I always thought I’d be poor, but I’m not exactly sure why.
I grew up solidly middle-class (perhaps even upper-middle-class). I am well-educated. My suburban K-12 public school system prepared me well for college. I didn’t go to Ivy League schools or anything, but I now have both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree. There is no real evidence that this belief of being poor would ever come to fruition.
Except for one thing. In the back of my mind, I wanted to be poor.
Now, this might seem like a strange thing to hear. For some reason, I thought that this was the only unconventional way to live.
I’ve come to realize that money is a tool that helps us live a life aligned with our values. But, it has taken a lot of personal growth for me to get here.
During high school and college, I spent as much time as I could internationally. I spent time in Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. I volunteered at orphanages, built homes, taught at schools, and studied abroad in multiple places. During this time, I was exposed to a lot of poverty. Many of the people, even the professionals, were living on less than $2/day.
To illustrate, I will share a couple of specific experiences that helped to shape my worldview.
While studying abroad in Nicaragua, I stayed with a farming family in the mountains for several weeks. They were a family of 10 people. They lived in a wooden shack that had one bedroom and a large open room for everything else. There was a dirt floor, a detached kitchen with a wood stove for cooking, and no running water. There was one bed. Everyone besides the parents and youngest children slept in hammocks.
Their meals consisted of things they grew themselves. They did the back-breaking work of planting and harvesting all of their food and only had a small amount leftover to sell. In their fields, they grew corn and beans. They had a small garden where they grew a few vegetables. They had cows and chickens for cheese, milk, and eggs.
While I was there, the only things I saw them buy were cooking oil, rice, and soap. The only toilet paper in the latrine was what I had brought with me.
The school in their community only went up to 5th grade. The family only had the means to send their oldest son to live in the city with a family member for middle and high school. Most families in the area did not have that luxury.
Most of the family had never been off of the mountain. The bus fare, which was less than $1, was too expensive. When I first got there, the children were timid around me. When I asked them if they’d ever seen a white person before, they said, “There was a Canadian once who worked in the school…”
After graduating from college, Corey and I lived in another region of Nicaragua that was cut off from the rest of the country. There wasn’t even a road to this region. We had to travel by air or by boat. We lived in a city of 50,000 people that had no city water or sewage. Each house had its own well. Some people had running water (from a pump connected to their well), but most people only had latrines. This was a recipe for parasites and other illnesses.
We taught English at a university there, and we were paid the same wages as the local professors, which was $5 per credit hour per month. Therefore, if a professor taught 4 classes that were 3 credit hours each (for a total of 12 credit hours), they were paid $60/month. In a country where the minimum wage is now around $180/month, the professors often worked additional jobs.
These two experiences made poverty real to me. It was no longer just a statistic or a number on a page.
Guilt and Culture Shock
Whenever I returned from any of these experiences abroad, I was hit with a lot of guilt and culture shock because of my cushy, American lifestyle.
I had an apartment with electricity and running water. The city where I lived provided city water and city sewage.
I had access to high-quality medical care. I lived my life free from parasites and amoebas and didn’t need to take pills to kill them every 6 months.
I had access to high-quality education and many job options. I make over a hundred times more money than university professors in some areas of the world.
There are roads to get me from place to place, and I have a car that will get me there quickly. I have a comfortable bed to sleep in. I could continue, but I think you get the point.
After we returned to the US after teaching English in Nicaragua, I was forced to think about money for the first time in my life. Not only did we move back to the States, but we also moved to a high cost of living area. Finances became an integral part of our life as we tried to make ends meet with two entry-level jobs. At the time, it was amazing to me that the minimum amount to fulfill our basic needs was about $30,000 annually.
While this experience forced me to realize that money was just part of life (bills had to be paid), it didn’t make me feel less guilty about it. $30,000 of necessary living expenses far exceeded the $720 per year that university professors were making Nicaragua, and I didn’t know how to deal with this gap.
At times, the cognitive dissonance was overwhelming. I didn’t feel like I deserved my comfortable life just because I was born into a middle-class American family.
Grappling with my Privilege
Many people frame the feelings that you have upon returning home after an extended period of living abroad as “culture shock” and assume they will go away after several weeks or months.
However, the dissonance has stuck with me. It didn’t merely come because I was different than the people I interacted with. It was because I was privileged in these situations, and the other person experienced disadvantage or oppression.
This video was transformative and helped me understand my privilege.
As a middle-class, white, American woman, I have more privileges than could fill an encyclopedia. To illustrate, I will share a few examples.
- I grew up an America, a very wealthy country with a lot of job opportunities.
- My ancestors were never slaves or discriminated against in education, housing or employment. Therefore, there have been countless generations to build and pass on wealth.
- We were able to more easily rise into the middle class because we benefited from government programs like the GI Bill and red-lining that disproportionately helped white families.
- Because we were middle-class, I grew up in a virtually all-white suburb with an excellent school system that prepared me to go to college.
- I received scholarships, and my parents were able to help pay for my college tuition, and therefore, I don’t have any student loans.
- My family was able to serve as my financial safety net when I first started my career (allowing me to be on their health insurance until 26, to stay on the family cell phone plan, helping pay for medical expenses when I couldn’t pay for it myself, etc.). This allowed me to start building wealth early.
I consider all of these immense privileges that have contributed to the financial position I am in today. These are privileges because they have been afforded to me and my family, not wholly because of our own merits, but because of our demographic characteristics (white, American, middle-class, etc.). These same privileges have not been afforded to many people of color, people who grew up in a developing or underdeveloped country, and/or people who grew up experiencing either urban or rural poverty.
Overcoming the Guilt
It is no surprise that becoming knowledgeable about my privilege made me feel guilty. I do think that guilt is a useful emotion insomuch as it can prompt action. However, guilt and our response to it can also be misguided.
One resource that has been very formative in helping me understand and overcome misguided guilt is an article called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
From this article, I learned that there are two types of privilege:
- Positive privileges are things that we want all people to experience. These are things like your neighbors will be helpful to you, that a demographic characteristic like race or class will not count against you in court, and that you have access to a high-quality education and good job prospects. These things can and should be privileges that everyone experiences, but unfortunately, this is not always the case.
- Negative privileges are things that help to reinforce present hierarchies. Examples of this include the ability to ignore less powerful people, a choice to hire someone who is like me without adequately reviewing the qualifications of all candidates equally (often unconsciously), a college professor assigning books written only by men or only by white authors, supporting policies that disadvantage certain demographic groups.
This understanding gave me a framework to think about all of the things I felt guilty about. I learned that disapproving or feeling guilty about the system doesn’t change it. Action is what matters.
Working to understand the types of privilege that I experience every day is the first step so that I can help with the spread of positive privilege and the toppling of negative privilege.
Me forgoing the positive privilege of making money doesn’t necessarily help anyone else gain these same positive privileges. The only exception is if I have the agency to help spread positive privileges by accepting less.
Re-evaluating the Myth that Money is Evil
There are various unhealthy attitudes toward money. According to Dr. Klonz, we form these money attitudes based on our upbringing and experiences and often don’t question them until later in life, if ever.
It’s no surprise, based on my formative experiences, that I have bought into the Money Avoidance myth. People who buy into this myth tend to believe that rich people are greedy, that money corrupts, and that there’s virtue in not having money.
Beyond wanting to make a difference in the world, my belief in this myth is part of the reason I chose to work in non-profit. I felt like I’d be selling out by working a job where I’d make a lot of money. Little did I know that within 10 years of working in nonprofit, my career would take off, and I’d make more money than I thought I’d ever make in my life.
When this happened, I still ascribed to the Money Avoidance myth, and I wasn’t quite sure how to reconcile my higher wages with my unexamined belief system.
Regardless of whether or not someone has money, it doesn’t make them a good or bad person. It is their actions that must be evaluated. Many rich, poor, and middle-class people make the world a worse place every day.
There are also many, regardless of income, who work to make the world a better place. While not always the case, it’s no surprise that people with more social and economic capital often have broader reaching impacts, positive or negative.
Therefore, as someone who is seeking to make the world a better place, it’s okay (and even good) for me to expand my social influence and economic capital, as long as I am not doing it at the expense of anyone else, particularly those in marginalized groups. This could enable me to make a broader difference in the world.
Focusing on the broader impact that I can have as an affluent individual isn’t the only major shift that I made to my mindset.
I have come to realize that one of the hidden beliefs that I bought into (without fully realizing it) was that money was a scarce and limited commodity. In other words, that there is a limited supply of resources the world. (Note: I do believe there is a limited amount of natural resources. I don’t believe there is a limited amount of knowledge and human resources. Humans can create immense value out of almost nothing.)
And while scarcity is known for contributing to hoarding behaviors, for me it was different. Because of the international trips and my familiarity with poverty, I found myself shying away from money.
Videos like the one below show the distribution of global wealth, and while there’s value in this message, it presents the world’s wealth as a pie.
I didn’t want to have more than my fair share of the world’s resources, because, in my mind, it was causing others to have less of the pie.
For me, buying into the lie that money was scarce was forcing me to think about the opportunity cost of earning money for someone else.
Not only have I come to understand that money isn’t evil, but also that the global wealth isn’t limited. In fact, it has grown over time.
Now that I’ve come to grips with money, what am I doing about it?
This post was tough for me to write. Because money is so integral to life, writing about my views on money is almost synonymous with answering the question, “What is your worldview?”
Coming to grips with money for me is all about understanding and processing the guilt that I felt after returning to the US from my international trips.
I still struggle to reconcile my privileged life with those living in extreme poverty. These experiences will always be like a stone in my shoe – slightly uncomfortable, always keeping me on my toes, and reminding me how fortunate I am.
But it doesn’t mean I need to avoid money anymore.
A big part of my new understanding of money comes across in our journey to financial independence.
To me, pursuing FI is not a selfish endeavor. It’s not about making money for money’s sake or to buy more stuff; it’s about making money so that I can have the influence, freedom, and flexibility to make the greatest impact in the world.
Making more money enables me to:
- Choose to work and volunteer in non-profit organizations
- Provide financial support for organizations and causes I believe in
- Support policies that decrease wealth inequality (minimum wage laws, tax-related legislation, affordable housing, affordable health care, etc.), even though these policies might mean that I pay higher taxes
- Using my increased influence within my organization to advocate for and create more equitable systems for hiring, promotion, and retention
- Pursue FI (buy back my time), so I can focus on passion projects that will both make me happy and allow me to make a difference in the world.
It’s important to understand and evaluate our unconscious beliefs about money so that we can live an intentional life and use our money in ways that align with our values.
How have your formative experiences informed your beliefs about money? How have these beliefs changed over the years?