Rags to Riches: Pacing Yourself for the Long Run

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By Donna Lee Schillinger

A poor person pleads for mercy, but a rich woman answers harshly.

Proverbs 18:23


Were you born into a family that doesn’t have to worry about money? If so, lucky you! If not, join the club.

Most of us can relate to having wanted something we or our parents could not afford. And you know what? That’s a good thing. Maybe we only ever had that experience once or maybe we’ve known it almost every day of our lives. Regardless of how rare or frequent, it’s not wasted experience. We can use the feelings that being denied stirs in us to create compassion for the poor.

Some people think they have a solution for the poor: “If they would only…” or, “If the president and Congress would only…” The fact of the matter is that poverty is one of the most complicated issues with which humanity has to deal. The solution is overly simple – poor people need money. The process is so complex that no society in all of human history has figured it out. Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). That says to me that some of us have to fulfill the role of being “the poor.” Just don’t let it be me, right?

Well, it has been me. My entire childhood, through college and the Peace Corps, I played the part of the “the poor.” Starting with my first job after I returned from the Peace Corps, I switched roles and now play “the middle class,” except for a brief period when I voluntarily returned to poverty to be able to take care of my grandparents in their old age and begin homeschooling my daughter. So, I know a little something about poverty. I could tell you how I got out, but it’s no guaranteed-to-work-for-you solution.

The one thing from my experience that I believe does hold true for everyone is that if we are poor, it doesn’t mean we always will be poor. This is particularly true for college students. Statistically, they’ve got a great chance of being middle class or better, even if they come from a poor family.

Going from poor to rich is a common transition in our society. We still call it “the American dream,” but it happens so frequently that Americans have adopted a cultural view that anyone can pull himself up by his boot straps if he really has the desire to do it. If we’ve ever racked up a big credit card debt then tried to pay it off, or if we’ve ever tried saving for a down payment on a car, we know firsthand that bettering ourselves financially is not as easy as pulling on boot straps (whatever those are!).

With few exceptions, people who have shifted classes in their lifetimes don’t do it instantly. We can’t just wake up one day and say, “That’s it! I’ve had it with being poor. Starting today I’m shifting classes and I will have completed my transition by this time tomorrow.” That’s ridiculous, of course, but my point is that bringing oneself out of poverty is most often a five-year, 10-year or even a 20- or 30-year plan. Even the great positive thinkers of the 20th century, like Zig Ziglar, started out with nothing and stayed that way a long time. Read the biographies and memoirs of famous people – athletes and entertainers included – most of these people struggled for decades with having enough money to pay the rent before their efforts finally paid off. Those hard luck stories are what makes their lives interesting and their books sell!

Are you living in lean years? Take comfort in knowing that you can improve your situation – you’re in the best country in the world for class mobility – but it won’t come quickly. You’ve got to pace yourself. Live within your means – meaning don’t spend money you don’t have. You can do without the laptop, cell phone and $70 Abercrombie T-shirt. Instead of watching television in your downtime, which is programmed intentionally to stir consumer desire within you, encourage yourself by reading life stories about people who made it out of poverty – there are so many. You can find their stories in magazines and books available for free at your local library – a fascinating place. Hang out with people who have gone through what you’re going through. Talk to your parents, aunts, uncles and people at church about how they struggled. Adopt the attitude that you’re in a long transition. You’re not poor, you’re becoming rich – it’s just going to take some time.

We may want to get out of our situation as quickly as possible, but it will serve us in life. Learn to appreciate this experience – while we’re still in it – for the perspective it will give us and the compassion for the poor it will create in us. If we come out of our poverty with the attitude, “I did it, why can’t they?” we haven’t learned the lesson of poverty. Poverty is discouraging; it colors our outlook everyday of the year; it limits our opportunity. When we make it out, we should thank God for giving us the necessary intelligence and skills and opportunities to capitalize on them. And when God gives us the opportunity to show compassion to a poor person, we must seize that in thanks to God that we’re no longer poor (or that we never were).


Hold this thought: A poor person’s life is hard enough without me adding to her grief. I can relate.

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