Can you Scratch your Way to Success?


homeless shelterTo start this game of let’s-pretend, take all the money out of your wallet except for $25.  If you have less than $25, put in the additional cash to get to $25.  If you don’t have the additional cash anywhere, skip to the end of this post – you don’t need to play this game.

$25 is actually a pretty useful amount of money.  You could fill the gas tank of a small car, buy a couple of pizzas, or take your honey to the movies, complete with popcorn.  $25 feels pretty comfortable in the old wallet.

However, you can’t afford to have fun with your $25.  You have to live on it.  It’s all the money you have in the world until you can make some more.  What’s more, nobody’s going to loan you any money.  You don’t have a credit card or any friends or family members you could squeeze for a few extra bucks.

That’s part of the premise of “Scratch Beginnings” by Adam Shepard.  After graduating from college, he moved to Charleston, SC, with just the clothes on his back and $25 in his wallet.  He lived in a homeless shelter, took whatever jobs he could, spent as little as possible and eventually earned enough to buy a car, rent a decent apartment, and even put $5,000 in the bank.  He was determined not to accept a penny from anyone that he did not earn (although he did accept the bed in the homeless shelter).

I think a year of the “Scratch Beginnings” lifestyle would be very useful for anyone.  You would learn some vital lessons about money, work and thrift.

Learning from the “Scratch Beginnings” Lifestyle

  • You could not give up, because if you did, you’d starve.  (If you spend your money on the two pizzas on Monday and Tuesday, what are you going to do Wednesday?)
  • You could not be wasteful.
  • You could not make a purchase you weren’t 100% sure about.  (For example, once you earned $3,000 to buy a car, you would make darned sure it was reliable.)
  • You could not spend a penny more than necessary, even on things you needed.  Imagine the negotiating skills you would develop.
  • You would need to get a job fast.  $25 wouldn’t last long even for a monkish lifestyle.
  • You would need to make sure you got paid.
  • You would need to be an excellent employee so you kept your job.
  • You would have to become comfortable with discomfort – capable, for example, of sleeping well on an old lumpy mattress.

Learning Discipline from Scratch

Long after your “Scratch” year was over, you would still benefit from these lessons.  They would stick with you much the same way military discipline sticks with people who were in the service for a few years three decades ago.

For better or for worse, most of us will only learn the “Scratch” lessons by pretending, the same way Shepard did.  For our ancestors, however, things were different.  My grandparents did indeed come off their ships with only a few simple possessions.  If they didn’t get to work fast, they really would starve.

I know people today who are almost as poor in real life as Shepard pretended to be, but lead very different lifestyles.  Some of them are my tenants.  In some cases, I’ve been astounded to see tenants living in small apartments, complaining about having nothing in the bank, and at the same time enjoying big screen TVs, modern gaming systems, and so on.  Many of them smoke, which is the most wasteful practice I can imagine.

So, poverty does not create discipline, although it can help to do so.  You have to have goals and stick to them.  Shepard had goals, and bad habits or stupid purchases would have just gotten in the way of them.

We all know of people who, having made tens of millions, spent it all and more, leaving themselves much poorer than Shepard was after a year of moving furniture in Charleston.  These people never thought the money spigot would stop, and when it did, they were screwed.  Think of Michael Jackson, who was reportedly hundreds of millions in debt when he died.  Consider Mike Tyson, who earned more than $300 million and declared bankruptcy in 2003.

I’m in no position to have a “Scratch Beginnings” year myself, with a house and rental properties, a wife and two small kids.  But I think I’ll try the $25 experiment anyway.  I’ll see how long I can make that money last and how my pretend desperation will motivate me to maximize my cash flow.  We’ll see how things work out.

*** If your actual liquid cash is less than $25, then you know all about extreme thrift and productivity.  You’ve learned these lessons far better than I could teach them, and – though your life may be a bit rough at the moment – the discipline you are learning will serve you well in the future.  Good luck!

Image by chrskovgaard via Flickr

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  1. I will seek out this book. Where I have not been to that level of poverty, I have experienced alot of struggling in my lifetime. I have a good understanding of what it feels like and believe it builds strength, discipline and hopefully the desire to help others. After all…helping others is what its all about, right?

  2. Awesome Post, Brendan! If more people knew about Adam and his experiences, they’d be amazed!

    Adam – I think I saw a story on CNN about you last year. Very motivating!

    We truly do need to instill a sense of discipline back on the American public. It is baffling that so few have any . . . along with a sense of responsibility for their own finances. Until we get a change in the mentality of our people, little fixes like the bailouts we’ve been seeing for the past year, won’t do much good, as folks will just go and get themselves in trouble all over again in one way or another.

  3. This is very much like something that I had read about how most every lottery jackpot winner is in debt mere years after hitting the life changing jackpot. Those who are unwise with money will create an unsustainably expensive lifestyle.


  4. You’re right, Tyler, and one reason for that is that many lottery jackpots are won by gambling addicts. Somebody spends $50,000 a year on tickets and wins a $2 million jackpot. They then up their spending until they are in debt again.

    Many people are just completely divorced from the value of a dollar.

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