At the beginning of October, I slipped five crisp Benjamins into my purse. I don't usually carry any cash at all, so I was feeling flush with $500 in my pocket.
It was all part of a simple experiment: Could I save on my grocery budget if I only paid in cash? While I will share more in the future about what I specifically learned about groceries and my budget, this experiment made me think about a bigger problem.
By mid-October, I had about $30 left. I valiantly tried to stretch the money to the end of the month, but I couldn't. A family of five simply needs more food than $30 can buy. So I dipped into the checking account. For me, it was not an issue. But what if this were another family's grocery budget and they had no savings, no access to credit cards or any other source of money? You can't just ask your children to starve until payday. So what do you do?
Since you read this blog, I am guessing we have a lot in common. Can you identify with any of the following situations? If I need to go somewhere, I get into my car. If I am thirsty, want to take a shower, or need to brush my teeth, I turn on the water faucet that comes directly into my home. And get this, the water is disease-free and ready to use. If one of my children is sick, I take them for medical treatment or raid my medicine cabinet. When I think about what's for dinner, I open my refrigerator, my pantry, my big freezer, or search the shelves that hold my canned goods. And I am ashamed to say that I still don't have a clue of what to cook for dinner sometimes. I don't even think about these things. They are just there, and it's just the way life is for me.
Experimenting encourages empathy
Relationships and community are very important to me. I believe that the financial excess I have been given is a responsibility that I must steward wisely. I don't know why I wasn't born in an African village without access to clean water or why I was born into a family blessed with generally good health, a strong support system, and enough tools to help me figure out how to get by.
Now that I am a mother, I really want to rear my children so that they have compassion for others who have less and can be grateful for what they have as well. Sometimes I catch myself getting frustrated with them when I see them being greedy, ungrateful little kids. I mean, my oldest two children lived in an orphanage — a very good one as far as orphanages go — so they should be thankful for all the good things they have, right?
But then I take a look in the mirror and realize that I am the same way. I don't think about the people who don't have running water when I wait until the water is warm before I step into the shower. And with Thanksgiving around the corner, I want to understand and have compassion in my heart and gratitude for my blessings that I believe the holiday is meant to help us remember.
I think the fact we're a few years removed from poverty can dull our sense of empathy somewhat, and I think performing a social poverty experiment can help us better appreciate the concerns of others.
So why experiment?
1. Humility — If I never make an attempt to understand what it is like to live in poverty, I might give myself a little too much credit for getting where I am financially — and I might forget that we don't all start in the same place.
2. Empathy — If I can imagine, just a little bit, what it is like to wonder where my next meal is coming from, I am more likely to be compassionate to others.
3. Waste less — One of my friends spends weeks at a time in Haiti, coordinating construction projects. During one trip, his Haitian friends invited him to a meal they had prepared. The meal included chicken, which is — at least I've been told — a luxury to the typical Haitian. Despite fears of getting sick, my friend and the rest of his American crew ate the meal. When the meal was over, he watched as the plates were scraped clean and the leftovers were given to the Haitian people to eat. The leftovers! I am ashamed of the food I waste when others have to gnaw on chicken bones that someone else had already picked clean. Or the water I waste when some mothers spend hours a day carrying water to care for their family.
How you can experiment
My employer used to run poverty workshops. If you participated, you were assigned an income and stuff happened to you — car repairs, illness, you name it. It was a very clear illustration of how precarious survival is in poverty.
Others have challenged themselves to live on a poverty-level income. You could challenge yourself to live on a smaller food budget, for example.
If you are used to commuting by car, you could take public transportation or walk. Everywhere. Find out what it is like to carry your groceries home. (I realize some of you do this already, but I don't.)
Maybe you could try taking a cold shower or filling your bathtub with buckets of water from the kitchen instead of turning on the water faucet. Or maybe you should stop your daily shower and go to every other day. Or weekly. Then you may find out what it's like not to have a support system. I kid, but only a little. Good hygiene practices are important when working.
While doing some research, I came across a fascinating TED talk called “Social Experiments to Fight Poverty” by Esther Duflo. Sometimes I don't do anything to fight poverty because I don't know what to do. Sometimes I don't do anything because I am not sure where my money will be best used.
But if I do nothing, I won't change anything.
How do you reconnect with the meaning of Thanksgiving? Would an experiment help you appreciate what those who face poverty are experiencing? Have you ever gone without something to gain empathy for someone else?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).