My entire childhood was spent living under the poverty level. And I was painfully aware of it. My mom worked so hard to make ends meet, especially for us kids. All summer long she would search garage sales trying to find the nicest clothes they had to offer. She was always so excited to show us her finds, perhaps hoping that her excitement with the used clothing would rub off on us.
Childhood poverty shapes people in different ways. Sometimes it creates a steadfast determination to live differently. To want better things for our kids. I knew I wanted more financial freedom. I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck; struggling to put food on the table.
But those skeletons in our closet can sabotage us as well. Here are some of the ways I have seen it in my own life and the lives of others who grew up poor.
1. We spend too much for clothes, especially for our kids. For most people growing up poor meant hand me down clothes, or clothes from second hand stores and garage sale. They often are last year’s colors and styles. They don’t fit quite right. They might look a bit faded, even on the first day of school. They have some other kids name written on the inside of the jacket. We remember feeling self-conscious about our clothes. Hoping others don’t notice. Tugging and pulling throughout the day to help them look like they fit better. Holding our arms in an awkward way to hide the missing button or stain. Wishing we had the new “must-have” cool thing.
As adults now, we never want our kids to feel that way. So we spend more than we need to. Instead of gauging our child’s happiness with a shirt, we shop in places that make us feel comfortable. I still struggle walking into a thrift store, there is something about the familiar smell of used clothing that makes me feel uneasy. We buy the name brands, and we buy too much. No way are our kids going to school with a dirty shirt because they only own 4. We will buy 20 shirts, just to be safe.
Even for ourselves, we don’t want to look poor. We want our clothes to look put together, and stylish. We might say it’s for work. Or because we can afford it. But really we are just hoping it will hide the insecurity we feel. We hope our clothes will show others who we are becoming instead of reveal where we came from.
2. We spend too much on food. Food scarcity as a child can cause people to go big with the grocery bill.
First we want to have “enough” to feel comfortable. Stocking the fridge full feels comforting. Knowing that there is an abundance of food available reduces our anxiety even though it can lead to waste.
Second, we don’t want to eat “poor people food.” There can be a stigma around certain food items that were common for people living in poverty. I know a man in his 60’s, who despite loving to hunt, won’t eat venison. That is what he had to eat as a child when the family couldn’t afford beef. For some it’s rice and beans, or generic mac and cheese. They will be dammed if their family has to eat that food. I still can’t stomach bologna. I look at iceberg lettuce with distain, as it was generally the only fresh vegie we had at the table. So we buy expensive food to compensate. Fancy rich people food. The food we never ate as a child. Heck we didn’t even know it existed! Where the hell were avocados? The green colored dip: that I remember from childhood. I may have eaten 8 avocados this week. Organic arugula? Yes, please. I really love rich people food.
3. We want the “best” for our kids. Whatever we lacked or disliked about growing up poor, we want the opposite for our kids. That might mean lots of expensive sports or activities. Summer camps. A car in high school, when we had to walk everywhere. Or a car that doesn’t look like it was pulled from a wrecking yard. A real prom dress. Haircuts by a professional. School pictures. A bit of spending cash on our school trip. Birthday parties with a grocery store cake. A college fund. Or the freedom to participate in activities instead of work a job all through high school.
These things aren’t bad to want. But emotions can run high and strong for those who grew up poor. Those skeletons in our closet can sabotage our ultimate goal: to not be broke. We can end up spending so much money making sure we don’t “look broke,” that it kills our chance of actually finding financial freedom.
It has taken me 15 years of asking myself: Do I want to look rich, or feel rich? Because I can’t have both.
It is a constant work in progress for me. I absolutely want to have financial freedom! Even if that means dealing with the skeletons in my own closet.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you seen this kind of overcompensation? What kinds of effects will this have for kids who never had to work but always had the “best” of everything? Do you think it’s more difficult for your kids to keep up with the Jones’s kids vs yourself? How has this played a role in items of bigger financial impact, like cars and homes?