Penniless and Blessed

By Jennie Englund, M.S. Ed.
Web Exclusive, November 20, 2006

Family happy togetherAs I join other Americans pouring out thanks over mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, I consider this question: does money buy happiness? My answer, based on experience, is a resounding “no.” In fact, I treasure my little family’s state of less-than-desirable money matters—it is a unique and absolute blessing, for which I am truly grateful.

In the wake of my resignation from teaching to be a stay-home mom, there has, of course, been a great sacrifice—the illustrious financial one. But our family has reaped more than the benefits of constancy and routine that my being at home offers. Many gifts have emerged in unexpected places. As a result of a (substantially) reduced income, appreciation has been garnered, our family has spent more quality time together, the environment has been spared, and even our health has improved.

The most surprising reward for our family’s destitution has been the growth of our collective gratitude. We have become conscientious of how truly fortunate we are, of how so many of the world’s people have less resources, and of how much we really do have. Our own American suburb is home to a neighboring family who struggles daily to cover the basics. So we share the little we can, promoting peace and kindness among school peers and via food drives. Any child who visits our home is treated to a healthy meal. We use every bit of food in the fridge and cupboards, mindful of the undernourished. Every day becomes an opportunity for thanks, not only those few hours at the end of November.

Because we don’t have the spare cash to spend on entertainment, much of our time is now enjoyed at home. The plug has been pulled on cable television, avoiding the intrusion of greed, violence, and poor family values. Keeping our children home and out of costly, competitive sports and other after-school activities has become a priority; imaginations have blossomed. A six year-old’s directing debut of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is embraced amusement. Music is played. Nature is nurtured: we grow, harvest, and share fruit, veggies and herbs. We talk, draw, bake special treats together, and cherish each other’s company. We laugh. Sometimes we cry.

Our outings include visiting the library instead of buying new toys, developing the love of reading instead of inviting unwanted consumerism. One hundred books each week for eight years have been checked out (and unbelievably, only one has been lost) among our five accounts. We patronize no- or low-cost community events and institutions, partaking in cultural festivities, history, and science: a Chinese New Year poster contest, sugar-skull making for the Mexican Days of the Dead, a gratis dress rehearsal of a locally-performed Motown musical, bug collecting and identifying through a university extension program—all free! And of course, we take advantage of the plethora of parks. In essence, our dwindling income has strengthened our ties to our community.

If thankfulness and increased family time aren’t reasons enough to find the joys in forced resourcefulness, respect for the earth could be another. Our largest contribution to a cleaner planet is the amount of walking we do, sparing the environment automobile pollutants. A favorite contest is the number of consecutive days the van stays in the driveway. “Free public transportation” translates to “fun bus ride” in kid-lingo. When we must drive, errands are combined, exercising efficiency.

At home, everything possible is recycled. We re-use containers, reducing landfill. Clothes and shoes are mended instead of replaced. Local, well-crafted wares are purchased whenever possible. Consumable resources are used prudently. Buying in bulk not only saves money, but lessens garbage truck emissions and disregards advertising. Being attentive to doing less laundry conserves water, energy, and detergent (not to mention, humdrum household chores). Cleaning agents are used sparingly, diminishing pollutants, waste, and health risks.

And what is the overall effect of income reduction on this family’s health? Amazingly, a tighter budget has compelled us into becoming healthier people. Outside recreation, walking, and gardening have increased. Fast-food is completely out; we’ve swapped wasteful, high-fat, and high-sugar meals with fresh, home-made ones. Vitamin and fiber-packed fruits, vegetables, and beans have replaced previous meat consumption, decreasing health risks. Our medical costs have been noticeably cut, lessening the impact on an overburdened system. By simply thinking more and using less, this family has made a slight but palpable influence on the world.

And although our finances are presently stretched, my husband and I still understand that options do exist. We choose to live the life we do and are empowered by that decision. I could return to the workforce, trading these small, impoverished years for cable television, fast-food dinners, and a new S.U.V.

But I’ll pass.

Instead, I’ll spend my days making recycled-paper dolls with my kids. I’ll celebrate the idea that happiness isn’t bought. It is sought. And found.

Jennie Englund, M.S. Ed, is a writer, educator, and former editor. She resides in Ashland, Oregon, with her husband, Dave, and their three charming children: Dominic (8), Daney (7), and Rees (5).