How to talk to your kids about poverty when they’re growing up poor

Guest post by Elle
"Help me I'm poor" Bridesmaids quote embroidery from Etsy seller jonellejonescreative
“Help me I’m poor” Bridesmaids quote embroidery from Etsy seller jonellejonescreative

I grew up very poor. I remember asking my mom if we were poor, because the kids at school said we were. She replied that we were poor by our communities standards, but by worldwide standards we were very fortunate.

She talked to me about poverty very frankly and openly, and it really made an impression on me…

Being honest and talking about priorities is the best place to start

Your kids may not understand it all now, but eventually they will. For example, I couldn’t understand why my parents chose not to make more money — there were several work opportunities they passed up. But looking back and with an adult perspective… sometimes it is better to be poor than make yourself miserable in a job you hate.

Try to offer them opportunities for personal choice

When we went back-to-school shopping, my mom would tell us we had a budget of $50 (or whatever amount). Then told us that it was up to us whether we wanted to buy two-to-three new name-brand items, or four-to-six new cheap brands. Or go to a second-hand store and pick out 10-15 pre-owned name-brand items. If there was something pricey that we really, truly loved, we weren’t deprived of it, but it came with some tough choices, and meant we really had to be resourceful with what was left.

Give them perspective

Whether it’s through travel, volunteer work, or simply reading about other people… try to convey that there is always going to be someone worse off than you (also someone better off, but that’s usually obvious). Even if you yourself need help, try to do something for someone else — even if it’s just a tiny amount of help. There’s a pretty large number of homeless people in the city I live in now; when they ask for change, offering a spare granola bar and having a conversation with them seems to mean a lot to them (and is such a strong reminder to be grateful for what we do have)!

Encourage them to earn and manage their own money

My mom encouraged us to take on babysitting jobs, grow and sell produce, work multiple part-time jobs, etc, so that we could pay for the things we wanted, and make decisions with our money. They weren’t always good decisions, but we were so much better off once we were out in the real world and had already learned the hard lesson of what happens when you don’t budget for your cell phone, car insurance, or gas money.

Manage expectations

While college isn’t necessary for everyone, be up front about how they will be responsible for university/community college/trade school. My parents made it very clear that there was no budget for that, and all three of us were well aware that our grades were going to determine what scholarships we got. Talk to your kids about how middle school grades tend to impact high school grades which impact what college you can get into and what you can afford which will very likely impact your career path. (Obviously, make it clear that perfection isn’t needed, but their best effort is.) Three out of three kids ended up getting good enough grades for multiple scholarships, and all completing a bachelor’s degree — which is a pretty strong testament to that working.

Lastly, there are going to be judgmental jerks in every phase of life

If it wasn’t kids teasing us about being poor, it would be something else (growing your hair too long, or too short, being too big or too skinny, wearing the wrong color, etc). Other people acting ugly is about their own personal issues and rarely has much to do with the person they’re picking on. They may as well get accustomed to that as a child, because as far as I can tell, some people never outgrow it.

Did you, or are you struggling financially? How did you deal? What did your parents do that helped or hindered? What would be your advice for other kids growing up poor?

Comments on How to talk to your kids about poverty when they’re growing up poor

  1. Whether you’re considered “poor” or not, this is a great, concise article about teaching kids about fiscal responsibility and earning what they get. I feel like it’s a disservice to kids who are handed everything they want with no questions asked, no limits, no decisions weighed or made. I wish everyone would make this a priority to teach their kids these basic things… because it’s not just about finances either, it’s about the bigger picture of life and being grateful for what you have, and knowing that there are always those who will have more and less than you.

    We were taught much of the same things growing up and I’m happy I learned early on how to value the things I wanted, how to work for what I earned, how to prioritize expenses and grow into a self-sufficient adult. I thought we were relatively poor–compared to many of the affluent families of my upper-middle class counterparts–but when my now husband first visited my parents house, the home I grew up in, he assumed I grew up wealthy. We never worried we would lose our house or not have food or heat, but we worried we wouldn’t have the same name brand sneakers or jeans as our classmates. He grew up in a small house with his mother and grandparents, but they always had food & shelter as well, so they may well be considered rich compared to other parts of the world. It’s all about perspective.

  2. Perspective is huge! I went to an affluent high school (though I was neither poor nor affluent at the time), and I noticed in my 20’s that a few students who were from the few poor families were committing high level, “white collar” crimes. I also noticed their social media as adults was all about photos with fancy cars, designer bags, etc. Many of the rich kids in school had older model fancy cars and huge homes, but were pretty casual about it in general. I have to wonder if that dynamic influenced the poor kids to feel like they needed to get flashy and meet those marks in their adult lives, to measure up to the peers of their formative years, and that that may have fueled their criminal activity if they thought there was no other way. These people were well liked, book smart, and successful by other standards. Perceived or real class differences can be such a huge deal in how we see ourselves and the world. I agree it’s super important to make sure a kid’s perspective is broad on this issue.

  3. I’m thankful every day I didn’t grow up rich. I would have described us as “lower middle class” when I was a child but in retrospect we were probably solidly middle class. But my parents grew up in post-WWII Greece where famine was a thing so their definition of “luxury” was different from our peers’. Barbie dolls, pre-packaged food, new ready-made clothes, movies, pizza — all luxuries, to be enjoyed sparingly. I can trace my resilience and independence from the choices my parents made. So as I said: thankful.
    But here’s where it gets a little weird. I have substantially more money now than my parents ever did and while I’m still thankful for my upbringing… I don’t have a desire to return to that standard of living. I’m able to travel more than they did ( which is good ) and eat out more ( which is less good lol ). But more importantly I have a larger cushion so when life’s little emergencies crop up, I can shrug them off. That feeling of security is something that was… a little frayed… when I was growing up. I grew up feeling my parents worried a lot about money ( whether they had a real reason to or not ) and that uncertainty carried over to me. I suspect not all of the ramifications of that were good.
    I got off pretty light but I have friends with unhealthy relationships with money that I can trace to anxieties they had growing up. Learning that you don’t need a big screen TV or brand-name clothing like the Jones-es to be happy is awesome. Extrapolating that lesson to other things the Jones-es have — like food and shelter — is less awesome.
    So in addition to this very excellent list I would add : if you can, make the effort to convey stability, despite the lack of material blessings. Some adult worries are best kept to yourself.

  4. When I was little parents both had great jobs and that was a time of plenty, but as a tween my dad had trouble finding work for several years and then came some overwhelming medical bills leading to a season of financial famine that annihilated savings. Two different guidelines that I am grateful my parents used in some situations to teach me about the value of money as a teen:

    “We’ll pay the basic, you pay the extra.” My parents said they would pay the base amount for car insurance on my grandma’s old car (in exchange for me driving my sister around and running errands), but if the cost went up due to an accident or tickets I had to pay any increased monthly cost. Definitely taught me to be a responsible driver because I didn’t want to be responsible for an ongoing bill!

    “We’ll pay half, you’ll pay half.” This came into play for several things including a high school class ring (which were super popular, but also a few hundred bucks — did I want it enough to pay half myself?) and college. I have no idea how my parents would have found money to pay for half of my college expenses if I had wanted to go to a private school, but since I knew I had to pay half I picked a cheap, in-state school. (And they probably wiped their brows in relief. 🙂 )

  5. I’m not sure how I feel about this article. It sounds like Elle’s family had the opportunity to make more money, and they didn’t (which is ultimately their choice, and you obviously were taught some valuable lessons about managing money). That being said, my partner grew up in poverty ($9,000 CAD yearly), and while I am not at liberty to discuss many of the details, I will say that there were few opportunities for her and her family to come out of it, and she was forced to grow up very quickly. I’m glad that Elle’s parents made sure to teach their kids that there are people who are worse off than they are, but I hope that that lesson included the emphasis that there are some people who are poor because of social and systematic oppressions, and don’t always have the opportunity to come out of it.

    • I can really relate to this article because I grew up poor, but not in poverty. It’s a great read about “How to talk to your kids about being poor.”

      I totally understand your issue with it, though. The title is inaccurate because it mentions poverty. I thought it would talk about teaching kids with very little money (like me) about systemic poverty (like your partner’s family). Being poor and being in poverty are NOT the same thing. This is something I never truly understood until my 20s.

      • These distinctions are important and something we’ve talked about a lot when talking about our finances. We aren’t poor. We live in a nice neighborhood, in a nice house where we can repair things when they stop working. We go to the doctor when we are sick. All the adults have their own vehicle (there’s 4 of us). The kids are all fed all meals everyday (when they’re willing to eat them). We are not poor by any reasonable metric. We are, however, frequently *broke*. So when our oldest is constantly asking for money to see movies, buy video games, eat out, etc he faces a lot of “nopes”. Even when he’s offering to work for the money, we remind him that we still have to have the money to pay him. “There are three people with jobs in this house; why isn’t there enough money?” There IS enough money, kid, for all the things we’ve budgetted for – and very little else. Because mortgage in a great school district, pool membership and swim team, food for a household of 8, etc, so on, and so forth. We don’t have a lot of disposable income.

        We aren’t poor. Doesn’t mean we aren’t broke.

  6. “She replied that we were poor by our communities standards, but by worldwide standards we were very fortunate.”

    Love this! I hope I can remember this line when I have kids.

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