Recently I shared how, despite our aversion to employment, our net worth has continued to grow by leaps and bounds .
You may (rightfully) think this would be a cause for celebration, but writing about it surfaced a lot of old memories from a childhood of scarcity.
They say childhood poverty has profound and lasting implications. It impacts health, brain development, education, and ultimately earning potential.
I know this to be true, because it is only in the last year or two (now in my 40s) that I’ve finally (maybe?) come to peace with those implications myself.
I have a lot of positive childhood memories: Christmas morning at my grandparents’ home, riding my bike around the neighborhood, swimming throughout the summer…
I also have a few…. what should we call them? Issues, maybe.
I borrowed this graphic from an excellent assessment of the impact of poverty by the Chid Poverty Action Group in the UK (pre-Brexit, obviously.) I can relate to pretty much everything on this chart.
I remember in 3rd grade being embarrassed to tell my teacher that my step-dad was unemployed.
I remember quitting sports and cub scouts, in part due to worry about parental finances. They wanted to provide opportunities, but I felt bad for accepting it.
I remember feeling unlikeable because I was poor and lived in a trailer park. I remember being bullied because of it.
I remember feeling that I had to hide the fact that I got free school lunches.
I remember feeling judged (and shame) when helping Mom with the grocery shopping and paying with food stamps.
I remember being sick often (tonsillitis & bronchitis), but going to school anyway because my parents couldn’t afford time off work.
I remember feeling angry, often… apparently the kissing cousin of shame and fear.
I remember hearing, “We can’t afford that” over and over and over again.
School was not my favorite place, but I tested well. I was pushed into Advanced Placement English and Math classes. My Senior year I won the school Math Award. I was Academic All-State in Football (the key word being academic.) The school guidance counselor encouraged me to study engineering… and when I started college I tested out of 3 semesters of calculus.
This should all have been an honor and a reason to be proud, but instead I felt guilty and a total fraud. I didn’t work at any of this; I didn’t earn it.
I almost didn’t apply to college, because college applications had fees. $25, $50, $100… I didn’t have that kind of money. So I just applied to a couple nearby schools… I couldn’t afford MIT or Stanford anyway, so why bother?
My youngest brother was 5 years old when I left for college. We were really close, and I felt guilty for leaving (and still do, really.) Family or future? A distance of more than miles grew between us… alas, the alternative was taking a manual labor job at the local meat packing plant, which today pays $12/hour… same as it did 20 years ago
College was good to me… I enjoyed learning for the first time. But I was scared… scared to be away from home, scared that I wasn’t smart enough for college, scared that this was all being funded with debt and I would end up bankrupt and destitute.
I felt like I was finally getting somewhere when I landed a well paying summer internship. 3 weeks later when the company reported poor earnings, I was let go. For a time I lived partly off Saltine crackers and ketchup from the condiment station in the school cafeteria. Friends went on spring break to Florida and the Caribbean… I worked overtime in the sump pump factory.
I almost died the week of graduation, moved myself over the weekend, and then started my first job on Monday. I used a credit card advance check to pay the deposit on my new apartment.
I was now $40,000 in debt (top 5% of debt load for graduates in today’s dollars.) No rest for the wicked.
Scarcity and fear propelled me. I had a job, but knew I could lose it at any moment. My Dad was laid off when I was a kid. I lost my summer internship due to staff cuts. I was expendable…
So I scrimped and saved and paid down my student loans. I worked over time, cashed out my vacation hours, and did anything and everything that was asked of me. I was making progress.
I got a new job with a sign-on bonus, a moving package, and a payback clause if I left for any reason in the first year… I felt all of my new coworkers were smarter than me, and spent that whole year in shock and awe.
But… fake it ’til you make it. When you were successful, you were supposed to have cars, a house, and fly to exotic places for vacation. I have those things… Am I successful now?
As a kid, Mom would read to us every night and take us to the library often. I think she knew that she couldn’t give us much, but she could give us some of that there fancy book lernin’. Now in my 20s, one day a package arrived with a book from Mom: Robert Kiyosaki’s Retire Young, Retire Rich.
“This is bullshit!” I said, and threw the book across the room. I guess I was still angry :)
(To be fair, my opinion on that book is still the same.)
Around this time I finally paid off the student loans. A few months later I would take a vacation and decide I liked it a whole lot more than working. A year later I would meet my future wife. And 9 years after that I would submit my resignation. We were now truly experiencing a life of abundance.
We have now been early retired for about 6 years, living our dream.
Despite understanding that we had “enough”, money was still a driving factor in many of our decisions. For example, we might briefly consider a flight with a connection because it cost $20 less (penny wise, pound foolish.)
But… It was only 4 years ago that we felt secure enough to have a child of our own.
It is only in the last 2 or 3 years where I actually felt charitable, something I wanted to do instead of something I was supposed to do.
It is only in the last year or two that I’ve completely internalized this abundance. The fear is gone. The anger is gone. The sense that I hadn’t earned it, the feeling that one error or mistake could upend it all… it is all gone. Instead, there is a quiet sense of appreciation. I’ve now, finally, become accustomed to wealth.
They say childhood poverty has profound and lasting implications…
What a long strange trip it’s been…. in the spirit of last night’s 2018 Academy Awards, I would like to thank my Mom for the books, the sacrifices, and the encouragement to pursue a better life. Also, thank you to my Grandma for always making it clear that I was welcome whenever I needed it.
I’d also like to thank my childhood friend, Jason, who I met in 5th grade. He was self-assured, out-going, and a terrific athlete, basically everything I was not. His befriending me and encouragement to join sports was a turning point in life. Which is why just before he passed away last year, we adjusted our travels to bring me to my home town so we could visit one last time.
I also give thanks to my sister and brothers, for understanding why I left. I’m proud of all of you, for the lives and families you’ve built. It is a real joy to see our children playing together.
Most importantly, thank you Winnie for being so full of love and positivity. You are amazing. Thank you for making me a better person.
And thanks to you, for reading and for your support.
And thanks to the Academy. Even though I haven’t won an Award, I feel as though I’ve won at life.