A New Perspective On Meeting Basic Needs

Last week I mentioned that I was reading the book Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, by Adam Shepard. The book chronicles the real-life journey of Shepard, who upon finishing college turned over all his worldly possessions to his brother, and began a social experiment of his own. Armed with only $25 and a mostly empty gym bag, he hit the streets of Charleston, SC to try to make it out of poverty in one year or less.


In the first 25 pages of the book you are instantly reminded of what it is like to have nothing but the clothes on your back. Actually, I shouldn’t say “reminded” because many of us have never experienced that feeling before. I’m not talking about being down and out for a few weeks, or struggling to make ends meet, I’m talking about having absolutely nothing. No car, no home, no job, no money, no food, no health care, and no network of friends to help. And from this Shepard was to rise to the ranks for the fully employed, find a place to live and sock away a respectable about of money in savings.

Besides an engaging look at what it’s really like to be homeless in America, Scratch Beginnings made me aware of a couple things that I had forgotten since becoming accustomed to a steady paycheck and having all of my basic needs met without giving it much thought. There are many people out there wondering where they will get their next meal, or their next job, or their next opportunity for work. This is especially true in this time of prolonged recession with many people finding themselves unemployed.

Shepard describes his first big win after a day of hard labor netted him $28.61. Combined with the whopping $20.27 he had left over from his $25 starter fund, this left him with $48.88 to start building a personal supply of basic items.

From the book:

Before heading to her home on the north side of town, Cicely dropped me off up the street from the EasyLabor at Family Dollar, where I made my money count. All of it. I bought six pairs of underwear, a six-pack of socks, six white undershirts, a stick of deodorant, a toothbrush, an eight-pack of Ivory soap, shampoo and conditioner, a towel, a washcloth, a roll of toilet paper for emergencies, and a week-long supply of an assortment of potted meat and crackers that I would eat for lunch.

It’s probably safe to assume this list doesn’t represent what most of our lists looked like from our most recent shopping trip. Notice there were no CDs, no bottles of expensive wines, no home decorating items, and no expensive toys. Nope, just basic necessities. Shepard was satisfying those needs for shelter, clothing and food first. Later, he would go on to add transportation, a job, and his own place to stay by sticking to his initial plan of only spending money on things that were absolutely necessary to his survival.

Most reading this are probably in much better situations than those described in the book living in the Crisis Ministries shelter in Charleston, SC. However, that doesn’t mean we cannot apply these same lessons. Intellectually, we all know that savings in merely a function of spending less than you earn. But many people are convinced a requirement for building savings is earning a lot of money. Not true.

In fact, I know plenty of examples of people who earn a ton of money and have very little, if any, savings. Conversely, I know people who earn a modest amount of money, but have healthy emergency funds and long-term savings. Scratch Beginnings really drove that point home for me, and from a frugal living perspective was the major take away from following Shepard’s story.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add a disclaimer for those interested in reading Shepard’s book. The language is raw and unedited from conversations he had with those in the shelter and at various jobs. It did not bother me, but it may not be suitable for young readers (pre-teen or younger). In a way I wish some of that had been left out of the book to expand the audience to younger people, but in the end I was glad Shepard left it in because it added to the authenticity of his experience. An experience that I hope more people will read and learn from in their struggle to lift themselves out of a life of poverty.


  1. That sounds like a good book and quite a humbling story to read. If he can get from $25 to a job, house etc then imagine what can be done starting from more.

  2. Sounds like a great read! I just held it at the local library. I think it will give me a fresh look on life and help me realize the things that I have are not necessities. Some people seem to forget that.

  3. I was of the same opinion that it would be great for teens to read it, but with the language it won’t make it thru the censors to a school library (I don’t think) nor to the required reading list.

  4. I’m definitely going to buy and read this book.

    It will be a welcome antidote to Barbara Ehrenrich’s “Nickled And Dimed”, in which she attempted to get by on minimum wage (with the added advantage of a car and a start-up fund) in a variety of different cities. I read “Nickled And Dimed” and was disgusted by it. Unfortunately Ms. Ehrenrich tried to make a minimum-wage income cover a far more lavish lifestyle than was appropriate. She insisted on living (solo, without a roommate) in hotels instead of renting a room or teaming up with another person. She never went within sniffing distance of day labor and was unwilling to work more than a 40-hour week. She bought clothing from the Gap and groceries from a grocery store instead of a dollar store, and she consistently spent money on alcohol or missed job opportunities due to illegal drug use. She did not change locations to take advantage of employment opportunities. So her experiment was basically set up to fail. Unfortunately, instead of admitting that she had no intention of actually doing what real working-class people do, or admitting that at least some of the botched situations were her fault, Ehrenrich turned the experiment’s failure into an indictment of “the system” and of business owners who weren’t generous enough to little old out-of-shape her, and who were not sufficientely awed or impressed by her education (which she did not advertise). This has endeared her to the far left, who use her book to illustrate why more should be taken from the productive savers and given to the voluntarily unproductive spenders.

  5. @Squeaky: If you didn’t like Ehrenrich’s book, you’ll love this one, as Shepard does all the things she was unwilling to do for basic survival. Some have argued that he had advantages, such as being a young, white, male with a college degree. However, after reading the book I found little evidence that he used race, education, age or status to gain an unfair advantage. He simply out-hustled others to improve his standing.

  6. To Squeaky, re Nickle and Dimed

    First of all, Ehrenrich’s book wasn’t entirely the same premise.

    Second, and more relevant, she was an older woman at the time of writing this. As an older woman,whose physical condition could not necessarily allow her to work unlimited hours or at hard labor, her options were not the same as a young guy who could easily get day labor.

    Third, as a woman of any age, you have to be careful, for security reasons, of sharing space with anyone. Sometimes sharing options aren’t available, sometimes they are not desirable.

    It’s been awhile since I read her book so I don’t remember her rationale.

    You clearly hated the book for other reasons.

    FYI: The system as you call it does not reward hard work, initiative and/or education. We’ve all seen this first hand, perhaps you haven’t.

    You’re naive if you think working hard and/or long gets you anywhere in this country.

    Not convinced? There are several million men and women of all ages and backgrounds who will show you how little they have after a life of hard work, no treats and toys. If you’ve never lived on minimum wage, for real or experiment, you’re really not qualified to “judge” her or anyone else.

    Opinions are fine and you’re entitled to yours.

    Mine is that her book did a lot to get people with money and comfort to become aware that not everyone could survive even though they worked and didn’t ask for help or handouts.

  7. Thank you so much for this! I have heard about this book and really wanted to read it. But I am way to sensitive to handle the graphic language. This is an excellent review and gives one plenty of food for thought. I’d love to hear more on this.
    Mrs. White

  8. I think that “Squeaky’s” slam of Ehrenreich’s book was totally off the wall and unnecessary here. I’ve read “Nickel and Dimed” twice and it is a superb account of a journalist making a journey into life as a struggling hourly wage earner.

    Certainly Ehrenreich – as she temporarily moved from the cushion of academia to the real life of working America — set boundaries for her experiment, which she freely and clearly describes in her book. It is an excellently written and credible account and by no means merits the negativity in Squeaky’s comment.

    For instance, the “hotel” that Squeaky alludes to was a rundown by-the-week rental that Ehrenreich had to resort to while looking for something more affordable in the Twin Cities (and after her free house sitting gig ended).

    And there were very few instances in the book of Ehrenreich spending frivolously. In fact, her lack of clothing was a standing theme and she relates a couple of incidents about either wearing dirty clothes to work, feeling under dressed at an interview, or pondering how people working retail can afford to buy the clothes they sell.

    I read Frugal Dad’s blog regularly, and I had to jump in today and comment on what I see as a misportrayal of Nickel and Dimed, which I believe is a really good description of one woman’s experience of the reality of working class life in America. Ehrenreich is a facile and enjoyable writer and I think most people reading Frugal Dad’s blog would likely enjoy her book a great deal.

  9. A great reminder for when we are facing tough times. I was laid off and feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t found a job in months despite working as hard as I can at it. It’s hard to feel for myself after reading this story.

  10. I am really grateful for the comment by:

    “10. Pamela”

    By the negative comment on “Nickel and Dimed” I got the impression that it wasn’t worth reading. Thank you Pamela for sharing your perspective!

  11. Having read “Nickle and Dimed” when it was published I came away at first on the author’s side. Then after looking at it again with my critical thinking cap on, I realized that she was “slumming” for background for her book. As I recall, she still had her laptop to keep notes of her expierences. She had the ability to leave the poor life anytime she wanted to and did when she had enough for the book. Yeah, plenty of people live poor do to their parental upbringing and never break the cycle-but lots do. When I worked in the county jail I saw people in there mostly due to poor choices, theirs or their parent’s. Made me want to throw the parents in jail for how they raised their kids. Like C. Dickens wrote..ignorance and want. Unfortunately the life is not fair, crap happens. Most succeed by dealing with the hand delt in life. As did the author of Scratch Beginnings.

  12. woops “due” to their parental….

    P.S. Ehrenrich reminds me of the author named Andrews (NY Times financial guru) that recently wrote a book about buying too much house with a spendthrift wife. Wrote a book and got out of the red. Many authors work their story to support a pre concieved notion. Hmm, housing market screws people, the man is keeping me down, etc.

  13. I love these topics, it sounds like my kind of book. This type of experiment, even if we only do it as a thought experiment, is good for us all now and then. I live pretty frugally as a grad student, but compared to this guy there’s lots I could still cut out. And I don’t even have a TV!

  14. I lived in Charleston SC for several years. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention FD. I had not heard of it.
    I read Nickle and Dimed and thought it was a very good read. I understand people have strong opinions about it, but it helped me understand the “working poor” in unique ways.

  15. @Pamela and IRG:

    I read both Ehrenrich’s books. I thought her second one (the one about trying to find a white-collar job in middle age without any real qualifications or experience) was very good. I’ve done several of the jobs in “Nickled And Dimed” and also filthier and more degrading ones, and I can sympathize with the author’s aching back. But I’m still not going to praise an experiment that was designed to fail.

    Barbara E. gave herself one to two months per location to see if she could get by. Anyone else, on moving to a new location, expects to struggle the first little while and then learn how to live there cheaply or make the most of a lucky break. Moving around was not the act of someone who expects to succeed.

    To presume to “live as poor people live and try to get by” without being willing to actually do as they do (such as building strong social connections, getting a roommate, and staying away from illegal drugs while applying for jobs at drug-free companies) is pretty arrogant.

    One of the reason Barbara E. makes so many mistakes in the book and misses the good deals is because although she claims to respect her new peers, she doesn’t respect them enough to ask their advice about where to shop, what to buy, or what other things to try. Maybe that’s why she never applied for a temp agency or at a manpower office, or babysat someone else’s kids. There are plenty of middle-aged, unhealthy women who work more than one job or who moonlight. The author’s age and gender would actually have been an asset for about a quarter of the day labor or temporary work out there. Someone who’s looking for a babysitter is not likely to choose a 22-year-old male over a middle-aged female if all other factors are equal.

    Any person should exercise common sense when selecting a roommate, but for the author to be completely unwilling to consider a roommate or a rented room in someone else’s house “because she’s female” is bogus. Female grad students share space all the time. So do an awful lot of female senior citizens. Gender does not entitle a person to a higher level of privacy and security (that is, to a higher standard of living) than her income will support. That’s one principle the author’s working-class peers understood very well. Maybe that’s one reason why they were able to get by, and continue getting by and providing for themselves and their children, while she floundered.

  16. I recently finished “Scratch Beginnings” and LOVED it!

    What impressed me about Shepard was that he was willing to WORK, doing whatever necessary to make the money he needed. He didn’t consider anything “beneath” him. Yes, he had the advantages of being a young, physically-fit single male, but he also had the perseverance and ambition to reach his goal.

  17. Frugality….. rich dad said never be frugal.
    Don’t be cheap, be smart but don’t be lavish…(quoted from somewhere I do not know)
    Too much of something is bad enough, too much of something is just as tough, by spice girls.

    We’re humans, we have the right to enjoy and be happy. So sometimes, we just need to buy us things even if it’s not a necessity. Even if it means sacrificing a month’s savings. “SOMETIMES”

  18. jeq – “rich dad said never be frugal.”

    Kiyosaki is an idiot, or rather he’s smartly selling idiotic advice. Ask him where he got his money. Real estate? hmmm Selling books to millions of saps by telling them how to make millions of dollars? more like it

    Also, I don’t think you understand the definition of frugality, so let me help you out: it means economical in use or expenditure; not wasteful. A frugal act can be deciding to not buy that $60,000 car so that you can instead take a $5,000 vacation every year and still pocket the additional $6,000 per year you wouldn’t be paying on your car loan. Then again, if you don’t like vacations and would get more satisfaction and use from the car, then go for it when you save up the cash.

    Money is a tool. Waste it, and you’ll struggle. Hoard it, and you will miss out on living. Find the balance that works for you and live your own life. Oh, and stop giving more money to people like Kiyosaki, Trump, and anyone else who sells you the get rich secrets. They only write those books because they sell more copies than prudent financial advice books: they know the true secret to get rich and it lies in your being human analogy. Most people want to be rich, and many will spend themselves into the poor house on books and dvds and seminars that will teach them to be rich. It’s just their human nature. They’ll also spend more on lottery tickets than savings bonds, go figure.

  19. Sure, that’s the American dream; this is the class of people the American dream is made for. Cool, so a young, healthy, highly educated white male with no mental or physical disabilities is able to do this. Who is really surprised?

  20. The $25 story is bs. Tell you why. Because it is easy for a person with a positive frame of mind to begin from nothing. MUCH MUCH MUCH harder for a person who has been negative and downtrodden for years and years and years.

    There are many stories of millionaires who lost everything and became millionaires again. Not many stories of people who grew up in abusive environments becoming millionaires.

    Sure. It gives some inspiration. But you need to look at the realism of life, about nickel and dime, and how depression is what stops people from climbing back up. Adam Shepard has that motivation to lose everything, to go on the journey, of course he will succeed!…. He knew before he started he would.

    Not so easy for people who have been down in the dumps for years.