What Seeing Real Poverty Showed Me About Pretending to Be Poor

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A few weeks ago I shared my Thoughts From India and Lessons Learned In India (my first guest post). But as my henna fades, I’m afraid my convictions from my trip will, too. One insight I desperately want to remember is how seeing real poverty left me more motivated than ever to “pretend to be poor” in order to share more resources. Witnessing wide economic disparities firsthand was a poignant reminder that I’m just pretending; our lifestyle is truly luxurious by global standards. It was also a good reminder of why I’m pretending, and an encouragement to continue, so I can help those who aren’t just pretending.

By pretending to be poor, I mean living below our means so that we can have extra to give and save. We would never claim to actually be poor or deprived in any sense, and we’re quite content with our lifestyle. Our tongue-in-cheek title comes from a proverb and one of our main goals goals of financial flexibility is to help the destitute. In fact, I believe generosity can be a more effective motivator for wise financial habits than early retirement, financial independence, or even debt payoff. (Read why in the post Get Rich With Generosity.)

Meeting Arunachalam made child sponsorship come alive for me.

I didn’t visit the streets of Calcutta, but I saw one of the world’s largest slums, the massive encampment spanning the outskirts of the Mumbai airport grounds, described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I was comfortably bubbled behind the airplane window and can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to walk through its paths, but the sea of blue tarps that is home to one million people left an impression.

On our way to visit a village church we drove through narrow dirt alleys crowded by small, low-roofed homes. These are the real tiny homes, without the high-tech innovations to make them comfortable.

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Visiting a village church.

At a children’s home, I met hoards of kids whose parents can’t afford to take care of them. They are well cared for in the homes, but they still live in conditions we’d consider sub-par for our children—twelve to a room in bunks, with a small cubby for their personal belongings.

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Another team from our church visited a remote village that our church sponsors. Before the sponsorship program began, they had so little food that at times meals would consist of starchy water leftover from cooking.

In the streets, beggars, often with small children, knocked on our van’s windows. You want to help but you don’t know if they are being exploited, or if a small handout would do much good anyway. And you certainly can’t help everyone in this situation.

We all know this level of disparity exists, and you don’t have to travel the globe to see it. A few years ago I volunteered at an inner city after school program where many of the elementary-aged kids went home to empty houses and no dinner. But in everyday life we are largely sheltered from these extreme conditions. We don’t have time in our busy schedules to enter into the mess we know exists. So instead we simply feel sad when it comes up in conversation.

Evoking guilt is the furthest goal from my mind. I believe contemplating inequity and doing something about it can inspire us to resist our culture’s tide of lifestyle inflation like nothing else. As we deflate our lifestyle we aim to inflate our usefulness, in part by helping others. I wrote about how to Get Rich With Generosity & have experienced that giving away money is one of the best ways to become more disciplined with money. However, it’s not really about getting rich or poor, and certainly not about inflating my ego instead of my lifestyle.

Before my trip, I’d occasionally receive a letter from a charity we donate to, outlining a need and requesting additional funds. For the most part I viewed these letters as annoying. “I’m already giving what I want to give to this group,” I’d think and trash the letter without even reading it.

I just received a letter from the organization I traveled with, explaining their fundraising needs for a special training conference. Now that I’ve seen their ministry firsthand, I understand why supporting the conference is so important. Many of the pastors live on a very small stipend, provided by their own congregation after two years of outside sponsorship, and may lack basics such as electricity, shoes, or access to transportation. Far from an annoyance, this letter became a welcome opportunity to practice noblisse oblige and participate in God’s work across the world.

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Tribal group dancing before a conference.

I can’t respond to every letter by sending money, but I’m now equipped to make better decisions about these requests. I have a whole new schema for the realities in developing areas. More than ever I see sharing with others as a way of striving toward equality:  “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality”  (2 Corinthians 8:13).

No one can eliminate poverty, but we can help improve the life of one person. Or maybe two or three or ten. I encourage you to consider sponsoring a child in poverty. Many charities have a program for child sponsorship because the need is vast, as is the potential for impact. If you’re looking for a trustworthy group, I witnessed India Gospel League in action this summer, and friends of mine highly recommended Compassion International after seeing their work firsthand. Both are doing balanced, legitimate, cost-effective, holistic ministry to truly impoverished people.

Do you think helping others can be a financial motivator?

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27 Responses to “What Seeing Real Poverty Showed Me About Pretending to Be Poor”

  1. Hannah says :

    Great post! When I was in college, a friend encouraged us to start having “generosity with training wheels.” Even though we all earned less than $20K per year, this friend committed to researching the most cost effective donations if we would commit to giving to it. Combined 10 of us probably gave less than $300/month, but it was an excellent help to me. As my income has grown, my desire to give generously has normally grown to. Its an excellent motivator to living frugally.

  2. Indre says :

    The realities of poverty drift in and out as we get caught up in our everyday lives – our cushy lives. I am so grateful for reminders like yours, and letters I receive through the mail and internet. We just received our first letter from the child we sponsor through IGL. It came with his photograph and a very thoughtful letter and drawing from the child himself. It was so humbling to look at the photo of this very thin pale child, wearing his new, baggy birthday clothes (we provided through a gift) and a big smile, at the same time read his letter to us. He was so grateful and so happy to be at the childrens home, learning more about Jesus everyday and here’s the clincher…he is praying for our family. So very humbling, and so very motivating to do more!

  3. Currentlylovingsimplicity says :

    This post is such an important reminder. Giving to others can be a very powerful motivator. Have you read any of Peter Singer’s work? He has a similar stance on giving our resources to eradicate poverty.

  4. Abigail says :

    I think perspective is always a good way to keep on the straight and narrow financially. Once you see how others live, it’s often hard to feel sorry for yourself because you’re limiting the money you spend on X, Y, Z.

    Sometimes I feel annoyed that we’re having to be “so strict” with money to save for things like Tim’s teeth. Then I remember when we were struggling to pay down debt on $3,000 a month (with $1,200 going to rent and insurance).

    Granted, our expenses have expanded, but it’s a good way to remind myself of the various luxuries we’ve afford ourselves. So I can only imagine what a trip to India would do to my mindset.

  5. Melanie says :

    Beautiful post! I also want to achieve wealth so I can help others!

  6. DC YAM says :

    I had a similar experience when I went to Juarez, Mexico, after my freshman year of college. I saw poverty firsthand that I hadn’t seen in the United States. One reason I want to be financially independent before the traditional age of 65 is because I want to be able to focus my time, energy, and money on some of the “bigger problems” we face. We have some money taken out of each of my paychecks that goes towards a number of charities, but it would be nice to do a little bit more. Definitely motivating!

    • Kalie says :

      Sounds like your missions trip experience was very life-changing and formative. It’s great to hear from people who have similar goals for leaving the traditional workforce earlier than average.

  7. Luke Fitzgerald says :

    This is great perspective! I couldn’t agree more. Giving should be a big financial motivator. That’s the point of living within your means; the point of building wealth. Not to have a big bank account but to be able to help people and allow them to experience things they’ll never get to otherwise.

    Now, all of this is easier said than done. Am I doing all that I can right now? No. But that doesnt mean I’m going to stop trying! Great post!

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks, Luke. It’s great to hear from like-minded folk who value generosity. I’m sure we could all “do more” but it’s a balance between meeting needs now and in the future, and I don’t think there’s any one right formula.

  8. Josh says :

    Today is the first day I have stumbled on this blog but I will definitely be coming back. It is inspiring to see fellow millenials with a moral approach to life. My wife & I going through a career transition right now as I recently left a “good” Corporate job for a better work/life balance, so currently our generosity is more like the widow’s mite, but ultimately our goal is to give financially in charity as much as our monthly expenses are.

    We currently sponsor 2 Compassion children ourselves, but have never gone overseas to visit them.

    • Kalie says :

      It’s always great to hear from kindred spirits. Giving as much as you spend is a beautiful financial goal!

      Visiting sponsored children is obviously quite expensive and probably benefits the sponsor more than the child. My trip was planned for other reasons, but meeting the little boy was a wonderful bonus!

  9. Will says :

    When I was in college, I remember having to give a big presentation. I remember thinking, “There are millions of people who would LOVE to be in my shoes right now. Don’t be nervous, you pansy. Don’t fail when those other people would succeed, had they the opportunity.”

  10. Daniel says :

    Sounds like you had a great trip! Thanks for mentioning Compassion International. My wife and I sponsor 2 children through them, and they’re really a wonderful organization. We also occasionally volunteer at concerts for them (and get free concert tickets!), so there are other ways of helping some of these organizations in their mission when directly contributing money is tough.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, volunteering is a great way to help out and center your life around others, regardless of your financial means. That’s great your family has been able to help like that!

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