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Making a virtue out of a necessity

Many years ago when we lived in Oregon, our county was electrified by the news that a local person had won the lottery. Days, then weeks ticked by with the mysterious winner still unknown. Oregon residents were being called, half-jokingly, by long-distant relatives asking, “Is it you?” leaving many to distrust the motives for the call.

As it turns out, the winners – an older couple of modest means with 40 years of solid marriage behind them – were making careful plans before claiming their prize. They were setting up trust funds for their children and grandchildren, putting aside a portion for charitable giving, and planning investments. Oh, and they hired a company to install a security system in their small home. Only when their plans were in place did they step forward to claim their prize.

This couple was a rare example of lottery winners who dealt with their newfound wealth with intelligence and a cool head. Their careful planning was justified. The moment they were identified, they were besieged by a storm of “friends” and “relatives” crawling out of the woodwork, asking for loans, pleading hardship, wanting favors. The winners routinely referred all supplicants to their attorney. A year after the firestorm of attention had died down, they were able to continue their quiet lives immeasurably wealthier but still stable and intact.

I know this because the local media scheduled follow-up interviews each year to see how their lives had changed. This couple was able to report with pride that their children and grandchildren were not being ruined by money, but were handling this unexpected windfall with care and maturity, unlike so many sad tales of other winners.

In other words, this couple utilized the strength of their frugal, solid foundation and strong marriage to make sure they were not ruined by wealth.

Lottery winnings appear to exaggerate whatever foundation is already in place. If lottery winners are stable and mature, they emerge from their windfall better off. If lottery winners are unstable and immature, they emerge with shattered relationships and bitter regret. The news is full of sad stories of winners who squandered their money within a year or two and were left with a broken family and few friends.

Now of course few of us will ever face the challenges (or rewards) of winning big bucks. But it seems the same type of outcomes appear in the aftermath of economic downturns as well. As the economy worsens, many of us are faced with monetary woes: missed mortgage payments, unpaid credit-card bills, phone calls from collection agencies and other complications of job loss or underemployment.

“It occurs to me,” notes Gary Foreman of The Dollar Stretcher website, “that people who have lived frugally in times of plenty have learned that happiness is not measured in material things. So their lifestyle is already adjusted to leaner times, like we have now. Henry David Thoreau said, ‘That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.'”

Gary, whose professional career has been spent aiding people on how to live a frugal and responsible lifestyle, has it exactly right. If someone can be stable and happy living lean during fat times, they stand a much higher chance of staying happy and stable even in hard times.

I take comfort in that. All those years during which my husband and I lived close to (and occasionally below) the poverty line has translated into a solid foundation that will serve our family well during the harder economic times we believe lie ahead.

When frugality is forced upon someone, they can either fight it or embrace it. They can make it a living hell, or they can tap their creative resources and rise to the occasion.

Throughout history, poverty has been the norm rather than the exception – poverty of a kind we can barely grasp. It’s well-known that the kings of old lived with less material wealth and less food security than all but the poorest in our country today. In the past half-century, we’ve experienced an unprecedented amount of material acquisition, wealth and economic stability. That’s the upside. The downside, as any old timer will tell you, is we can get too dependent on easy living.

And we’ve forgotten the positive things that come with hard times. As Gary suggests, the nonmaterial things will – or should – take on a new significance when things are tough. Our families, our friends, our faith, our health and all other blessings we take for granted in good times will be more appreciated when our material lives are impacted.

Don’t mistake me; I wouldn’t wish an economic depression on my worst enemies. But like it or not, a depression may be coming (for many it has already arrived), and most of us have no experience in coping with that kind of adversity. When we’re faced with the inevitable, we can either rise up with dignity or fall into the abyss.

I have no illusions that if/when truly hard times hit, we will be joining hands and singing Kumbaya. People don’t do that anymore, at least on a national scale. Instead we’ll be stressed, angry and scared. The prevailing mindset in America today dictates that it’s impossible to face hardship without blaming someone else. As a result, many will refuse to take actions that might help themselves.

There are few of us who have not been negatively impacted in one way or another by this Great Recession. Many have lost homes, jobs and possessions. But can our dignity be taken away? Can our blessings of friends and family be taken away? There’s an old expression that says, “That which cannot be cured must be endured.” How we will endure will say a lot about us.

The strongest metal is forged in the crucible of fire. The greatest generation was forged in the crucible of the Depression. What will an economic crash create?

I would like to think it will produce pure gold. But if so, we’d better get started refining ourselves now.