Romanticizing poverty and learning financial independence

When money is tight, people are all too aware of every cent. Commentator Kristin Wong grew up this way and she says it's shaped both how she thinks about money and how she thinks about herself.

I was chatting with my mom over the holidays, talking about how tough we had it when I was a kid. "Remember that time we had to steal toilet paper? That was rough."

But I'm grateful for the hard times, I said. They helped make me the independent, responsible person I am today. I've paid my debts, I'm frugal and I live below my means. Our humble beginnings helped me learn those lessons.

Her response to all this? "Ha! You wanna know 'rough?' How 'bout worrying about your next meal? How 'bout sleeping in a room with seven other people? In a village! In China!"

All right mom, I get it. You win. I wasn't that poor.

But the thing is, her childhood was rougher than mine -- and she's also way more financially responsible than I am. She's got more self-control. She's more frugal. And I'm pretty frugal!

So does this mean that the poorer you grow up, the better your chances are at learning financial independence? I'm gonna quote the Greek playwright Sophocles now -- brace yourself. He said: "there is no success without hardship."

But I'm starting to think that's just him romanticizing his rough past. Kinda like I've been doing, walking around saying fortune cookie things like, "wisdom comes through adversity." To be fair, this mindset has its advantages. By constantly telling myself times are hard and I can't afford to live, I did pay off my student loans pretty quickly.  

But these days, that strategy is kind of backfiring. Like, my laptop crashes. A lot. But I won't buy a new one. Not because I can't afford it, but because Sophocles is in my head saying, "You can make do -- just deal with it one more week. Remember that hardship thing?"

And usually, I listen. I don't give myself any financial elbow room. And that doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm not ashamed that I grew up poor. In fact I'm proud of my background.  And that I've worked hard to be financially independent.

But I'm done romanticizing my impovershed childhood. It's been getting in the way of my life.

Plus, I can't compete with my mom.

About the author

Kristin Wong writes about personal finance at GetRichSlowly.org.

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