How To Be Financially Independent (When You Grew Up Poor)

I truly believe a lot of our financial decisions we make as millennials has so much to do with our upbringings.

I grew up poor. Like, we were the-poorest-folks poor. I was asked in sixth grade by two popular girls “where’s the flood?” and I didn’t understand the insult until two years later (and laugh now because I was clearly just 15 years ahead of the curve on what’s in style). I felt embarrassment when kids showed their treasures they received in their stocking on St. Nicholas’ Day and I had nothing but a note from my mom telling me how much she loved me and was proud of me. Little did I know, my mother sobbed about not being able to provide to Keep Up with the Joneses, especially since her birthday fell on St. Nicholas’ Day, which was a big deal in my small Midwestern town. We were without a home for a while after leaving an abusive situation and things were tight for many years after as my mom tried to provide meals, school supplies, and basic care for kids who had medicine to take and learning assistance needs.

Eventually, my mother remarried a wonderful man with two children of his own and our small, struggling family became one of lower-middle class. That was a big deal. We could have McDonald’s once a week. We were able to do laundry at our house and not in a laundromat. I could even afford to stay in dance class; I could purchase my own folders and notebooks without having them donated from last year’s classroom leftovers; I got to share a car (RIP, 1980 Pontiac Phoenix, you were a dream) with my four siblings. I went to college fully on my own (and Sallie Mae’s) dime and permanently moved out of my parents’ house. I started graduate school across the country, financially independent from my family from the day I turned 18. I vowed to never be like them, not because they weren’t inspiring, but because I never wanted to struggle the way my mom had to.

After finishing my first year of AmeriCorps where food (group meals), clothing (grey t-shirts and men’s cut cargo pants), and shelter (closed college dorms, Habitat for Humanity shotgun houses, and tents) were provided, I joined a second program where we had to find our own means. That meant food stamps – something that was NOT on my Strong Independent Woman Who Won’t Be Like Her Mom (SIWWWBLHM) to-do list. Alas, it was par for the course and I signed up unwillingly. I found that the stigma with it was very, very real. People watch. People notice. I felt, for that short amount of time, what my mom must have felt every time she went to the store or the food bank – pitied. Embarrassed. Lesser-than.

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My favorite compliment from my partner is that I am resourceful. I can open a pantry, look at what’s in it, and host a dinner party with what’s there, keeping attendees none the wiser to my cheap tricks. I hand-craft gifts that look like they were shipped from Etsy. I make my small salary work for me because I’ve felt what it’s like to go without meals, without small trinkets, without, without, without. I find myself feeling guilty for splurging on things for myself – $30 for five pairs of underwear from Gap Body makes me reel for days. I don’t blame my upbringing for that, rather, I feel good about the fact that I can make it work with what I have even though it’s not a lot.

I grew up without the wherewithal to understand what spending and saving should look like. My parents still use cash over cards and are going to be forever renters. In promising myself that I am a SIWWWBLHM, that means more than just saying it. I need to live into that. A few years back, I sat down and created a spreadsheet, calculating my financial aid debt and monthly finances. I then sobbed for two days before calling a free financial analyst for young people in the city and had her break it down for me: I was similar to most people my age, except I had a one-up on them – no credit card debt. I was in a relationship all through undergrad with my finances tied to my partner at the time, and since they paid for everything, I not only learned nothing about finances as an adult, but I didn’t have any debt from them. That negative turned into a positive! I still function without a credit card out of the fear I have seeing my friends whose parents have had to bail them out, because unlike them, my parents have no means to be able to save my drowning ass in the sea of debt I could get myself into. It keeps me financially in check, because the money I have is just that – the money I have.

My partner and I are opposite when it comes to finances, but she’s teaching me every day. When she was 20, while the rest of us were blowing cash on gaudy Coach bags and shots of Malibu, she was investing her money in Apple because she saw the first iPod and thought, “This will be huge.” She has since played the stock market, has a Roth IRA and a pension set up from her job, owns her own car, and bought our first home. She taught me to face my fears post-graduate school and sit down with the financial planner again; to find out my credit score and learn the ways to bring it up versus hiding from it; and to plan ahead with meals to make something delicious once last for the whole week. I’m learning and I’m taking missteps, but I’m doing okay. I’m not afraid of my student loan debt, and instead of throwing away the letters from those who own my loans, I open them and call the number. As it turns out, explaining your situation to those who hold the loans works (most of the time!) because they’re focused on getting money from you, no matter the amount. And planning has its perks. I can make sound choices and have money tucked away for when coworkers go out for a happy hour or friends fly into town for a weekend of hiking and brewery tours. I don’t have to be afraid because I know what’s on the horizon financially, which is an invaluable lesson given to me through experience, not from my mother.

I think a lot of us in our 20s and 30s can say the same: many of us are from the heartland, we watched struggle around us, and we know what that means. We can make the drunken decision to buy everyone’s round at the tequila bar and cry into our credit card statements, sure, but we can also remember the fact that we got to meet new people and see old friends come out of their shells in that environment that wouldn’t have happened had we not offered to get the next round. Some days, we’ll wake up with our bank accounts like my childhood St. Nicholas stocking – empty of trinkets. But then we’ll remember the note that goes along with it – we’ve got lives full of love, and sometimes that’s enough.

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