I realized we were poor the first time the power went out. As the youngest of five kids, I have a vivid memory of being seven years old, pawing through a cupboard for candles after we were plunged into darkness. Later that night I stared out the window, all at once aware that we were the only house on the block without lights.
I overheard my mother on the phone in the next room pleading with the electric company, “five dollars more next Thursday, I promise.” We made a game of it that night, laughing while casting shadow puppets against the kitchen walls, but the illusion had shattered, especially once the power kept going out every week after that.
Being poor made us different from our neighbors in the middle class, suburban town of Rangiora outside of Christchurch in New Zealand where we grew-up, and I felt so much shame for it. Like numerous other children living below the poverty line, instead of being taught how to budget, we were taught how to survive. New Zealand is a welfare state that provides comprehensive financial assistance to the poor, but the government discourages welfare recipients from having an interest-earning savings account by penalizing those that do.
My single mother, who was visually disabled with a rare hereditary eye disorder, was unable to work and never learned how to budget—so neither did we. Instead, we were taught that every cent needed to be spent or it would vanish. We accepted that most of the $550 (about $380 in US dollars) check deposited every two weeks was spent on groceries, and we stared hunger in the face when that food did not last the fortnight. We learned how to go without, but that didn’t stop me from coveting every single thing I could not have.
How I spiralled into a junk-buying addiction
When I graduated high school I wasn't alone in my financial ignorance. This is not an issue exclusively for those from an underprivileged background or unique New Zealanders. A 2016 survey of college students in the US found that four out of 10 don’t track their spending, while more than half said they received no personal finance education in high school.
At 18, I moved out. The one thing I knew about money was how to spend it as quickly as possible.
At 20, I was a woman of the “I’ll have the smashed avocado” world in public. In private, I neglected bills and tossed letters from the debt collectors. I bathed in junk: scented candles, high-end makeup, useless decorations, designer perfume, clothes I would never take the tags off and a fleece, duck-patterned onesie that an ex once threatened to dump me over if I continued to wear it.
Five years ago, when I was 23, it took filling up an entire station wagon plus a trailer hitched to the back of it to understand the hulking monster I had created. The bubble of things I had so carefully soothed myself with popped there in that driveway. None of this brought me the fulfillment I craved. Four years of running an online clothing business and all that I had to show for it was a giant pile of overpriced, badly-made crap. Oh and debt.
How I finally taught myself how to budget
Finally, the fear of regretting the next ten years eclipsed how ashamed I was to confront my money issues. This was not the life I had hoped for. It wasn’t even close. If I didn’t change I would still be broke, stuck in the same city and living paycheck to paycheck until I found my first gray hair. I would never know financial stability or realize my dream of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. So I took a trash bag of my belongings, moved cities, sold everything that I didn't need and donated the rest. I had to let go and learn from my past. It was up to me to break the cycle.
Here’s how I did it:
I identified a goal. I set myself the goal to save enough to travel for a year. To help figure out how to do that, I devoured personal finance books from the library, including The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey and Get a Financial Life by Beth Kobliner. I watched YouTube videos about basic budgeting and followed bloggers navigating a similar journey. With something to work toward, the urge to clutter my life with everything I had ever wanted eased.
I created a simple budget to stick to. Using Microsoft Word, I made a template to track what I spent each week on the bare essentials—groceries, rent, utilities. Then I gave myself $15 wiggle room (by "wiggle room" I mean a Saturday night in with a $4 bottle of wine, followed by a good cry) and chucked the rest straight down the throat of debt. I updated this template once a week. Keeping it simple meant I could stick with it.
I forgave my past self. I had an incredible amount of shame about how my family had grown up and my irresponsible relationship with money, but also for stubbornly wearing a fleece duck-patterned onesie everyday over the past two years. (I’m sorry Paul it wasn’t you, it was me.)
How I stay strong and continue to learn
Now, in my late twenties, I acknowledge the upbringing that initially stunted me is keeping my mindset strong all these years later. I found that going without comes naturally to me when it changed from a necessity to a personal choice. The way I was raised gave me the mental toolkit to appreciate what I have, instead of obsessing over what I want.
With gift-giving season quickly approaching I know I will have to control myself. I want simultaneously to shower my siblings children with everything we never had, but at the same time I know that what I want more is for them to appreciate that money does not equate to happiness, or love, or lack thereof.
I first realized I was poor at seven years old when the power went out, but I knew my life would always be rich when I finally took that power back.
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