How Being Poor Helps Me Be Happier In Life

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I have never met anyone who says they want to be poor.

If anything, we all try our best to accumulate wealth and get out of the vicious cycle of poverty that can stifle our mind, emotions, and future.

I grew up in a poor family in Vietnam.

My parents only graduated from high school and worked low-paid jobs to make ends meet.

After getting a scholarship to attend college in America, I continued to live the life of a poor college and grad student for the next ten years.

Not having much money has taught me the value of savings and hard work.

After almost 30 years of living close to the poverty line, I have realized that being poor has also helped me be happier with what I have.

Related: When You Are Ashamed Of Being Poor

1. Housing

Whenever I watch those HGTV shows where people talk about the need for a big kitchen, a huge play room for the kids, a separate office, and a huge master bath with various accessories, one question that pops into my head is: Why?

Actually, I know exactly what the answer is. When people are used to a certain standard of living, it’s hard to downside or live without the amenities that they currently have.

And I feel the same way. I don’t think about the luxury of having running water and electricity every day, but it truly is a luxury for a lot of people in developing countries.

When people have the money or can take out a huge mortgage to shop for their dream house, they want to have everything that they desire in a place called home.

When Mr. FAF and I were searching for our first home, we also had a set of criteria for our new house. If we didn’t have our parents’ help with the down payment and the mortgage from the lender, we would be happier with a tiny rented apartment.

We’re happy with our small kitchen (most of the time). 😉

But since we could now afford a house, we want it to meet most if not all of our criteria.

For many people, our house might be old (built in the 1970s) and simple (a standard cookie-cutter townhouse). But it is far better than any place we’ve stayed at before.

Before getting a full-time job, Mr. FAF and I used to cram ourselves, 2 desks, two chairs, a dresser, and a futon into a tiny room in order to save money.

That was the room I rented in DC for $650/mo, and Mr. FAF would stay with me when he visited, sometimes for weeks during winter break and the summer.

That small room was our bedroom, office, living room, and even dining room. We knew it was small, but we couldn’t move to a bigger room due to the high rent. We were just happy with what we had at the time.

After moving into our new house, we just feel so blessed with everything that we have. Even the study room seems like a space of happiness for us. We do have plans to move to a bigger house to move our parents in with us and a wish list of things that we want (i.e. a bigger kitchen).

However, it serves as a goal for us to work harder, make more money, and save for our next big purchase rather than something that makes us depressed about our current house.

Thinking back on all the small spaces that we used to live in, including a $300 room in the basement with no windows (technically an illegal living space), our current home is simply a dream come true.

Related: How We Are Keeping With The Joneses

2. Vacation

Growing up in a poor family in Vietnam, vacation wasn’t something I looked forward to. Even if I did, it wouldn’t happen as I wished. My parents wanted to save money for necessities like food, clothing, and utilities.

The only trip I knew I would have each year was traveling to the countryside to visit my mother’s side of the family. In some years, my aunts or uncles would go on vacation paid for by their employers and take me with them.

It was usually a trip to the beach near where we lived for two to three days. I had lots of fun on those trips while my parents stayed at home to work.

After coming to America, I have had many people ask me if I have traveled to many states and cities in the US. I would list a couple of cities I’ve been too, and no one seems impressed by my answer.

In fact, the few big cities I’ve been to are the places where I used to live, attended a summer seminar or program, or did a road trip and shared the costs with a bunch of friends.

For me, having more savings and preparing for a potential financial disaster was more important than having fun. I came to America at the age of 18 alone. I had no family in the US. My family lives half way across world, and my parents make a low income.

If I didn’t try hard to be independent, I wouldn’t survive in this country. I made it my ultimate goal never to ask my parents for their hard-earned money even when I had an emergency.

After I started working, I have gone on business trips to Asia and three different cities on the West Coast. All the expenses were covered by my employer. Although my couldn’t travel the whole time, I did take advantage of the time off in the evening and on the weekends to explore those cities.

I went to Huntington Beach on my business trip to Los Angeles.

Sightseeing while on business trips is a less expensive substitute to traveling. After all, I even got paid to travel. Mr. FAF and I make plans for our big trips to visit our family in Asia. But we generally don’t feel the need to go on expensive trips to unwind.

A trip to a nearby park, the mall, or even the grocery store will suffice. In the future, we would love to explore different countries and cuisine. But it’s not an urgent need or want at the moment.

RelatedHow To Travel Frugally – Our $387 Three-day Road Trip To Raleigh, NC

3. Birthday

I know that birthdays are important in America. I’m not sure if it’s an Asian thing or if my parents just didn’t want to spend money on celebrations. But I didn’t grow up having birthday parties every year. I think I had two or three birthday parties before I started middle school.

I remember back then my go-to birthday present to my friends or classmates was a notebook. I’m not sure if they were happy with that gift, but that was all I could afford.

Plus, some other kids also had the same present, so I didn’t feel bad about it. I’d love to give my friends a doll or something fancy, but I just didn’t have the money.

Mr. FAF and I don’t celebrate our birthdays. Sometimes we even forget to say happy birthday to each other and just laugh it off.

One time I craved chocolate cake, but I knew Mr. FAF’s birthday was coming up, so I waited until that day to buy a regular cake for $5 from the grocery store. Mr. FAF doesn’t like sweets, but he seemed happy to have a birthday present. And I was happy to have some chocolate cake.

RelatedHow We Celebrated Our Son’s Birthday For $57

4. Car

Mr. FAF used to drive a $2,000 Toyota Corolla (1999 model) for three years (2013-2015). The car had lots of mileage on it due to the previous owner and Mr. FAF’s monthly 20-hour drive to visit me in DC.

The exterior of the car was something Mr. FAF felt a bit embarrassed about but didn’t want to spend money fixing. The paint was peeling off to reveal the metal frame. The car was supposed to be black, but it had lots of different colors on it: black, grey, and white. It looked like a zebra.

Our 1999 black Toyota Corolla was named Zebra.

We would be super excited and happy whenever it rained since the car would look more normal like other cars in the parking lot.

One time, Mr. FAF knew I might have to drive it to work, so he bought a $7 spray paint bottle from Amazon to make the car look more evenly black.

He didn’t want me to be embarrassed in front of my colleagues because of our old car.

I didn’t really care that much. I think all of my co-workers knew we were poor at the time. However, the car did look slightly better than before with a DIY Amazon paint job.

After Baby FAF was born, my father-in-law insisted that we buy a new car, if not for us then for our son’s safety. The engine of our old car stopped working multiple times. The door next the driver’s seat just wouldn’t open sometimes, which posed a danger in case of an accident and the driver couldn’t get out.

The last straw was when we dropped $600 on the engine repair, and it still died a week later. Mr. FAF ended up selling the car to a junk store for $95 and had it hauled away.

It was a sad day for us. We always thought of our car as a friend. It even helped Mr. FAF and me get together and took us to get our marriage license. We waved good-bye to our car and thanked it for years of hard work and unwavering service.

We bought a brand-new Toyota Corolla although I wish we had bought a used car instead.

Mr. FAF has been dreaming about a Tesla. But for me, a car is just a vehicle, and I don’t see the point of having a brand-name car. I want efficiency and utility which the Toyota Corolla offers at a reasonable price.

RelatedTop 5 Financial Mistakes In My 20s

5. Clothes

When I was in middle school, I had three T-shirts and two pairs of jeans which I hand-washed every day so that I would have something new and clean to wear to school the next day. I also had 4-5 pairs of socks, most of which had holes in them.

My uncle’s wife would buy me a new T-shirt or sweater on special occasions, but most of my clothes were nothing to brag about.

I got a fashion break in 8th grade when I went through puberty and could fit in my aunt’s old clothes. I got a lot of old stuff from her, which always felt like New Year’s to me. At least, I got more clothes to wear to school.

Looking back on those days when “new” hand-medown clothes were like a luxury, I am generally happy that I can take out my credit card and buy new clothes even if they’re only $2-$10.

Having the freedom and finances to decide which outfits I want to have is liberating and empowering. I no longer need to wait for my aunt to give me her old clothes to have something new to wear.

I do have a couple of more expensive items from Macy’s. But I am just happy with what I have even if some of the clothes I wear are from 5-10 years ago.

Related: 4 Reasons Why I Buy Cheap Clothes


No one, including myself, likes to live in poverty and worry about what to eat the next meal. In fact, I used to be ashamed of being poor and withdrew myself from my wealthy high-school classmates.

However, the experience of not having a lot has also thought me priceless lessons about life. I am generally content with what I have. I do want to work harder and make money money, but it’s not to acquire more stuff and pursue consumerism.

I want to be financially independent and not have to let money dictate whether or not I should be happy. I also see the value of frugality in helping my family and me weather any financial storms that came our way.

We try to make the best of our situation and constantly strive for something better without being unhappy with what we already have.


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10 thoughts on “How Being Poor Helps Me Be Happier In Life”

  • I have a similar mindset. We live a moderate lifestyle, but it’s way better than when I was a kid. Being poor in childhood set my lifestyle expectation at a moderate level. It doesn’t seem to work that way for everyone, though. Some people feel they should spend more to make up for their poor lifestyle when they were young. I’ve heard both sides. I guess it just depends on your personality and mindset.

    • I’ve heard the same thing too! Actually, I also have a couple of friends who upgraded their lives after getting a good salary while some remain frugal as well 😀

  • I’m also happy that I came from a modest upbringing. It made me so much more appreciative of what I have now, and I know it can all be taken away and I’ll still be OK. If I grew up with a more middle-class background, I’m sure I probably would have gone into more debt trying to maintain that lifestyle after college.

    • When I was little, I always wished we had more money. But it’s all in the past. I’m glad I have that background to appreciate what I have more at the moment 😉

  • This is a great post. My mom got upset with me because she said if she won the Lotto, she would give me $1,000,000 – and I said but how far does that get me? And she got annoyed and said she was disappointed that I didn’t think it would do very much. But your post I think is what she tried to get across – I should be happy to get that amount, because I could do so much with it, and I should moderate my expectations.

    • Hehe I think your mom was trying to show you that she really cared about you. I’d be super happy if my mom won the lottery and gave me $100 😀

  • My parents were very young when they had me so we were quite poor when I was a young child. Of course, I don’t remember being poor. My parents worked really hard and were eventually employed in lucrative fields–auto dealership and healthcare so once I was older, maybe 11 or 12, we were pretty well off, even more so once I was in high school. The thing is though, my parents always lived below their means, even when their income more than quadrupled. That meant they were able to pay cash for my college tuition, something I am still grateful for 30 years later. They are also well-set up for retirement. Anyway, their frugality and thriftiness took a while to really take hold with me but I’ve finally entrenched in it!

    • I’m glad your parents climbed up the career ladder and gave you a great upbringing. It’s even more awesome that they remain frugal despite the huge increase in income!

  • A baseline of expectations is important to how far someone is willing to sacrifice and save. So many people think it’s crazy to share your house with complete strangers but I grew up around that in SF where everyone is packed into each other. Now it’s normal for me but to others, it’s not even a option.

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