These are times when a little bit can also be a lot|Guest column

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 27, 2009

Recently I was talking to a young friend about the different perspectives on money and finances. I had bought her a small item that she needed. It was not an expensive item, from the standpoint of my budget it was just some extra money I had in my wallet. But it was something she could not afford within her budget.

It reminded me of the difference between a younger person with children, struggling to make ends meet, and an older retiree like myself who has a guaranteed income from retirement annuities and generally lower monthly expenses. A younger person on a tight budget may be skipping lunch to buy gas, and buying a soft drink from a vending machine might be a major budgetary decision. It made me think back to earlier times in my life.

Fred E. Camfield is a federal retiree and Vicksburg resident. E-mail reaches him at

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The author Rebecca Cantrell set her recent debut novel, “A Trace of Smoke,” in Germany during the Great Depression. The main character, Hannah Vogel, is a young low-paid crime reporter for a newspaper in Berlin. She lives frugally, saving bread crumbs to add to soup. Not everyone was poor, and a rich person’s trinket could have the same cost as a poor family’s weekly food. The poor people were sometimes driven to desperate measures to survive. Hannah knew people who had money, and sometimes was treated to meals which helped her stretch her budget.

I can relate to people who have much less than myself. I grew up in a small town and spent my childhood during the late 1930s and the war years in the early ’40s when people all did their bit and pulled together. In a small town, you usually know who is doing well and who is in need. I knew very few people who inherited money. Most of us needed to manage on our own. Personal choices combined with wars, illnesses, accidents, fires, floods and other matters of chance determined individual fortunes.

Many of us had periods when we were short of money. I can remember missing a few meals, particularly back when I was a student, but was never driven to desperation like the student in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” I always managed to squeeze together enough money for basic needs, which is easier to do when you are single without children. I grew up in a family where you were expected to earn a living, chose a promising career path in engineering, managed to avoid major catastrophes and had the good fortune to eventually do well enough to indulge myself, evolving into one of the people buying trinkets. There were always things that I thought that I wanted and sometimes purchased on impulse. Many of us have things gathering dust in our closets, and we wonder why we bought them.

When I was younger, I had dreams of eventually being rich, owning a mansion, and maybe a yacht. When you get older, sometimes your values change. If you are smart, you realize a mansion requires a lot of time, energy, and expense for upkeep, and it is better to have a friend who owns a boat rather than owning your own. On a short vacation back home a few years ago, I had a conversation with one of the shed boys about minimizing expenses — shed boys are men, usually well-educated and skilled, who have dropped out of the rat race and live a lifestyle reduced to basics. Many of the things that people consider necessities can be recategorized when money is in short supply. If you make two lists, one of necessities (such as food, clothing and shelter) and the other of desirables, you might be surprised at how short the first list might be, and how much discretionary income you might actually have, especially if you eliminate some of the trinkets.

I was lucky in having steady employment with the government during the economic downturn in the 1980s, so I hardly noticed that it was happening. I was retired before the present crash, so I did better than many younger friends. The present downturn is not as deep as the Great Depression, but has many similarities. Many people are working reduced hours, sometimes at lower pay, and many self-employed people have fewer clients. Business is slow, with people buying less and spending the money that they have for cheaper merchandise. Most of us know people who have been affected to some degree. The government’s economic indicators tend to be off base because they deal with unemployment rather than the myriad aspects of underemployment, and deal with hard goods rather than the service industry. They include nothing about the so-called gray economy. You can probably get a better picture of the economy by talking to a dancer in a club.

Perhaps people need to pay closer attention to those around them. People in need don’t always ask for assistance — perhaps something about a macho image of toughing it out. Sometimes you need to look for signals. It is sometimes obvious if people are skipping lunch. Sometimes people just aren’t going out, even when events are free. They may not have gas for their car. Sometimes they are looking at things they might need, but are not buying. Be aware and offer to take them to lunch or buy them a small item you know that they really want.

Take a look at your budget. Many people have a little to spare. Consider what you really need compared to what a friend may need. People do that very frequently within their families. It is a matter of setting priorities. Assistance is not always a large amount — sometimes it only requires a little bit. Assistance may involve money or it may just involve a little bit of your time. It can range from taking someone to lunch or buying gas for his or her car, to providing a little free help. What may seem just a little bit to yourself, may be of major significance to someone else.