Being Poor Without Being Pitiful


I have spent a good portion of my young life being poor. (I define poor, not as living below the poverty line, but as not having even enough liquid assets to maintain a healthy or productive lifestyle.) Growing up on a small family farm during the agriculture crises in the 80’s gave me perspective on what poverty really means. Eating cabbage soup for most meals, riding in cars with holes in the floorboards and doors welded shut, and picking out clothing from among the abandoned items in the school’s lost and found will always give me something to compare my financial situation to when times get a little tough.


While a living situation like that wouldn’t be allowed for very long today without some kind of government intervention, it is still important to know what leads to poverty.


Circumstances – These are the quickest way to becoming poor. Losing a job, facing a death in the family, sickness or disability, a natural disaster, or a major change in the economy can all turn financial stability into a situation of poverty. Circumstance can most often not be prevented.


Choices – This is how most people I know end up in poverty. Overextending their credit lines for “wanted” and not “needed” purchases, taking on too big of a mortgage too early in their lifetime, giving in to drugs/ alcohol/ gambling, and refusing to find work are all controllable actions that can lead to poverty. Choices are often small and successive. It can take months or years to fall into a state of being bankrupt by making poor decisions.


Because I was once poor, I chose long ago never to be pitiful. Feeling sorry for one’s self never improves a situation. I learned to accept that as long as my poverty came from circumstance and not choices, I am not financially dysfunctional as a person. When my husband lost his job last year, we went without many of the comforts I had grown accustomed to. But we didn’t stay in pity-mode for very long. Action needed to be taken to improve our situation, and we made the best of our savings and time.


I remember growing tired of a relative who continually couldn’t make their mortgage payment. They made three times the money my family did, but they were always overdrawn in their accounts, and complaining at how unfair life was. Their circumstances were ideal; their choices were not. There I stood with no income or job prospects on the horizon. I had no idea how I was going to pay my bills two months from then. But I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself! I had much more than my relative making all the money. I had common sense and discipline. I could persevere in any circumstance, and I had pity on them!


Finding yourself in a financial pickle doesn’t have to end your life. Regardless of how you got there, you can get out. Feeling sorry for yourself is never a good use of your time or energy, and taking small steps in the right direction will never be regrettable. Today is the best day to take control of your finances and start living victoriously. You can do it!

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Justin Ryan's picture may be my grandmother. I swear, she had exactly the same experience in the 1930's. (Of course, that was the Great Depression, so a lot of people were having that experience, but still...)

I think you're exactly right - there is a difference, and it's about choice. You can't always control how much money you make, but you can control how you use it, and that's your power.  

Myscha Theriault's picture

I was a lumberjack's daughter. Ditto. Times were incredibly tight growing up, but I've tried very hard never to use that as an excuse to just give up and never try to move ahead.

Good for you for taking responsibility over your situation. It's something we all have in our power, I agree.

Nora Dunn's picture

We didn't have much money when I was growing up, but you know what? I never felt it. My family happened to live in an affluent neighbourhood (on the poor side of the tracks!), but strangely I didn't notice if I didn't have all the toys my friends did.

I never was left wanting for something I needed, and my life was enriched with so many (inexpensive) extra-curricular activities, I didn't have time to compare myself to the Jonses.

Life can indeed be full without being full of toys or expensive habits. It's all in the eye of the beholder.

Guest's picture

Reading this article made me think of my own situation.

See,I'm right now at the "cross-roads of my life",I mean I have to
make the decision of either taking on a college scholarship(...and this will mean loaning a big amount of money since I really want to have that Computer Engineer degree.)and that will take...well 4 years; or pursuing a more "practical" one( know what I mean).Any kind of advise from you guys on how to handle this.I'm in my early twenties and wouldn't want to start my adulthood with debts.


Guest's picture
Don't want to say

I suppose a degree is something that's worth a loan specially if you're getting a scholarship.

Don't be like me and give up because you don't want big big loans though... I got as far as 90 credits, but I had to stop studying. Even though my grades were good, I received a awful scholarship and I didn't want to take a 26,000 dollar loan... Yeah, out of state, because I had to run away from my parents... They beat me up even though I'm 20 years old now.

My parents had six kids, and I'm the youngest. They never let me work because "I'm a girl", so when it was my turn to go to college, my parents didn't have any money, and neither had I.

So long, Computer Science degree.... lol.

Go for it Jean! If you're going out of state, you might want to give in state schools a chance :)

Linsey Knerl's picture

I think that most of us would agree that there are some things it is worth taking loans for (mortgages and college are two I can think of.)  If it really is what you want to do, and you can make a good living doing it, I don't see any reason not to consider taking a low-interest rate educational loan out to realize your full income--earning potential.  It is an investment, after all!  Good luck!

Guest's picture

Thank you so much for your concern guys!
I'm totally going for this college degree!

Way to go Wise Bread!

Myscha Theriault's picture

The degree you are selecting pays way higher wages than my education degree, for sure. So I don't think it will take you nearly as long to pay it back. You can certainly go through our archives here for ideas as well, but one thing I did that sped up the process was move overseas to work for a while It's tax free, and many expat positions pay for room and board as well as your air fare home every hear. Different career fields will certainly have different overseas accessibility and opportunities, but it might be worth checking out. Good luck, Jean!

Andrea Karim's picture

Be sure that computer engineering is what you want to do. A college degree is a great thing to have, but what makes it even better is if you really use the degree you get.

BTW, Linsey, great article. I didn't have anything valuable to add to it, but I realize that I've gone back and read it several times today, so I just thought I'd mention that.

Guest's picture

On visits to see my brother's suburban family, I reveled in their local thrift shops and would come back with great bargains (like hand knit Aran sweaters for $10). But once my nephew made the comment that I did it because I was poor, and he would prefer shopping at the GAP. Well, I had just acquired a t-shirt from Paris, and a lot of other stuff for less than I would have paid for a simple GAP t-shirt & I replied that I was "broke" not poor. I preferred extending my financial means by getting as good or BETTER stuff at thrift shops. If no one knew where I had gotten everything I looked MORE prosperous than the GAP consumer! So, it's all a matter of point of view. I still have a nice lifestyle, but my husband & I do it on a bargain level - and on some levels of acquisition we can do it at 80% discounts against "real" prices.

In my mind REAL poverty is when you are not able to even make those choices. Even in the examples given of eating cabbage soup, and welding door shut - there was ingenuity shown. And most of us don't have to be THAT ingenious in the U.S.

And If you can't afford your own mortgage, then you are living above your means. Even though we were an upper middle class family, we always lived BELOW our means, and my father was proud of having the oldest car on the block. Conspicuous consumption can get you into real trouble.

Guest's picture

Thank you Lindsay. We grew up as kids of a sculptor. Honestly it didn't hit me until about 7th grade that we were "poor". (I went into a classmate's house and they had MATCHING FURNITURE). All my dad's friends shopped at thrift stores and trash picked. I thought everyone ate hot oatmeal for breakfast, or had only one pair of shoes. Alot of it is a matter of perspective. We were always surrounded by cool things to look at and had tons of pencils and paper. My mom said, "we live like rich people only without the money".

Guest's picture

Whoa! up there folks. You should really reconsider the view that a college education loan is a good idea. Take a look at the tens of thousands of UNemployed and UNDER employed American scientists, engineers, and computer professionals since the 1990s. The US Congress is advocating bringing in more foreign workers to depress the wages of US professionals for those still fortunate enough to have a job (NO CAREERS). Former Fed Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan stated last fall (2007) that he thought the USA should increase the number of imported skilled workers for the purpose of DEPRESSING the wages of American professionals. (By the way, the imported workers are not better skilled nor educated than Americans...just cheaper.)

Please don't buy into the hype and propaganda that 1) there are careers in 'high tech'; 2) that the salaries are better than other occuptions; 3) that you will have a life time CAREER. (see: ) for more information on how tens of thousands of Americans are unemployed with bachelor, masters, and doctorate degrees.

My advise to young people: 1) get a trade under your belt before completing a college degree; 2) get a college degree where one can be self-employed; 3) keep educational debt to zero if at all possible. Consider work study programs, scholarships, AmeriCorp (which allows you to work full/part time and earn dollar credits towards a college degree). DO NOT expect that your college education will allow you to pay off your education. Consider working for an employer that will pay part of one's college education tuition costs. Go to a community college while in high school to start building up college credits.

A Princeton Univ. economics professor has been writing for years that US citizens should be looking at getting TRADE SKILLS rather than a college education that can be outsourced or off shored if they want to be able to provide for themselves.

A student loan is like a mill stone upon one's neck upon graduation. You can't accept a $20,000/year job and expect to be able to repay your $80,000 college loans. You are hobbled for decades to come until that debt is paid off.

Guest's picture

Here in NC, the first 2 years of college can be done at the statewide system of community colleges for VERY little money -- less that $3000 per year! And full scholarships are available, too, regardless of income in some cases. That is cheap enough! There are even 2-year training courses such as sonogram operator and RN that produce income in half the time of a 4-year degree. Check out your local resources.

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