Sunday, November 29, 2015

Going Broke: From Desperation to an Invitation for Innovation

As someone who has lived under, or just at, the poverty line for most of my adult life, “going broke” means something really specific: getting down to $0 in my bank account. For you, saying “I’m broke” might mean something else.

But whatever it means to you in particular, the feeling is often the same for everyone in American culture today: Panic. Our first response to seeing “broke-ness” on the horizon seems to be the thought, “oh no; why am I panicking? This panic isn’t going to lead anywhere good, I need to stop panicking, why can’t I stop panicking?!” We become panicky about the fact that we’re panicking. Then we feel frustration at the fact that we’re broke, which has led to the panic in the first place. Finally, this turns into desperation. Desperation to find money so we don’t have to be panicky anymore. We begin to feel like we’ll do anything – sell our grandmother’s antiques to the pawn shop down the street! Sell plasma! – to get the money we tell ourselves we need. And sometimes those actions leads to more panic because the next day, when we come to our senses, we realize we’ve taken out a payday loan we will never repay, or signed over our firstborn child to the Mafia, and oh my goodness, now we’re even more broke than we were before!

It’s my belief that our panic and anxiety over being broke tends to keep us from the more positive sides of the situation. Sure, your credit may be going down the drain, and maybe they’ll shut your lights off, but if you can let go of the panic and anxiety, then it’s at this point, past the point of desperation, that things will start to get… interesting in your life. You’ll start to be amazed at your own creativity and brilliance.

Here’s a very small example: I recently cancelled my Netflix account because I can’t afford it anymore. Even though I’m not much of a TV or movie watcher in any case (mostly I just like having nature documentaries with good music on), it still felt like I was losing my “cool kid” status. At 2 AM the other morning, I sprang out of bed and logged into my public library’s website to see if I could at least put some DVDs on reserve or something. It was here that I discovered that my public library subscribes to Hoopla, a website that allows you to “rent” up to twenty movies or albums per month for free and stream them to your computer. It’s also a partner with Freegal Music, too, I found out, which allows all library patrons five free song downloads per week. Is it the same as Netflix? No. But do they have my nature documentaries? Yes. Plus, free songs from Freegal, too. And instead of $8 per month, I’m spending $0. Which, it turns out, is a perfect fit to my bank account!

Looking past the panic also allows you to look at what you already have more closely. “Hm,” you find yourself thinking, “what do I have in the freezer that can go with this couscous, instead of running to the store?” “What old sheets do I have that I could make into curtains?”
Since my mind so quickly goes into the panicky zone when I see that zero, I’m teaching myself to respond in the opposite of deficit. Instead of calling up the plasma clinic, I dig around the cupboards and see what I can scare up, and then start cooking up a storm, stockpiling the freezer with veggies, burritos, homemade muffins, granola bars, and more out of whatever I have on hand. That way, it doesn’t look like I’m broke – it looks like I have a lot of choices (which I actually do!)  I take my frustration at not being able to go to the store and turn it into innovation – creating my own little store of food until my next paycheck.

Of course, we all have our limits. A few years ago when a couple I was friends with got their electricity turned off for not paying their bill, they started using their propane barbecue in their front yard as a way to heat up bath water. This isn’t something I personally could handle for very long, especially not in the cold winter. But the trick is to find whatever works for you personally – different things work for different people.

But whatever you do, don’t let panic hog the spotlight; after all, innovation is probably just waiting in the wings.

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