The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor
By: John Cheese January 19, 2012.
As some of you know, until the last couple of years, I was poor as shit. The first 18 years, I was a kid and couldn't do anything about it. The next 17, I was still a kid and wouldn't do anything about it. I take full responsibility for that, and I don't point a finger at anyone for the way I lived. I dug my own hole.
But along the way, a few miracles happened (including landing a job that doesn't suck), and I've finally found myself living the way I always pictured a normal person would: bills paid, groceries in the fridge and two gold-plated nude statues of myself standing proudly in my front yard.
But as anybody who's been through the poverty gauntlet can tell you, it changes a person. And it doesn't go away just because you're no longer fighting hobos for their moonshine. For instance ...
#5. You Develop a Taste for Shitty Food
When you're poor... Shockingly, when you're buying food based entirely on 1) how long it keeps and 2) how cheap it is, you wind up with shitty food. When I was growing up, we knew that the first of each month was grocery day. That's the day that our food stamps came in. Nowadays (in the U.S., anyway) it's all done on an ATM-type of plastic called a link card that gets reloaded with "food only" money on the first of every month. But the idea is still the same: new month, new food. So when our food money arrived, to avoid multiple trips to the grocery store and burning shitloads of gas that we couldn't afford, we bought our entire month's worth of groceries all at once and stored it like fucking squirrels. When you do that, you need shit that won't spoil. Forget about fresh produce or fresh baked goods or fresh anything. Canned vegetables are as cheap as a gang tattoo, and every poor person I knew (including myself) had them as a staple of their diet. Fruit was the same way. Canned peaches could be split between three kids for half the cost of fresh ones, and at the end you had the extra surprise of pure, liquefied sugar to push you into full-blown hyperglycemia.
If it wasn't canned, it was frozen. TV dinners, pot pies, chicken nuggets ... meals that can be frozen forever, and preparation isn't more complicated than "Remove from box. Nuke. Eat." Because of that, by week two, half of everything we bought would be freezer burned. Just like with the canned food, you grow up thinking that this is the way it's supposed to taste. It's not that you grow to like it, necessarily, but you do grow to expect it.
Once You Escape ...
To this day, my kids won't eat fresh green beans. There's such a huge difference in texture and taste compared to the canned version that they're honestly like two different foods. None of us will eat homemade macaroni and cheese. If it doesn't come out of a box, it tastes weird. And the list is a mile long. We've eaten these things for so long, we've grown to prefer them to the fresh version.
People who have never been poor love to point out overweight people in the ghetto and sarcastically exclaim, "Yeah, it really looks like she's starving!" And they have no idea that the reason many of them have weight problems is because everything they're putting into their bodies is dirt-cheap, processed bullshit. Grab a TV dinner and look at the nutritional information.
Fresh food is expensive and takes forever to prepare. It goes bad quickly, so it requires multiple trips to the grocery store per week, which is something most impoverished people can't do. And since all of those time-saving frozen meals are high in salt and fat, they take up residence in the expanding asses of the people who can't afford anything else.
When you finally get to the point where you can afford those grocery trips and fresh ingredients and have the time to prepare them, your taste buds freak the fuck out. They're not used to it. Vegetables are supposed to be squishy, aren't they? Is chicken supposed to have this texture?
No, it's not like you're eating food for the first time, staring at asparagus in wide-eyed bewilderment, not knowing whether to put it in your mouth or rub it on your skin until it absorbs right into your body. But a lot of this new stuff sucks by comparison because it's not what you've been trained to eat -- the flavors and textures are all wrong, and there's a real temptation to keep eating the same shit until it stops your heart at age 43.
#4. Extra Money Has to Be Spent Right Goddamn Now!
When You're Poor ...
Every poor person I knew got a big check one time a year in the form of their tax return. They made just enough money to file taxes, and made little enough to claim "earned income credit," which is a tax credit that can dramatically boost your return. For my ex-wife and I, it meant getting around $5,000 at the end of January. And just like many poor people, we'd be broke within days of cashing that check, our living room sporting a new TV. Or we'd replace our old computers and all of our furniture. There's a reason many poor people blow through that money instead of saving it for future bills.
When you live in poverty, you're used to your bank account revolving very tightly around a balance of zero. Your work money comes in and goes right back out to bills, leaving you breaking even each month (if you're lucky). That's the life you've gotten used to. It's normal for you.
When a windfall check is dropped in your lap, you don't know how to handle it. Instead of thinking, "This will cover our rent and bills for half a year," you immediately jump to all the things you've been meaning to get, but couldn't afford on your regular income. If you don't buy it right now, you know that the money will slowly bleed away to everyday life over the course of the next few months, leaving you with nothing to show for it. Don't misunderstand me here, it's never a "greed" thing. It's a panic thing. "We have to spend this before it disappears."
Once You Escape ...
Have you heard those stories about lottery winners who are bankrupt within a year or two, despite winning millions? That's because they can't turn that off. They can't shake the idea that the money is perishable.
And I'm not going to lie, if I had an unexpected check show up right now, I'd drop all of that fucker right into a new car and a computer for my kids. But for the most part, I've kept my head clear where those rare pockets of money are involved. My truck broke down last week, and for the first time, I was able to get it fixed without having to call my friends for a loan. The reason is because I've learned to manage that money a little better and not spend it in a blind panic when I fall into some.
That's the key, though. When you don't have the extra cash, you don't know how to handle it when you do get some. When you escape that level of poverty, and you find yourself having extra money for the first time, you eventually learn how to manage it. I can watch people play guitar all day and get the basic idea. But unless you put one in my hands and make me start strumming, I'm never going to learn how to play the damn thing. Like anything else, it takes practice, and the poor never get the chance.
A similar problem is ...
#3. You Want to Go Overboard on Gift-Giving
When You're Poor ...
Even if you're not poor, you can already guess this part. You don't get many gifts, and the presents you do receive usually aren't as cool as what your friends are getting. And fuck all that "Christmas and birthdays are about being with good friends and family" noise. You don't have to be a spoiled shithead to like presents. That's half the fun of being a kid on those days. It doesn't make you a materialistic asshole; it just makes you a normal kid.
But what a lot of parents don't realize is that when they're openly worrying about bills within earshot of their children, the kids worry, too. When they hit a certain age, they start to make sacrifices on the family's behalf, and they feel guilt for the rare small luxuries they're allowed. I remember going shopping toward the end of our poverty streak, and I told my kids to pick out new bedspreads so we could get rid of their old, ugly ones. My oldest son looked around for a second and then said, "Thanks, dad, but I don't really need one."
I made it a point after that to keep the adult problems in the adult world. They have enough stress just growing up. They don't need to worry about things that are beyond their control. Not for several more years, anyway. But being the provider of the household, it makes you feel like a failure. And like anything else, that makes you want to overcompensate.
Once You Escape ...
So, for the last two years, we've gone overboard on gifts on the holidays. I remember all the years that we couldn't afford to give them even a quarter of the things they asked for, and I swore I would make that right. So we spent about double what a normal person would consider reasonable. And then went back to buy more.
After we exhausted our bank account, my fiance and I looked at the number of boxes around the tree and pointed out that it didn't look like all that much. So we waited until our next check and went back for more.
We overcompensated so much in the other direction that we damn near drove ourselves back into the poorhouse. I think pretty much anyone who escapes poverty goes through this for a short time. If not with gifts, then with other showy forms of spending -- fancy clothes or new furniture or a car you can't afford. It's like you're trying to rub it in the face of your past self. "Eat shit, poverty!"
And strangely, when you're not going over the top on stupid shit, you have the opposite problem ...
#2. You Become an Obsessive Bean-Counter
When You're Poor ...
Remember that time you were cleaning out your wallet and found an extra $5 bill stuffed inside one of the pockets? Poor people are laughing their asses off right now because I might as well be asking if they remember the time they found an extra minotaur in the kitchen. When you're living check to check, there is no amount of money that isn't accounted for, right down to the last penny. You don't have "about 70 bucks" in the bank. You have $68.17.
You think in exact numbers because, at any given point, you have to know if swiping the debit card for gas will put you into overdraft territory. You have to be able to figure on the spot how much you can spend versus how much you need to survive until the next payday, and even the numbers after the decimal point are important. The simplest miscalculation could mean the difference between an actual dinner or a bowl of McDonald's ketchup packets at the end of the week.
Paying the bills becomes a work of algebraic artistry as you find out how much they'll take in order to not shut off your gas. Then calculate on the fly the smallest amount of money you need to survive for the next four days, then subtract that from your current bank account, then make adjustments where necessary and eventually arrive at X ... where X equals how much today's bill is going to fuck you for the next three weeks.
Once You Escape ...
You get to a point where you stop worrying about exact numbers, and you start to drift into a place where rounding off the bills and bank account isn't a big deal. But your mind still panics when you realize that you don't know exactly how much money is in your checking. So you'll look it up. Satisfied, you'll put it on the back burner and go on with your day. The next day, you'll find yourself worrying again. So you'll look it up again. After living at my current, normal-person level of income for two years, I'm still doing it.
Because of that, you never relax. That constant tension of not knowing how the bills are going to be paid is gone, but it left a comet trail of stress that sticks with you. After beating your ass in the school bathroom, the bully finally left, but not before farting in the room and shoving a chair under the doorknob so you can't get out.
#1. You Only Spend with the Short Term in Mind
When You're Poor ...
You buy exactly what you need, and no more. That six-pack of toilet paper is only three bucks. But there's a sale on the 12-pack for only two dollars more? Fuck that. That's an extra two bucks that I'll need before the week is done. If I watch what I eat, I doubt I'll even have to shit up three of these bad boys.
But that trickles into other things like clothes -- OK, ew. I really need to watch my segues. When I was growing up, most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my uncles, cousins and dad. When I outgrew them, they went to my brother. Every once in a while -- and we're talking once every year or two -- we'd come up with some extra cash and go clothes shopping, but because it was so out of the norm, it was treated like a big deal. And because of the way it was elevated to a special event, we learned to see it as something extravagant. A luxury that we treated ourselves to on rare occasions.
What we absolutely never did was buy an outfit just because we liked the way it looked. We only bought clothes when the ones we had no longer fit. And sometimes, even that requirement was overlooked for the sake of making sure the lights' "On" switches weren't lying pieces of shit.
Once You Escape ...
I still haven't broken free from that frame of mind. I mean, yes, I keep my kids clothed, because I'm not completely removed from how normal people function. But I still only own four pairs of pants myself, and every time I go out to buy a pair, this weird sense of guilt stops me. A gnat buzzing around my head, telling me, "Are you crazy? You don't need another pair of pants. You do laundry every other day, so you always have clean pants to wear. By the way, if you catch me, you'll be rich because I'm a goddamn talking gnat." And then as I'm frantically swatting the air, a security guard politely asks me to leave. Pantsless.
This is a problem, because that's actually a very shitty way to manage a budget. You skip over the great 2-for-1 deal on laundry detergent because you're not out of laundry detergent yet. It's kind of opposite of the way we bought food when I was a kid -- where you should be stocking up because buying in bulk is cheaper and the stuff is on sale, you wait until you're scraping the residue off the lid. Then you have to take whatever goddamned price the store gives you that day, because you can't wash your clothes otherwise.
If you think that's a minor thing, realize that you're applying this to everything you buy. You're not buying the dryer because Sears is having their once a year "Get these fucking dryers out of our warehouse 50 percent off sale," but because the dryer that's been making that funny noise for a year and a half finally broke. You have to take the first one you see, at whatever price, because your wet clothes are sitting there getting moldy. That "wait until you're desperate" mindset means your money just doesn't go as far.
It's so incredibly hard to break out of that frame of mind and start thinking long term because of that guilt. Instead of seeing that the two-pack of deodorant saves you a dollar, you instead see one package that's $3 and another that's $5. Three is cheaper than five, so you get that one. Guilt averted. You bought exactly what you needed, and no more.
Being poor is a mindset. And it's one that, if given the chance, will make your ass poor again.