Shaped by Poverty

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.

pump gas


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?

Get My 5 Most Popular PDF's to Your Inbox

  • Build Your Financial Freedom
  • Create Your Ideal Lifestyle
  • Grow Your Passion + Passive Income
Unsubscribe at any time if the emails aren't awesome! Powered by ConvertKit

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Add to the conversation! Community is built in the comments section.

20 thoughts on “Shaped by Poverty

  1. Kudos for the article… It somehow relates to our situation as well, yet not that extreme as you describe.

    As parents, we also want the best for our kids. We do manage to put some limits on that. We have less the need to give them all they want/need. Yes, sports, but we limit to 2 things per week. I do not plan to be taxi dad all weekend long.
    We actually by second hand and combine this with Newly bought clothes. As there is no pressure, we only by second hand when really convinced of its quality.

    We also try to teach our kids that work and effort is needed to buy something. just yesterday we had an example. Our daughter was promised a gift for good behaviour for all the dentist sessions see needed (8 in total). She wants a frozen does… fine by us. In the store, she changed her mind. She wanted something priced 32 EUR. I would not hamper us buying this in stead of the dress. I told her she could get something equally priced as the dress…

    And we prefer to feel rich rather than look rich. There will always be people that look more rich, drive a BMW 5 or 7, have gucci bag…

    • Thanks so much! No matter what people’s background, being intentional with our parenting is so important. It sounds like you have put a good deal of thought into it, which is awesome. Learning to work hard is one of our top three goals for our kids, and our boys actually have a little business they run. Sometime I will do a few posts about that just cause it’s so darn cute. We actually stopped doing year round activities this year. It made our scheduled so crazy and we really want to have time to travel as a family while the kids are young. When they get older (and they don’t want to road trip with us for 6 weeks straight!) we will let them start back with the activities.

      Oh and after you buy the BMW and gucci bag to keep up, they will buy a share of a private jet. =) There is no winning that game.

  2. This is great. I have found that by wanting our kids to have the world we never did, that we are definitely overcompensating in the giving department. It’s only recently that we have found that the kids would way rather have experiences over stuff. Now we are focused on giving them more of those experiences.

    • We let the kids pick a fun family activity for their birthday. Sometimes we go bowling, to the pool, kids play place or have a backyard fire pit. With 5 kids, the toys can get out of control. And I have a weird rule that mom doesn’t pick up toys! So they only get as many toys as they can keep organized. =)

  3. I love the picture! And you’re absolutely right about how parents can over-compensate based on their childhood. I’ve seen it many times. It’s not always bad, but it’s definitely a good thing to be aware of. Great post!

    • Thanks so much! It can be tough to take an honest look at why we do what we do. I always have to take a step back and separate what I want to do for my kids and what is actually going to help them the most in life. Because those two things are seldom the same thing!

  4. This article resonates with me because that’s exactly how my childhood was. I didn’t realky mind the garage sales and thrifty store clothes though. My parents kept telling me I was really well off compare to kids in rural China and I knew it was true. Even though it was hard growing up poor, I think it did a lot of good for me as well. I had to get more creative since there were so many money constraints and moving around a lot because my parents couldn’t afford to buy a house and had to find the cheapest rentals just made me more flexible and resilient. The only thing I would change if I have kids is to travel with them more. That was the biggest thing I missed growing up. Zero vacations except to go back to China to visit relatives. Experiences beats things. Always. And if my kids ever want nice things, I’d get them to earn it while supplementing half of the cost. That way they can learn the true value of money and hard work.

    Love the article! Looks like we were cut from the same cloth 🙂

    • That is awesome! I agree that growing up poor gave me skills that I might not have had otherwise. I started working very young, and have always worked hard. It also gave me compassion for kids who have tough situations. It was a big inspiration to adopt. And I do make my kids work hard! Other than a small birthday and Christmas gift or clothes, they work for everything they want. I give them lots of opportunities to make money. My 7 and 8 year old even run their own business. =) We also travel a ton, in part because we also never took a vacation. China is on our bucket list! When we were in Yellowstone, the folks from China were SO nice to us. We have 5 little kids and they were over the top sweet. I would see them counting all our kids, then give us a huge smile and thumbs up. It was awesome!

  5. Wow – this hits dead-center bullseye! While I didn’t grow up under the poverty line, I’m quite certain my parents were straddling it.

    I know I over compensate with my kids, especially on clothes, but also with toys and gadgets. On December 26th I usually have the same thought I have every Thanksgiving immediately after eating: ‘I’ve seriously overdone it. Again.’

    • It’s literally taken years of self reflection to make any progress on this! The flip side is that SO many great things came out of the struggle of growing up poor. Hard work, appreciating value, compassion, wanting to save/invest, and the desire to become FI. I don’t want my kids life to be so cushy because of my baggage that they miss all that. It’s tough to find the balance. But I really think the most important step is being honest with ourselves and owning it. I’m SO glad you like this one. It was more than a tiny bit hard to write. Definitely fighting back the nausea! That is one of the great things about blogging. Owning my issues so I can make even more progress. Working on a post right now about the 4 lessons I am trying to teach my kids. =)

  6. As a young adult I overcompensated in the buying department–clothes, gifts, meals out (what was that?)–but now as I approach 40 the residuals show up mostly in fear of not having enough saved, fear of job loss, fear of an emergency. My family never planned for or did anything growing up. In my FI journey now I have learned that it is more powerful to be able to buy but not buy than to buy and flaunt.

    • Liz thanks so much for sharing that. It takes time to deal with our own narratives and intentionally make different choices. I’m so happy to hear you are charting your own course. I am right there with you! Slowly but surely.

  7. I love the bread example. We did the same thing when I was a kid. My family was way under poverty level. I think it taught me that I really didn’t need money for a good life. I stayed with the habit of buying used clothes and fixing everything myself so much that I suddenly found I had a whole lot more savings than I imagined possible.

    • I still never buy real hot dog buns! Even after all these years they strike me as pretentious. How funny is that? Hot dog buns as pretentious.

        • The funny thing is, I don’t think they are actually more expensive. I was always just worried I would have extras left. I have eaten a fair number of PBnJ’s on hot dog buns after family BBQ’s and that always felt depressing. I have no idea why!

  8. Jillian, wow, oh wow is your post spot-on! Recently found your blog through the Choose FI podcast, and I am devouring it.

    Having grown up in poverty, this was the hardest mental block to pursuing FI. My husband was my high-school sweetheart, and later admitted that he assumed I was decently well-off until he came to my house to pick me up for our first date. Apparently I was very good at the “looking rich” part, even though we were very, very poor.

    We married at 19, and started off in debt thanks to our wedding rings, a new car, furniture and clothes (all financed at please-take-advantage-of-me interest rates)! We couldn’t even afford the minimum payments. We had no clue. But looking like we weren’t poor was the most important thing to me at this time.

    Thankfully, we did eventually figure it out. Now both 40, we have come a long-way and have been pursing FI for several years.

    But, yes, the whole “Do people think we are poor?” question has been a difficult one to navigate. What I have found is that that the larger our net worth has become, the less this question bothers me.

    We have dialed it back extensively with our two kids over the years (ages 11 and 9), and they totally don’t care. They are perfectly content living in our modest 1000 sq ft home. They also aren’t embarrassed by our 2004 Vibe (great car!), are proud that their dad commutes to work on his bicycle, and love hand-me-downs. It’s crazy! I’m sure if we were actually poor, these things would bother them. But, we talk a lot about money and finances in our home, and they seem to understand why we are choosing to live the way we live.

    Thanks for shedding light on such an important topic, Jillian.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by Heather! Seeing how little my kids care about the things that get me on the hook has helped separate what is my struggle from what normal and healthy looks like. =) For example, my kids LOVE thrift stores. They think it’s awesome. And your right, the more money and financial freedom we have grown the more comfortable I feel. Our net worth is about a million now, and I care far less about looking poor then I did when we were actually broke!