Thoughts on wealth and poverty

A former Portuguese colony in Mumbai

Greetings. You may not have seen me write so much on here, but I am still writing. For the last little while, I’ve been putting out a monthly newsletter. I wrote this article for the July newsletter, based on some impressions (probably superficial) after a brief visit to India. And seeing a I was waxing philosophical, I thought I would share with you here.

Have you travelled to India? Or any other countries where there is a huge disparity between the haves and the have nots? How did you find it?

A few weeks ago I was in Mumbai for a week-long talk-fest.  I hadn’t been to India before, and although I’ve been to places in Southeast Asia, I couldn’t help but feel a bit confronted by the glaring differences in how people lived.

I’d seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire years ago, but somehow I thought that Mumbai was now a major, developed city.  But as the plane glided over shanty towns covered in tarpaulin and plastic, I could see that there were still a lot of underprivileged areas.  Much of the city, in fact.

Once I was inside my five-star hotel, it was an oasis of cool and calm privilege.  Room service was extra kind to me and kept me stocked with flowers and extra chocolates.  Actually, probably because I said thank you and was nice – and provided feedback – room service gave me extra flowers.  And chocolates.  I felt a bit like a queen in her castle.  But still, I couldn’t help but wonder about the people across the road and how they were managing under their plastic roofing in the monsoonal rain.

I wasn’t content to just spend my time ensconced in a hotel bubble, so I made sure I went out at least once a day. I shopped for fruit and bread at the local markets.  I enjoyed leisurely breakfasts in my room rather than at the buffet, before discovering a local place that made nice dosa. When I didn’t have scheduled events in the evenings, I ventured out to local restaurants.  I enjoyed my daily forays into my local surrounds – until I nearly walked over a freshly dead rat. People later told me I was lucky not to have encountered a dead body.

A friend told me recently that The Joyful Frugalista is like a savings guide for rich people. I was a bit put out by this description, but it is probably true. I draw a comfortable salary in the middle upper range, and so does my husband Neil.  That puts us in the upper-middle-class bracket within Australia.  And once our investment assets are taken into account, we are within the top 1 per cent in the world in terms of wealth.  

Yet I am still frugal, and indeed I feel I NEED to be frugal in order to achieve my (our) money goals.  It’s not always easy as we often are in situations where we are expected to spend money – like going out with friends and reciprocating with birthday and other presents.  Weirdly enough, it can be harder to save when you are in a higher income bracket as there are greater social expectations to spend – like everyone at work going out to lunch or feeling you need to give expensive presents at Christmas.  And ultimately, it’s not how much you earn but how well you save that determines your overall financial position.

I often wonder how people – including many The Joyful Frugalista readers – manage who do not have a consistent or solid income.  Or for those who have chronic health conditions that make it difficult to work full time and leave them struggling to pay bills.  My Neil was lucky to have had more than enough leave when he had his heart attack 18 months ago – plus a supportive work environment that allowed him to transition back to work.  Another man who had been in hospital at the same time was several months on, unable to work full time and unable to support his family. 

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that poor people all live in developing countries and all Australians are wealthy. Yes, we are comparatively wealthy on average and – in general – we don’t face the same levels of systemic poverty.  Most of us have a roof over our head, for instance, and we have drinkable tap water and basic health care.

But not everyone in our community is so lucky. Canberra, for instance, has the second highest rate of homelessness in Australia and many people sleep rough in sub-zero temperatures in winter.  There are degrees of poverty and I am conscious that the struggle is real for many people.

For those of you who are doing it tough this winter, or who know of people doing it tough, I wish that you have the resilience and fortitude to get through.  There are times when it is okay to ask for help, and in fact, times when you need help. And if you are able to give, this time of year many charities (such as UnitingCare Kippax) need things like jackets, blankets and food to help those who are struggling.

And as the global economy – including our economy – sails into uncertain waters it is likely that more and more of us will do it tough.  It is easy to see money as a mark of whether we have made it or not rather than just being a store of currency. So facing money problems bought on by things like failed investments, illness or losing our jobs is not just an issue of dollars and cents, but something that can affect our mental health as well.

As for my friend who described my book as a savings guide for rich people, it turned out she had her own backstory of financial resilience that brought her through tough times.  And she bought a second copy of The Joyful Frugalista – to give to her high income, spendthrift daughter as a bit of a hint.  (I find quite a few parents buy my book as ‘presents’ for their children LOL.)

Wishing you warmth and abundance this winter.

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