First Steps Out of Poverty

Right now, I’m poor. My income, such as it is, does not cover my expenses, and I have subsidized rent, low entertainment costs, and additional help from a variety of sources. I owe over forty thousand dollars in student loans, about four thosand in consumer loans (credit cards) and an unknown amount on my car loan, which will be done in March of next year.

I wear second-hand clothes, I drive an old car, I buy last-day-on-sale produce and meat from the supermarket.

I can’t say my life is all bad. It’s not even mostly bad. Mostly, I enjoy life, and I have fun — much more fun than I used to have, at any rate. Life used to be a lot worse. Perhaps you can relate. No credit cards to bail me out when my car needed repairs (I’d declared bankruptcy and had no job, so I didn’t think I’d qualify), daily phone calls from creditors, rent in arrears to the tune of two thousand dollars (that I’m still living where I’m living is a minor miracle!), trips to the food bank, and bank fees due to bounced cheques at least every other month.

Things have improved for me in the past few years, and I thought I might share how I got where I am, and how I’m planning to get where I’m going (which is debt free and financially stable), and what I’m currently doing to get there.

This past Sunday, all of the United Churches in my city held a joint service, with our moderator (the head of our denomination) preaching. He was talking to us about the changing church, and he gave a formula that I immediately saw was applicable to any change:


MC: Motivation for change. How much you’re willing to invest in a new life is determined by three factors. If any of those factors equals zero, any mathematician will tell you that the product, or the motivation for change, will equal zero.

FP: Felt Pain. I doubt there is anyone in the entire world who has not felt pain of any sort, except for perhaps an unborn child. In the case of those of us who are less financially well off than we would like, the felt pain comes in many forms. Friends going out for lunch, and you either have to say you can’t afford it, or you have to beg one of them to pay for your meal. No money for a Christmas tree or presents this year. No money to repair the car, so you’re walking everywhere. Phone calls harassing you for money you don’t have and can’t see yourself ever having. The pain is there, it’s real, and at times it’s intense enough to cause thoughts of suicide. I know this pain, and I’m betting you do too.

FV: Future Vision. This is one area that is a zero far too often, in my experience. Either that, or it’s so big and so unrealistic that it might as well be a zero. Take a moment to determine what you’d like life to be once you’re financially stable. Forget about the Mercedes and the gazillion room house on five hundred pristine acres and the endless round-the-world trips.They may, in fact, happen eventually. But they’re so far away from where you probably are now that you can’t envision yourself getting there, because you don’t know the right path. There’s no Google Map directions from here to there, or they involve some impossible feat like kayaking across the Pacific Ocean. (Google used to include that option if you tried to get to Japan from my home in Guelph. I just tried it, and it’s gone. 😦 Sanity rules, unfortunately…)

When making change, you need a vision that’s important enough to you so that you’ll work at it, and the more important, the better. You also need a vision that seems achievable enough so that you don’t get overwhelmed by the impossibility of it all, and so that you know what steps you need to take to get from where you are to where you want to be.

For honesty’s sake, my vision:

I will be debt free. I will own my own two or three bedroom bungalow on a smallish lot (but with a driveway). I will have an adequate income from a sustainable writing career. I will be physically fit and of a healthy weight. I will take a cross-Canada trip. (Or more than one.)

I will be deconstructing some of these goals in future posts, but for now I’ll only say that I came to choose these goals by thinking about what my needs are, what my values are, what in my current life was causing me the most felt pain (my debt, by far…), and by observing those of my friends who are actually financially stable and who have a lifestyle I would want to enjoy.

FS: First steps. It doesn’t matter how compelling and achievable your vision is. If you don’t do anything to get there, nothing will change. You must DO something, anything, even if it’s just a little bit. Even if it doesn’t seem like in the end it will mean much.

One thing I do every year, sometimes three or four times a year, is visit Algonquin Park. When I’m there, I go hiking on a lot of trails. Some of the trails are short and easy, some are short and difficult, some are of medium length, some are long. It doesn’t really matter how long or difficult the trail is, though. The most important steps aren’t those in the middle, or those at the end. They are those at the beginning.

Because once you’ve gone a certain distance (for me, usually about a half hour in, but it varies by person and length of trail), it seems like it’s just as difficult to go back to the starting point as to finish the darn trail. In other words, the more first steps you take, the more likely it is that you’ll reach your goal. I have never not finished hiking a trail once I’ve put in those requisite first steps. Once the starting line is a respectable distance away, I will continue. It’s painful at times. A few times I’ve wondered how I would reach the end, because some of those trails are ten or twelve kilometres long and take me most of a day to hike!

But giving up isn’t an option, because I’ve gone so far that turning back would be almost as difficult as finishing.

So it is in my journey out of poverty. I’ve taken those first steps, and I’m going to continue taking them until I’m finished the course and I’m out of poverty.

I’m hoping that some of you will join me in the journey, because another thing I’ve learned — having a companion or two also increases my likelihood of achieving my goals.

Who’s in for the ride?


About Ruth Cooke

Ruth Cooke B.A, M.Div., MPS is a writer, public speaker, and itinerant preacher whose areas of expertise and interest include poverty issues and solutions, parenting exceptional children, sexual orientation, and the place of religious institutions in society. If you would like Ruth to come preach, speak or lead a class or group, please contact her via email.
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2 Responses to First Steps Out of Poverty

  1. luciesmoker says:

    I believe if you can envision it, you can achieve it. You’re halfway there!

  2. turningthecurve says:

    Ruth, congratulations on your blog, and thank you for your courage and honestly and your fundamentally positive message. You have a great message and for what’s worth, I like your writing style. So keep it up, keeping writing, and always one more step forward — as you know, there will be peaks and valleys and plateaus with writing — and with blogging — but the views in that journey sustain us! Cheers!

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