Eleven years ago my wife and I moved from Bulgaria to the United States. We came for the freedom and the opportunity this country offers to those who are willing to take risks and work hard in the pursuit of their dreams. For a few years we lived as students on my scholarship at Southern Illinois University. Teaching one undergraduate course in economics per semester provided us with about $2,500 annual income per capita (less than $7 per person per day).
I could not afford textbooks so I studied in the university bookstore. I took notes in class on old fliers and printed out my homework on the back of used sheets of paper. We had no cable, no TV, no DVD player. Instead of going to the movies, we would listen to the radio at home or go to the library and watch old videotapes. We would walk or hitch a ride to Walmart or Aldi to buy a medium frozen pizza for $1.99 and make lunch and dinner for two out of it. When our soccer team, F.C. Levski, won an important game, we would celebrate with a choice from the dollar menu at Taco Bell or McDonald's.
You probably think that we must have felt financially distressed? The truth is that I felt lucky. I knew that my parents, tenured full-time professors at a Bulgarian university, made about the same amount of money (adjusted for the cost of living). Yes, our income was less than a quarter of the average bottom-earning household quintile of Americans. Yet we always paid our credit cards in full.
We were thankful for the used clothes and furniture we received from local churches. Even more so we were thankful for the encouragement and the friendship of the people in Carbondale, Ill., who shared meals and Scriptural lessons with us. We learned from them that the first step to happiness is to praise the Lord for all you've got. Statistics would label most of these people "poor" relative to the average American, but their thankful hearts knew how to resist envy and how to share their blessings with others. That attitude makes them the wealthiest people we have ever met in our lives.