Living on Little

4 min readFeb 14, 2021

The book is about a financial diaries project in Kenya. The author, who is inspired by books by Stuart Rutherford (The Poor and Their Money & Portfolios of the Poor), started the project and set forth key insights she obtained from it, many of which resonate with Rutherford’s books.

Key points (which I found interesting):

  • Collecting detailed financial data of the respondents, financial diaries are a “good long stare” at poverty. The project entails ethical dilemmas. The author picked up the respondents such that they can better represent the entire population (though not statistically representative)
  • The best term to describe people’s behavior is “looking for money.” Multiple, unstable, and informal income sources
  • Respondents often overestimated the importance of agricultural income and underestimated that of remittances, perhaps because the agriculture crop helps them stabilize their consumption and also works as an insurance
  • On top of “triple whammies” of the poor, i.e., low incomes, unpredictable incomes, and poor financial tools, the author claims the other issues — too expensive schools and healthcare, extractive governance, women discrimination, etc.
  • M-Shwari example shows that people use these services and save their money if the tools meet their needs. It should be low-cost, high-frequency&low volume, flexible/inflexible according to the purpose
  • Due to HIV epidemic in the country, only 73% of the children are the biological children of the household heads. Another 19% are grandchildren, and 8% are relatives. Children without their biological parents tend to be deprived of education opportunities
  • Men’s incomes were higher and more secure over their lifetimes. Men’s obligations were loose; women’s were tight. Usually women have less say over family decisions, but it changes when women start to earn money
  • Insurance helps, but if the fee is high, it is burdensome for the poor who are already struggling to manage their money. Also, even if the medical fee is free, if the clinics are far away, people tend not to go there (because of the transportation cost)

Some questions/comments:

  • Research methodology: I wish the author could share the research methodology in more detail, especially what kind of forms/templates the researchers used to collect data. I was curious about how the research methodology has progressed after 20 years since the inception of the project.
  • Data and narratives: I wonder whether the rich and impactful stories that the author shared in the book can be constructed from the financial diaries only. My team has been trying to do many with financial diaries data, but building powerful narratives from pure data sets is not easy. If that is the case, wouldn’t it be better for FDs to include normal diaries too?
  • Financial literacy training: The author is also skeptical about the impact of financial literacy training. Granted, many of those who promote financial literacy have not experienced the predicaments of the poor. That said, under the same circumstances, there must be those who manage their money better and those who don’t. Some sort of knowledge sharing among the people still might help.


“Poverty is a human problem, not just a technical one. When we are forced to turn people into abstractions, into ‘the poor’, their poverty begins to define them, not their humanity. These stories show something else. We see agents, not victims. We see people living full lives, celebrating key moments, telling jokes, making plans, fighting with their spouses, being awed by and worried about their children.”

“‘Living within your means’ — a virtue in the middle class — is not an option when there is not enough money to meet basic needs and earning opportunities are never guaranteed.”

“Social glorification of entrepreneurship and even finance reinforced the idea that those who had so little were failures and those failures were personal, not systemic.”

“When a Kenyan woman remarries, she is often forced to leave children from outside her new marriage behind. Another respondent explained, ‘No man wants the responsibility of caring for another man’s children.’ Children are viewed as ‘belonging’ to their father’s family, especially if the father has paid dowry, 5 even if the father’s family doesn’t claim them.”

“Equality in terms of human value and self-determination should not be based on how much individuals earn. The indicators around the sustainable development goals for gender equality recognize that, measuring things such as violence, discrimination, and access to leadership opportunities. Getting to equality requires shifting long-standing cultural norms. That is important work, but it takes time. In the short term and in the relationships negotiated in the homes of our respondents, money mattered. Women with their own earnings and savings were better able to negotiate financial decisions. Money gave women more power to choose the right partner (or no partner) and to delay marital decisions. It gave women more of a voice within the family and enabled them to wield a realistic threat of leaving abusive or otherwise intolerable relationships. Shifts in these realities can help change long-standing cultural norms as well.”

“The Kenya Financial Diaries allowed us an opportunity to take what David Roodman called ‘a good long stare’ at poverty (Roodman, 2009). Through that long stare, we started to see some known realities in new ways. We saw the improvised livelihoods of ordinary people come to life and saw just how elastic incomes could be — both up and down. We could see in greater depth the ways in which families grew together, particularly through the importance of remittances as both an income source and a risk mitigation strategy. We gained a new appreciation of the importance of small enterprises, recognizing the serious impediments to their growth, which were just as much about limited markets as about limited capital. A close look at money management highlighted just how much energy ordinary people were putting into investing in their own development, in spite of the barrage of demands on their meagre incomes.”

“Designing better tools that help people manage the real challenges they face, that make up for some of the shortcomings in the existing financial offerings available today, requires both an appreciation of the complexity of the challenges people face and humility about knowing all the answers.”