It means never staying in the same house or apartment for very long. By the time I was 18, I had moved at least 10 times, maybe more since I can’t really remember life before I was five. Sometimes, we moved because of an eviction notice (perks of having a father with an addiction to gambling) and sometimes, we moved because the rent was raised too much. I never had that family home that seems to prevalent among other people my age. Home was constantly changing.
It means not getting to do all of the fun extracurriculars that other people around me got to do. I remember stuffing down invitations to baton twirling classes (this was a thing in the 90s, I guess) and Girl Scouts deep into my backpack because I knew my parents couldn’t afford it and I didn’t want to make them feel bad. It meant that when I came home from school one day and excitedly exclaimed that I had gotten a part in a play, my mom didn’t react with the same level of excitement. Instead, it was worry about how to afford a costume for the play. While I did cheerleading for a year in elementary school and a year in high school, as well as a year of t-ball, extracurriculars just weren’t something we had the money for.
It means I wasn’t one of the lucky ones who was given a car for her sixteenth birthday. All of my friends got cars, both brand-spankin’-new and older models, but I was the one who constantly had to bum for rides or cross my fingers that my mom would let me borrow her car when I needed it. It felt shameful and embarrassing, and I just wanted to be like every other person in my high school who got to zip off to school and work and dates in their car.
It means college was a privilege, not an expectation. I was the first in my family to go to college, and that in itself was an amazing accomplishment. I was lucky enough to qualify for financial aid as well as a state-funded scholarship program that covered 75% of my tuition and my books, but I still had to take out a few loans to cover the rest of the fees. The majority of my friends don’t have to worry about school loans – their parents paid their way through college. That wasn’t my reality and it isn’t the reality of those of us who grew up poor. There just isn’t extra money to set aside for college.
It means I never learned proper money management techniques, something that has followed me into adulthood. Truthfully, I’ve stopped letting my low-income childhood define how I view money now, but I also can’t deny that I didn’t grow up in a household that taught me how to properly manage my money. I didn’t know anything about emergency savings or 401ks or investments or any of that. I knew more about check advances and loans than I did about the good money behaviors. I had to teach myself how to manage money in a responsible way.
It means vacations were not a thing. We took one family vacation to Ohio when I was around eight or nine, which mainly involved us just driving around to my dad’s old hangout spots and seeing family. We took day trips to Disney World from time to time, and twice spent a week at the beach, but that was about it until I graduated from college and my mom and I took our first cruise. Vacations aren’t a thing when you’re barely getting by, which is why it irritates me so much when people talk about travel as if it’s this grand thing everyone should want to do. Or that people prioritize travel over other things and that’s why they travel so often. Travel is a privilege that many people cannot afford, and my family certainly could not when I was growing up.
It means always having outdated cars that embarrassed the hell out of my brother and me. There was the church van my mom drove for a while when she was in between cars. There was the old car my uncle gave us where the windshield wipers had to be operated with pliers and a friend once remarked to me that she thought the car was going to fall apart every time she saw me open the door. There was the car that stalled every thirty seconds when it was in reverse (no joke – my mom, brother, and I uncontrollably laugh when we remember a time it took us at least 10 minutes to reverse from a parking spot one morning). And the car that had to have a bungee cord tying down the front hood because it wouldn’t stay closed. We can laugh at these horrific cars now, but man, were they embarrassing when I was a kid.
It means fights upon fights upon fights. It means nights where I crawled underneath my bed with a pillow, crushing it over my ears to drown out the yells and screams. Finances is what married couples fight about most, and thus, it’s what my parents constantly fought about. In fact, I think that’s all they fought about. (Well, also my dad’s gambling addiction and how much time he spent away from home.) But finances was the crux of every fight, and I grew up fearful every time money was brought up.
It means that I might not have had all of the money to do whatever I wanted, but I did have all the love in the world. I never doubted, not once, that my parents wanted what was best for me and loved me and my brother fiercely. They tried to protect us from their money problems as much as they could. My mom gave up so much so that my brother and I could have a good life. She didn’t even have a room of her own to sleep in for seven or eight years after my parents separated! She would go without whenever my brother or I needed something and tried her damnedest to make sure we were happy.
And we were happy. We may have been poor, but we were happy. I don’t believe in the adage that money cannot buy happiness because hell yes it can, but I also believe that you can be happy even when you’re worrying about money. I had a mom who loved me beyond belief, who cheered me on in everything I did, who was sitting front-row seat with a beaming smile at that play she worried about affording, who didn’t blink an eye when I told her I wanted to change majors when I was nearly done with college. She let me drive her car whenever I needed it and let me live rent-free as I finished my schooling.
Growing up poor was not the path I wanted to take, but it was the path I was given, and I’d like to believe I have done everything to rise above it. I am solidly middle class now, and I can afford to save and take vacations. I still worry about money all the time because of the way I grew up, but it reminds me never to take my life and what I’ve accomplished for granted. I was the first in my family to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree, and that’s a significant accomplishment when you grow up poor. I wasn’t supposed to have these opportunities, but I saw how my parents struggled and I never wanted that for my life. I wanted something different, so I did everything in my power to make it happen.