PSA: Stop Calling Yourself Poor When You’re Just Broke


When it comes to money between friends, it can often feel like there are more potential landmines than right choices. How open are friends supposed to be? Is it always a mistake to loan money? How do you make sure to live a social life that is affordable for everyone, without putting anyone in an awkward position? If you have any aspirations to have a friend group that is at least somewhat diverse in terms of class — and you should — a big part of that is going to be learning how to navigate different financial realities. Understanding that “not a big deal,” financially speaking, means something totally different to different people is one of the first big steps. And another important hurdle is changing the way we speak about our own situations, no matter how we might feel in the moment. The language we use to talk about our money realities is hugely important, especially when the people around you might be coming from a totally different point of view.

In short, don’t call yourself something you’re simply not. And one of the words we all have a tendency to throw around without thinking, even though it could be seriously hurting the people around is, is “poor.” It’s easy to use the words “poor” and “broke” interchangeably, when what we usually mean is “I can’t spend money right now.” But poor is a word with a very real definition, and beyond that, real connotations in social situations. Your friends who are truly “poor” are likely not to ever share the reality of their life and their finances, because it’s not the kind of “poor” that’s relatable and sitcom-esque. It’s not a couple of friends complaining over happy hour about how broke they are at that time — poverty’s real implications are a lot more serious, and a lot less easy to make socially-acceptable.

It’s nearly impossible for us to know how the people around us are doing, financially, at any given time, and this means that it’s easy to just assume that everyone’s “normal” or “doable” is the same. But a big part of the silence around money — even amongst friends who are otherwise close and open about their lives — is this feeling that words that mean one thing to you might mean something totally different to someone else. If you’re throwing around words like “poor” to mean “I don’t have any money in my checking account to go drinking this weekend,” you are inadvertently reinforcing the worst fears of the person listening who actually is experiencing serious financial precarity.

When we throw around words without being thoughtful, we only reinforce the idea that we can’t understand. We become the person that the people we care about have to hide things from, because they’re afraid we would judge them or think less of them. And little by little, this carelessness narrows down our groups until we are only capable of being friends with people just like us — because we simply can’t understand anything else.

To learn more about what poverty really means, and how to be less of a crappy person when you’re complaining about how broke you are, this week’s TFD video is all about the essential differences between the two.

Enjoy, and let’s be smarter, together.

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  • jdub

    YES. I had a friend who used to throw the word “poor” around all the time. ie she’d say she couldn’t get beers before a movie because she was “too poor” and couldn’t afford it. Meanwhile I’d budgeted the $12 movie ticket and had only $10 leftover for dinner, or else I couldn’t afford groceries or gas for the rest of the pay period.

    She was squirreling away all of her cash and saving super aggressively so couldn’t justify the added expense, but “poor” definitely wasn’t the word to describe her. Her and her husband worked full-time, he got paid in cash tips every night, they were homeowners and she regularly got her nails/hair done at a very fancy salon.

    I didn’t really understand the difference until once she asked me to drive a half hour to go for a hike with her, but I said I couldn’t afford the gas out there– and she offered to give me $10 once I showed up at her house. So you’re “poor” but magically have an extra $10 to bribe me to drive out to see you, instead of you coming out my way because you don’t feel like driving? Ew.

  • Elbee

    Totally agree. Great article.

  • This happened a lot while in college. I didn’t have large parental help for college and I paid my bills myself. Everyone around me would laugh and joke about how they were “broke college students” because they couldn’t afford a movie ticket or extra cocktail.

    Other students would always wonder why I was so stressed about money while in college. They would ask why I didn’t study abroad, because all I would have to do to do it was “just take out more student loans” or “ask my parents for help” as if that were an option.

    Even when I graduated college and started a full-time job with decent pay, I still couldn’t let go of the “poor mindset”. I still feel extreme buyer’s remorse on almost anything and frugal with a lot of things. Because when I had little money, that was the only thing to do.

  • Evarosa1986

    Nice article, reminds me of my years at the university.

  • Jackie Onorato

    I am guilty of this. Thank you for the social and financial slap in the face that I probably needed, Chelsea.

  • Jack

    I used to use broke and poor to describe my situation when I was aggressively saving for travel, but not only did it make me feel crappy, it’s very wrong for all the reasons you point out here. Also when friends would offer to pay for my dinner or coffee, I felt bad knowing I had $X in the bank for a trip to Asia, so I didn’t like to take them up on their offers.
    Now if people ask why I’m not traveling this year, or going out for dinner, I just say that I’m prioritizing saving.

  • JD

    I’m sort of living out this scenario with a co-worker, who I guess makes less than me. Not sure how he knows my rate other than snooping, but he often makes jabs about how much harder life is since he doesn’t make my higher rate. Yet he orders lunch everyday, lives in an apt that’s thousands more than mine, and all around lives a less frugal life than me. He may make less, but he also spends above his means and while he’s not “poor” because poor people don’t have $3000 apts in hip neighborhoods, he plays the “poor me” victim role in a laughable way.

  • Piggy

    WORD. I love this video. It can be so easy to inadvertently be insensitive to other people’s situations.