How Growing Up Poor Both Hindered & Empowered My Money Mindset

Poverty is a big problem, even in the U.S. where the middle and upper class seem to be all anyone really notices- except when the poor become inconvenient or social welfare programs try to take up precious tax dollars…

One thing I’ve been really shocked by as an adult is how oblivious much of the middle class is to true poverty and what it’s like to be poor. People think not being able to afford a family vacation one year is poverty (never mind the fact that they spent their vacation money on a shiny two-year-old pickup or a cabin a few hours north for vacations). I wasn’t that kind of poor.

I was the kind of poor where certain addicts responsible for my wellbeing traded food stamps for booze and cigarettes (or sometimes just for gas money to be able to get to work). I was the kind of poor where I’d show up at the church down the road in tattered used clothes asking if anyone could pick up some soy milk for my lactose intolerant baby brother because all we had in the house was a cup of regular milk and a couple packs of ramen noodles, and who knew when mom would be home (and even when she did come home, who knew if she’d have even a couple quarters to buy milk with). The addiction fed the poverty, for sure, and the poverty fueled the addiction as well- and the poverty also made it impossible for the addicts in my life to get the help they needed. It was a vicious cycle and I seriously doubt anyone paid for it more than I did. Not to sound like a whiny baby, that’s just the truth of it. At eleven years old I was almost single-handedly raising my three younger siblings, doing my best to manage my own chronic illness (I have cystic fibrosis, if you’re new here), trying to understand the raging custody battle that would soon take one of my sisters and me out of my mother’s care… and I was still pulling straight A’s and approaching first chair in band!

So… pieces of my childhood were pretty close to hell. And I’ve learned not to invalidate that. I’ve been through some shit and I am damn proud of the woman I am becoming now that it’s all said and done. This post is not about saying anyone can rise up “if you just try hard enough.” That shit was hard to get through, and while growing from it is a choice you really have to commit to if you want to ‘get over it,’ I’m not here to shame anyone for where they are. Instead, I hope this can be helpful in your healing. I hope this can help you to grow, to shift your perspective on your own childhood and current financial situations, and I hope this gets you curious about the particulars of your own mindset. Self awareness is key!

So, here are 3 things I learned from growing up poor:

1 | The money will ALWAYS come when I need it, because despite it all- the world never ended and growing up we pretty much always managed to come up with the money.

By the time I was 13, I was already familiar with eviction notices, tenant rights, how to handle collections calls, when bills could go to collections, just how much you could wrack up in the power bill before it was shut off (and how my mom could use my disease and need for treatments as a reason to force the power to be turned back on without payment).

That sounds kinda shady and shitty, but ultimately it taught me that there is always a way if you’re determined and resourceful enough.

And Disney movies instilled this idealistic thing in me where I know there’s also always a way to do things ethically. So now as an adult I know that there is ALWAYS a way to do the right thing, AND there’s always a way to get what I want. Both. I never have to choose, I just have to open my mind and pay attention, because the answer is there.

2 | I always have more than I think I do.

See, I learned this from my parent buying nice $60-120 jeans or boots or makeup or cigarettes while we had practically no food in the house for a week. I also learned it from the way my mom always seemed to have something to give those less fortunate than us around the holidays. We’d give the homeless guys a couple bucks or suddenly be able to buy McDonald’s for an old friend of the family and their 7 kids no problem, even though we’d been barely scraping by for months.

Basically, I learned that it’s never that I can’t find the money for something or that I have nothing to give. It’s just a matter of how motivated I am to find the way. If I’m motivated, if it’s a priority to me, I can make anything happen. $5,000 in coaching? Done. $7 for a coffee? Check. $1,200 for a new computer for my husband? You bet.



$38 for actual fresh vegetables one week? No way, I can’t afford that. (Reality check, I sure can! It just need to become my own priority.) Which leads to my next point…


3 | It’s much harder to treat myself (or even meet my own basic needs) than to splurge on someone else FOR A REASON.

I learned that I have a strong tendency to over-give and then refuse to receive or to take proper care of myself. I do it in impulses and then wriggle in guilt and shame for days or weeks after making a personal purchase- and sometimes in the shame I’ll continue making ridiculous purchases to drown out the screaming voice of shame in my head. Or at least that’s how I have been up until now!

I think this stems so much from the behavior I grew up around, I absorbed it and made it my own. It’s not at all lost on me the many addict behaviors and personality traits I inherited from my childhood role models. But this isn’t a terrible thing either, because I’m aware of it and that awareness is the first step.


Just like in addiction, the first step is admitting the problem exists! Now that I can admit that I’m hesitant to take care of my own needs, that I feel guilty for spending on myself, that I don’t feel like I deserve luxury anything (but I find it really easy and soothing to give sooooo much to others, even strangers), I’m able to question that!


Now I can see that I AM worthy of wonderful things. I AM deserving of love. It is okay for me to want, buy, have, and enjoy nice things! Now I know if my health is declining or if something doesn’t feel good, I have the power to change that. I need to decide that I am a priority and that I’m worth getting resourceful for, and once I do that I’m unstoppable.


Growing up poor kicked my ass in a lot of ways. It led to serious disadvantages, and the environment I grew up in came with a slew of other struggles that poverty only built on. It was rough and sometimes it blows my mind to look back and realize that little human who went through those things was actually me, I did that and I was there and that happened. It’s crazy. But then I just imagine if I could go back and talk to that little girl, she would have taught me so much about myself… and I would have been such a beacon of hope to her. No matter how messy, broke, unfinished, or insane I feel, I know there’s always someone out there who thinks I’m just a freakin’ goddess making an amazing difference, who is strong and vulnerable and powerful and inspiring. Because little me would think so, little me would be inspired, and if little me had this version of me to turn to, who knows the person she might have become.


I’d say that’s worth celebrating. I’d say I’m worth celebrating.


And I suppose without the struggle of poverty, I might never have doubted that in the first place- and then I never would have experienced this immense joy of discovering that I am worthy of amazingness and pleasant things and my own respect and love and admiration. So in a way, I am thankful for the way my childhood unfolded. I’m thankful for the debt that threatened to cripple me in the past. I’m thankful for the crap my mom put me through and the badass little woman I became as I rose from those ashes.


Poverty isn’t the key to happiness, whoever sells that idea is full of shit. Poverty is a death sentence in this country where healthcare is for the wealthy and people with mental illness are left to starve or die of exposure because shelters aren’t able to allow known drug users in. Maybe you think they deserve to die, I think you’re wrong. I think if you’ve never struggled with mental illness (which addiction IS), you are blessed to not be able to understand, and you have no right to be passing out death sentences. I love too many people who struggle with mental illness, and I’ve seen too many of them finally get the help they wanted and end up changing their entire community. Drug addicts do not deserve to die. People with mental illness do not deserve to die. Poor people do not deserve to die. And they don’t deserve the hand they’ve been dealt- even if they dealt it themselves. Welcome to mental illness, it’s a pain in the ass. Try living with it.

But anyyyyway, poverty isn’t the key to happiness, it’s not a spiritual principle to aspire for. It’s pain and fear and abandonment. It’s a death sentence. It’s a ball and chain, fuel for tragedy and struggle. It’s hell to climb out of. It’s not impossible, but if you’ve never done it you certainly can’t speak to the ability of others to do it. Each journey is different in life. But poverty isn’t something to be ashamed of either. If poverty is in your past (or in your present, but you’re about to be through with it, thank you very much), then I hope you have the strength and courage to find gratitude for your experience in poverty.

I hope you are able to celebrate the scarcity of your past or present simply because it gives you the context to appreciate the abundance you create from here on.

Jessica PenaComment