how to rise from poverty

I was rich as a child. Not really. I wasn’t. I lived in fairly plain conditions in subsidized housing. My family was poor enough that we used the residual heat from cooking to heat our home. I had to share a room with my brother. I didn’t get a puppy. We only had one car, and it didn’t even have air conditioning! And worst of all, I didn’t have a Wii.  Or high-speed internet, although it hadn’t been invented yet.

Now granted the subsidized housing was married student housing since my dad was still in PhD school when I was born. It was a cheerful, happy community with dozens of kids my own age. We did use heat from cooking to heat the house, but so what, why not? I never minded sharing a room with my brother – I assumed that’s how brothers were supposed to live! I didn’t get a puppy because I never really wanted one. We only needed one car because everything was close by, and most cars didn’t have air conditioning back then. And although I didn’t get a Wii, I did get a computer when I was 10 – a Tandy Color Computer – because my parents thought learning some computer skills could be useful if it ever managed to evolve into a useful device. Too bad computers never really took off, eh?

When I read the Science of Getting Rich, there was a passage that Bubelah pointed out to me that really struck me:

“Do not tell of the poverty of your parents or the hardships of your early life. To do any of these things is to mentally class yourself with the poor for the time being, and it will certainly check the movement of things in your direction. Put poverty and all things that pertain to poverty completely behind you. “

One of the memes of my financial life has been to proudly point out how my parents rose above their parents financially, and how I was rising above them (at least in terms of income – in terms of real long-term wealth they are still way ahead of me). This meme was always painted a massive struggle against near-impossible odds – primarily due to my big brain. I have been fond of telling people how I didn’t always have the big house and the big cars and the bling bling (does anyone still say that with a straight face)? I made it on my own! I never had STUFF! We lived in a SMALL PLACE! We struggled! We succeeded in the face of a harsh, cold world!

I got carried away. It’s true that I didn’t have a lot of stuff growing up. Having a small apartment for four people restricts storage space. We never really lacked for much. I don’t think I ever saw a book in a bookstore when I was a kid that my parents wouldn’t buy for me if I asked. A toy? That they might deny. But I really can’t remember anything in retrospect that I felt I lacked. Maybe at the time I wished I had the Schwinn X22 bike instead of the X21, but I can’t recall it now.

A few points:

  1. Recalling your “poverty,” even for the sake of telling someone an inspiring up-by-the-bootstraps story, is putting a negative spin on your memories and a cloud over your future. Don’t remember your “lacks.” If you grew up in America, chances are good (although not 100%) that your “poverty” as a child was a lack of the coolest new bellbottoms.
  2. Think forward, not backwards. Your childhood was a launchpad for who you are today. Are you improving your health, your wealth, your finances and your well-being? If so, your childhood was rich, because it gave you the tools to improve yourself now.
  3. Talking about poverty will not make you rich, ever. If you spend time telling people about what you lack, you’ll continue to lack. If you don’t want to keep lacking stuff, go out and do something about it. Don’t whine about the poverty of your youth.
  4. When you are 20 years older today, do you plan on telling people those were the lean years? I bet if you read this blog or any of the blogs in my blogroll you don’t plan on that. You PLAN on telling people that these were the years you brought the booyah. The early 2000s were when I got my shiznit together! Think about 20 years ago the same way. Even if it’s not 100% true, doesn’t it make you feel better to think that way?
  5. Listen to rich people talk about their youth. Does Sergey Brin sit around complaining about being a Jew in Russia as a child, and having to emigrate when he was 6 years old?
  6. Two out of every three billionaires made their fortunes from scratch. Being rich as a kid means you are LESS likely to be a billionaire. That’s an amazing thought.

I try as much as I can these days to think of what I had, not what I lacked. Concentrating on the things you didn’t have then, or don’t have now, is a sure way to be miserable.

Creative Commons License photo credit: billy verdin

16 Replies to “how to rise from poverty”

  1. The most I ever learned about money and finance was when I was in my twenties and early thirties and had many conversations with the rich teachers in the teachers' lounge during breaks at work. Yes, I said rich teachers. These were the ones who were always “forward thinking.” These people had their houses paid off, they were looking for places to stash their next $100,000 (Yes, they were conservative and most kept CDs and savings accounts and didn't invest in stock and the bank only insures to $100,000) and they were determined to keep that $100,000 and make something/anything off of it. Most of these people were in their fifties at the time, now they are comfortably retired. I still keep in touch with some.

    What is interesting is that the rich teachers paid off everything and paid cash for when they wanted something new, like a new car (and most didn't buy new cars but drove 20-year old cars – one guy had to put a can of oil in it before he drove home each night.) By contrast, the teachers who constantly spent money, took our refinancing on their homes and bought many new cars are now retired and having to make house and car payments in their retirement. That is something I do not want to have to do.

    I have followed the advice of the rich teachers, I look forward to what is next and what I can do next to improve what I have and what I am doing. I am 45 and our house will be paid off in less than 3 years and our savings is continually growing. (My car is 14 years old and I have an ing account where I am saving monthly so I can pay cash for the next car I need.) Are we rich? Yes, I think so….because we are happy and moving forward in our goals. There is certainly something to be said about thinking “ahead” and now wallowing in “what was.”

    1. Awesome comment, Chris. Everyone should be as lucky as you were to get exposure to the “real rich” – people who plan, think about the future and restrain themselves from excess consumerism. Kudos!

  2. Very well said. My sentiments exactly. Going forward, I will keep these reminders in mind. Too often we tend to look back and focus on what we didn't have rather than being grateful for what we had. My focus, however, is to never forget where I came from and to make an effort to be happy where I am and even more happier and content with where I plan to go.

  3. My husband had a genuinely impoverished childhood – he's from one of the poorest (and most corrupt) countries in the world, lost his dad young, came to NYC and worked illegally as a busboy in his teens before getting papers and GED, going to SUNY as a mature student for his degree in maths etc – and rarely if ever looks back on it except to remember things that happened in his childhood and the like. He certainly doesn't give bootstrap lectures to anyone or sneer about my or anyone else's (comparably) easy ride. It's left to his proud wife to boast about him because he's all about looking forward. I'm not qualified to say if that's right or wrong but there's another datapoint for you.

  4. Ha ha, it is a shame computers never took off, they were very interesting devices.

    I am English and for some reason I talk in an accent that is considered middle class…. This wasn't planned but I was from pretty poor background and sometimes feel I do need to point this out to people who assume I grew up rich.

    I am pretty poor now I suppose but without kids or anything I don't feel poor. In fact I feel pretty free with few possessions and no real ties.

    1. There is a lot to be said about your comment. From what I have seen from my friends and neighbors, the ones who have the most possessions are often the poorest (or those who owe the most money, which is really being poor, in my definition).

    2. Thanks…. I do have debt sadly due to getting loans for family members who then screwed me over!! I have just entered debt management to get rid of it without it hurting me too bad…. Also you made me think about poor people here in Cairo (where I currently live)…. They have NOTHING, barely enough to eat yet they owe nothing to anyone as it's unlikely they would get a load (generally Islam is against loans)… so they are theoretically richer than me…. Strange world!

  5. Great points…if I just focused on my blessings more than what I lack I would love my life much more. Thanks for the reminder that thoughts ..the right ones…will result in more happiness.

  6. I grew up in a household where we were pretty well off. We weren't rich by any means, but I don't ever remember struggling. It's funny now because I worry that I won't be able to give my kids all the things they'd probably like 🙁

  7. #6 was so true. Being a rich-e-rich does not ensure that your kid willl be as good as you or for a kid it does not mean life will be easy. And if we really open our eyes and look around, we will find a lot of live examples.

  8. When we were first falling into debt, I spent a lot of time thinking about what we could not afford. The newer car, that fancy meal at the restaurant I have always wanted to go to, the vacation, the new whatever, etc. Now, I spend a lot more time thinking about all the things we are able to afford and have. Three squares, organic and healthy food at a reasonable cost, our two cars that run well, my townhouse, computers, etc. And I spend time thinking about the reasonable purchases that we soon will be able to afford once we are out of debt. Like a new tent and cooking stove so the fam can takes some frugal vacations. It has revolutionized my mindset and lowered my stress level immensely.

  9. I remember the lessons of my childhood so that I don't have to learn them anew.
    I remember what I didn't have so that I'm grateful for what I have now.
    I remember how far I've come so that I can see how far I can go.
    I remember the past so that I know how little I really need.

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