“There is a noble manner of being poor, and who does not know it will never be rich.”
After polishing off a drab homemade dinner of pasta, kidney beans, and canned peas all mixed together, reality smacked me in the face. After spending almost five years in the working world with a consistent salary and comfortable standard of living, I was sitting in a hostel kitchen electing to be “poor”. I felt stupid.
I’ve eaten more pizza, noodles, and premade convenience store sandwiches in the past four weeks than I have since college. My main vegetable is now French fry. When I look at my plate, I see mostly shades of brown. It’s frustrating when I reminisce about my protein and vegetable-rich diet before I left for Europe.
Granted, sometimes we eat these meals out of necessity or convenience: grabbing a quick bite at the train station before our train leaves; ordering pizza because we arrived late and everything else is closed for the night; eating bread and jam for breakfast because that’s what the hostel is serving. As any traveler can attest, these are all par for the course when traveling.
But more times than not, we eat these meals because we’re “ballin’ on a budget” and trying to make money stretch. This is especially challenging in countries like Iceland and United Kingdom, where the dollar is weak and cost of living is high. In Iceland, we learned to be ecstatic when finding a bowl of Thai noodles for under 1,300 Kroner (the equivalent of $10). Here in the UK, we jump for joy upon discovering a 3 Pound pint (about $5)!
When we have the luxury of a kitchen and an open grocery store, we’ll buy food and cook. That’s when we remember that a bowl of noodles for $10 is ridiculous. That’s also when pasta, kidney beans, and peas seem like a good idea.
To address my feelings of stupidity, I thought about the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who Tim Ferriss (one of my heroes who inspired me to take this trip) often cites in his books and blog posts. I won’t claim to be able to define Stoicism on my own, so here’s a definition from the world wide web:
Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.
One major destructive emotion is Fear. As a Stoic, Seneca believed in actively practicing poverty to help one face the fear of losing everything. Seneca advocated:
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”
Seneca would be proud. Over the next 180 days I “shall be content” with noodle concoctions and my new definition for safe to re-wear, which I admit is becoming more lax each day. But I’m finding he’s right — this isn’t so bad.
Side Note: The True Stoics
Two of my friends, Brian and Kelly, are hiking the Appalachian Trail. My scantiest of meals and roughest of dress pale in comparison to their journey. For stories from true Stoics, check out their blog at Brian and Kelly Hike the AT.
As I shoveled down the pasta, the feeling of stupidity soon passed and a wave of humility moved through me. I felt humbled because I knew that while I’m not actually poor, there are plenty of people who are. While I elected to take an unpaid leave from employment, there are thousands who can’t find work. Although I am only slightly practicing poverty, many are severely living it.
Then I found myself fantasizing about the luxuries I enjoyed only a couple short months ago while traveling for work. An expensed dinner at a decent restaurant. Made-to-order omelets at the hotel for breakfast. Drinking a beer because I like the way it tastes, not because it’s the cheapest. I appreciate these things infinitely more now than I did before.
But to my surprise, I was also appreciating the bland pasta concoction. I was sitting with two good Ohio friends and two new French-Canadian friends and having great conversation. I was warm, clothed, and full. I was happy. For the first time, I truly understood Seneca.
Tim Ferriss often cites Seneca on the subject of overcoming the fear associated with making a life-altering decision. Decisions like quitting your uninspiring job, ending the relationship when you know your heart really isn’t into it anymore, or veering off a traditional career path to do something more meaningful to YOU. For me, that decision was taking a “career break,” living in Europe for seven months, and becoming more intentional about creating my ideal lifestyle.
Let’s face it, it’s much easier to maintain the status quo and avoid ruffling feathers. It’s easier to maintain that comfortable job. It’s easier to convince yourself you should stay in that relationship. It’s easier to follow the paths of least resistance in career and in life. It’s easier to let dreams be dreams. But choosing the easy path now means there’s a greater price to pay later. That price is often your sanity, your freedom, and your ability to feel alive.
It’s a powerful thing to practice poverty. In addition to being a humbling experience and reminding me to be grateful, it stirs within me a burning desire to never let the lack of money get in the way of living the life I want and doing the things I want to do. It drives me to achieve a lifestyle of financial freedom and prosperity. But in doing so, I hope never to forget the lessons of humility and appreciation I am experiencing right now. To this point, another Seneca quote:
“The heart is great which shows moderation in the midst of prosperity.”
All that said, I’m still not doing a great job keeping to budget. Iceland and the United Kingdom are some of the most expensive areas in the world. And sometimes damnit, I just want to eat an English roast and drink a Guinness! I realize money would stretch a whole lot further in South America, Southeast Asia, or even Southern Ohio. But for this trip, I’d like to stay in Europe, so I’m rethinking where I’ll spend most of July and August. I’m considering spending less time in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and more time in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Has anyone spent time in either Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania? If so, do you have any tips, suggestions, or thoughts? Please write in the comments section or email me if so.