8 Things I learned Growing Up Broke

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I am 34 years old. I have a fairly decent job now, and health insurance. I also have a metric fuckton of debt; mostly student loans, but also older credit card and loan debt from when I did NOT, in fact, have a decent job and health insurance. Growing up without much money not only helped shape the person that I am, but taught me many valuable lessons and skills.

1. Growing up poor, you do not generally know you are poor until you are around people who are not. This doesn’t necessarily happen for a while. For me it was when I made my first friend in third grade who happened to come from a middle-class family. Here is what will happen: You will be at their uncomfortably clean suburban house one day, and they will open the door to a pantry in your presence. That pantry will be crammed full of beautiful, expensive snack foods like Pop Tarts and Cheetos and other name brand snacks you would never in a million years even try to sneak into a grocery cart, and they will then loudly whine to their Mother “There’s nothing to eeeeeat!!” The reflexive desire to punch them in the kidney until they puke blood will be strong. Resist it, because…

2. They are helpless in ways you are not. You heated up beans on the stove when you were five years old (I still have a scar on my arm from when my big brother tried to make hot dogs by boiling them on the stovetop in a glass casserole dish. It exploded, I was playing on the kitchen floor… it could have been worse.), you learned to make boxed mac and cheese when you were six, you learned to stomach generic cheerios with water instead of milk, and if there were at least 3 things in the refrigerator, you could come up with something edible from the age you could reach the refrigerator handle. Is this sad? Sure. But if you ever fall on hard times in the future, you will have a skill and ingenuity with food staples that never will have left you. On a related note, when that same friend complains about “McDonald’s AGAAAAAIN?” you can comfort yourself with the fact that eating out, anywhere, will never feel as special or taste as good to them, because they don’t have to wait for a birthday to get a damn Big Mac. So don’t feel anger at their ungratefulness, which incidentally all children deserve to have a bit of, but instead feel a little sorry for them. Because also…

3. They will never, ever appreciate Christmas the way you do. Yes, they will look forward to the toys that are slightly more expensive than the ones they get all year long, but they will never know the magical excitement that only comes with anticipating toys one single day a year- knowing that the rest of your year will be filled with garage sale clothes and playing with your friend’s toys. And sometimes, as a bonus, throughout the year there will be nice adults who give you little gifts, or show you kindness, and your heart will burst with a gratitude that you will scarcely understand. When I was about eight I had a friend from school whose mother took care of me. My mom would dump my little sister and I off at her house ALL of the time. This woman had hardly more than we had in the way of money, but she cared for us like we were her own, sometimes even taking us to the 99-cent store and buying us toys for NO REASON. We were never once made to feel unwelcome even though she had zero reason to watch us. She gave love to me when I was small and vulnerable, and now, 26 years later, I still get her a mother’s day card every year and snuggle into her hugs in a way I am not comfortable doing with any other mother figure. I will never, ever be able to repay her kindness. Which reminds me…

4. In my experience, people will help you, especially if you are young. When my mom abandoned my younger sister and I to go live with her boyfriend in a Motel 8 a few towns over we were fine on our own… for a while. We were only 12 and 10 years old, but we had a carpool that picked us up and took us home from school, we were very used to feeding ourselves, and we were well-trained in the art of keeping our mouths shut about our home life to adults. Then the food finally started to run out. So we started “coincidentally” going over to my best friend’s house next door around dinner time, and they fed us without question. Eventually they became suspicious about the frequency of our visits and called CPS. My mom returned home, angry with us for blowing her cover, but nevertheless the food issue was solved. At another low point around my first year of high school, we told our teacher in private that we had no food in the house, and baskets of donated canned and packaged food were dropped off at our front door weekly until we were back to “normal” again. Was it fun to see our pastor (who was also my principal) bringing food to our house then having to face him at our small school the next day? Nah. But that’s what you learn growing up poor- you learn to ask for help, accept it gratefully, and simply tell yourself that someday you will be an adult and you will never have to ask again. Then eventually you are old enough to get your first job and everything is gravy, right? Except…

5. As you get older and start working your first part-time, minimum-wage job, you may quickly learn you are now expected to buy your own toiletries and even groceries for the house with your miniscule paycheck until you manage to move out. Do so as quickly as you can. I was lucky enough to be in a stable relationship at the time and so had a built-in roommate, but do so even if it means acquiring a less-than-desirable roommate. Or two. You will never get anywhere if you are now basically a bonus parent and are expected to contribute and not allowed to save. So get out. Once you are on your own it will be time to navigate a world of finance you’ve had zero experience with and nobody bothered to teach you about. So you start to find grown-ups to ask…

6. People will give you advice when you first start applying for a lot of credit cards or loans- mostly “don’t”. Those people mean well and are often technically right, but my advice is to do what you have to do to survive. Learn how to write checks with perfect timing so they do not bounce but you have groceries to float you until your next paycheck. Learn to prioritize bills. If you are making $6.50/hr. and living paycheck-to-paycheck, you need credit cards in case your 1989 LeBaron, I mean your really cool car, breaks down. You have to get to work and school. Number one priority: Get to work and school. So get yourself some credit. Speaking of school…

7. Unless you land a full scholarship somewhere, start off at community college. Starting at a 4-year school is a ridiculous waste of money unless it is free on a scholarship or someone else is paying for it. There are many outstanding community colleges and if you play your cards right, you can get 2 years of quality general education in the can with zero student debt accrued. Then you transfer to that 4-year school and your FAFSA applications begin. Get that government cheese. That Bachelors Degree WILL help you get a higher-paying job, eventually. And until then, one word: Deferment. Now here comes the tricky part: How to not become a bitter asshole…

8. This one is more an emotional and social lesson than a practical one. As your social circle expands, you may end up becoming friends with people who are well off, or even very rich. Personally, besides having the random rich friend here and there, I have worked with doctors for 15 years. They may often seem like aliens to you: Their houses, their cars, their priorities, and their problems. Sometimes you may feel like a deeper human, and even morally superior to them when they are having a meltdown to you about their interior decorator’s stubbornness, or the flakiness of their dog walker. You will listen patronizingly, knowing in your heart that it is you who Truly Knows What Is Important and they clearly do not. But chances are, they care just as much about their friends, family, and world peace as you do. Caring about one thing doesn’t mean you don’t care about another thing. Maybe they lack perspective and maybe they don’t. But be very careful about making assumptions when chances are you probably threw a fit about something petty in the past few weeks too- like Netflix taking too long to bring back goddamn Peaky Blinders.

Then there will be other times when you feel deeply ashamed that you are technically an adult yet you do not own a house or car like many others your age. There will be the inevitable times one of them will ask if you can be the one to drive to lunch, and a wave of embarrassment will wash over you as you direct them to your 15 year-old dingy car, with its musty smell and broken air conditioner. But always remember that you are not better or worse than they are- your circumstances are just different.

Lastly there will be days you end up on the phone with a friend who is innocently and excitedly telling you all about his new iPhone/Pad/Watch (his 3rd this year), his recent vacation to a tropical resort, or his $2000 rims. This conversation may happen to take place on the literal next day after you sobbed in a parking lot for half an hour because you had to bounce a $10 check to get your anti-depressant prescription filled because your car decided it needed two of its tires to explode in one pay period. That old feeling- you know, the punch-ey one, will return. Again, resist it. They are not calling you to make you feel like crap, they are calling you because they are excited about something and they want to share it with you because you are their friend. It is difficult to walk around with the knowledge that the thousand or so bucks they dropped on a new toy they will barely give a shit about in two weeks would mean the difference between you being able to fix your car and pay your bills that month, and a series of panic attacks in the middle of the night as you lie awake wondering how you are going to scrape by this time… but the thing is, A) You are not their responsibility and B) That doesn’t mean they don’t care about you. Repeat that as a mantra: YOU ARE NOT THEIR RESPONSIBILITY. And more importantly, you WILL get by. Because you know what you are doing. You know because you grew up broke.

Fam21

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About destielruinedmylife

Bios written in the third person weird me out. You are writing your own bio and we all know it. I am a single female person living in Southern California. I've traveled a whole lot. I am overly invested in more fictional characters than any grown-ass adult should be. I've wanted to marry Raistlin Majere ever since I was 12 and if you know who that is, it should tell you everything you need to know about my romantic choices as well as the depth of my nerdiness. I love being an Aunt. Tacos are the best food. I love rap music. I am still mad about Firefly being cancelled. I've run out of things to say. Bring me tacos.
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8 Responses to 8 Things I learned Growing Up Broke

  1. lkeke35 says:

    Excellent rundown on what it feels like to grow up poor.
    Have you read John Scalzi’s post on poverty?
    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bryndonovan says:

    I really enjoyed this! The specific details make it. I think there are a lot of things here that most people wouldn’t think about unless they had experienced it directly.

    I loved this: “You will listen patronizingly, knowing in your heart that it is you who Truly Knows What Is Important and they clearly do not. But chances are, they care just as much about their friends, family, and world peace as you do.”

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wes says:

    Don’t f*ck with the Peeky Blinders!!! Nice piece. Hope all is well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carol Farrell says:

    This is f….ing great! You SHOULD be proud.

    Liked by 1 person

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