Review: Scratch Beginnings

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book.

scratchOne of the most common complaints I hear about on The Simple Dollar is that I’m writing financial suggestions for people who have already “made it.” To a certain extent, it’s true – many of the situations I write about assume you already have a certain level of income and financial security.

But what of those situations where such financial security isn’t a given? I hear often from readers who are truly stretching every dime they can get, even without the burden of a house payment or any significant debt – they simply aren’t bringing in much money, and they have to be creative with their choices. What can we learn from them?

That’s basically the premise behind Scratch Beginnings. The author, Adam Shepard, decided to take on the myths about what it takes to be successful in America. He started off with $25 in cash, the clothes on his back, and a gym bag (no job or anything else) and attempted to build the American dream in one year without using any of his contacts or personal accomplishments (in other words, a blank resume). His goal was to have, after one year, $2,500, a working automobile, and a furnished apartment.

Why do this? The point is to see how far away the American dream really is for a person with limited resources – no money, no assets, no contacts, no resume. Can that situation be the starting point for financial success? Let’s see if Adam was able to pull it off.

1 – Welcome to Crisis Ministries
Upon Adam’s arrival in Charleston, with only $25, a sleeping bag, a duffel bag, and the clothes on his back to his name, he makes his way to a homeless shelter in a rough part of town – the aforementioned Crisis Ministries. The place looked neat enough from the outside, but was squalid inside – dirty floors, unclean showers, bathrooms that appeared to have never been cleaned. Even worse, the homeless shelter is surrounded by drug use and other temptations, and unscrupulous employers are constantly getting workers from the shelter and employing them in very difficult, low-opportunity jobs. In other words, virtually every easy opportunity at the bottom rung is fraught with challenges.

2 – EasyLabor
Adam’s first full day in town was spent working for one of the employment agencies that recruited homeless people. Unsurprisingly, he worked for less than minimum wage that day, but it did earn him enough to buy some clean clothes and a bit of extra food (for lunches) at the Family Dollar. The intriguing part of the tale comes later when Adam converses with the other people living at the shelter and they swap background stories – almost all of them are variants on the same story. Several little pieces of bad luck – any one or two of which could have easily been dealt with – added up to a fall to this lowest rung on the socioeconomic ladder.

3 – Another Day, Another Dollar
Three real lessons stuck out from this chapter that can really apply to anyone in a low wage situation. First, never turn away an opportunity for help. If you’re in a situation where you have little or no income, contact social services and see what’s out there for you. The programs are there for you – take advantage of them, or else the resources simply go to waste. Second, utilize your library for as much as possible. When Adam stopped by the library to use the free internet access, he found that a lot of the homeless people from the shelter – at least the ones with a degree of self-motivation – were already there, using the ‘net for job searches and other things. Finally, connect with people in your situation, because they likely have at least a strategy or two that you can use to help your situation. Adam learned quite a bit simply from listening and connecting with others at the homeless shelter.

4 – Big Babies
Right here is where I fell in love with this book, because Adam really begins to use frugality to his advantage here. From delayed gratification – passing up a tempting meal that would have cost him $5 and waiting instead for a lesser but free meal at the shelter – to simply pinching pennies by washing his clothes in the free shower and hanging them out to dry instead of dumping coins in the washing machine, Adam saves dollars time and time again, and with little income (earning only $14 after taxes and “fees” for a day’s work, for example), it makes a huge difference. Another lesson – don’t look down upon people. Adam and his temp-job compatriots were given the bum’s rush several times – and outright lied to – by various employers for no good reason. From their perspective, resentment (and likely some anti-social behavior) actually makes some degree of sense – and that can cost you.

5 – Sundays with George
Don’t look down upon any job that can earn you a solid wage. I often hear stories about how Americans simply won’t do certain jobs and thus immigrants tend to take them. That is a huge mistake, especially if you can earn good money doing it – and good money means you take home more per hour than you would doing other things. For example, Adam literally spends two hours shoveling dog feces for $10 in cash an hour. That’s far, far more than minimum wage, but it’s a humiliating and exhausting job – but it’s a worthwhile trade if you’re really committed to getting ahead. Another key lesson – join a church. Most churches will go a long way to help out a member who is truly in need.

6 – Hustle Time
Another key lesson: do whatever you can to earn a few extra bucks. In Adam’s case, he became a cigarette reseller. He didn’t smoke, but he invested some of his cash in a carton of cigarettes, kept a pack in his pocket, and sold them for a quarter a pop. That earned him $5 a pack – $50 a carton – and that made for a very tidy little profit for him. Find whatever you can – that little edge, particularly one done with little effort, can make a big difference.

7 – Job Hunting 101 with Professor Phil Coleman
If you read one bit about this book, let it be this one. One particular anecdote from this chapter inspired me. One of the people at the homeless shelter that Adam was staying at had lived there for almost a year, doing odd jobs and seemingly keeping his nose clean, but not seeming to really go anywhere with his life. One evening, he suddenly revealed his plan to his caseworker by pulling out his wallet and showing her thousands of dollars in cash. He had been saving every dime he could while living at the shelter and intended to use that cash to put a down payment on a duplex across town, living in one half and renting out the other half. The man was thinking ahead and using what little resources he had in hand to build something grand for himself. That earns my respect, indeed.

8 – Put Up or Shut Up
If you want a job, sell yourself. Don’t submit a tired old resume. Don’t go into a job interview with a bunch of “yes” and “no” answers. Sell yourself. It doesn’t matter what job you’re applying for – a programming job or (as is the case with Adam) a moving job. Go in there and tell the boss exactly why you’re the person for the job. Doing so can do nothing but help you – at the very least, you’ll stand out from the crowd of applicants.

9 – “First and Last Day”
The biggest difference between people who get ahead and people who stick in the same rut is the motivation to make that change. When you get up in the morning, do you bemoan the fact that you have to head off to a job, or do you feel happy because of the opportunity that you’ve got and intend to work hard to get ahead? That simple question is often the one that separates the wheat from the chaff.

10 – Adventures in Moving
The primary lesson here is playing the game with the hand you’re dealt. If you spend all your time complaining and griping about the situation you’re handed, you’re going to simply miss out on tons of chances to succeed. For example, one night Adam failed to get back to the shelter on time. He could have spent much of the night complaining about it – instead, he immediately found a blanket and then located an isolated place to sleep outside for the night, ensuring that he got plenty of rest so he could still be productive at work the next day.

11 – Movin’ on Up
Persistence is another key to success in the workplace. You might be forced to work with a person you don’t like – but if you keep your focus on the task at hand and don’t let those others grind you down, eventually things will change. The problem comes when you let those other negative factors make you negative – and then you become part of the problem. Even through a broken toe and an awful partner at his moving job, Adam kept working and rolling – and eventually, he wound up with a much better partner, earning more money and getting better moving jobs while the troublemaker found his way out of the company.

12 – Workers’ Consternation
Here, the valuable lesson is actually for managers and business owners, particularly those who employ a staff of low-wage workers: treat the employees like people. Be there for them when they need you. Eat lunch with them. Know things about their lives. Compliment them when they do well, and stand up for your employees even at times when it might cost the business some money. Do those things and you’ll earn far more money than you will by cutting every corner and fighting for every penny. Everyone values being respected.

13 – Winter with Bubble Gum
Eventually, Adam found himself in a common position for people beginning to stretch out on their own: he sought a roommate. Through his social connections that he’d built over the first half-year of his experience, he found someone interested in getting an apartment that was also fine with getting a very low-end place that would be cheap – and that they could focus on fixing up. This saved them a lot of money in two ways – cheap rent, plus free time eaten up with home repair tasks.

14 – Culture Shocked
Largely, this chapter discusses socializing without a budget, and that mostly revolves around simply searching around for compatible people, which you can find in many places if you’re willing to look for them. Adam hangs out with a lot of co-workers and through them meets a cadre of interesting people.

15 – Fighting for Respect
On the surface, this chapter retells a fist-fight that Adam gets involved with, but the true nature of the story is that Adam is actually developing a place in the world, with strong relationships with other people, a sound financial base, and a lot of promise for the future.

16 – One Last Move
The book largely winds up here, with Adam leaving town to take care of an ailing parent, having succeeded on his quest. His concluding remarks, spread out here and through an epilogue, largely focus on the fact that no matter what life throws at you, you can take ahold of it and make something better out of it.

Some Thoughts on Scratch Beginnings
Here are three things I think I think about Scratch Beginnings.

Adam does have a few advantages here. Although he starts off with just $25, his clothes, and a blank resume, he has much more than that – a social personality, a strong work ethic, and good health. Not everyone has those elements, but I think this book makes a profound argument that those elements can easily be used to pull yourself out of a bad situation.

Frugality underlies everything. None of this would have worked if Adam hadn’t been trying every frugal tactic he could think of, particularly early on. His success in saving $5,000 didn’t just come because he was earning a solid wage at the moving company – it came because he made a genuine effort to save money and cut corners where he reasonably could, and he wasn’t tempted to spend the difference, either.

If nothing else, the book is an excellent yarn. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and was sad to see it end. Shepard is a strong writer with a good sense of making even the most mundane things seem interesting.

Is Scratch Beginnings Worth Reading?
Scratch Beginnings is a thoroughly entertaining (and somewhat enlightening) book about the realities of living at the low end of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s substantially more appealing and relevant than Barbara Ehrenreich’s similar Nickel and Dimed, which I disliked. It’s also readable and enjoyable enough that I had difficulty putting it down when I began reading it, consuming it almost in one straight shot.

Will you come away from the book with some great insights into frugality and how to save money? Probably not. Will it provide some enjoyable reading along with some food for thought about what it really takes to succeed in America? Undoubtedly, yes. And because of that, I thoroughly recommend this book – it was enjoyable and thought-provoking from beginning to end.

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