Thursday, February 14, 2008

Scratch Beginnings: I'm Sold

I don't know this Adam Shepard guy at all. But already I like him.

Shepard was still in college when he read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, but he waited until he'd graduated to try and prove it wrong. I initially found out about his project here:

CS Monitor: "Can You Build a Life From $25?"

It's not a long interview, but there was enough there to send me right to Amazon to grab a copy of the book. Sadly, it was out of stock. Bah.

The Rundown

In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich sought to show readers that surviving on minimum wage in America is darn near impossible, and that the odds of a self-guided climb up from such poverty are not much better. I read the book, and while I found it to be a well-written and thought-provoking read, I never got around to reviewing it. (Truth be told, I don't get a whole lot out of books or authors who spend the majority of their time telling me what they can't do.)

With Scratch Beginnings, Shepard set out to see what he could accomplish. His journey began with just a sleeping bag, a gym bag with some clothes, and $25 in his wallet. He hopped on a train to ... someplace where all his acquaintances and contacts wouldn't come into play. The question kicking around in his mind: Could he acquire a furnished apartment, a car, and $2,500 in savings within a year — without using his college degree, or credit cards, or any other form of debt?

He lived in a homeless shelter and received food stamps for 70 days. But ten months into the project, he'd certainly moved up: He had his own apartment, a pickup truck ... and he had saved almost $5,000.

Not very Nickel and Dimed-like, is it?

A couple of snippets from the article above:

I didn't use my college education, credit history, or contacts [while in South Carolina]. But in real life, I had these lessons that I had learned. I don't think that played to my advantage. How much of a college education do you need to budget your money to a point that you're not spending frivolously, but you're instead putting your money in the bank?

Indeed. And I also liked this tidbit from Shephard, regarding how his task might've been harder if he'd had child-care payments or probation check-ins to worry about:

The question isn't whether I would have been able to succeed. I think it's the attitude that I take in. [Suppose] I've got child care. I've got a probation officer. I've got all these bills. Now what am I going to do? Am I going to continue to go out to eat and put rims on my Cadillac? Or am I going to make some things happen in my life?

Well, yeah, I'll admit: There's a fair chunk of youthful na´vetÚ in that answer. You'd expect that; Shepard, as I said, is fresh out of college. But that was also the point in the interview where I immediately headed for Amazon to buy the book, too.

I'm looking very forward to getting my hands on Scratch Beginnings.


— Posted by Michael @ 8:52 AM


I guess he was lucky not to be hospitalized for any length of time without insurance. The story might have ended differently.

I've read neither book, but I'm always leery of these authors who "live" a life in order to prove a theory. It seems that both set out to justify what they already believed and I think that clouds their actions in the "life" they live. Plus, they always have an out if/when things go bad--they can just go back to their real, priveleged lives. For me, anyway, it comes across as gimmicky and insulting to those who must truly grapple with these realities every day.


True, Shepard's plan might have been significantly derailed by a number of factors - child support payments, an extended hospital stay. But that might mean it takes him a bit longer to dig out.

The more I come in contact with people who are struggling financially (those who are just hovering around the poverty line), the more I'm aware that it is rarely as simple as one catastrophic event that has placed them there.

What Shepard proves is that it is indeed possible. Not easy, of course, but possible. That makes me think that the biggest help we can be is to educate people about how to budget, how to sacrifice now for later, etc.


...but on mimimum wage I cannot afford all the necessities like: cable tv, cell phone, smokes, beer, nightclub, air conditioning, new car, fashion clothes, eating out etc.

These are my God given rights and I want them now.


This seems to suggest that just because something is possible that it means those who are unable to do so are inept or wrong.

A lot of times, it is not just what resources a person has but their attitude, their habits, their character, and education that matters most. There's tons of middle class workers with good salaries that live in extreme debt. So, why go looking down on those at minimum wage and aren't doing well either?

This guy started out with the intention of proving something wrong. If that is your main intention then it has a much better chance of success. For those at poverty though who rarely see anyone getting out, they neither believe it is possible nor is it usually the main priority. When life is horrible, the average American goes shopping.


I love reading books like this. I will probably read this in the future. It kind of reminds me on how I started my business on less than $100. Maybe it took longer but I was able to do it, and I had no risk involved. Now I get to show others (that are intersted) how to do it.


I'd be more impressed if he committed to living his entire life without using any of those things. Or maybe 10 years. It's alot easier to deny yourself luxuries when you are aware that in a short period of time you'll have access to them (in his case, he only lasts 10 months because he has some family issues come up).

Saving a couple thousand bucks in one year when you know you are finished after that year shouldn't be all that difficult. This isn't someone that is setting money aside for the long term or something like that, he's setting money aside to make his book deal possible one year later. That's a short term investment, not a long term one.


I made a blog post about Adam's premise and "experiment," available here:

For what it's worth, if you email him, he'll send you a copy of the book by PDF.

I welcome thoughts and comments.


The book sounds interesting. I'll definitely check it out.


Look at all the things Shepard didn't leave behind:

* His college education, which informed every choice he made, even if he couldn't brag about it on a resume. Rather than "starting from scratch", he was starting out with computer skills, writing skills, an understanding of basic finance, practice at finishing assignments and meeting deadlines, and on into infinity.

* His white, male, uncrippled, 25 year old body, fresh from a life of proper nutrition and sufficient access to health care and dental services. Being white is an advantage in a job hunt, don't let anyone kid you. Being healthy gave him access to jobs that many people would find physically impossible.

* Being free of addictions.

* The confidence that comes from knowing that he can drop back into his old life at any time, and that the misery wouldn't last more than a year. Since he preaches the gospel of positive thinking, that must have been a real morale boost.

* The advantage of not having anyone else to worry about. Strap on two kids who get sick at the most inconvenient times and let's see how far Mr. Can-do gets.

* A life free of the sorts of early mistakes, debts, or psychological scars that can make it hard to get back on the road to the good life.

I wonder if Shepard ever intends to pay back the homeless shelter for housing him rent free, or the government for the food stamps he only collected because he was conducting a self-congratulatory exercise in proving how superior he was to all the other people who used such services. I wonder if Shepard actually advises people in financial trouble to live in homeless shelters while building up a nest egg.

Hell, strip me naked and throw me on a bus to a random city, I guarantee you that I could get my healthy, pasty-white, college-educated ass back to the high life within a couple of years. That proves nothing. Both Shepard and Barbara E. were best-case scenarios, but Barbara was at least cognizant of the fact.

** Comments Closed on this Post **

Thoughts on my personal finances, goals, experiences, motivations, and accomplishments (or lack thereof).

My financial life began turning around when I took responsibility for it.
— Dave Ramsey


Start (2005-12): ~$21,900
Currently: $0
[About Our Debt Paydown]


Savings Goal: $15,000
Currently: ~$15,115
[About Our Liquid Savings Goal]