How much money does it take to feel and be rich in the United States? Not much, says Sandra Benally, a writer, paralegal and educator who has lived on Arizona reservations on $10,000 per year and felt, she says, “perfectly rich” while doing it.
SB: About 10 years ago I lost my husband and I decided at that point I needed to be available for my son and I’d already set my life up at a point where I can live on the bare minimum if I had to.
I’m now a single parent and I need to be available for my son because his father was murdered so I wanted to be really flexible. I knew that in northern Arizona it would be difficult to make what people would consider a living wage. The average unemployment rate is 50% on this reservation. This is a real tough area to live in and I needed to know that I could be there for my son. So I have always purposefully kept my finances way under control.
The big question for me always has been, you know, what is enough? The home that I own up in Flagstaff has no electricity or running water. There’s none of those amenities. And now that I’m living on the reservation for me a luxury is as simple as going into the kitchen and plugging in a crock pot. I mean, for me, that is luxury.
To me, enough to live comfortably is enough. I don’t need to own five homes. I don’t need to own fancy cars.
When I came out here, there were ladies, old ladies, like in their 80s, living in one-room homes, and had no electricity or running water. They herd sheep and they depend on the sheep for their living and they’re fighting against getting a relocation home off the reservation where there’s electricity and running water. I mean their culture to them is more valuable to them than any white man money. To me, that was life-changing.
OOTS NEWS: Right.
SB: And not anybody can live on a reservation or a secluded island, but you know, I’ve had the basic training by growing up on a farm in Illinois. You should know how to survive this way. I bought 10 acres for $10,000. You know, it had a trailer home on it, so. I was able to establish a home for my son for $10,000.
OOTS NEWS: Sot then what’s your response to the people earning $250,000 who say they’re not wealthy? What do you think of that?
SB: My response is, wow, you know, you chose the bed you’re laying in and yes, you live paycheck to paycheck right now, but you can step down the ladder. In America, I think we’re just always encouraged to climb this ladder, climb this ladder and we don’t have time for ourselves, no time for family, no time for peace, and for me, yes, I can live on a lot less. I think last year maybe I was making $25,000 with this current job. I don’t lay awake at night and worry about finances.
What I said to my employer at one point, you know when he overheard a couple that was talking about the frustration of living with such a low income, from paycheck to paycheck, he said, “I know what you mean, it’s really tough, you know, I live paycheck to paycheck, too.” And I looked at him and I said, “You know, if my choice were to live paycheck to paycheck, theoretically I would much rather live on your paycheck than my own.”
OOTS on Wealth is a new series on what it means – and how much money it takes – to feel and be wealthy in America. Read previous pieces from the series here.