Growing up with little money and government handouts shaped so many of my views on money. It created this mindset that led me to believe having money was out of reach for people like me. We didn’t land nice jobs, drive new cars, buy houses, or afford college. We didn’t have 401k’s or savings accounts or know anything about them, and we were lucky enough if we could even afford our standard monthly bills.
When you’re poor, you know better than to ask for anything extra. You don’t get new clothes or shoes for the first day of school, and random purchases aren’t a thing. We lived off a measly $500-$600 a month the government gave us, and that was supposed to cover rent and everything else except food. You’d have to wait for your lights to get shut off before they’d help pay the overdue bill. We lived in this double-wide trailer with hand-me-down furniture next to a strip club, where I could feel the bass of the music in my bedroom, and there were always obnoxiously loud drunks and boobs outside after midnight. I used to bum smokes off them in the parking lot when we’d run out.
We had a landline, but no cell phone. If we needed to get somewhere, we had to beg for rides or walk our asses wherever we wanted to go, which proved to be difficult, since the school was about six miles from our house and we were out of district for buses to show up. Sometimes I’d wait hours for someone to pick me up from school, or bum a ride off a friend, since my younger siblings got out much earlier than me, and we had to find a ride for each of us. It was both humbling and embarrassing. I dressed and acted like a misfit, and hid my insecurities behind loud clothes and crazy hair.
Every month, we’d get food stamps around the 1st and load our cupboards full of processed foods and sugary drinks. It was normal to call the back of the card to see if your money had hit the account at midnight, so you could go grocery shopping. It always felt like we won the lottery when they came in, only to be short-lived when we had to scrounge around for food due to lack of properly managing our money by the end of the month. Sometimes I’d steal bags of top ramen from the local grocery store to get us through and then fight with my mom about where all the money went.
We used to live behind this second-hand store, dress up in all black, and then sneak over after dark to rummage through the bags of clothes to find stuff we liked. Usually a bunch of junk, but sometimes we’d find brand-name clothes and think we were on top of the world sporting that Nike symbol. It felt exhilarating to tear open the bag and pilfer through the mounds of clothes on the living room floor, knowing if we got caught we’d be in deep shit. There were also times I wore my mom’s jeans to school, which were about 3 times too big for me, with a belt cinched down tight to keep them from falling off my ass.
One year around Christmas, the office staff pulled me into a room and asked a bunch of questions about my life at home and then gave me a $50 gift card to Fred Meyer, reminding me that it wasn’t much, but hopefully it would help. I was stoked. I walked to Fred Meyer with my cousin later that week, bought all of us gifts, and got my mom the album Who Let the Dogs Out by Baha Men.
Growing up poor gave me strength and resilience against unexpected gut punches, and taught me how to weather bad storms. When resources are limited, you learn to find opportunities and make do with what you have. But it’s also easy to think that money is hard to come by and use that as a crutch.
When I landed my first real job around 18, it was the first time I had my own money to spend. Which meant I was unprepared and irresponsible because I literally didn’t know how to manage, grow, or save it. All these concepts seemed foreign to me. I would get paid and be broke before the week was over. I didn’t understand how anyone around me could afford anything, because my paycheck lasted an average of three days before I was scrounging around for change again.
I loved to read though, and one day while browsing the shelves, this purple covered book called Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki caught my eye and I gobbled that shit up in one day. The story gave me hope and room to dream of endless possibilities. Luckily, I hadn’t yet been introduced to credit cards or different types of debt, so I only spent money I made and nothing more, which was a plus, since I eventually walked out on that job in the middle of my shift one night and had no more money to spend.
By the time I got another job, I had a little more understanding of money and how to manage it. Moving into an apartment teaches you quickly. Rent, utilities, and groceries don’t wait for you to make mistakes, so you adjust accordingly or you become homeless, in the dark, and hungry before you know it. This transition phase was difficult. I didn’t own a car at the time, so I had to walk about two miles to work every day. This was pretty miserable, but I did what needed to be done. Luckily, about a year after working and walking, my grandparents helped me purchase a beat up Chevy Blazer that was kind of a piece of shit. I swear that thing was just a money pit, constantly needing new parts, but it got me from point A to point B and I didn’t have to spend any more winters walking.
I was grateful for that.
At one point, I got some information about what a 401k was and started to grow interest in learning more about Roth IRA’s. I had little information about either, but thought it was better to have a Roth since I made little income, even though the company I worked for offered a match. I didn’t understand how either of them worked. Even though I was told the match was free money, I was also told if I couldn’t put enough in to get the match, it was a pointless investment. This advice finalized my decision, and ultimately I did neither.
I didn’t get my first credit card until a few years later, which was a massive mistake. I never had the opportunity to spend money that wasn’t available to me, so I took advantage of it, racking up tons of debt that I couldn’t afford to pay off in one monthly payment. I ended up paying lots of interest on stupid purchases that could have been avoided if I had never had the card in the first place.
Good thing for small available balances, so I couldn’t get in too much trouble.
Eventually, I upgraded my Chevy Blazer to a Chevy Silverado that was dropped low to the ground with fatty tires in the back. I had plans to lift it back up but never did. It had a nice sound system in it and didn’t break down on me. I could finally drive farther than a few miles without worrying if I would make it back home. I loved having the flexibility to drive to new places and visit family in different cities. It felt liberating to have this newfound freedom a reliable car offered since I had never experienced that before. If only the impulsive spending stopped there.
As time went on and I made a little more money, I discovered I could afford to have nicer things. I didn’t have to wait forever or save for months to get stuff I wanted, and the marketing Gods knew it. They targeted me with luxurious items I could never afford on $28,000 a year, and I got sucked into the pit of consumerism.
When you don’t understand money and the consequences of your actions, it can be dangerous. It is easy to get in over your head with monthly payments that look like $57 here and $200 there, and before you know it they all add up to more money than you actually make every month. It’s a scary place to be.
I didn’t want to have poor money management skills forever, so I started learning more and more about finance and investing until it made sense. I learned about the importance of a budget and an emergency fund, and implemented both aggressively. I read up on the stock market and real estate investing, and new ways to generate side income. I devoured tons of finance books, watched lots of YouTube videos, and started listening to podcasts nonstop. I dialed in my spending and cut things dramatically, adapting to a more minimalistic lifestyle. I brought back my roots, learned to utilize what was available to me, and got creative with hobbies.
This new perspective gave me room for a vision and took me out of a poverty mindset where I thought it was impossible to make lots of money. I had always assumed money wasn’t meant for me. If I got a bonus, or a larger tax return, I would typically spend it as fast as humanly possible and be broke again, stressing over how to pay the bills before I knew it.
It takes work to move away from these ingrained behaviors, because they appear in lots of things that you don’t always recognize right away. It will be easier to slip back into your old habits than it will be to move into new money management patterns. The important thing is to be conscious of what you’re doing and the direction everything is heading. If the debt is piling up, you’re slipping, if the investments are growing, then you’re making progress. Don’t be so hard on yourself though when you make mistakes.
Readjust and realign your path towards your goals. It’s never too late to learn something new or change an old behavior.