Growing up poor (and how it messed with my mind)
Hey, folks. We have/had a good discussion going here, but something happened to nearly all of the comments. I'm not sure what the issue is. They're still in the database, but they don't appear on the site. We'll work to solve the problem.
Update: Holy cats! It's not only the comments on this article. It's the comments on every article on the site. They're all gone. I can see them in the database, but they're no longer tied to their posts. They're just here hanging in the ether. I have zero clue what happened. May be time for a database restore.
A couple of weekends ago, Kim and I enjoyed a short vacation on the Oregon Coast. She's been taking foraging classes, and she had an early morning workshop on harvesting sea vegetables one Sunday. Rather than wake in the middle of the night to drive out, we rented a small place in Tillamook and took the dog for an adventure. (The dog loves the coast.)
We let Tally lead us on a walk through town one rainy afternoon. Coming home, we cut through a trailer park. “We're in the poor part of town,” Kim said.
“Yep,” I said. “But look at that trailer house right there. That is almost exactly like the one I grew up in.” Here's the trailer I grew up in:
We stopped to look at the trailer. I pointed out the tiny windows and the sagging roof. “It's small,” Kim said, frowning.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes it is.” The trailer was a beat-up 1970-era single-wide. Nothing about it looked appealing. I could imagine the inside: shag carpet, thin wood paneling on the walls, faded linoleum, colors like Avocado and Harvest Gold on every surface.
If you've been watching Stranger Things season four, as we have, the trailer houses in that show remind me of ours too. Look at this mobile home from Stranger Things; it's very, very similar to the one my parents owned:
Everything about that image feels like my childhood to me. (Well, except for the demonic tentacles wrapped around the house and car…)
Growing Up Poor
I've talked before about how my family was poor when I was young. When he was working, Dad didn't make much money — but he was often out of work. Mom bought our clothes from the discount rack. There were times we relied on the church “relief society” for food. Mom and Dad often tried to make our situation seem like an adventure (“Kerosene lamps are fun!” “A wood stove provides more heat than a furnace!” “We don't need a TV! TV rots your brain!”) but in retrospect, I know now they were doing whatever they could to make ends meet.
There was indeed a brief time when Mom and Dad had money coming in. Dad started a business in 1976 that slowly grew into a profitable venture. When he sold that business in 1980, though, the buyer went bankrupt after making only one payment. Poof! There went Easy Street. And, of course, when Mom and Did did have money, they spent it. They never ever saved or invested.
It wasn't just my mother and father either. My Dad's entire family was poor. (My mother's family was not, but we had little contact with them.)
My cousin Duane's family, who lived about ten miles from us, was poor too. They had a big old drafty house instead of a trailer, but they also struggled to get by. His mother and father, like mine, were all about self-sufficiency. They grew their own food. They hunted. They fished. They built what they could by hand.
Duane loved to tell the story of how his father once refused to buy washers at the hardware store because they were too expensive. They cost seven or eight cents, or maybe a dime. Instead, Uncle Norman went home and drilled holes through nickels to make his own washers.
My father's sister and her family were just as poor as the rest of us. They lived up in the foothills outside Estacada in another big old drafty house. They needed a big house because there were nine children in the family. When I see movies featuring poor country folk from the 1930s, their circumstances often remind me of Aunt Virginia's bunch. (Long-time readers will recall that I've shared some stories from my aunt's family here at GRS in the past: “A Six-Dollar Christmas” and “The Night That Mama Cried While Angels Sang”.)
Naturally, the poverty of these three siblings had a source: their parents. Grandma and Grandpa were poor too, although it didn't seem that way when I was a boy. To me, Grandma and Grandpa were rich. Sure, their house was small. Sure, they lived simply. Sure, they grew much of their own food (in the form of gardens and livestock). Sure, they chopped their own firewood. Sure, they rarely bought anything beyond necessities. But their home and yard were always clean and tidy. And they could both make small things — oatmeal cookies, Bobbsey Twins books — seem like lavish luxuries.
Friends with Money
During my early childhood, our life seemed to revolve around the extended family. We spent holidays with Grandma and Grandpa and aunts and uncles and cousins. Outside of church, this was the only life I knew. To me, this was how the entire world lived. I had no conception that there might be anything else.
During those rare times I was allowed to watch TV, I saw different ways of living, of course, but these seemed like fantasy. Besides, the Cunninghams on Happy Days and the Bunkers on All in the Family didn't have lives that seemed too far removed from ours — except that they lived in the city. (The Brady Bunch, on the other hand, blew my mind. Such a big house! Such nice things! They were rich, and I knew it.)
Eventually, I made friends and I started to visit my friends' homes. Those friends who lived in the country sometimes lived in the same circumstances that we did, but many did not. Many had bigger homes, nicer homes, cleaner homes. (You would not believe me if I described how dirty and cluttered our house was when I was young.) And my friends who lived in town? Well, there was no question in my mind that they were rich.
I remember going to an overnight birthday party in town when I was in fourth or fifth grade. My friend's house was huge. It was modern. He had so many books and toys. His parents had new, fancy cars. They ate in restaurants. They could afford to take the entire birthday party to pizza! Looking back, it's probable that this friend's family was only middle class, but in 1980 they seemed rich to me.
As I entered middle school and high school, the differences between our circumstances and those of my classmates became even more apparent to me. Again, not all of my peers were rich. Some were poor like us, and they tended to become my friends. But I have vivid memories of my first experiences in the homes of rich people, and of how these rich kids carried themselves.
Once during high school, for instance, I went over to a friend's house after play practice. (We were rehearsing You Can't Take It With You.)
My friend's father was a dentist — my dentist. Their house, located on the shore of the Willamette River, was enormous. It was so big that there was an actual tree growing in the center of it. It was a smallish tree, but it was still a tree. My friend and her brother each had their own computer. They each had their own television. The family had so much. I was in awe.
During high school, I had brief encounters like this with wealth and wealthy people. In each case, I felt out of place. I felt dirty. I felt like an impostor.
It was also about this time that I began to notice a difference between the rich kids and the poor kids like me. The rich kids exuded confidence. When they wanted something, they asked for it — or they took it. We poor kids were much more timid. We never took anything, and often we were afraid to ask for what we wanted. We were rule followers. My rich friends were not. They behaved as if rules were meant for other people. (Inevitably, it was my rich friends who got into trouble. Just as inevitably, their parents bailed them out.)
A Higher Education
I awakened to the difference between rich and poor during my teenage years. And I awakened to the knowledge that my family was poor. I began to think about my future. I never explicitly thought, “I want to be rich” or, “I don't want to be poor.” Instead, I thought, “I don't want to live in a trailer house when I grow up.” It seemed to me that the best possible escape route was college.
Fortunately, I was smart. I didn't particularly apply myself to my studies, but I didn't need to. I coasted through high school with a 3.29 GPA with zero effort. I never had homework (I finished it in class or during lunch) and I never studied for exams. I did phenomenally well on standardized tests. I could write well. I participated in a wide range of activities. In time, I was accepted to every college I applied to (although, admittedly, I didn't cast a wide net). And one school, Willamette University, offered me a full-ride scholarship based on my test scores and extra-curricular activities.
College was a shock. I was discomforted by my rich friends in high school, but that was nothing compared to the wealthy kids I met in the dorms. These kids had nice clothes, nice cars, and (seemingly) no cares. Again, they had so much confidence. They acted as if the world was made for them. How did they do it?
One of my friends, for instance, had a new BMW that his parents had bought him for high school graduation. His father was a doctor. My friend (and his sister, who also attended Willamette) weren't especially smart. In fact, they were kind of dumb. I tutored both of them at different times, and was always amazed by how little basic knowledge they possessed, and by how poor their study skills were. They didn't get into college on merit. They got into college because their father with deep pockets was an alumnus.
My friend and his sister sailed through college with poor grades and a rich social life. They were active in their Greek organizations. Their parents gave them money, which they promptly wasted on drugs and alcohol. To them, college wasn't about studying. College was about making connections.
I know it sounds as if I have negative feelings toward these two friends, but I don't. I loved them both. I have only fond memories of them. But there's no question that they were rich kids who acted like rich kids.
Once during my freshman year, I visited my friend's house. It was like a palace to me, and I said so. My friend was offended. To him, his house was a house. He took it for granted. But the place was enormous. It was opulent. I remember standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows that looked out over the valley below us and watching the sun rise. I'd never experienced anything like that before.
At the end of my freshman year, I began dating a woman from Portland. Amy was terrific, and so was the rest of her family. But again, their life was outside my realm of experience. They owned a big old home in a nice part of town. Her father was a real-estate agent who owned several rental properties, including the building where he had his office. Amy's mother (who couldn't remember my name, so she called me “The Initials”) was a wonderful woman who was interested in the arts and philanthropic organizations. “Your family is rich,” I told my girlfriend once. She was offended, but it was true.
I had many experiences like this during college. In time, I became numb to them. I would visit a friend's childhood home, and it would look nothing like what I had grown up with. Always always always, I felt out of place. I didn't know how to behave. I didn't know what to do or think or say when in the presence of such wealth. But all of my friends seemed to fit in fine. They'd grown up in this world, and they knew its unwritten rules.
This is no small thing.
The Mental Side of Money
I've been fortunate in life. When we were married, Kris and I started with modest means. We lived in an apartment. Before long, we bought a standard ranch house near the high school where she taught physics and chemistry. We weren't rich but we were certainly middle class. In fact, by the time my father died in 1995, Kris and I had a home and lifestyle that surpassed what Mom and Dad had ever been able to achieve.
Dad's box factory did eventually allow him to escape poverty, but he didn't live long enough to truly enjoy it. And Mom's health declined before she could enjoy the change in financial fortunes either. Today, the box factory pays for her memory care and medical bills.
As an adult, my experience has been markedly different than when I was a kid. I've gradually moved from poverty to middle class to upper middle class. In the physical world, I am now rich. But inside? In my internal world? I'm still that poor kid living in a trailer house. Foolish though it may seem, I am trapped by those thoughts and those emotions. They guide my decisions (often at an unseen level).
I still lack confidence. I still feel like I don't deserve anything that I have. I still expect it all to vanish, to go away. I find it difficult to defer gratification. Intellectually, I understand that if I want to purchase something, I can do so any time I need to. I can wait. Emotionally, however, I feel like I have to buy things now because the opportunity may never arise again. It's irrational, I know, but that's how it is.
Last week, I had a conversation with a new friend here in Corvallis. I was talking about how frequently Kim and I have moved during our ten years together, and about how we're ready to stay in one place. “In retrospect,” I said, “we probably should never have sold our condo in Portland. It was a beautiful place. It was the best unit in the building: top floor, on the corner, with a view that looked over the river toward downtown. It was, by far, the nicest place that I have ever lived.”
“So why did you move?” my new friend asked.
“There were a couple of reasons,” I said. “We acquired pets, for one. We had two cats and a puppy, and they didn't do well on the top floor of an apartment building. Plus, the crime and traffic and homelessness in our neighborhood had become overwhelming. But if I'm being honest, I think the main reason I sold the place was because I felt like I didn't deserve it.”
“What?” my friend said, shocked. “Didn't deserve it?”
“I'm serious,” I said. “I've never really thought about this before, but it's true. During the four years we lived there, it never felt real. It felt like a dream. It felt like the place was too good for me. I felt like I didn't deserve it. I felt like an impostor.”
She and I then had a long discussion about growing up poor (because my new friend grew up poor too) and how poverty can mess with your mind, can lead you to conflate wealth with self-worth.
On a whim, I just looked up our old condo unit on Zillow. It just sold again two months ago! I bought it for $342,000 in 2013. It sold for $737,000 two months ago today. I think you can get a sense of just how posh the apartment was.
The Green-Eyed Monster
All of this rambling was inspired by a post I saw yesterday on the /r/fatFIRE forum on Reddit.
For those unfamiliar, /r/fatFIRE is a judgment-free place for rich people to talk about rich people problems. These are folks worth $5 million or $10 million or $100 million. Generally speaking, I do not begrudge these people their wealth. (I've never been one to envy the wealthy, actually. I'm not an anti-billionaire, “eat the rich” kind of guy.) That said, this question triggered some deep-seated issues inside me:
Our child is going a private four year east coast college. We are FAT but trying not to spoil him. All of our trusts are confidential and completely discretionary. He went to a private high school but does have a summer job. I want him to enjoy school and studying. What is a reasonable allowance per month for him? 529 will cover most of her other costs (housing, travel, books, etc). I don’t want him to be the spoiled trust fund kid that I hated in college.
Besides being unclear on this child's gender (him? her? why does the poster use both?), I was floored by this question. I'm not so much floored by the idea that a kid's parents might pay for their entire education — I've seen that plenty — as I am by the entirety of what's going on here: private high school, trust funds, a college allowance.
An allowance in college? Are you kidding me?
I'm serious: Even after a day to think about this, I still can't get over the concept. Do you know how much money my parents directly contributed to my college experience? Zero dollars. And I knew that's how it was going to be, which is why I pursued scholarships and grants and why I worked several jobs concurrently to have spending money. But it's not just that this Reddit question is far removed from my own life; it's also that I think it's a terrible, terrible idea. (My own experience has shown me just how spoiled kids like this can get. The Millionaire Next Door, though, backs this up with data.)
But what if I'm simply being jealous? What if I'm not flabbergasted; what if I'm actually envious? Does this situation get me riled up because I wish that I'd had the same advantages? And what if I had enjoyed the same advantages? What would I be like then? Would I have turned out spoiled too? Is the confidence I see in wealthy people produced by being spoiled? I don't know.
My mental health, which was woeful for several years there, has improved considerably during the past twelve months. (There are a variety of reasons for this.) All the same, I still suffer from some of the same core problems that have plagued me my entire life: lack of confidence, poor self-esteem, rotten impulse control. I look at my peers and they all seem to have their shit together. They're poised. They have direction. They act with purpose. Not me!
I can't say that growing up poor is the sole source of my hang-ups. Part of the problem is simply my genetic makeup, I'm sure. Part of the problem comes from the fact that my parents, who did the very best they could, weren't able to impart certain fundamental skills. Part of the problem stems from being picked on all the time during grade school.
But you know what? The older I get, the more I believe that many of my faulty mental models exist because I grew up poor.
What do you think? What's your experience? Did you grow up poor? Middle class? Rich? How do you think your family's financial circumstances during childhood affected who you are today? Are you richer or poorer than your parents? To you, do there seem to be differences between the choices and actions of the wealthy and the poor?
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I’m pretty sure I’ve read almost every GRS article over the last 15 years and I am fascinated by this article.
I grew up “rich”. We had fancy international trips, fully paid for college, and I had an “allowance” and credit card that I could use for any Greek life activities I enjoyed at our top-tier University. Like many of the commenters, it can be hard to observe our relative wealth. Our family attempted to live the “Millionaire next door” lifestyle but we certainly had way more resources than all of our neighbors and almost everyone at our church (which was most of our family’s community). However, I wouldn’t say that I personally ‘felt’ rich most of the time- everything mostly felt ‘normal’.
My friends spent almost every weekend at our house because we had a fancy basement, tons of video games, toys (bikes/4wheelers), and lots of snacks. I ended up going to an out-of-district high school that had lots of multi-millionaires but also lots of poor people (almost exclusively divided by race). It was a fascinating fishbowl to observe. I had good friends on both sides.
I did well on tests and had fun going through school through to finishing my my PHD in financial planning. Everyone in my family went to grad/professional school. I think the part that resonated most with me we that I felt like I fit in across almost all socioeconomic situations (didn’t realize this privilege until recently). I lived overseas for a while after college in a 3rd world country but our friends enjoyed coming to visit our family’s multimillion dollar beach and lake houses as well.
Now, our live resembles Mr Money Mustache. We are very efficient spenders and likely spend 50% of our peers on similar lifestyles. I like to bike to work and often under-live (house, cars, clothes). We save 70% of our income and we lean minimalistic in many ways. Our relative consumption is low but we have subsidized access to fancy vacations, properties, country clubs, sporting events etc.
The takeaway for me was how it is/was for me to simply ask for what I wanted in almost any situation. Surprisingly, it often worked. I also ended up with a confidence that I’ve never really reflected on. However, my siblings all grew up together and ended up very different financial lives (poor/debt overwhelm, to multi-multi millionaires). We also grew up in the same house, same parents, same access and dramatically different outcomes. Most of the wealthy people I know actually work really hard and often have stressful, demanding, and always ‘on-call’ jobs. I see a lot of non-wealthy people work really hard as well.
I’m actually posting this anonymously because it is still a little strange to talk publicly about some of these topics. It is almost as taboo to talk about privilege in many circles as it is poverty. Even in some of the richest circles that exist, it would be faux pas to claim to be rich.
What happened here? All your previous comments disappeared.
There is a note at the top of the article about a site issue he is having.
Yeah, there’s something very very weird going on. All of the comments on the site are gone. They still exist in the database, but they’re no longer connected to the articles they belong to. They’re just floating in the ether. I have contacted Tom to see if he can figure out the problem, but we’ll probably have to restore from a backup. I’m not willing to spend time on the issue right now because I had set aside Thursday to Monday to work EXCLUSIVELY on the new GRS “de-design”, and I’m sticking to that. I get that the comments thing is a Big Problem, but if I try to fix it now, I’m going to lose precious hours that I need to allocate to coding the new site.
As my grandfather would say, “Gosh, you were born in a country that you can do anything. Try not to bitter about your beginnings.” He was born squarely inner city lower middle class. Put himself through college and law school. Married at 30. Lost first baby. Wife died. Parents died. Moved across country with a baby in tow. Started over in finance. Bought a franchise. Retired wealthy. Served others until he died.
My husband grew up poor- hunting birds for family dinner. Moved potato pipe starting at 14. Vietnam. Lineman for forest service. Nine years for college. Rejoined army. Retired early. Went back to work- we saved 3/4 of income for five years. Both kids married and started on their own road, he retired for good in his late fifties. No excesses, just steady growth into millionaire status.
I was brought up as a debutant. I have to admit after our first year of marriage I declared us “broke”. He went into full panic. “Oh honey, I am sorry. I didn’t mean we have NO money- just not enough to go to the movies.” I quickly learned our difference in money views. We only have had a few arguments in our 40 yr marriage- that was a doosy! I learned to budget /save that very day.
My 65 years tells me that excess of anything brings unhappiness- alcohol and drugs were the downfall of many of our friends and family. We were meant to be turtles. Slow and steady. Occasionally run after that grass hopper. Our kids are a bit faster paced, but seem to be on the same track.
My father was a minister to small churches in rural areas and did not make much $. Fortunately every church he pastored provided a house beside the church for us to live in. So we “looked” middle class but we were not. My daddy grew up as a farm boy during the depression. There were no extras. My mother was a little better off she was the last of 8 children- some siblings were adults by the time she was born- so she was mildly pampered by her older siblings but still wore homemade clothes and even her wedding gown was made by my grandmother. I only found out after my father died and we were going thru old paperwork that we were below poverty level. He filled out my financial aid paperwork and I got grants and was a work study student. The only way they helped during college was to give me gas money and some groceries. I worked 2 & 3 jobs during college. Finances were not discussed I was just that we couldn’t afford things when I was a kid. I thought it was because my dad was stingy ( I think he was- but we also didn’t have money). My dad had some college but my mother’s parents wouldn’t allow her to go off to college- though it was only probably 40 miles up the road. The people we rubbed shoulders with were similar to us in that they grew their own food and preserved it. Most had a little more than us. Through voracious reading I came to understand that there were other ways to live. I was always in hand-me-downs from others in the churches we were in and it seems they never fit and I was made fun of a lot. There were no thrift stores in the areas we lived but in my early 30’s I discovered them and found I could look pretty darn good for pennies on the dollar. I still have the mentality that we should fix whatever brakes instead of tossing it. I was a single mother for awhile after my first husband became an alcoholic. Thank goodness I knew how to live cheaply. All of my daughter’s toys and most of her clothes came from yard sales and thrift stores. For several years I received no child support. I remarried and my husband grew up middle class and had a well paying job. He had been taken to the cleaners by his first wife and with our combined incomes and by living below our means we were able to build a healthy nest egg. We were able to pay for state college educations for 2 of our 3 kids- the 3rd one used his GI bill and lived with us for a while. My husband literally dropped dead at the age of 51 and my thrifty ways got me thru some hard times the first few years until I was financially stable. I was able to retire last year at 62 and its such a blessing. I still have that inner script that says I need to be busy all the time and I’m working on that. I can live simply but I’m fighting poor kid ways and am traveling overseas this fall. I have to keep telling myself that just because I don’t NEED to go doesn’t mean I can’t go- and have fun.
I grew up poor, because my parents were clueless about money. My dad’s parents were rich and even in the depression he never wanted for a thing. My mom went to boarding schools with the daughters of rich people and didn’t have other role models she was willing to pay attention to (her mom was a struggling single parent who sacrificed a lot to send her to school). When they got married it was strictly keeping up with the joneses, and any time they got money they went right out and spent it, and they were both snobs who never even considered saving up for stuff or shopping at secondhand stores. My grandfather supported them in the style to which they aspired.
That shaped my life. I vowed early on to stand on my own two feet and not mooch off anyone. My husband and I worked low paid jobs for years, and I had to pinch every penny twice, but we managed it. Slowly we built up our bank accounts. We didn’t buy stuff we couldn’t afford and we mainly used our credit cards for inescapable bills that we didn’t have the money to pay at the time (car repair, medical expenses, etc). Our kids wore top of the line name brand clothes that I bought at the thrift store. We did our own repairs whenever possible.
Now we are in our 70s and comfortable financially. I wouldn’t say we’re rich, but we have enough. Our kids are also good money managers. My siblings followed our parents’ example and at least one of them is always broke. And naturally they will not listen to me. It makes me very sad. I don’t allow my relatives to mooch off me. I have lent money to nearly all of them, and nearly all of them paid me back. The one who never paid back now knows never to ask again.
This is one I want to answer before reading what everyone else has to say. We were middle class, but I have to say lower middle class. My Dad had a steady job with benefits but he was a draftsman, the male version of a clerical type job. Our family of ten achieved some middle class milestones only because my parents were extremely frugal and had clear goals and worked incredibly hard. We were always fed but the meal was limited. There were rarely leftovers. Everyone of us gobble our meals to this day. My parents helped each of us with college but not a lot.
One of my brothers will tell you we were poor and compared to lots of people we were but my parents never acted as if their lower income made them lesser. They had friends who they played cards with and drank cheap beer and laughed. We had pot luck picnics in the park with other families. Sometimes our main dish was homemade macaroni and cheese but I enjoyed it. The day old bread and cheap baloney sandwiches, not so much.
I think our constrained circumstances damaged me more indirectly. Keeping us all in acceptable shape was a huge job. My Mom sewed and mended our clothes. My Dad did all the work on the house, often with Mom and all of us doing the less skilled jobs. We almost never went to restaurants. I was unsure how to behave in restaurants for most off my 20’s.
My parents were tired and when we didn’t cooperate they were angry. I grew up feeling I wasn’t pulling my share, maybe wasn’t capable of pulling my share – because my Mom told me that. For decades I felt guilty if I paid list price for an item when surely there was a better deal somewhere. Even though I could afford the higher price and didn’t think it was worth my time to find the deal.
Though poverty is no fun for anyone, I think the rich miss out in some ways. The people watching is much more interesting on the upper deck at the stadium than in the fancy suites. My husband and I often end up with more authentic travel experiences ferreting out unusual accomadations than we’d have in a fancy hotel. We also know that we could get by on a lot less money if we had to since we’ve done it. So we don’t have to stay in jobs that ask us to do mind numbing work. I think it is really sad when someone tells me they can’t leave a job that they hate for a more interesting one that pays less because they think they’d be miserable without the luxury goods they are accustomed to.
My Mom always argued with my brother who thought we were poor. She’d say we weren’t poor because we always had a house, were clothed and had enough to eat. We felt secure in those things. So I think at least part of the line between poverty and middle class is that feeling of security in the basics. Your trailer childhood was perhaps a bit chaotic and insecure. While my childhood was more secure, it had it’s times of chaos and those were the most damaging. Still, seeing my parents work so hard to keep us going told us a lot. We learned a lot of money lessons from them also.
I’ve never related more to an article than this one. I grew up poor and white trash. I put myself through college and went on have a solidly upper middle-class life/career. From the outside my life looks good but I have trust issues (from the emotional abuse) and control issues. Also, it took me years to realize that it was ok to buy myself something I didn’t “need”. Fortunately, I have found a wonderful SO and a positive thinking group. They have given me the support that I need to get therapy to deal with my childhood traumas. Growing up poor has an impact on a person that extends much much further than financial.
Thank you for writing this.
Yes, Amanda, this. It’s what I was saying in my comment that is one of the many that disappeared.
Great post. I appreciate the honesty and empathize to a fair degree. I grew up poor until I was 10, and then upper-middle class after that. The most formative, and long-lasting, mental impressions were undeniably made in my earliest years. Even now, several decades later, it’s really hard to shake those.
My parents married right after high school and had four kids in five years. We wore a LOT of hand-me-downs* (first my cousins, then my older sisters, then me) and ate a lot of lima-bean** suppers. Very small house, just two bedrooms (and later the attic became a bedroom for my brother after our dad finished it off). We did have bikes (bought on time from Sears), an ancient baseball bat and a similarly old catcher’s mitt (but no glove until my brother signed up for Little League, which also resulted in a new bat).
I don’t remember feeling poor because everyone we knew lived this way. When I started babysitting for a doctor’s family, I remember feeling stunned by the size of their house (which today would NOT be considered a McMansion). But I do remember feeling that if I didn’t get out of that small township and its constrictions, I would probably die.
My parents split when I was 16, and I remained in the family home to run it for my dad and brother. Can’t remember the day my mom moved out, but I’m pretty sure I had a hot meal on the table at 5:30 p.m. My last two years of high school were on autopilot, rarely studying or paying much attention to classwork because my focus was on keeping the house clean and the laundry done, and stretching the money Dad gave me twice a month to buy groceries.
When I went to college in Philadelphia, THAT’S when the poorness showed. I had no idea how to dress or act, and it showed. I lasted just that one year, and didn’t go back until I was in my late 40s. During that year I got pretty much zero help from anyone because either they couldn’t afford it or it never occurred to them. My dad mailed me a $5 bill twice, and I filled in the difference with a work-study job, babysitting and housecleaning. (Still wound up $2,000 in debt with student loans. (In 2022 terms, that’s about $10,275.)
I never did figure out how to act as though I had class. When I started working at the Chicago Tribune, a fellow reporter complimented my shoes and asked where I’d gotten them. “K-Mart,” I replied, and the woman actually RECOILED. Sigh. I should have said, “Gosh, I don’t remember, I’ve had ’em for years.”
Still writing for a living, but now I do it at home where no one gives a toss what I wear. What’s stayed with me about the poor mentality, though, is the same fear you have: That sooner or later, someone will figure out that I don’t deserve ANY OF THIS and will come to take it away. “Imposter Syndrome” doesn’t begin to describe that feeling.
*My grandmother worked at a dress factory, and got an employee discount. She’d occasionally bring us dresses and good grief were they HIDEOUS. I have a vivid memory of standing in her living room while she hemmed a dress to fit me, holding back tears because I was going to have to wear that to school.
**Lima beans in milk, mostly, although sometimes it was lima beans and macaroni salad with a side of the tomatoes and cucumbers. All the produce came from our garden. Man, I wish I could get a decent bowl of fresh limas and milk right now….
I love everything you write Donna!
Why, thank you!
I agree with Mags! I love Donna’s writing. I remember her as a writer on GRS many years back and now that I have the link to her blog, I look forward to checking it out.
Many thanks to you as well.
P.S. On the bright side, living “poor” led me to a new career in personal finance writing after going broke during my divorce. It also helped me to SURVIVE that divorce.
Wow! Thank you for your honesty and this beautiful post. I’m dealing with this now. I grew up in a housing project in Alabama during the crack cocaine epidemic. In a single-parent household, my mom managed to do her best with what she had. I didn’t feel super poor, but it was a struggle. Ketchup mustard sandwiches, potted meat, possum, and squirrel have all been dinner. And I loved it all. My uncle killed himself, his pregnant wife, and a childhood best friend killed his GF and kids. Not to mention the family members who went to prison for drugs, one doing 999 years. Poverty is bad, and when you add the natural tribal biases humans have ( all the isms) I can feel hopeless. I always tell my wife I live with a dark cloud over me; I’m always waiting for rain, for everything to disappear. It’s interesting that you feel the same way, although you’re a different ethnic demographic than me Thanks for the posts, It really resonated with me. I have a great life now, a globetrotting ex-pat with more experience than I can remember. Though, I’m always hunted by these feelings. Thank you.
Thank you for doing this article. I grew up poor, with hand me downs, food stamps, government issued cheese, and getting a house foreclosed. You have been able to articulate what I never could.
Great article! Grew up poor due to financial abuse – one salary, two parent, immigrant (no extended family on the same continent) household and the salary earner controlled everything financial.
Grew up hearing all ‘rich’ people were criminals – they didn’t earn their wealth through hard-work or smart investing but by defrauding those around them – “there is no such thing as an honest businessman” or “the bank manager is rich because they steal from the customers.” So being poor was portrayed as suffering caused by others’ crimes = in order for one person to be rich, another person (or people) had to be poor.
Hi J.D. Glad to see you back writing more! I’ll have to remember to check the site regularly again since I just noticed this from your newsletter the other day.
It’s always struck me when you mention in articles the effects you’ve had of growing up poor, that “scarcity mindset”. I didn’t grow up terribly poor, but I certainly wasn’t wealthy either. Perhaps lower-middle class? My dad was a pastor, and like Shay below we generally lived in the “free” parsonage provided next to the church. My parents did buy a small house when I was in 3rd grade but divorced 4 years later, my dad lost his job (divorce doesn’t look good for pastors), and through college I lived in small apartments alternating between parents. Like you I was smart and got scholarships for college, but my parents couldn’t help at all since they were barely getting themselves by at this time. I ended up working myself through my last 3 years of college, and still had a decent amount in loans that about a decade and a half later are finally paid off.
That said… that question you shared didn’t really bother me at all, except perhaps annoyance that someone that rich can’t use proper grammar (I guess they don’t have to?). I suppose I’ve been reading about personal finance, and like the WSJ, for so long that situations like that sound normal to me now. It’s the type of situation I want to be in, though I still don’t have kids. You realize you could basically provide that now, if you had a kid too?
I guess I’m so focused on the goal of not needing to worry about money that I just look at things like that as “That’s right, that’s my goal!”
I appreciate this article and will share it with my wife, a bright kid who grew up in. poor circumstances and still exhibits some of the self esteem and impulse control traits that JD mentions, unnecessarily but certainly. I’d never thought before about the impulse to something “right now”, because one might not be able to later. Thank you for that insight.
I grew up comfortably and spent my career working in philanthropy with quite wealthy Americans, even some billionaires. My takeaway is, I just cannot generalize. I can think of second, third and fourth generation super-wealthy people who clearly feel inadequate, probably because they will never accomplish as much as the patriarch/matriarch of the family did, and seem to feel they don’t measure up. Alcoholism, failed relationships, toxic behaviors, you name it. And I’ve met many people from such families who are accomplished, confident and generous. And the world is full of stories of Americans who started with nothing and built business empires and charities.
Here’s what I’ve learned after 30 years in philanthropy: You just never can tell.
You probably had privledges in other ways? Did your parents love you? My parents divorced when i was young and my Mum didn’t have much and my father (whose parents were rich) was rich. He had ferraris and things. People always assumed i was a rich kid, i coped a lot of resentment as a kid (at age 13 a girl in high school liked me and my ‘friend’ said “she only likes you cause you are rich”.. i was 13 my bank account had about 13cents in it.. i didnt control my father’s money. And to this day, my father didnt give me money. My father was also a narcassist, he did not love me. All i was, to him, was someone to serve his needs. Growing up, i would face same resentment from ‘poor people’ (did your Dad show you any love?) that you expressed in your article…yet it wasnt my money it was my father’s. And i got none. Also, time and time again i would see friends whose parents had way less than my father… and they had way more toys and stuff than me (or they had stuff i never had). Their fathers cared about them and would actually spend their limited pay checks on their sons to make them happy, even though they were not rich. I would even be an example of that, now, with my own son, my son has a dirt bike (a used one) and all the stuff i didnt have and wanted.. yet i am living on a government pension. My father never once asked me how i am, or took an interest in my life, ive never had a conversation with him about my life or even my day, ever. I never got a birthday present or Christmas present from him… To this day and i am nearly 40. He did pay me an allowance, once, of $80/week in my early 20s. But at the same time i had to pay my mum $150/ week rent to live in my bedroom and help her with her bills. So it kind of cancelled out. My point is, not everyone who had a wealthy parent grew up rich.. even if it appeared that way. And sometimes ‘poor’ people have more. Im not saying rich kids dont exist but for me i got screwed both ways.. not only did i get no money of my wealthy parent.. but when i was successful in my early 20s.. from an internet business i started from $0 in my bedroom at my mother’s… people resentfully assumed i was a rich kid and gave the credit to the guy who never loved or helped me who drove around in Ferraris.
I agree with much of what you say, although appearances can be deceiving. Rich kids are actors.. you don’t get genuine self esteem from not accomplishing anything yourself. It’s fake. They are empty.
And honestly i am not at all resentful at rich kids… But i am resentful of rich kids who act successful. That is the difference in my mind. If a rich kid is honest about where the money came from i dont feel resentment. For my spoiled father who got his money from his parents and acts like he is the most successful person on earth, there is a lot of resentment.