From the day I got my first job as a cart pusher at a supermarket, I spent years living from one paycheck to the next. I hovered around the poverty line, hoping that I would last until next month’s rent. At the time it felt normal. It wasn’t until after I started making more money that I realised the psychological scars that living the poor life left on me.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
Being poor isn’t just a number on a balance sheet. It’s a state of mind. For years I felt worthless because I was poor and, because I was worthless, I didn’t think I deserved to be paid more. All that guilt, shame and fear that kept me (and millions of others still struggling) from pursuing better. It was a never ending cycle of self-destruction. If you’re still in a situation like that, don’t feel like you have to be. The system is often rigged to make you fail, but one of the worst mechanisms of that system is making you believe that you deserve to be stuck in it.
Having Money Means Finally Having the Freedom to Make Good Decisions
House and money image from Shutterstock
Back when I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, I knew what a bad financial decision was. If I had $300 in my account and I needed $250 for rent and $50 for food, then going out to the movies that week was a bad decision. Of course, sometimes I made bad decisions. I like movies, so occasionally I went to the cinema when I really shouldn’t have. It may have been a poor decision, but I chose to make it anyway.
When you’re broke, the only freedom you have is to make bad decisions. Paying rent isn’t really a “good decision” so much as a responsibility. You don’t get a pat on the back for paying your rent. It’s great when you’re able to do it — you can’t always be sure you can when you’re poor — but it’s just treading water. You can’t choose to invest wisely or save for emergencies.
The first time I made a little more money however, I discovered flexibility in my budget that I wasn’t familiar with. Suddenly, I could choose whether to do wise, formerly far-off things like actually saving for retirement (as opposed to the $5 I saved every month more as a gesture than anything). I could take classes or buy software that helped my career. I could pay down debt. These were all good decisions and, more shocking to me, I could choose what to do.
This was something I didn’t understand when I was broke. I only ever had enough money to make ends meet, so I viewed money as something everyone wanted from me. I only pursued a higher salary because I needed to keep up. I even felt guilty for wanting more than the bare minimum I needed. It didn’t occur to me until much later in life that wanting to make money wasn’t greedy or selfish. The vicious trap of being poor was that I started to train myself to believe I didn’t deserve the freedom everyone else had. All the finance blogs taught me how to avoid lifestyle inflation, but nothing prepared me for the psychological adjustment it took to realise I’d been handicapping myself for years.
Catching Up On Self Care Is Expensive
Photo by US Army Africa.
If you’re poor in your 20s, you probably don’t go to the doctor much. It’s no secret that low-income households ignore routine medical treatment because they simply can’t afford it. It makes sense. If $20 is the difference between eating and going hungry for you this week, you’re not going to waste it on a co-pay for a doctor’s visit you don’t know you need.
In my case, I didn’t even have the option. I had back pain, toothaches and got sick sometimes, but I never bothered to have a professional check it out because I just didn’t have the money to spend or the insurance to pay for it.
Look through the things your insurance covers. Preventative care is usually paid for very generously. There’s a reason for that. If an insurance company can pay $50 for a treatment today that helps avoid a $2000 treatment a year from now, they will be happy to do it. I did not share their view at the time. $50 was an impossible amount of money for me.
Once I finally got insurance, I had a lot to catch up on. Dental work was the worst. I missed many opportunities to get cavities filled. Getting what remained of my teeth fixed and/or replaced was expensive. Far more expensive than if I’d managed to get to the dentist sooner. Even now, I wonder if it might’ve been worth a few missed rent payments or taking a third job so I could afford the insurance I needed to prevent this. I made the best choice I could at the time, but that doesn’t make it any less expensive now.
Being poor in the past meant that I’m staying poorer than I should be now. Even if I could afford the preventative care I needed for my teeth, there were other areas I neglected as well and it will always cost more to catch up. Once I started getting a decent wage, I made it a priority to catch up on all the health issues I’d been avoiding before they got any more expensive. If you can, don’t neglect your health if you have the ability. However, I know all too well that sometimes that isn’t an option.
Once You Have Money, You’re Terrified to Lose It
Photo by Rafael J M Souza.
When you’re broke, the idea of having money seems like a dream. Once I get there, you tell yourself, everything will be fine. Life will be better. You’re convinced that all you really need is just a little bit more money to break out of the cycle of living paycheck-to-paycheck and all the problems you wrestle with will be lifted off your shoulders.
And you’re right. Sure, there’s a limit where more money doesn’t make you happier, but having it is definitely better than having none. Once you have money, you can pay for things to make your life better. You can buy your food in bulk or get a car that doesn’t break down all the time. Money can definitely make you happier. Which is why the thought of losing it is terrifying.
When you’re poor, “getting money” sounds like a milestone where you enter a new, permanent era of your life. In reality, that money probably comes in some form of salary. A salary that you will constantly remind yourself you can lose at any minute.
When I worked at a supermarket, there were times where I felt like I might lose my job. Maybe I screwed something up or maybe my boss had a bad day and took it out on me. I was worried that I’d lose my minimum wage job pushing shopping carts around a parking lot. Big freaking whoop. Even when I was worried, I was never that worried.
Once I got a better job, that fear got exponentially worse. Every time I’d have a bad week, I found myself terrified it would all come crashing down. If I get fired, who will hire me? There’s no way I’ll luck into a job like this ever again. I’ll have to take a worse job making less money and I’ll lose all my indulgent luxuries like going to the dentist.
This is partially imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head, but it’s also a more visceral fear that comes from knowing what you have to lose. For years I couldn’t afford a trip to the doctor or going to a bar or indulging hobbies like cosplay. Someone who grew up with money might fear losing their job and not having access to those things until they found another one, but for people like me, it’s not just a fear. It’s a memory.
You Never Really Stop Feeling Poor
Photo by jridgewayphotography.
It’s been about three years since I started getting paid a salary above the US federal poverty guidelines. That’s not a super long time, but it’s long enough that I feel like I should have adjusted by now. I haven’t. A sudden $20 expense still makes me feel anxious. I still mentally assume that I can’t afford anything over $100 without agonising over the decision. This has certainly helped me stay frugal, but it highlights how ingrained the mindset of being poor really is.
This hit home for me a few months ago when I decided to buy an Xbox. Now, I have a pretty decent gaming PC that I use if I ever want to play a game (which I always bought years after release, during a Steam sale, usually for $5). I upgraded my PC piece by piece over the years, so I never needed to spend more than $100 at a time. The thought of spending over $300 on a console felt insane and impossible.
It took me months to make the decision. until it finally dawned on me. I don’t need to justify buying something I want if I can afford it. Even writing that sentence feels like treason. Even so, I realised that I was paying my bills, saving for the future and paying down debt. There will always be something better I could do with my money, but I finally had the option of buying something solely because I wanted it, and not because I found some external reason to prove that it was a good decision.
I still feel guilty for buying that Xbox. I probably always will. Sure, I could’ve used that money for something else, or tried something else to play games in my living room, or just been happy with what I have. I can hear those criticisms because they’re what I tell myself all the time. Years of being poor taught me all of the many ways that my financial decisions can be wrong. That voice didn’t go away when my salary changed. It probably never will. No matter how hard I try to dig myself out of the financial hole I used to be in, I’ll always carry a part of the hole with me. That’s not necessarily a bad or good thing. It’s just the way it is.