Book Review: Scratch Beginnings

by Ron Haynes

After graduating from Merrimack College in 2006, Adam Shepard embarked on a social experiment about a year later that would change his life. Quite literally, Adam became one of the nation’s poor. Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream is about Adam’s voluntary, instant descent into poverty and his slow rise from it.

Scratch BeginningsSelecting a city by drawing names from a hat, Adam got off the train in Charleston, South Carolina with $25, his sleeping bag, and the clothes on his back. Though his first encounter almost got him beaten up, he soon found his way to Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter that focuses on getting people on their feet and back to becoming productive members of society.

He lived, slept, ate, worked, and interacted with the poor and homeless as one of them. He never used his college education to help him get a job, nor did he use his previous contacts. He quite literally became one of the working poor in order to experience what they experienced, to feel what they felt, to understand their plight and what it would take to overcome it. He was starting from scratch.

Adam committed to performing this experiment for one year with several goals in mind:
1. Have a steady job. Check – worked as a mover with a “super mover” named Derrick.
2. Have a furnished apartment. Check – shared with his roommate, BG.
3. Have a vehicle. Check – a pickup truck.
4. Have $2,500 in savings. Check – actually saved up $5,300. Wow.
5. Be in a position to continue to improve himself. Check – the difference is attitude and he, as well as Derrick, had it.
Photo of BG, Adam, Derrick
BG (roommate), Adam, and Derrick (super-mover)

Adam accomplished these (and more) within 10 months and left Charleston to care for his mother, who had to undergo high-dose chemotherapy for cancer.

All along the way, Adam makes some poignant observations, especially while living in the homeless shelter. Quoting the book on page 61:

In my mind, I had to be prepared to put my wants aside indefinitely as I fought to attain my basic needs. I didn’t yet have the means to provide my own food, shelter, clothing, or an automobile. Nothing. So the more money I spent on booze or cigarettes or snacks or the latest pair of shoes that nobody else on the block had yet, the farther I would be from accomplishing what I had set out to accomplish. To me, money that wasn’t saved or going toward other worthy means was money wasted.

What I got out of this book was that any person can make it if they’re willing to sacrifice. Sacrifice having a cell phone, eating out (even cheaply), driving a showy car, living in a fancy home with new furniture, going “clubbing,” drinking, smoking, cable TV, clothes from the mall, or having some expensive hobby. Sacrificing now will allow you to enjoy all those same things later, but you’ll be able to afford them.

He had brought up a good point about society in America, not just the homeless shelter. Are we very economically savvy? A lot of us spend our lives living beyond our means, working for items that aren’t necessarily within our reach. We rack up credit card debt and spend money on material items and vacations that we can’t quite afford. We splurge for a private-school education for our children, but then we offset it when we buy them the latest, mind numbing video-game system and all of the cool games to go along with it. And we live in luxury homes and condos that we cant even enjoy because we have to work overtime to cover the mortgage payment. Why? Because we don’t know any better? Or are we compensating for a life that we didn’t have growing up? Couldn’t we be putting our money toward more worthwhile pursuits?

Why indeed?

I’ve read some criticisms that he didn’t have 3 kids tagging along, that he wasn’t part of an ethnic group, or that he was raised in an environment that encouraged him and allowed him to dream big. But my reply is, “So What?” Does anyone expect him to drag three kids into such an experiment? He can’t change the color of his skin and he didn’t ask to be born into his current socio-economic situation, so to the detractors out there, I say, “YOU go give it a try.” The simple fact is that people pull themselves out of poverty all the time. It all depends on how badly someone wants it.

My father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Living in very rural Alabama, he and his mother suddenly had no source of income and literally lost everything they ever had. Many nights they had nothing to eat, but my grandmother and my father never gave up. My dad married my mother, then finished high school, worked in manual labor jobs, and eventually became a successful business owner. He suffered enormous setbacks all along the way but he will tell you that if someone, anyone is willing to sacrifice, make wise decisions, make deposits to a savings account, work hard, make extra money, and keep their commitments, they can pull themselves out of poverty.

People of all races make bad decisions, people with or without college degrees make bad decisions, people with fabulous family support make bad decisions. No one is above failure but the fact is, anyone can set a realistic goal and make the sacrifices necessary to achieve it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, as Adam found out in the homeless shelter, it’s where you’re going.

After reading this book, I am thoroughly convinced that basic financial literacy is one of the most important skills we can teach so that people can make the wise choices that will help them have a balanced, fulfilling life. What causes people to fall into poverty is a very complex issue and it won’t be solved by one person performing an experiment. But Adam Shepard’s project does solidify one thing in my mind: poverty can be overcome through hard work, dedication, and a never-give-up attitude.

Adam ShepardRecommendation: Buy or Don’t Buy?

Adam suggests that you don’t buy his book, but borrow it from the library. That being said, I would recommend you DO buy it and read it. One caveat: there is a lot of street language. I wouldn’t recommend it for younger audiences (under 16) and I hope there is a “kid-friendly” version soon to come out. The message could be a very powerful one for the younger set. For the record, I plan to donate my copy to the local library so that others CAN borrow it. Thanks for the suggestion Adam!

[tags]scratch beginnings, poverty, homeless, homelessness, committment, goals, money, finance, financial[/tags]

About the author

Ron Haynes has written 1000 articles on The Wisdom Journal.

The founder and editor of The Wisdom Journal in 2007, Ron has worked in banking, distribution, retail, and upper management for companies ranging in size from small startups to multi-billion dollar corporations. He graduated Suma Cum Laude from a top MBA program and currently is a Human Resources and Management consultant, helping companies know how employees will behave in varying situations and what motivates them to action, assisting firms in identifying top talent, and coaching managers and employees on how to better communicate and make the workplace MUCH more enjoyable. If you'd like help in these areas, contact Ron using the contact form at the top of this page or at 870-761-7881.

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Amber C

My son is a college freshmen and he read the book. He enjoyed it and I think that many things really resonated with him. He really picked up on the shift from “gotta have the latest greatest” to use your money for something purposeful.


#Amber C→
I’m glad to hear that. If we can get the next couple of generations to learn to delay gratification, they’re going to be so much better off in the long run.

Frugal Dad

Ron, thanks for highlighting Shepard’s book. To Amber’s point, I honestly believe books like this can have a profound effect on young people. In junior high school I read the first book by Dr. Ben Carson, Gifted Hands, which told the story of his rise from poverty to become a world-famous pediatric neurosurgeon. The most important lesson I took away from the book–”We do not have to be victims of our circumstances.”

Marc and Angel Hack Life

Fantastic book! I read it a few months ago and loved it. Thanks for the review.


The points about background and so on are most relevant if people attempt to use Adam’s experiences to *prove* that homeless people only have themselves to blame. They really do make a difference to his ability to succeed. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t work hard, just that not everyone would be able to do so.

But that doesn’t really affect the books target demographic – he’s not trying to sell to the down and out, but to the rest of us who mostly have the tools we need to get on in life, if we just use them.


Who IS to blame? Who is to blame for the guy in the book that professed his “love” for heroin despite its drawbacks? Who is to blame for the drunk woman who was begging someone to buy her a “fourty?” Who is to blame for the guy who decided to stab another in the hallway? Who would be to blame if I dropped out of my job, spent every dime I had on meth and went to live in a homeless shelter?

I don’t disagree that his nurturing environment didn’t have an effect on him during the 10 months this project was conducted, but I do think that people who find themselves “down and out” can work hard and pull themselves out of the hole of homelessness and poverty. Witness the successes of the other people in the book, Derrick in particular. I was struck by how his decision making process was affected after just 6 weeks in the homeless shelter. He was given a pep talk by another homeless guy, Phil Coleman, that prompted him to go after the job at Fast Company rather than the car wash. I was also impressed by the fact that so many others in the shelter were working hard to get out and that the shelter itself had programs to help them do it. While there are those who are “stuck in a rut” and can’t get out, there are many more who won’t get out because of a myriad of reasons. I don’t think we should make public policy based on the exceptions.

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