One-lowsmanship, money anxieties, and being a work in progress

Guest post by BlueCanary
Stopping On A Dime
When the very thought of spending a dime does your head in… (Photo by: JD HancockCC BY 2.0)

So this is me admitting that I have a problem with money. I grew up really poor. I had a great childhood, my parents are awesome people and I was surrounded by love and relatives. But until I was 10 or so, I thought the power company hung everyone’s power bill on the door knob. I wore my boy cousins’ hand-me-downs. I didn’t ask for stuff that was expensive, because I knew we couldn’t afford it. And because I didn’t have access to that stuff, I became that kid who did not give a shit about status clothing and labels, for the most part.

When I was in high school, I saved up money from my first job waiting tables so that I could buy my first beloved pair of Docs. I went to college via scholarships and loans, and worked at least one job if not two (sometimes three) all the way through to pay the rest.

Most of my friend group were upper middle class kids whose parents were lawyers and who already had stock portfolios in their names. I’m not judging my college friends — they were great people — they just came from a different place than I. Money, to them, was a constant — something you picked up the phone and ordered in. To me, it was something that I was constantly hustling for — scrubbing toilets, waiting tables, tending bar, and busting my ass just to barely have enough to pay my part of the rent.

And at some point some idiot actually approved me for a credit card, and I went NUTS. Like, OMG, free money, I can BUY STUFF! Like, any time I want! So then I was poor and in debt. And it took me several years of hard work to dig myself out of that hole and realize that credit cards are just not for me, ever.

There is a great article that John Cheese wrote about what growing up poor does to your brain. It’s pretty dead-on. One of the things is that when you have extra money, the desire is to spend it RIGHT NOW before some disaster happens and you have to use it to take care of that instead. For years, that was me. And then, after lots of soul searching and hard lessons, I went so far the opposite direction that my cheapness practically qualifies as a mental illness.

And even though now I actually have money, god help me if I spend one cent of it on myself. The guilt and panic feelings are just overwhelming. I know that it’s stupid, but knowing that something is stupid does not make it go away.

I can’t take pleasure in buying clothes for myself. I can’t drop $100 on a pair of nice jeans that will fit me like I want them to, because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Because the dog needs a haircut, and the car insurance is due, and the house needs all new screens, and OH MY GOD, WE CAN’T SPEND MONEY because if we do, a disaster will happen.

I’m not sure what disaster (anxiety-related disaster premonitions are not very specific) but something broken in my idiot brain assures me that if I purchase a nice pair of jeans for myself it will be DOOOM. Because it’s easy to justify a pair of jeans when they cost three bucks, even if they’re not perfect and don’t fit quite the way I want. They’ll do, right? Because some people don’t even HAVE jeans.

Over years of poverty and necessity, I’ve come to have a lot of my self identity tied up in being thrifty. My mind has always decided that cheaper = better. And we know that isn’t true, always. Cheap laundry soap that I make myself, awesome. Cheap concrete for the bridge abutment? Not-so-much.

There was a day I spent $60 on myself, I then promptly went out to my car and proceeded to have a giant panic attack. Because I spent money on myself. I had to sit there for fifteen minutes, smoking, assuring myself that it was okay. It wasn’t our last sixty dollars. We have money in the bank. All the major bills for the month are paid. I am no longer living in poverty. I am an adult who owns and runs two businesses, who is about to marry an adult who has been putting money away in savings since before he hit puberty.

Obviously, I’m a work in progress here. And not all my thriftiness is bad. Actually, most of the time, it’s useful. But I can’t put it on other people, like I have a tendency to do. (Oh my GOD, can you believe she paid that much for X?!) because that is not cool. Plus, I imagine, that I’m not the only one out there who feels this way.

Comments on One-lowsmanship, money anxieties, and being a work in progress

  1. My guy and I each have our own accounts in addition to the ones we share for one purpose only: ourselves. If I want to buy something really dumb and frivolous (“OMG that dress is soooo cute! Yes I know I don’t usually wear dresses. So what), I have to save up for it with my own money. That’s all that money is good for – my own wants. It usually works nicely.

  2. This is sort of the Spouse and I. We’re bad with money, and our savings account is almost nil, but we always pay bills. However, I panic over spending money on non-essentials. He bought me flowers for our anniversary and I panicked a little (that money could have bought us milk and butter!).

    Another interesting to growing up with not a lot of money is saying yes to free stuff, I don’t know if OP has done this. My cousin explained it to me and I knew immediately I was sort of like that. She was so poor for so long that when someone offered her a free coffee table or some books or a free couch she always said yes, because what if down the road she needed one , but didn’t have the money for it? Eventually it got to the point where she had SO MUCH, whole basement floor to ceiling with unused free junk. She had a MASSIVE clear out, and now that she has less she feels like she has more, because she has the space to use what she has. She calls her style “Quaker meetinghouse chic” and only buys what she REALLY wants or needs.

    • My partner, who grew up poor also, can’t say no to free stuff. We can’t pass a piece of furniture on the curb without him at least slowing down, usually with me in the passenger seat saying “No. Where will we put it.” He’s getting better. I’m a less is more girl, and I try to keep my hoarding down to a minimum. It’s yet another work in progress for both of us.

      I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t love free stuff, most of the time. But I have a really hard time with someone else giving me or buying me anything. My whole day was ruined once because the guy ahead of me in the Starbuck’s drivethru paid for my order. And yes, I realize that is insane. Here’s old boy, just paying it forward, not realizing that the person behind him is a lunatic who is going to spend the rest of the day thinking “Did that guy think I looked like I couldn’t afford coffee and a muffin? Do I look homeless today? It must be my car. I have a homeless looking car.”

      • My husband is that guy who pays for the car behind us at the drive-through. He does it because he wants to bless someone else when he has a little extra money – and even when he doesn’t really have extra, he just feels like it. He’s just a giving kind of person, and I doubt he could recall whatever sort of car he ever paid for. 🙂

        Don’t ever feel bad when someone else wants to give you something. They probably just want you to smile and have a BETTER day, because you know now that someone likes you without even knowing you. 🙂

  3. I swear this post could have been written by me, it is my life. Right now my husband is our main provider and we use his checking account as our main account because mine is frequently bone dry, so when I buy something for myself I go into this total freak out knowing he’s going to see it and I’m going to justify it, and is this purchase justifiable??? So I’ll get so worked up about why I needed it and have a whole schpeal in my head ready to throw myself on the mercy of the court and my husband either doesn’t care or didn’t even notice the charge in the first place but im too busy freaking out to notice that little fact. I finally talked to him about it and now in weeks when we know my account is empty, he gives me X amount of money to spend on whatever I want. It kinda grates that it feels like an allowance, but it’s the only way to keep the freak outs under control :/

    • That’s part of it, too. We use my partner’s bank account more than mine, simply because his is the one that the businesses are primarily attached to. So there are times when my personal account has 5 bucks in it…and it’s just a matter of moving money from one place to another, but still I feel crummy about it sometimes. Like I’m getting my allowance, even though it’s my money too. I’m sure that your husband does not see it that way, any more than my soon to be husband does. He’s told me over and over again, we’re a partnership, we share money, that’s the point of working; to be able to get the things we need.

    • When I finished a paid training course, I had to go back onto Jobseeker’s Allowance. But this time, FH and I were living together. Rather than risk the “what if” worries of being inspected, I straight-off declared that we were cohabiting. He’s in an OK-paying IT job, and at the time I was under 25 (there’s a lower rate for people under that age, because the Irish government doesn’t seem to believe that anyone younger has *real* bills or expenses…) so I was down to €90 a week. At the time, he offered to give me an extra €50 a week – what had been deducted because of his means – because it was “his fault” that I was docked. I love him to bits and I know that he doesn’t mind as long as we can afford life, but I just can’t accept money from him without feeling guilty as hell. He once gave me €5 to run back into a shop and pick up something we’d forgotten, and even that felt like crap – because I could have afforded it no problem, but he still insisted.

      To be blunt, I’m proud as fcuk. Asking for help in any form is admitting weakness, which I was never allowed to do as a kid and the runt sister of two bigger brothers. When I called home to tell my family we’d gotten engaged, my dad said “I’m not paying for it.”. And, being a little hurt, proud, and his daughter to the back bone, I grumpily resolved to not have him pay a cent. And yet, they’re both insisting on paying towards it. They helped my brothers buy their first cars, so according to Dad they have to spend the same on me, just like when we were kids. Even though they put me through two years of college, five years of orthodontic work, and Dog knows what other expenses.

  4. I realized very late in the game (maybe age 16 or so?) that I grew up “rich.” HOWEVER, I didn’t really know I was a rich kid because I was raised much more like you describe. While we didn’t have trouble paying bills, we knew never to ask for snacks our souvenirs or brand clothing because hand-me-downs and baggies of carrot sticks and 4 people sharing one large soda with free refills were just fine thankyouverymuch.

    And now a financially stable grownup myself, I still panic spending money on myself (I don’t DESERVE it.) But I guess being a little cuckoo about money is better than being a lot in debt? Meh.

    • My situation was kind of like that too. We were upper-middle-class and well enough off to have a nice big house and go on vacations…but my parents hate to buy expensive things. The house was full of furniture from outlet stores, all our clothes came from TJ Maxx (or, again, outlet stores)- I remember desperately wanting Tommy Hilfiger stuff as middle schooler and my mom balking at paying more than $15 for a piece of clothing. Which is fair I guess, I was only going to grow out of it anyway. The thing is, we bought a TON of this cheap stuff. We had way more clothes than we needed, and my parents huge house is packed to the gills with STUFF. I wouldn’t call them hoarders, it’s just that they’ve accumulated a lot and since there is space to store it, they haven’t been forced to deal with it (until recently anyway- they’re starting to dive in.)

      Anyway all this left me with the mentality that it’s better to own ten pairs of “okay” $25 jeans than to splurge and buy just a couple pairs of really perfect jeans. Or, shoes/jackets/furniture/etc. It’s so hard to turn down a bargain, even if I don’t need it…and so hard to drop a hundy on something I really DO need and will use for a long time.

      (Of course all this comes at a time where I’m actually pretty poor so it would be smarter to just buy ONE bargain item and make do. Oh well.)

      • Yes! I hear you, especially about Tommy Hilfiger and middle school lol…. It’s a slow change and while I’m definitely shifting towards fewer “investment” pieces (one quality leather bag instead of all the TJMaxx specials), I too am still suckered in by “but it’s only $9.99!”

        • It’s hard to get out of that “it’s only” habit. My dad, who though he is super thrifty obviously, believes in shelling out real money for things like shoes (and purses, for my mom) is of the opinion that if you buy a cheap pair of shoes for 20 dollars, and wear them out in three months, and then have to buy another 20 dollar pair of shoes to replace them…well, might as well save up and buy the two hundred dollar shoes that will last you five years instead. I think that in the long run spending real money for something that is quality and will last is actually more frugal and less wasteful. That bargain shopping is a hard habit to break, though, especially if something is marked way down.

          • “I think that in the long run spending real money for something that is quality and will last is actually more frugal and less wasteful.”

            I’ll drop extra bucks to make sure things like electronics or furniture won’t fall apart within two years, but I have a really hard time spending extra money on clothes. My style or size may change a little, but invariably I tend to do something like spill paint on my shirt or get my skirt caught in my bike chain so they need to be thrown out no matter what price I paid for them initially. (Yes, I’m both tough on my clothes and absentminded at times.) I think the only item of clothing I have that’s survived longer than five years is a pair of cheap slacks from Target (that happen to fit PERFECTLY so I’ll have a heart attack when something happens to them one day!).

            That said, I’ve learned over the years what things not to buy because they’ll fall apart quickly — even before *I* have a chance to ruin them (I’m looking at you, Old Navy shirts…).

          • Yes!

            When I stopped buying cheap $10 and $20 purses (I live abroad, but in US terms), went to a department store and actually bought a classic, high-quality leather purse from Fossil, it felt SO WEIRD. Growing up anything nice we had was something my grandparents gave us or we maybe got at Christmas…maybe. Then my twenties were the decade of being broke as a joke, so a $10 purse that I prayed didn’t fall apart was all I could do. Dropping a few hundred on a purse made me feel kind of elated (“I can actually afford this!”) but also kind of sick. I mean it came from a COLLECTION, that someone actually DESIGNED, and there was no “p” in front of the “leather”, and it’s a purse that I can take in anytime, for the rest of my life, for a “spa treatment” to keep it in good condition.

            Nearly did my head in.

    • I think that this is common with some “rich” families, because many times they got rich by being thrifty. I know that my husband and I have “run into” Bill Gates at the local QFC and he’s dressed in random jeans and a shirt and looks like any regular nerdy guy…and yet he’s a freaking billionaire.

      Same with my grandparents, he was dirt poor growing up and then became a doctor, so while they have piles of money, they still live rather simply. I think a bunch of old money inherited can cause a more frivolous attitude toward money?

      • I worked at the coffee shop in Bill Gates’ neighborhood and his family was lovely (he never came in). If you didn’t know who they were you would have no idea how well off they actually are.

  5. I’m 100% with you on this! In fact, I read that Cracked article weeks ago and was nodding along. One of the things I’ve been doing to address the “I can’t spend money on myself” panic is to make it sort of a project. I set aside a small amount of money (I have a jar on my dresser) and every so often, I force myself to spend that just on me.
    I feel embarrassed about it. Really, I feel so messed up that this is my life. But, like any well-ingrained habit, it takes effort and practice to overcome. So, that’s my advice. Write up a plan of exactly what you’d like to be, what you want your financial habits to be. Then, start challenging yourself to step in that direction. When it gets uncomfortable, just breathe through the anxiety and remind yourself what you’re doing and why.
    It can be difficult, but if you want to change, if you want to form different habits, then you can make that choice. Your past may have formed your ideas and fears, but you can control where you go from here!

    Good luck!

    *caveat: I’ve booked a lot of time in therapy, but I am not a trained therapist.

    • That’s actually a really good idea. Forcing yourself to do something that takes you out of your comfort zone. I have a friend who does a similar thing with her and her girlfriend’s pocket change; all change out of the pocket goes into a bank, and when they have a sufficient amount they cash it in and take themselves out to dinner and a movie. 🙂 I’ve also heard of people who, whenever they break a big bill for something and get change back, stash all the ones in a special envelope and use that as “splurge” money.

  6. We didn’t have a ton of money growing up. I think my parents broke my attitude towards money in a couple of very different ways. Mom was very careful with money, always insisting that we keep as much as possible in savings. Spending money was definitely a guilty pleasure, even when it was necessary to spend. The house had to be immaculate, because we had so few new, nice things. My dad always felt that he didn’t want to favor one kid or the other, so when one of us got a treat, the other did as well (except on birthdays and such.) Our food was always incredibly simple, toeing the line on bland and never adventurous. Clothes had to be saved, altered and patched ’til they were threadbare. They made a big production of getting out the adding machine to go over the bills and balance their checkbooks, always fretting as they worked.
    So I have a complex about whether I have enough money in savings (I don’t) and spending money always feels bad, no matter what I do. My house is never clean enough and I always feel silently ashamed of the things I have because I can’t keep them spotless. I feel like I have to show people I love them with things, but never anything too big or that could be seen as unfair to the person next to them. I overvalue food, especially food with bold spices. I hate buying clothes but I always feel like I need new clothes. I pay all my bills and just feel like there should be an endless pile of bills still due, looming over my life like some sort of terrible storm cloud of ominous ominousness.
    I always feel like I’m living in a state of self-imposed deprivation and self-doubt. I never feel like I have enough money because I’m not supposed to have enough money. I can’t get my mind to accept that I’m financially comfortable–at least comfortable enough. Any money I do get, I feel a little emotional tug, telling me I should really give it to my parents. Honestly, that’s probably the hardest part. They’re not living in poverty or anything, but I just really, really want them not to feel like I do all the time. Of course, giving them money would only make them feel guilty and sad, so I can’t do that.
    I wish I knew what the answer was to money hangups. I know people with incomes many times my own that still have lots of emotions tied up in their bank accounts.
    On the upside, though, I don’t think being emotional about money is necessarily all bad. Caring deeply about money has always led to me researching items before making a purchase, and it’s definitely saved me from some lemon buys. I’m deeply empathetic towards others in dire financial situations, especially people who work hard to make their finances work one way or another. I am more in touch with what are wants and what are needs in my life.

    • I agree that thinking about money in a mindful way is not a negative thing. Being raised with little money gives you perspective on whether or not you REALLY need whatever it is you’re about to buy. My dad always taught us the “hours of your life” method…if you make minimum wage, and the thing you want to buy costs X, that’s X hours of your life spent working for the thing. So is it worth X hours of your life to have whatever it is? I still do it sometimes. I’ve cleaned houses on and off for extra money since I was 18, and on occasion if something expensive is on the horizon, I still do it. But I FUCKING HATE IT. So, I have to ask myself, is X thing worth putting that ad up on craigslist and cleaning houses?

      I don’t know why, but food is one of the few things that I can splurge on without feeling like shit. I always buy the best food we can afford, and it does not give me the same cold sweat anxiety as any other kind of shopping. I prioritize food pretty high (and I like to eat good food) and we try to eat things that are organic and local and healthy as much as possible, so I guess my brain sees it as an investment in our health. (That, and my brain loves nom noms)

      • Your dad’s method totally makes sense! Sometimes, when I feel guilty about a purchase, I like to do the “cost per use” method. Say you’re buying a really nice wool coat for winter, and it costs $200. If you freak at the initial price, try asking yourself how many times you’d use the coat? Let’s say winter lasts 4 months, with 30 days a month = 120 days. If you wear the coat once a day even for one winter, that’s $200/120 = $1.66 per use. And assuming you have the coat for several years, it gets even less expensive the more you wear it. This also goes back to a previous commentor’s post about buying quality items infrequently versus cheap items frequently.

        • Yes! Your example of a winter coat made me laugh though. I am willing to splurge on a coat that meets all of my needs (mostly: hooded and has lots of pockets) because I’ve had my favorite winter coat for almost 7 years now. I will probably need to replace it after another few years… but a 10yr old coat isn’t anything to sneeze at.

          However, my husband has lost every coat & hoodie I’ve ever bought him (and he doesn’t really buy coats for himself), so yes, I want him to be warm, but no, I’m not going to spend a lot of $ on something that will need replacing in a couple weeks. I’ve learned my lesson there several times over! 🙂

          We definitely use the hours of use / cost analysis over here. It’s still hard sometimes. I can’t even tell you how long we’ve been saving for a better mattress, sometimes I just want to get a cheapo one now, and on the other hand, spending more than $25 to replace my favorite jeans is still panic causing, even in thought.

      • I used to hate this method too. Now I use it in the opposite direction, to justify spending money on something I could do. Especially if I won’t especially enjoy the project.
        X hrs it would take me to do it multiplied by $X/hr I make at my day job = Practical cost
        If the practical cost is more than what I would pay someone else, then I’m not allowed to make myself feel guilty about paying someone else to do the project.

  7. Sometimes I feel like weight and money are interchangeable. Each day of my life I’m wondering if I’m at a healthy weight and have enough money. I feel pressured to be rich and skinny. And every day I realize that in the grand scheme of things that I’m neither I feel ashamed. Both have predatory industries and genuinely helpful industries. Both weight and money could be managed and pushed to that wonderful ideal. And it’s a good goal to have to be healthy and financially secure. But, sometimes the pursuit comes at a cost that might not be worth it, yet it’s hard to see that when you loath your body and bank account.

    The only real difference I’ve noticed is that most people talk openly about their weight and no one talks about their finances.

    • It’s a vicious circle, too, because the poorer you are, the more limited (and less healthy) your food choices seem. A double cheeseburger at McDonalds is .99, but a salad costs 7 bucks. And you’re right, people are more open to talking about weight than they are money. It’s weird.

  8. Thank you for this.

    I just had a three paycheque month and decided to drop a large sum of the extra on a tattoo. I’ve been feeling horribly guilty ever since. I’m glad I’m not alone in this.

    • Get that tattoo! It’s something beautiful that can’t ever be taken away from you! I have a bunch, and though right now I don’t feel comfortable shelling out for more, I firmly believe that they are worth every penny. Hope it turns out beautifully.

      • Oh it looks great and I’m totally happy with it. I just get panicky everytime I think about what I could have paid off with the money. Too late now though. Can’t rerun ink.

  9. I really appreciated you sharing–and thanks to all of the other commenters, as well. While my family always tried very hard to make ends meet, and we certainly never starved or anything growing up, there was always a struggle to pay bills (even a struggle to pay them late, not just about paying them on time), and it seemed that they never could really get ahead. As soon as one thing would get paid off, there would be vital car repair costs or something of that sort to make things worse. It’s still hard for my parents: they took out huge loans to support my sister and me when we went to college, and now they’re saddled with that debt, as well.

    As for me, I, too, have huge loans that I’m paying back from going to college and grad school (even though I had very good scholarships and a few grants for college and an assistantship that covered most of my grad school expenses). On top of my loans are those of my husband, who also attended college and graduate school, plus a car loan because the car his father had given him had reached the ripe old age of sixteen and was hardly dependable. We put most of our money toward bills and essentials, though I’m proud to say that thus far, we’ve paid everything on time. I feel guilty when I want to buy anything for myself, because we have little to spare. In the meantime, whenever my husband wants to buy anything for himself, I have a hard time telling him “no” if we have the money–I hate to make him feel in any way deprived, especially as at current, he is our primary income-generator. (I’m in the process of starting my own business and I haven’t yet generated profit) I keep telling myself that this is to be a temporary situation, but it’s hard to be so sure, having grown up with this kind of thing being a constant.

    One thing that I think has helped me, though, is my determination to avoid getting a credit card. I don’t trust myself enough to have that line of credit. Growing up, my parents made that mistake, in an attempt to stay afloat, and it made things more difficult in the long run. I would be too afraid of treating it like free money and having to deal with worse consequences later. While eventually, when we’re in a better situation, I think having it as a back-up would be good, until I know the ins-and-outs of credit cards/building credit/best approaches, I don’t want to run the risk of making things worse.

    • We have no “credit” to speak of, and while lots of people think we’re crazy, it’s what works best for us. For me, because I am afraid of falling into that “free money” trap, and for him because he just does not get the point of credit cards. I know too many poor people who are still paying interest on groceries they bought three years ago…and while I know that the ability to charge something has been a godsend for many people (including my own parents) I’m just not comfortable with the idea for me personally.

      • Same here, I don’t have a credit card*. When I was in high school and a jaded little punkling the only thing that got through my skull was a financial advice seminar. The woman hosting couldn’t emphasize enough how important it was not to take on a credit card while you were in college. Years later I’m in college with a math problem about minimum payments on credit cards. I had to show how much the overall balance would go down with only minimum monthly payments. Each and every month. Somewhere around five years I gave up and wrote in my answer, “Point taken. Never do it.”

        *Okay, I had two store cards I never used and have now disappeared into the sands of time…

  10. I think we grew up in very similar situations. My parents worked extra jobs and 70+ hour weeks to ensure that my brother and I went to the parochial school instead of the drug-and-violence-bound local public school (and as soon as we could work, even under the table, our cash went towards education). I carry loans of epic proportions from college, despite working 2-3 jobs during the school year to pay for tuition, food, and rent. I was lucky to have friends who understood that I just COULD NOT spend money on a night out, both in college and in high school, but I also got used to the fact that everyone else could.

    It became second-nature to coupon, to only buy groceries I could afford, to buy furniture on Craigslist, if at all, and to head to Goodwill (or, if I had some extra cash, Walmart) if I needed clothing. Out in the real world now, I’ve chosen to keep up that lifestyle because it means I can follow my dreams and work for myself. After all, I’m used to it, and it does stave off the guilt of buying stuff for myself. I just don’t, because working from home is worth more to me than perfect jeans (though, let’s face it, I’d love perfect jeans :P).

    The boy, on the other hand, despite our semi-joint finances, cannot comprehend any of that. He has no student loans: his parents paid for his tuition (as well as the tuition to his uber-epic private high school) out of pocket, and still had the cash for a second house the year after he graduated. He stresses about money constantly because he never got into the habit of watching it. He does things like buying lunch at the work cafeteria daily, then stressing that groceries at the end of the month have to go on a credit card. The guilt is there too, as he struggles to find a balance between our streamlined finances and the freedom to spend that had become his habit.

    I’m not sure either is healthy, to be honest. Money is HARD. I’m pretty sure that it would still be hard if I was bringing in big bucks and the economy was awesome. “Work in progress” is a perfect descriptor, but I guess what I’m saying is that you’re not at all alone in this. Besides, I’ve found a perfect pair of $3 jeans at Goodwill simply by spending a few hours trying on every single pair they had 😛

    • Money is hard, and I don’t think there is any one right way to look at managing it, nor do any two people see it the same way. And YES, absolutely, the freedom to work from home is worth more to me than perfect jeans as well. The old “What are you willing to do without to get what you really want” thing. I’d much rather have the freedom we have to set our own hours and make a little less money doing something we enjoy, and be able to swing that because we’re frugal, than to have to kill myself 70 hours a week in corporate hell ever again. Good for you for prioritizing dreams over stuff.

  11. Thank you for your story!
    My partner has a methodical (maniacal?) approach to finances, and I think it stems from growing up with just enough for necessities. He checks the finances online daily, and each month after the bills are paid he puts a specified amount in a savings account for emergencies, and then he calculates how much is “leftover.” He used to spend that money (which was probably like $50-75 a month) IMMEDIATELY at the end of every month on “fun stuff.” He did that to alleviate the guilt behind spending money on himself while still being financially responsible. It helped that he had just enough money but not a lot leftover when this system worked perfectly.

    It turns out that living together (even with still renting) saves us SO MUCH MONEY. I’ve always been more flexible with money than he is, but I tend to just not spend anything if I don’t want anything so I don’t have to keep track of it as closely. But after marriage and combining our incomes, he manages the finances because he needs to know at all times EXACTLY how much money we have. Now we are in a completely reasonable middle class place and saving up for a house. He also doesn’t spend the “leftover” money immediately at the end of the month anymore, either, so I think he’s leaving some of those habits behind.
    It’s also interesting to note that we were both the oldest children and our parents didn’t make a lot of money when we were growing up. I wore stretch pants to elementary school because jeans were expensive. My parents made more money later on, and my younger siblings have a different relationship to money than I do. It’s frustrating now sometimes because they’ve spent so much more money on my siblings- they’ve both been able to travel abroad. My parents STILL won’t spend money on themselves, but my younger siblings don’t have a problem with them paying for expensive colleges or vacations. (Bitter much?)

    I think being “almost” poor is a powerful learning experience and exercise in priorities and self sufficiency. But I don’t wish not being able to cover the necessities on anyone.

    • It’s weird how siblings can sometimes react so differently to the same circumstances. My little brother likes nice things; he wears great clothes, has great gadgets, and does not flinch at the idea of shelling out crazy money for something that he wants or needs. He has a good job, and he seems not to be up to his eyeballs in debt, but I still worry sometimes about his spending habits even though he is a grown ass man and does not need my financial planning advice.

      • We were spaced apart, so the circumstances weren’t exactly the same. But, it’s so difficult not to judge other people’s spending habits! I just remind myself that I don’t know the whole story.

        It was annoying when I had a roommate a few years ago who spent about $30 a day on coffee and restaurant food but then had to call her parents near the end of the month to send money so she could cover her portion of the rent. But even then it’s not like I knew her entire financial situation either, just the part that affected me (late rent) and the part that I could see (food and coffee).

        • Yeah, I often have to remind myself that other people probably don’t need my financial advice, and that I don’t know the whole picture of someone’s financial life just based on what I can see. And I try not to be judgy. But it would annoy me to watch a roommate spend lots of money on frivolities and then be late on rent. It annoys me when a friend owes me money that she can’t pay, but tells me all about her new shoes she just ordered. I would never say anything shitty, because honestly people are more important than money. But still.

  12. Oooh man, #2. You Become an Obsessive Bean-Counter is totally me. By the time we hit bankruptcy, I had managed to develop a terrible teeth clenching problem I haven’t been able to get rid of even though we’re doing financially fine now. I was still checking all the accounts every day, until I started using Using a tool like that has helped me the most in terms of relieving my obsessive bank account checking, because I have it set to alert me if any account dips below a certain amount.

  13. I’m also horrible with money. We grew up not-quite-poor-but-still-anxious-about-money, and all the money I earned in high school went into college. Clothing was only purchased once a year at back-to-school time. Going out to eat was a seldom enjoyed luxury. But all the bills got paid on time and we even got internet my senior year of high school. The thing is I always knew money was tight, but my mom never shared her financial stuff with me. She never sat me down and talked about income vs spending, budgets, etc. She didn’t want us to worry. Which I get, but we ended up with the vague sense of financial stress with no counter to “this is how we handle our shit.” So when I got that first credit card after college, I went FUCKING NUTS! FREE MONEY! I’m still paying that shit off, ten years later. I’m at the point where my income would be totally sufficient to live on, IF I didn’t have that mountain of credit card debt. I don’t blame my parents at all, but what I did learn is to start talking about financial stuff early with my own kids, so they (hopefully) don’t make the same mistakes I did. It’s really difficult to hide you financial situation from your children, and if you can’t, you need to let them all the way in.

    • THIS!!! Evee I can so relate. My family environment was the same way – my single mom taking care of three kids all on her own. She didn’t have the time or energy to dedicate to teaching us financial matters – all I knew was that we couldn’t afford brand new clothes, we couldn’t afford extra ‘stuff’. We went grocery shopping every second Tuesday (which I can now gather was payday) and bought our clothes at Salvation Army.
      So, when I turned 18, I applied for a credit card or two. And spent. And spent some more. And spent more than I could. I’m 24 now, and I still have that habit sometimes. I’m still paying for it big time. I’m still paying the mountain of debt that I accrued because I bought a car at 19, with no down payment – it wasn’t even a new car, but it was such a good deal compared to the other cars in that price range (that was waaaaay out of my price range in the first place).
      I finally have a job that pays well (that I’ve just started), and I’m anticipating getting my finances under control. As a new mom to a 10 1/2 month old, I’m just trying to take it day by day – most days I am buying lunch because I’m not organized enough to make my own. But I know in time, that I will. And with that comes more finances. And better lunches. And goodness overall. But one step at a time.
      I have two credit cards, a student loan (that was spent in the FREE MONEY mentality), and a variety of random debts that I need to pay. That is the honest truth. That doesn’t exactly come outside of my brain.

  14. Great perspective!
    I have a question: what do you mean when you state,
    “But until I was 10 or so, I thought the power company hung everyone’s power bill on the door knob”?

  15. My husband and I had three separate accounts for a long time – his, mine, and ours. If it was in My Account, I could spend it on whatever I wanted, because Our Account dealt with all the important stuff. It was so liberating to this Former Poor Kid – to know that budgeting and saving was all taken care of and I had money that I could spend on whatever I wanted – not imaginary Credit Card Money but real, actually dollar bills.

    A few months ago, we convinced ourselves to just dump all our money in the middle account, because it seemed easier. When bill time came around, I had a total panic attack and freaked out and we had a big money fight where I was like, “I can’t track our discretionary spending! We’re wasting all our money!” So now, thankfully, we are back on the joint account plan.

    • Yeah, even though our finances are for the most part blended, I don’t see being able to ever do without our own personal accounts. It would just feel really weird to me to buy “frivolous” things out of our joint account for some reason. Groceries and paying bills is one thing, and it’s not like he would ever say anything negative or care one way or another what I spend money on…but having my own personal account, even if I’m transferring money from a joint account into it, is like my security blanket somehow.

  16. I just want to say thanks. This doesn’t apply to me entirely but so much of the anxiety (and people JUST NOT GETTING IT) does. We’re in the totally poor, deciding which bills to pay this month place, and I’m getting a ton of shit about it (from well-intentioned people who just don’t have a clue what it means to be actually poor. And we often look better than we’re doing if that makes sense). And I feel guilty for thinking about one day actually spending money frivolously.


    • I wish Roseamme was still on the air. It was rather refreshing to see a family struggle with juggling bills and such when they weren’t just the victim of some crime on CSI

  17. I don’t spend money, because that means I won’t have money, which means that when xyz disaster happens, I will be dooooooooomed. I have a hard time justifying buying food sometimes. A few months ago, I figured out I was allergic to a preservative in most cosmetics, so I had to buy myself all new lotion, sunscreen, facewash, the works, and I spent nearly $80 and almost had a heart attack. Not fun.

    My Viking, however, is in the “I have money, I must spend it now or it will be all gone!” camp, for almost the exact same reasons that I am the obsessive anxiety ridden disaster. It’s weird how it takes people different ways.

  18. I am pretty darn frugal as well. If I do buy myself something “nice” I have a really hard time wearing it, using it, eating it, whatever because it is “good” or “nice”. Or it will get wrecked or I will ruin it or it will get broken or . . .


    I wear my clothes to death, even dying them once they are stained because once they are broken in, I no longer stress about ruining them.

    I don’t do debt, if I use my credit card, I have to be able to pay it off the same month. The stress of going over what I can afford is not worth whatever I might want to get.

  19. Yes, that. My family was poor as well, and now that I am earning some money (ehough to get by, not enough to save much), I am also still trying to find out how to be a financially responsible grown-up.

    One thing you might try: Pocket money. Allow yourself a certain (possibly small) amount of money to spend on crazy things like fancy clothes or cinema tickets (or save up for a small trip), and this money is only for you.

  20. When I was growing up I never thought we were ‘poor’ but I knew we were not as well off as many of my friends. Looking back after becoming an adult I could see that while I had everything I needed and most of what I wanted, my parents did without so much to be able to afford that for us. Like, forgoing health insurance for themselves because they were self-employed and it was just so expensive.
    Now as a financially comfortable adult I have a great sense of guilt over the fact that I make more money than my parents ever have (or still do now). I feel awful sometimes that my first thought when needing a new item of clothing is not to head to the thrift shop, but the retail store (even if it is somewhere affordable like Old Navy). I feel awful sometimes that we spend money on fancy cable, internet, smart phones, and netflix when we don’t need those things. I feel awful when I throw something away or donate it instead of dyeing it, repairing it, slipcovering it, or even ripping that t-shirt into cotton rags for cleaning so that we don’t have to spend money on paper towels. I feel awful when I help my mom book a plane ticket down to visit us and she has to think about which credit card to use when I can put every single penny we spend for months on whatever card I desire because our credit is good and our limits are so high we will never reach them and can pay the balances off in full, every month.
    I’m still money-conscious. We wouldn’t be living comfortably and debt-free right now if we weren’t. I went too far with my first credit cards in college and we put a lot of wedding expenses on them but worked really hard to save money and pay them off during our first years of marriage. So even though my current place of fianacial comfort comes from our own lessons learned I feel guilt.
    I know most parents greatest wish for their children is simply for them to do and have better than they did. They supported me so much during college, and as a result of my good education I am doing so. I still can’t shake the feeling though that I should be even more appreciative of what I have and the thoughts that I am being wasteful and frivolous by living in a way that most people still consider modest.

    • I know my parents went without and sacrificed for us, too. And they’ve had some financial setbacks after I became an adult, things like job losses and bankruptcy and medical expenses. I have tried so many times to give them money, and they will never take it. I’m almost 40, and it has just been in the last year that my father actually allowed me to buy us all a meal out together.

      And when I made the decision 5 years ago to start my own business instead of looking for a new job after I was laid off…whew man. They were convinced I was going to starve and die. It has taken several years of me not becoming a hobo for them to finally realize that I am actually successful. Not that they weren’t supportive, or that they aren’t proud, just the idea of going off on your own instead of working at least one if not multiple jobs was so far out of their comfort zone that they really had to get used to the idea. And there has been some sense of guilt, both for not helping them out (because they refuse to let me) and for not using either of the college degrees that I have…even though I was mostly the one who paid for them, they did support me while I was getting the first one, and it was hard after the fact to be able to admit that that career path was miserable for me and start over again.

  21. I grew up comfortable middle class…but my father (who is an expert in his field) stresses himself almost to death about being the breadwinner and ensuring there is enough money for his family, because he did grow up poor (I don’t see these same overspend/underspend tendencies that some of you describe). My husband has some of the same traits as my father, however we’re almost a 50/50 split as breadwinners. I hope that over time I can convince him that having a good emergency fund & staying out of (significant) debt means he can stop the what if’s.

    • My partner does not have the “spend it now” gene. He was raised by grandparents who lived through the depression, and this has manifested in an excess of “save every penny and every empty sandwich bag” genes. He has been known to stress himself out about being a “provider”, too, even though it is unnecessary. I think that, even as progressive as our society is becoming, there is still a weird amount of pressure put on men to “provide”. Even when things are evenly split as far as earnings. Not coming from their partners, but from society in general. I have a close friend who is a stay at home dad while his wife works…she has a great job, they are financially stable, and they are super happy with their situation which was the best for all concerned; and yet there is shit talked behind his back by some of our supposedly educated and progressive friends. Like he’s somehow failing as a “man” because he’s not out earning a living. It’s stupid.

  22. Thank you for posting this, I have felt exactly the same way. My mother definitely bought into the “if it’s free or on sale we have to have it and never throw it away” mindset and became an obsessive hoarder (something I didn’t recognize until I moved away to college) especially following my father’s death. As a result I have trouble turning down anything free but I am also compulsively terrified of clutter and can’t stand having very many things in my house. When I overdraft my account and one of my bills bounces back, I have a full on panic attack because my mother was always terrified of anything affecting her credit (we went bankrupt twice while I was younger) even if I immediately pay it again with my other account. I spend money on other people because I think that’s how you make people like you since my mother did that growing up. Every “I love you” was tied into gift giving and it was a big extravagant affair. But I hate receiving gifts and I’m completely uncomfortable asking my boyfriend for help with money but I’m completely fine giving him money when he needs help. I never expect anyone to give me back money or presents. It’s a crazy complex! And I completely freak out over spending any money on myself as well. When I go to the store, I’ll pick up two things I need and one thing I want and by the time I walk to the register, I’ve convinced myself I don’t need the thing that I want so I put it back. It’s helpful to know other people are just as weird as I am. I’m showing this entire article to my boyfriend so maybe he can understand my issues with money a little better. <3

    • Yeah, I’m pretty much right there with you on lots of these things. I actually take pleasure in picking up stuff I want in a store and then putting it back before I hit the check out; it might even be the same dopamine rush that some people get from actually shopping! I’m mortified by the idea of overdrafting our account, too. It actually happened last year…some deposits got screwed up and posted to the wrong account, and then I screwed up and used the wrong bank card to pay some bills, and one bounced. We were lucky enough that we could fix it immediately, but I severely overreacted to the situation in an extreme panic sort of way that in hindsight is embarrassing.

      And yeah, having this post be shared, and seeing that I’m not the only person out there with weird money issues, has been very reassuring for me.

  23. Yeah, I could have written this. I did the whole poor childhood, then got married to someone else who grew up poor. We thought having a credit card meant we deserved to spend money, so we justified going thousands of dollars into debt. We still haven’t clawed our way out.

    Three kids later, I can’t even bring myself to buy a haircut for me. Three years…that’s how long ago I got it cut. My clothes are worn out, but when I have any extra money I spend it on the kids, or the husband, but never myself.

    I just started working from home last year and am trying to slowly turn my self-cheapness off. My brain knows I deserve it, but my hands just won’t turn loose of the money….

  24. Money mystifies me. I really don’t have that much debt ($1500 cc, $25,000 college) but it just terrifies me. It’s good and bad…good in the sense that I don’t know how to BE in debt…like how do people not try to pay off their credit cards every month? I never succeed (or I haven’t in a couple years) but I try so hard! And it’s bad because right now I’m in a career change and I’m only making enough to pay rent over the summer (boo low paying internships, boo!!) and I’m just terrified of not having money or living off credit. I know my fiance and my family won’t let me go hungry, but it’s just like other commenters said…growing up poor does weird things to your head.

    • I think that if you don’t TRY to pay off your credit card each month, you are making poor financial decisions. I totally understand not being ABLE to, but I completely don’t get CHOOSING not to. As in “I could pay this off this off this month and NOT incur interest, but instead I’m just going to wait until next month, when everything I’ve bought will automatically become more expensive.”

      (And I had to do the same thing for a couple months between jobs where my boyfriend paid for our rent and groceries, and HATED being dependent on someone else, so I feel for you!)

  25. More money articles!!!

    My husband and I were just talking about this. We both grew up in single-parent homes where money was an issue. I quickly became the opposite of my credit-card indebted mom; money was this thing you collected (ala Scrooge McDuck), but never, ever spent because you didn’t know if you’d need it. Then we went to grad school, where if you wanted to leave debt-free, you have to become good friends with the discount food racks and any and all offerings of free stuff. Fast-forward, here we are now, both with Ph.Ds and good jobs, where we can afford more things, but I simply don’t know how to do it. If we go out, I default to the cheapest item on the menu (and that’s only after checking out the menu beforehand to see if we can afford to walk through the door). I was at my mom’s and asked her why this bread was so soft and fluffy. “It’s because you keep buying yourself day-old bread, that you then put in the freezer in a stockpile for three months. This is what fresh bread tastes like.” I spent an afternoon enraged at my husband when I found a stack of coupons in his pocket (he had forgotten to pull them out at the register, and we lost about $3.65 in savings). When it comes to activities or purchases, I actively deprive myself, and on silly things that I know we can now afford. It’s like I became such an expert on how to get by with nothing, that I don’t know how to live any other way. Saving money and being thrifty=good. Being compulsive and letting it run your life=bad. Rationally I know this, but trying to change my mindset has been a real challenge.

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