We have all seen difficult times, so that’s nothing new.
My wife and I started our business at exactly the wrong time. Although we established it in 1967, we opened our first brick and mortar operation in 1972.
Within a year, the “big recession” of ’73 began.
Some of you might remember when you had to wait in line for hours to get gas for your car? Well, while trying to do some business in Miami, we ended up sleeping with our one-year-old son in the car all night at a gas station because we couldn’t find gas anywhere and couldn’t afford a motel.
Within another two years, we found ourselves on the brink of bankruptcy, filing a Chapter 11 action for protection. By grace and mercy, we worked our way through it, and survived to continue in business. During this time, we lived the kind of stories that most people only read about in books. But these experiences give me the right to speak about the high cost of being poor.
Struggling to Make Ends Meet
And we were poor. We were trying to present a solid front, while on the inside we were in a constant panic, always hyperventilating, always struggling; not to eat, but simply to breathe.
Desperate for change, we moved to Tampa. We had a flea-bag apartment there, but no electricity. So we borrowed power from a neighbor by running an extension cord to our home for a light and a television.
We purchased a new car in 1972, but keeping the payments up during a deepening recession was overwhelming, even for the relatively small payment of around $79. In 1972, that was a small fortune.
One day, while in the middle of a sale presentation to two of my best clients, a smug young man wearing a suit and tie burst into my office and, in front of my two buyers, announced that he was there to repossess my car. There were no words left in me.
They took our car, and without honor or dignity. At the time, that left us with two bicycles. We used to wait until our son was asleep, then ask a neighbor to watch him so we could take our bikes and backpacks three miles to the grocery store, where we spent an average of about $15 dollars worth of food for a day or two. That is, until the day our bicycles were stolen. Then we had to walk.
Is this for real? Yes. This is exactly what happened to us.
Being Poor Is Expensive
Poverty breeds stress. Stress destroys one’s body, and sickness is expensive. More expenses, more doctor bills, more poverty.
It’s the poor who tend to get hit with the most charges too. Poor people are usually asked to make higher down payments, are charged the highest interest rates and often get hit with every added fee a finance company can think of.
The big banks thrive on the fees of the poor — those who are like we were — for the sake of a two-cent overdraft. And we had to pay. And pay. To the bank, the overdraft charge was simply one more addition to their bottom line, one more notch for their shareholders to enjoy. For us, it was dinner. Or not. How many times did my wife and I eat the rice to give our kids the meat and veggies? The NSF fee was around ten dollars. But, so was dinner.
Our society will beat you up and beat you down. Meanwhile, our business was suffering more than ever, as the cost of being poor began escalating into the “intangibles” that actually were not so intangible after all. Every day we saw our business losses mount due to our obvious “lack of success,” as well as our lack of expectation for it.
But that’s where we found our greatest lesson: We didn’t have a clue what we are really worth, either in business or in life. Like most people, we were working far below our calling and potential. We were settling for “halfsies.” That is, half of what we’re worth, half of what we could do, and half of what we are gifted for.
Poverty sucks, but what it sucks is the very life out of one’s soul. Poverty steals our expectations. Poverty pushes us to desperation.
The Importance of Perseverance and Vision
The only thing we could do was persevere. If there are ever words to write on our tombstones, let them be “I didn’t quit.”
If we had anything going for us, it was a vision for the goal of succeeding in the art business. God said it first: Without a vision, the people perish. So we paid the bank fees. We paid the doctors. And we paid the interest rates. But we kept going.
Nor was credit the answer. Living on credit is like living on borrowed time: one day, we run out of both. So, we had to make some choices: buy everything with cash or go totally broke. We decided to cut up our credit cards. If we didn’t have the money, we didn’t buy. Even for larger purchases it was cash or nothing. We also bartered lots of great deals for food, gas, clothes and, later, even a decent car. A trade saved us from being evicted from our flea-bag apartment.
Over time we gradually began to see our lives change simply because of this: we were given a brain, an active imagination and some nerve to ask for what we needed, in exchange for what we had in our hands.
Even today, we still don’t use credit cards. If we can’t afford something, we either do without, or look at what we have in our hands to exchange. But, I must say that, since we made some of these life choices, we have lived better and are in greater comfort and security than we have ever in our previous years, and my wife and I both appreciate the security we have now.
What Do You Have In Your Hands?
In the past, everything used to be “money, money, money.” Now it’s, “What do I have in my hands?” Now it’s, “What am I worth?” Now it’s, “Will what I have benefit the other guy, so we can both win?”
The world of business is structured in such a way that it tells you what you are worth, usually in the form of a paycheck; but if you believe that, you will never rise above your station.
I never knew what I was worth until I asked. Over the course of my 70 years, I discovered that I am worth a great deal; much more than the world system tells me I am.
And here is something amazing: If I am fair with people and ask an honest exchange for value, most of the time they say “yes.” Sometimes it is money. Sometimes it’s goods or services. But the more I ask, the more I discover that I have many things in my hands. The more I use them, the more things I discover. It’s like a revelation of abundance that was always in my hands, but I was too preoccupied with money to see them.
So, let me ask you one more time: “What do you have in your hands?” If it’s only poverty, perhaps you should take another serious look at them.
About the Author
Gayle Tate is the founding owner and director of G. B. Tate & Sons Fine Art. His services include authentication and appraisal of fine art, and he has worked with federal authorities and art insurance companies to solve and prevent art fraud issues and theft in the marketplace. You are invited to visit his web site at http://www.gbtate.com.
Photo Credit: CoreForce
First Gen American says
It takes a lot of guts to start your own business. I think I would have given up a lot quicker than you.
Great story. I grew up pretty poor so I have a strong desire to keep my head above water and out of debt. Poverty itself is a big motivator to the lucky ones who’ve lived it but found a way out.
Thanks Len, for having Mr. Tate on board. His past articles have been interesting, but this one is revelatory.
Thanks Mr. Tate, you’ve given me a well needed kick. Never thought of bartering that way.
This was a great read. Thanks for posting.
Sandy B. says
What a great story! Thank you. You are so right. It’s entirely up to us if we want to dig ourselves out of that hole. But we have to want to do it.
This was a great read! And sadly, or perhaps happily, I can really relate to parts of it. I, too, was poor and homeless at one time in my life. I am female, and remember sleeping in parks as a 19 year old (not a good idea, BTW).
I will never have another credit card in my pocket again either!
Yep, look at your hands… : )
Miss T@ Prairie Eco-Thrifter says
Thanks for such an enlightening post Len. Really got me thinking. I am fortunate I have always had a roof over my head. Thanks for reminding me money isn’t everything.
No Debt MBA says
It’s fascinating that through being impoverished that you really learned to value your worth. One would think this would be something that those making a solid paycheck would be mulling over and that people in poverty wouldn’t have the stress-free moment to think about. Very motivating and thoughtful.
Amanda L Grossman says
Wonderful and brave story. Poverty is hard to look at sometimes.
I also have the habit of judging myself with my paycheck, but you are right, there are many other measurements than that.
Bret @ Hope to Prosper says
Amazing story Gayle and well told.
Unfortunately, I believe the kind of gritty self-reliance that was common in the ’30s to the ’70s has erroded significantly. The excuse box has grown popular, as the government bails everyone out and individuals have become masters of blame-shifting.
The good news is that I see the pendulum swinging back to the place where people were proud of their trials and accomplishments. And they were embarrased by their lack of fortitude, not the cars and clothes they owned.
Paula @ AffordAnything.org says
What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing something so personal and so stirring. I love that poverty taught you that you should value yourself more: your time, skills and talents. Too many people learn to put a low dollar figure on their time, figuring it’s free — but its not. Time is limited, and most of us, like you said, are worth more than we give ourselves credit for.
Everyday Tips says
Wow, what a struggle.
It is fascinating that you could pull yourself out of poverty and so many others cannot/do not. Does raw intelligence play a role? Work ethic? Luck? In other words, what makes some people rely on the government to take care of them, and others just dig deep and survive?
I can remember eating nothing but potatoes for more than a week, so my Hubby had gas money to get to work. And this was the early 80’s, also not a great time for the economy.
What a great story. Thanks for sharing it, and reminding us that believing in the power of your vision will give you the strength to persevere.
nice reading this.
In holland it not the same as in the states.
here is more secure but worse being bankrupt.
Nice seeing al this info
J.O. Mean says
Don’t know why I’m writing this…but ok here I go..
I have a gift Art …imagination…creativity..I think I create…I do..
My parents were drugies abusive humans ..and made me..into this..been dealing with bipolarism since I was 12.. its hard to keep jobs and dealing with people…but I have a gift to share with the world.. I won’t stop till it comes true..
Reading this article has opened something inside…I need earthy guidence…find me .. find me..Jay.
Very inspiring. Every young adult should read this, especially now that loan debts have taken a leap from $31,000 to $33,000 this year. Practicing frugality and setting up a realistic budget may be challenging, but it is worth in the long run. Not only because of your credit score, but also your relationships with other people. Poverty should be seen as an opportunity to learn how to save money and grow personally – but it should be as temporary as possible.
And not once there did the writer talk about visiting a government office for financial assistance. Inspiring!
Very inspirational story you have here. Sleeping for a night in a car at a gas station is not a joke and getting out of poverty takes a leap of faith. I agree with you there, I also do not get credit cards, which make buy “the-wants” and put me in debt.
This is fantastic. I really enjoyed reading this. I think if you’re broke you also learn a lot of DIY (do it yourself) out of necessity. Fixing your pants over and over and patching up your shoes the best you can because they are all you’ve got. My grandmother (she wasn’t poor but she came out of the Depression) would recycle meals like no other; left over lunch would be dinner, would be etc. It makes you conscious of how wasteful we are as a society today; how many things we take for granted today. I still re-use a LOT of things like grocery bags, etc because of what my grandmother passed down to her children (and therefore to me). Hope is HUGE. Some days you don’t know how you will make it to the next pay day, the next day, how you will survive, but you always find a way!
Len Penzo says
I agree, Kammi. Our forefathers were much more resourceful than we are today — because they had to be! We waste so much today; it’s very very sad.
Kate @ Money Propeller says
A very inspirational story and I really adore you and your wife for being so brave. When my father died last 7 years ago, aside that we lost our most important person, we were also lost financially. He was our breadwinner and we are a single family income. We almost gave up during that time, but we never let go of our faith.
Budget and the Beach says
“The world of business is structured in such a way that it tells you what you are worth, usually in the form of a paycheck; but if you believe that, you will never rise above your station.” So true! Great post!! Although my hard times usually don’t last too long, I’m in kind of a dark place career/income wise but I won’t give up either. I’m trying to find every way I can to “make it work.” Thank you for your inspiring post!
I love how you mentioned being poor is expensive. It seems contradictory to say but it is very true in the aspects of so much stress being added onto your body and mind.
Free To Pursue says
Refreshing. This post should be required reading.
Being poor is takes a lot of emotional and mental investment. Crazy just about says it.
RD Blakeslee says
This autobiography, and millions of variations on its self-reliant theme, are the summation of what made the United States a great and different kind of country. Is hubris causing us to lose it?
Pierrette Brousseau says
Great post – candid and refreshing! Anybody who takes things for granted MUST read this post.
I too have been there, too many times – throughout my childhood, teen years and as a young adult. Even as a small business owner, I would have to cut my own salary to give a pay increase to my staff. I took part-time freelance work to make ends meet.
I finally discovered my worth and am now working in a well-paid profession that utilizes my God-given skills and aptitudes.
Anybody who thinks owning a business and being poor is “glamorous” is a space cadet.
Paige Eaton says
Loved this. Thank you.