Romanticizing poverty and learning financial independence

In high school, I babysat a kid whose parents were pretty well off. And by “well off,” I mean they were crazy rich.

One day I decided to take the kid out for ice cream — my treat. When we got to the ice cream shop, I only had enough money to buy him the small, and he wanted the large. What then followed wasn’t exactly a temper tantrum; it’s probably better described as a communication breakdown. He was legitimately confused as to why he couldn’t have the larger size.

He truly couldn’t understand the concept of “not enough money.” Price was not a matter of quantity to him, but simply a choice — it was like asking whether he wanted vanilla, strawberry or chocolate. The idea that his options were limited because of cost was beyond him. He also didn’t understand that I was treating him. From his perspective, the ice cream was always there for him to begin with — it didn’t matter who happened to be forking over the money.

I recently recounted this story to my mom, complaining about how this kid probably wouldn’t grow up to learn the tenets of financial independence like I did, because he was privileged, and I grew up so poor.

“We weren’t that poor,” my mom said, dryly. “You exaggerate.”

She then reminded me that she truly grew up poor. She had dreams about her next meal. She shared a single room with seven brothers and sisters. My mom reminded me that she lived in a remote village in Hong Kong, for crying out loud.

My own mother was one-upping me in the impoverished childhood department. And she definitely won.

But thinking about this situation, and my mom’s response, I’ve been pondering a couple of things:

1) Are privileged kids at a disadvantage when it comes to learning the lessons of financial independence?

2) Have I romanticized being poor to facilitate my financial goals, and what are the implications of doing this?

“There is No Success Without Hardship”

Sophocles said this. In my case, I’ve found it to be true. Growing up “poor” forced me to learn the tenets of hard work, responsibility and resourcefulness — qualities that have helped me find success in my endeavors. My mom had even less money, and she learned those lessons even more thoroughly. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone more frugal or with more self-control than my mother.

So I grew up believing that wisdom comes with adversity. But thinking in terms of financial independence, what does this mean for those who grow up privileged? It’s usually a parent’s goal for their children to grow up without financial hardships. Consequently, can those children learn the lessons of personal finance just as powerfully without going through all the tough stuff? Can we be wise without having to endure adversity?

How Much Can You Learn With a Safety Net?

Of course it’s possible for the privileged to learn to be industrious and diligent and all of that, but I feel like the lessons are much different when you have to learn them. Here’s a somewhat nerdy example.

In The Dark Knight Rises (spoiler alert) Bruce Wayne must escape his prison by climbing to the top of a deep pit and leaping out of it. He tries this a few times while secured by a rope — his safety net. He’s unsuccessful each time. Then, he decides to try the escape without the rope — the motivation is, if he doesn’t succeed, he’ll fall to his death. Of course, Wayne finally succeeds without the rope. His will to survive leads him to accomplish his goal. He succeeds when there is no other option but to succeed.

I know it’s just a movie, but it’s also a parable. So I ask myself: How successful can you be in learning the lessons of value, responsibility, etc., when you’ll be totally fine if you don’t?

The Problems With Romanticizing Poverty

I plan to have a safety net for my own kids. In fact, I don’t plan on having kids until I can afford to have a safety net for them. Does this mean they’ll grow up at a disadvantage when it comes to financial independence? Will they have less success because they have less adversity? How do I teach my kids to be financially independent when I plan to give them a financial safety net?

Second, even though I finally have some financial elbowroom and am able to live comfortably, I still have this “impoverished” mind-set. I discussed this a bit when I wrote about not buying a new computer because I didn’t feel like I’d suffered enough to afford a new computer. This mind-set has kept me from enjoying the fruits of my financial independence. Exaggerating my poorness has worked in my favor in the past, especially when I needed to save money to pay off my student loans. But these days, it’s given me a false sense of insecurity. And why else have I worked so hard for my financial independence if not to feel secure?

Another issue I have with romancing poverty is that it’s kind of condescending.

Like a lot of lower-middle-class families, in our household, we always had this subtle resentment of people who, as my dad would say, “had everything handed to them.” I have a friend who’s embarrassed by the fact that he’s had everything handed to him — there’s this unspoken shame you feel when you tell people you didn’t pay for your own lifestyle.

And that’s not really fair. Why should there be a sense of haughtiness for people whose parents provided for them?

My mom also pointed out that it’s about perspective. What I considered “poor,” many people in the world would consider incredibly wealthy. It’s insulting to call it “poverty” and say that I grew up poor when, really, we may have struggled to pay utility bills, but we always had food.

At any rate, I’ve been mulling over these thoughts in the past few weeks, especially in wondering how I’ll teach my own children financial independence. So I have a few questions:

Do you think impoverished kids learn the tenets of responsibility and hard work more intensely or effectively than privileged kids? Basically — is there a personal finance advantage to growing up poor?

How do I go about teaching my children the importance of finance, responsibility and self-sufficiency when I plan to give them a safety net?

Does an impoverished mind-set keep you from enjoying the freedom of financial independence?

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