For over 30 years, I have been engaged in a personal, political, and perhaps even holy war against consumerism. I’m probably not winning, but I’m still fighting it. I live communally with five other women, I share a car, I darn my socks, I buy my clothes second hand. I consider it a life-giving spiritual discipline – refusing to define myself by what I own, being attentive to ethical spending choices, and trying to buy local. I am inspired by scripture such as this:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.
– Proverbs 30:8–9
If I do have more than my daily bread, I have what is called discretionary income.
“Discretionary income is what is left after after you’ve spent for necessities like rent, health care, transportation and clothing. Discretionary income can be spent on eating out, investing, travel, and any other non-essential items or expenditures. It’s your fun money to spend with limited guilt on things you don’t actually need, knowing that your other expenses are taken care of.”
I work at West Broadway Community Ministry, a drop-in and soup kitchen founded and supported by Anglican and United Churches in Winnipeg. We serve some of Winnipeg’s most vulnerable citizens. I talked to some of our guests about their thoughts on consumer choices and discretionary income.
Corinna is an Ojibwe Medewin Elder and a grandmother who was led to West Broadway in a dream. She leads a weekly sharing circle and offers informal counsel to those who are struggling.
Corinna gets $669 per month from Employment and Income Assistance and $300 from Canadian Pension Plan Disability Benefits. She spends $666 to rent a one-bedroom apartment for herself and her 18-year-old daughter. $180 goes for Hydro, TV, Internet, and phone. That leaves her with $123 to spend for food and everything else.
“I budget my money. Rent comes first and then bills. If I don’t have enough, I go to the food bank. I depend on the food bank. And the $100 a month I get for volunteering here.” (The provincial government offers $100 to people on disability who volunteer eight or more shifts per month.)
Corinna admits to a tobacco addiction.
“I might spend $50 a month on cigarettes. When I don’t have cigarettes I get crabby,” she smiles. She describes how she makes a cigarette last by taking a few puffs, then putting it out, then coming back later for a few more.
“I talked to my doctor and right now I’ve got Champax so I can try to quit.”
I ask what she would do if she had discretionary income.
“I would buy food and clothes.”
I push a little bit because I think food and clothes are necessities.
“Well, I would love to go and eat out in a restaurant. I haven’t been to a restaurant in two years,” she says.
Ben* is a single father and musician who comes to West Broadway to use our laundry facilities. He is on EIA disability and receives $900 per month for all his expenses. His fixed expenses include a two-bedroom apartment for himself and his 11-year-old son.
The three places Ben relies on to survive are the Good Food Club (a West Broadway buyers’ group that purchases healthy food for less money), Agape Table (where you can get a substantial breakfast for $1), and West Broadway. Ben always does laundry here, occasionally has lunch, and sometimes graces us with his music.
Ben scrimps on necessities so that he can have money leftover for “extras” when he needs them. Extras include things like toiletries, pet food, garden tools, dishes, a bicycle for his son, and bedding. He does all his shopping for extras at second-hand stores.
Ben doesn’t drink or smoke. He laughs. “The only smoke I get is when I breathe in the marijuana fumes from the apartment downstairs.”
If Ben had discretionary money he would buy something for his son – at a second-hand store.
Janelle* is a 30-year-old woman who describes herself as unemployed yet still hard working. She is trying to find a place to live so she can get her daughter back. She has worked before at Salisbury House, Boston Pizza, and a weight loss clinic.
Janelle is on EIA receiving $170 per month for food. Because she is homeless, she doesn’t get anything for rent. When she gets money, she spends it on allergy medication, toiletries, hair dye and salad – things that she can’t get through programs like West Broadway Community Ministry.
Janelle works hard selling rummaged goods for her other needs. She estimates that “substances” cost her $100 to $200 per month.
“Homelessness is not for sissies,” she says with a look of indignation. She describes a young man who has come from a well-off home and joined the ranks of the homeless in the West Broadway area.
“I have no respect for people with no work ethic who approach homelessness as an easy breezy vacation. Homelessness is not for lazy people. We’re not just bums who do nothing. It takes a lot of effort with your personal entrepreneurial business to earn money for food.”
When I ask about how she would spend discretionary money, her eyes get big and she talks about sitting inside somewhere like a restaurant. She laughs and says, “It would be like being like a real citizen!”
Our guests at West Broadway have been given poverty and I have been given riches. They have less than their daily bread and I have more. So I get to make choices and feel good about myself every time I give, and they continue to scrimp and save and get no where. This is not what God intends for the world. If I take the above proverb seriously, I am praying for an equitable economic system where all will get their daily bread. I am working with others for that world to become a reality. And I’m thinking it would be nice if everyone had a little discretionary income for bread and roses too.
*Actual names have not been used.
Lynda Trono is a diaconal minister in the United Church of Canada. She moved from Ontario to Winnipeg in 1995 to work as Conference Minister for Education, Justice and Communication with the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. She is the proud grandma of 3-month-old Arjeen.