When You Are Ashamed Of Being Poor

In the personal finance (PF) community, we talk about living below our means and being frugal for a better financial future.

Using hand-me-down items or going on a treasure hunt is not something PF bloggers refrain from doing.

In fact, many of us are proud that we can find free or inexpensive groceries, furniture, and clothes so that we can pay off debt, save for retirement, and invest for the future.

But have you ever felt inferior to someone when you know that you are judged for being poor?

You feel that you’re not as good as them or not worthy of their attention because you or your family doesn’t have a lot or as much as they do.

I have. I’ve known what it’s like to be ashamed of being poor ever since I was in elementary school.

Elementary school

I grew up in a low-income family in Vietnam. My parents struggled financially for years and fought about money constantly. My dad had his fair share of financial mistakes.

My mom had her full-time job and multiple side hustles such as making yogurt and knitting sweaters to support the family. She was the one who held our family together in one piece.

When I was growing up, having socks with holes in them was normal. I’d mend the holes, and they would appear again after a while.

I remember one time my mom mended her old shirt and gave it to me to wear to school.

I don’t know if it’s because it was so obvious the shirt still wasn’t my size or if my mom didn’t do a great job re-purposing it, but some of my classmates pointed out that the outfit didn’t fit me well and looked odd.

I tried to defend myself and felt really upset about what they said. After all, that’s what my mom made for me. But words can be so cruel, especially when they come from kids.

Middle school

I remember having three pairs of socks, three t-shirts, and two pairs of pants that I had to hand-wash every day to have something clean to wear the next day. I kept wishing that one day I would have a good job and could buy whatever nice clothes I wanted.

My wardrobe got a new look when I was in 8th grade. Back then, I was growing fast, so I was almost the same size as my uncle’s wife. I remember feeling so excited whenever she gave me some of her old clothes. To me, it was like New Year’s presents.

Some of the clothes were a bit too old for me, but I didn’t mind that at all. At least I didn’t have to alternate washing and wearing only 3 t-shirts in the same week. Middle school was probably the highlight of my fashion trend.

High school

Fast forward to high school, that’s when my insecurity was probably at its peak. I was accepted into one of the best high schools in the city where I lived.

It was a high school for the gifted. It also had the reputation of being a school where all the richest and smartest kids in the city went.

I was put into a small classroom of 34 students. Most of them had parents who were not only wealthy but also powerful and well-educated. Their parents were what my parents were not.

Many of my classmates’ parents were diplomats and had studied or worked overseas. Some had gotten their Master’s or PhD from Western countries. Some were lawyers, bankers, and doctors. And some were CEOs at big banks.

Many of my classmates had lived in America, Australia, and other developed countries for years before coming back to Vietnam. And it came as no surprise that they liked hanging out with each other and talking about their experiences of living abroad.

I just couldn’t relate to them and had nothing to contribute to the conversation. The only vacation I knew for sure I would have each year was a trip to the countryside to visit my maternal grandparents.

I didn’t think they would be interested in what I had to say when they were talking about Washington DC, New York, or Sydney. They also talked a lot about where their parents had traveled to for work and what gifts they got from overseas.

My classmates were not shy to talk about how wealthy or powerful their families were. Our teachers also paid attention to such stories and enjoyed building a relationship with their parents. I felt left out.

I am grateful for my parents and everything that they’ve done for me. But when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better, part of me blamed them for how I felt.

I never told my parents, but I kept asking myself why my parents couldn’t be more like my classmates’. My parents just finished high school and never went to college. They were not wealthy or powerful. In a way, I made my insecurity cloud my judgement of my parents.

You might think rich kids may not be smart. But let me tell you how inaccurate that perception may be. What made me feel even worse was the fact that my classmates didn’t just come from rich and powerful families.

They were intelligent, motivated, and extremely hard-working. Some of them slept 3-4 hours a day and did so well in class that I didn’t even understand how it was humanly possible.

My classmates studied hard. They also played hard. And there I was just trying to catch up with them in every possible way you can think of.

My self-esteem plummeted and pulled me into an abyss of misery. I didn’t know how to get out.

College

Thanks to my parents’ investment in my education and with some luck, I got a full-ride scholarship to attend a private college in America. I came to the US when I was 18.

I was hit with another bout of insecurity. Once I arrived on campus, I started applying for on-campus jobs to help pay my personal expenses. I didn’t want to ask my family for money. They didn’t have much to begin with.

I remember asking my American roommate if she had gotten any part-time jobs. She just shook her head and said she didn’t need to. Her parents paid for everything.

The total cost of attending the college at that time was about $45,000 a year. And I know she was not the only one whose parents covered all the expenses for their children. I knew I was different from most of the people I went to college with.

However, I was soon thrown into a new world of culture shocks, schoolwork, and new friends. I didn’t have much time to think about how poor my family was.

It also helped that many international students at my school were like me. We came from an average family but were given a great opportunity to study and thrive in one of the greatest nations on earth.

I gradually forgot about how insecure I felt among my high school classmates. I was pursuing my own dream: The American Dream.

In America, people never ask me what my parents do for a living or what kind of education my parents had. People only care about me as an individual – who I am, what I do, and what I want to be, not an offshoot of my family lineage.

Now

Time has helped me grow as a person and a parent. I wouldn’t say my insecurities are gone. However, whenever they want to resurface, I have to remind myself about my long-term goals and how important it is to stay humble and kind to others.

I have been in situations where people intentionally tried to bring me down for whatever reason, and I don’t want to repeat that toxic behavior.

After I had Baby FAF, I sometimes think about whether he would feel embarrassed about us not being wealthy one day. Sometimes I feel guilty for not being able to give him the nicest toys or clothes we can afford. But we want him to know that we have done everything in our power to raise him well.

Being a mom helps me better understand what my parents have gone through to raise me. My parents are not wealthy, well-educated, or powerful. But they have tried their best to give me the best things they can and help me become who I am today.

I feel guilty for having blamed them for something that’s not their fault. And I feel grateful that they have taught me the importance of frugality, sacrifice, and family values.

After joining the personal finance blogging community, I have gotten so much more comfortable with sharing my stories and with living frugally so that we can have a better future for ourselves and our children.

Being poor can be either a must or a choice. Mr. FAF and I don’t want it to be a must. We want to have the option of living like we are poor knowing that our savings and investment are well taken care of.

Baby FAF might not have the richest or the best parents in the world, but we know for sure that no one else will love and care about him as much as we do.

 

Related:

6 Financial Expectations In Asian Families

Why We Sent Our Baby To China

4 Reasons Why We Are Frugal 

The Pros and Cons of Our Long-distance Marriage

 

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38 thoughts on “When You Are Ashamed Of Being Poor”

  • Love this heartfelt article Mrs.FAF. I can relate to some of your insecurities. Most children growing up, (no matter the circumstances) face different forms of insecurities. You were very brave to have shared this with us. I appreciate it.

    • I’m glad you can relate, Belle! 🙂 I’ve been longing to read something like this but haven’t seen much, so I decided to write my own story. I think many of us have some insecurities that are not easy to tell other people. But I just decided to face my own fear and write it here on my blog. 🙂

  • I grew up pretty poor too, but that had never gotten me down. In fact, it was the fuel that ignited my FIRE to do well in my life. It had taught me how to build wealth and depend on my own skills to make a better life for myself.

    I find that being upset with something that you don’t have is unproductive. I want to use whatever I have and make the best of it.

    I think this is a quote from Bill Gates: “it’s not your fault that you’re born poor, but it’s if you die poor”. I want to make sure that I don’t die poor.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Leo! It’s really admirable that you’ve developed such a strong mindset about being forward-looking and staying productive. I like the quote 🙂

  • “Baby FAF might not have the richest or the best parents in the world, but we know for sure that no one else will love and care about him as much as we do.”

    With this alone, you are doing an amazing job!

    While we were not what I would term poor growing up, we were not wealthy either… more middle of the road in our midwest life. But there were hard times (my parents were small business owners and they had good and bad years) and I had to fight the temptation to be jealous of our friends’ vacations, nicer clothes, boats, houses, paid for college etc.

    I think this is why “The Millionaire Next Door” hit me so hard when I read it after college. I never realized that wealth could equate to anything other than nice stuff. Then when I stumbled on blogs like Mr. Money Mustache and The Frugalwoods, I realized that frugality and wise finances can lead to so much joy in life. It helped me to become comfortable with any financial situation I was in, as long as I was working towards my goals and living a wise financial life.

    • Thank you for sharing your story, Mrs. Adventure Rich! I’m glad you found the book and the blogs helpful. It took me a while to be comfortable with who and where I am in life. I no longer envy other people their nice stuff because I now know that it’s not what defines me. I just hope that my son won’t go through the same thoughts and emotions that I did when I was young. 🙂

  • I think school is a ridiculously tough place. We were poor and I always felt out of place because our clothes were obviously not the nice things everyone else wore. But it has helped me grow stronger in being proud of who I am. I agree that those insecurities come back though. I have times I feel frozen from those same things, feeling completely out of place. And reminding myself that I am proud of who I am, that’s the most important thing.
    Being a mom, I worry the same. I want my kids to be happy and proud of themselves. But I mostly want them to realize that who they are is important. That’s hard to make them understand at times, but I’d say thats my goal 😁
    Thanks for being so open and sharing your struggles. And know that you’re not alone in those insecurities.

    • Thank you, Ember! I agree that I’ve had some of my toughest experiences in my life at school. It’s much better now because I have a family of my own and just need to focus on them and what I do in life. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to other kids when we’re young, but we will all get over it at one point. 🙂

  • “Being [FRUGAL] can be either a must or a choice … We want to have the option of living like we are [FRUGAL] knowing that our savings and investment are well taken care of.”

    Growing up is so difficult because we crave that sense of social belonging. I feel your pain, Ms. FAF.

    I have a nephew who’s starting high school this Fall. I worry about him, not because his parents aren’t well off, but because he’s so smart (and everyone keeps saying he’s so smart) that I don’t know if he’s ever really been challenged before. I hope he has the resilience to not only succeed but get along with others. Some people fall apart because they don’t become resilient. Others, like you, come out diamonds.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Darren! I too craved that sense of social belonging when I was young and maybe even now too.

      I’m sure your nephew will do well in high school, especially because he’s smart. I think everyone will face the challenge of finding our social circle at one point or another. That’s how we learn and grow. 🙂

  • I loved this heartfelt piece Ms. FAF- it was so brave of you to share this. Growing up, I was also never the most fashionably dressed kid in the class. My parents bought whatever was cheapest and I’m fairly certain 50% of my wardrobe was boy’s clothes until I turned 14 so there could be hand-me-downs for my brother. For the record- boy’s cargo shorts do not look “almost the same” as girl’s shorts, haha. Add my DIY at-home Asian bowl cut until the age of 10 and I was very much on trend.

    Growing up as a child is so hard because we crave that sense of social belonging with our peers. It’s funny- as a kid, I used to crave big brand-name clothing so I would fit in. As an adult who can now afford those clothes, I don’t want them! If I buy brand name clothing, there’s rarely a logo in sight, and I usually buy that brand for its fit.

    Baby FAF has incredibly loving parents and he will grow up to be a wonderful human being, xoxo

    • Thank you for sharing your story, Ying! I thought about not publishing this piece since it’s a bit personal, but I decided to share my story because I’m sure a lot of people can relate to what I went through.

      I too wanted to buy lots of nice clothes when I was young. But now that I have the option of buying nice clothes, I don’t feel the need to do that anyone. It’s interesting how our priorities just change over time as we grow. 🙂

  • Oh I know what it’s like to be poor, third world country poor. I too felt insecure when I was young. My father only had a few years of elementary education and my mother had none. I know what it’s like to have two changes of outfits for the summer; my mom would do laundry every just so we can have clean clothes everyday. I had a lot of resentment, insecurities and even shame. In my early 20’s , I would accumulate material things because I had grew up with none. I realized now spending $ on things doesn’t make me rich. I was trying to compensate for my childhood and it doesn’t work that way. Being a parent made me appreciate my parents even more, I now see how hard they worked to provide with little opportunities they had. I will never look down poor people, I know what it’s like.

    • I can totally relate to your experience and feelings. I had a lot of resentment and shame too. My childhood is gone, and I’m not sure if I want to relive it. But I will try to compensate for what I didn’t have by giving our son what I missed out when I was little. 🙂

  • Man I hate you. Why you gotta make me cry…

    “Baby FAF might not have the richest or the best parents in the world, but we know for sure that no one else will love and care about him as much as we do.”
    Awh.

    I think being poor is helpful in building character. It’s odd with Asians, we’re either really poor or super rich. There is like no middle ground because of the huge, insane disparity of wealth within the system. My friend Soap is super rich and she told me she had a culture shock when she went back to China (not to the big cities she usually go) but to the small poor cities. She said she saw a old grandpa selling trinkets by the roadside get beaten up by gangsters and she didn’t do anything about it. She said she’s been regretting her inaction for years. I’m totally sidetracking but aw 🙁

    Ms. FAF I really like this piece. You came such a long way, if you were a dude I would tell you you have balls of steel.

    • Thank you, Lily! I have to say I also cried writing and re-reading this post. It brings back all the memories that I don’t and will never want to relive. The story about the old grandpa is not unique. It actually happens a lot, but we just don’t see it as often or at all…

  • I really liked this post and think you have a solid approach to personal finance. Related to what you wrote about, ever since I was very young, my dad always taught me what appearances can be, and frequently are, deceiving. He taught me that, in matters of personal finance, what’s important is your investments, not your status symbol possessions. When I would complain that a classmate’s dad had a really cool, expensive car, he would always explain that there was a good chance that it was acquired by debt, and did not really symbolize wealth.

    To this day, every time I see someone with expensive jewelry or cars, my first thought is “good for them, but there’s a good chance that it’s all debt”.

    • Wow your dad is such a wise man. I really like the lesson and the wisdom he taught you. It’s interesting how our parents and upbringing have shaped us into who we are today. 🙂

  • When I was a kid, my mom always shopped at the thrift stores and yard sales. I didn’t mind at all and I loved finding fun stuff and thought it was so foolish that other kid’s parents bought them $30 glitter jeans from Limited Too that they would just get dirty or grow out of in 6 months. Other kids made fun of me but I made fun of them when they did. They tried to start physical fights with me and asked me where I got my clothes, and made fun of them when I told them the thrift store. I would never fight them so they ended up looking foolish. I just made fun of them for their cluelessness and ended up hurting their feelings, so they stopped. I don’t feel bad because it was their choice to try to make feel bad about my clothing, and they got an unexpected reaction that they didn’t like.

    However, my sister wasn’t like me and she had meaner kids in her class. She got relentlessly bullied and it caused her a lot of depression and even ended up harming herself. Now that’s she’s grown up she never buys stuff at thrift stores, but she still loves finding a deal at Marshall’s and Home Goods. She’s good with money. But having horrible bullies really impacted her preteen and teen years.

    Was it really the clothes that caused the bullying? Who knows. They might have just known they found a good target and if it wasn’t the clothes, it could have been something else.

    • I was a target for bullying in middle school too. It wasn’t really because of my socioeconomic background. Maybe I will share it in another post. Maybe not. I just don’t want to relive that experience.

      I’m glad you stood up for yourself and showed them that your clothes didn’t define your personality. I understand where your sister is coming from. Shopping at thrift stores probably brings back all all bad memories that she has, so she doesn’t want to do that. I shop at Ross and Marshall’s too. 😉

  • I think Baby FAF will be fine. He has the best parents in the world (even though they may not know it yet). They are rich now in their compassion/love/teachings/boundaries and also financially rich enough later when he’s old enough to realize what it means. Yes, I think he will do just fine.

    • I went back to Vietnam earlier this year. I’m glad you had a great time in Vietnam. The traffic can be overwhelming, but yes, the food is cheap hehe

  • Have you ever heard Dolly Parton’s song “Coat of Many Colors”? Your story reminds me of it.

    We were not that poor growing up, but my parents were pretty frugal. I got all my sister’s handmedowns, which very noticeably did not fit me properly. I got made fun of a lot during middle school.

    My husband and I are frugal as well, but we will be more understanding about it when our sons want clothes that help them fit in. There’s got to be some reasonable middle ground between $400 sneakers and sending them to school in rags, right?

    • I haven’t heard that song before, but it sounds like a beautiful song 🙂

      I know what you mean. I’m also struggling to balance frugality and making sure that Baby FAF can fit in with his friends. When I dress him in used clothes, I’m also afraid other people will judge him and not treat him nicely. And yes, there gotta be a middle ground somewhere 🙂

  • I didn’t grow up poor but my husband did. Knowing his background makes me appreciate what we’ve (he’s) achieved even more. It’s one thing to achieve wealth when you had a wealthy background and every advantage. It’s quite another when, like you, you started poor and had to work doubly hard for everything you have.

  • Wow Ms. FAF what a journey you’ve been through!! School is rough and not just dealing with your studies but also your interactions with other students. You want to be with the ‘in’ crowd because you feel secure and know that ‘yeah I’m friends with this guy or this girl.’ That especially rings true in high school.
    Sometimes I wonder how our 1 year old will fare when he gets to middle and high school, just want him to be himself and hopefully have friends that like him because of that.
    I’m sure you and Mr. FAF will raise Baby FAF to be the best he can because if your blog is any indication, you will work hard to have him be a better person like how your working hard to make your blog better every time.

  • Growing up poor is hard – it’s such a privilege to be able to choose frugality instead of being forced into it. Some people don’t have a choice. I’m grateful every day for my family and our situation. If a couple things were different, I’d be have a radically different life.

  • I had a similar experience in school, but as I got older, I felt more secure. We lived in a wealthy area but my parents lived modestly and looked down on “consumers” who bought fancy cars and brand name clothes. I got made fun of a lot, but my parents consoled me with “So what they all have designer jeans? They’re probably all in debt to their eyeballs!!” I was one of the few at my school who did not get a car as a gift on my 16th birthday. Our house was one of the few without a pool. We threw no parties and had no vacations worth bragging about.
    In 2008, lots and lots of “for sale” and “forclosure” signs went up in front of the houses of my former classmates, the same ones who used to “pity” me. My parents had long since paid off their modest house. Turns out not everyone who seems rich actually is!

  • The hard sacrifices that your family made will continue to pay off in the future. Your baby will benefit from the opportunities that you are taking advantage of in America. That’s why this country is so great, your story of going from rags to riches is not unusual. As long as you work hard and make good financial decisions the sky is the limit!

  • Great story, thanks so much for sharing. Looks like you’ve taken that rough childhood and let it shape you for the better and that’s awesome.

    I think feeling poor is largely a relative thing. Yes, if you can’t provide basic needs for yourself or your family, you’re objectively poor. As a child, it’s hard to understand, but as I’ve gotten older, I realized feeling poor is really dependent on who you hang out with. I feel rich when I volunteer in third world countries, however, I feel so poor when I go to a nice resort and see all these Bentley’s and Ferrarri’s pull up next to my car. Reminding myself to be content with what I have is a constant struggle.

    • You made a great point! I totally agree with you that feeling poor is relative to the context we are in. For the most part, I know that I’m lucky to have had an education and a family who cares about me. I think one reason feeling poor caused me so much anxiety is because I was put in an environment where I was always at the bottom of the socioeconomic status.

      But now that I’m older and hopefully wiser, I’m generally happy with what I have. I just hope my son won’t have the same negative thoughts that I did during my childhood. 🙂

  • Thank you very much for sharing your story with the world. I admire your courage.

    In the last couple years, public awareness of bullying has improved, but we as a society are still far behind on dealing with the socioeconomic bullying you endured.

    It happened to me too when I was in grade school in Spokane. I was bullied and ostracized by the kids from larger-spending families, and their favorite subject matter was my clothes.

    I was bullied by girls and boys alike. Only in the last few months have I been willing to publicly write and speak about my experience and what I think are the root causes of socioeconomic bullying.

    I grew up to become a consumer protection lawyer who sues the credit reporting agencies and debt collectors for breaking laws that require them to treat everyone with respect and tell only truthful information about everyone. It pains me that many people get into credit problems because they have been desperately trying to fit in all their lives and aren’t self-aware enough to see the problem coming.

    The American Dream is alive and well for any person who is responsible for themselves and their own, good to others and is willing to work for it. Unfortunately for some, the pursuit of this dream gets twisted into a pathological consumerism where kids without an expensive wardrobe don’t feel safe at school, grow up to believe they need an expensive car or house to be respected by their boss or clients, and “chase the carrot” forever.

    Your insight into how your upbringing made you stronger is a model for what the American Dream is at its core: having enough, being happy and being free to create it for yourself and your family.

    Keep writing.

    SaraEllen

    • Thank you for sharing your story, SaraEllen! Bullying is sadly still rampant at a lot of schools all over the world. I’m glad you got through that tough experience and are working towards a great cause. 🙂

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