impoverished old age. Good jobs with benefits are hard to come by here.

Datko writes about working two jobs — one stocking shelves at a department store, the other working in a restaurant. She notes that “anything unexpected is a financial emergency”. The meat of the article is the set of the rules Datko has developed for herself. Highlights include:

  • “When I think about buying something, I think about how many hours I have to work to pay for it.” — This is straight out of Your Money or Your Life, the book that started me down the path to smart personal finance. Learning this skill helped me begin to make the right decisions. I don’t do this often enough anymore. I’m out of practice.
  • “I try not to touch the small safety net I still have in the bank. It’s there for emergencies.”
  • “I will not touch my 401(k) and other retirement accounts.”
  • “I walk when I can, and if I have to drive, I combine several trips into one.” — Walking is an excellent way to save money.
  • “I refuse to let my situation depress me.” — This is the right approach. I believe mental attitude is key.

Datko is facing some tough times, but by remaining positive, she’ll give herself a better chance to see opportunities when they arise. Though her writing tends to hyperbole (she moans that she is an “all-around kitchen slave at a local steak house” — give me a break), this is an interesting piece, and it addresses issues that many Americans face.

I’m fortunate to have never experienced Datko’s situation in my adult life. But I have friends who are in similar positions. Some of these people truly are poor. They feel poor, they act poor, and they believe it is their lot to suffer. Others actively seek opportunities to escape the situation. They work hard. They scrimp. They call upon their social network. In time, they’re able to regain their footing.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America explores similar territory. Though I take issue with some of her methodology and conclusions, I think the book is a fascinating glimpse at a world many people never see. On a more practical note, I’m currently borrowing an earlier edition of James Steamer’s Wealth on Minimal Wage from the public library. Steamer’s book examines ways to build savings on minimal income.

(Final note: One must also wonder if it might not make sense to find alternate arrangements for her dogs. The dogs were responsible for her problems in Pennsylvania, and she complains about having to feed them now that she’s in a bad situation. Make no mistake: I am a devoted pet owner. But Datko’s three dogs are causing her woe!)

[MSN Money: I make $6.50 an hour. Am I poor?]

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