Article Thumbnail

The Poor-Person Habits You Can’t Shake When You Become Not-So-Poor

Can you ever really shake the experience of being poor, especially when it comes to all the shit you did to stay afloat?

There’s nothing quite like not having enough money to make ends meet — or as poor people like to say, “running out of money before you run out of month.” But sometimes, you pull through and manage to find yourself with your head above water. Maybe you pick up more education to get a better job. Maybe you hit some kind of windfall: inheritance, the lottery. Maybe you strike it rich with a small business, or maybe you just slowly but surely pay off debt and move on up. Even though it’s tough to go from nothing to well-off in this country — most of us die on the same rung we were born on — it does happen. But when it does, then what? Can you ever really shake the experience of being poor, especially when it comes to the cost-saving measures you implemented to stay afloat? And can you stop making poverty-mindset choices?

Formerly poor people write about this often — the feeling that no matter how much better they end up, they still worry it will all dry up. It still costs a lot to catch up on the self-care they neglected, and it takes more than just money to make good financial choices. I refer to it as “thinking poor.” I’ve experienced it directly. In spite of moving into the middle class, I still have trouble realizing I can change my lifestyle.

  • It took me a long time to realize I could go to the doctor as preventative care, and not just when I was sick, in spite of having health insurance.
  • I still over tip not just because I worked in the service industry for years, but out of some kind of weird survivor’s guilt.
  • I feel bad about spending too much money on myself, even when I have no real reason not to, and even when it’s for necessary care.
  • When I do splurge, I will research it to death, and calculate everything that will go wrong. Then, I will still regret the purchase, not because it’s financially bad, per se, but because I think I should be above wanting it, or will feel like I succumbed to something.

We recently told you what it’s like for men who grew up poor to become newly wealthy. While it still came with worrying about money in new and more complicated ways, particularly the fear that they could lose it all, many people expressed relief at not having to sweat every little expense, especially groceries and travel.

Now, a Reddit thread looks at what happens when you increase your earning power, but can’t outrun the way you lived. “Those who grew up poor (and now are doing okay), what money/lifestyle habits do you have difficulty breaking?” the question asked.

It’s an interesting question, because it’s proof that you can often change your circumstances more easily than your mindset. Many commenters found themselves unable to let go of a number of distinct attitudes they could afford to shed.

Still Afraid to Waste

Similar to folks whose parents grew up in the Depression, formerly poor people find it hard to let anything go to waste, whether it’s food, shampoo or even to-go packets of ketchup and duck sauce. The reason? In part, because poor people are often reminded that their poverty is their own fault — a result of wastefulness and bad choices, as opposed to the reality, which is that some people simply have fewer opportunities and resources.

It’s Hard to Buy New Clothes

Growing up poor means making hand-me-downs and thrift store clothes, often already on their last run, last another full wear. You might “need” a pair of shoes for the winter, too, but the ones that got you through summer are going to have to cut it. My sisters and I used to wear sandals with the socks in the winter when there wasn’t enough money for close-toed shoes, but even now, when I could have plenty of options for the seasons, I will still buy one pair of shoes and wear it until it’s threadbare. I have nicer shoes, but they have holes in them, because I’m used to wearing things in poor condition.

It’s Hard to Buy the Nice Stuff

Yes, you can afford the good deli meat, and the better toilet paper, and really nice shampoo, and an expensive haircut, but for some weird reason, you are so habituated to doing fine with less that it’s as if you can’t cross that line of demarcation and treat yourself better. For me, there’s a lot of guilt and frivolity associated with it. And it’s also a hard habit to break: Learning that you can go without most things for most of your life has a funny way of making those things look pointless.

Autopay Is the Devil’s Work

When you’re poor, and you’re not even sure you can make rent most months, and most other bills are 30 to 60 days behind, or timed so that you can stretch out paying them until just before the second cutoff notice takes effect, the very idea of agreeing to have a specific amount drafted in advance from your bank account is terrifying. You know bank fees and overdraft charges all too well to mess with anything like that. What if they accidentally take out too much, or you accidentally miscalculated? You’d be toast. Even though it’s no longer true, you still live in a kind of Pavlovian fear that it’s always going to happen. I still wince if for any reason my debit card doesn’t go through, and it’s not because I don’t have enough money in the account now — it’s the shame and stigma of having spent most of my life without enough in the account then.

Avoiding Lifestyle Creep

Even when the money’s there, some formerly poor people find themselves unable to upgrade their overall lifestyle, including the comfort of their own homes. While this is arguably a good thing — who says you have to jump up in lifestyle just because you can afford it? — it’s less a result of thinking frugally, and more out of a habit of simply being afraid to embrace the wealth.

Paying Other People for Things You Can Do Yourself

I have a deep discomfort for hiring people to do things I can do perfectly well — like cleaning a house or gardening. I’ve come around to see that you can both pay for such services so as to have more free time if you’re lucky enough to be able to, and also participate in an economy that also pays others decently for their skills.

I still have to make a deal with myself that I will pay well and never act the way I’ve seen wealthier people treat “the help.” If someone is delivering nicer furniture than I’m used to and setting it up for me, I’ll still tip well above what that might require. I can’t order anyone around even if I’m paying them for the service.

Even if I can rationalize it, it never feels quite comfortable to me, because there is no natural sense that I am any more deserving of the luxury than the person providing it to me. From being poor, I know all too well that you can work extremely hard and never get ahead, so I am simply unable to believe I’m ahead at all because of anything more than luck, or that I deserve it more than anyone else.

They Still Feel Poor, Too

Perhaps most fascinating is the degree to which making more money doesn’t make you stop feeling like you’re still poor, or fighting to survive. I haven’t been “poor” as I was growing up for maybe 10 or 15 years at this point, but no matter how much I intellectually understand my situation is different, I still “feel” like a poor person.

Maybe that’s because simply being poor ages you faster. The effect of the stress of poverty on the brain messes up your emotional responses. And research shows that poverty forces an internalized “scarcity mindset” that isn’t easy to shake. It keeps you thinking mostly in the short term and feeling like a failure.

That’s partly because we believe strongly in this country that class is character, even though it isn’t.

Of course, there’s work to be done if you find yourself with enough disposable income and the benefit of the free time to ponder all this. That means that, if nothing else, you can at least afford therapy to work through how detrimental poverty can be. You can enlist a financial guide or an accountant to help you keep your money on track so you don’t end up poor again. And you can treat yourself to the kinds of self-care that will finally allow you to heal. That is, if you can convince yourself you’re worth it.