“Can you believe she’s wearing that?” Joanne laughed. “And those sneakers. She looks like a witch.”
I sunk down in my seat and crossed my feet at the ankle, trying to hide my green canvas Keds. Of course, they weren’t Keds — they were just some knock-off brand my mother found at the Salvation Army — but I liked them. They seemed trendy. The black soles and laces were perfectly punk rock. But now? Now I loathed them.
I wanted them off my body and out of my life.
But it wasn’t just my shoes that were a problem. My shirt was too big, also. And my pants were too small — they looked like pedal pushers. My unshaven ankles were bare and exposed. And my home-cut hair was a mess.
I was a mess.
But that’s what happens when your parents live paycheck to paycheck. When you grow up poor.
Things weren’t always like this when I was growing up, though. In fact, once upon a time my family was pretty well-off. (Well, at the very least we were comfortable members of middle class America.) I wore department store duds and shiny new shoes. I had dozens of Barbies, hundreds of LEGOs, and — quite possibly — thousands of toys, and we never worried about the “little things”, as far as I could tell.
For the first 10 years, I had a blessed childhood. A spoiled childhood, even.
But when I was 10, my world changed. My father lost his job, my mother struggled to find a job, and my family lost our house.
All at once, we lost our happy little life.
By time my 13th birthday rolled around, I wasn’t worried about presents; I was worried if my parents would be able to pay our bills. I worried, just like my mom and dad, if there would be food on our table or clothes on our backs. And I lived in this manner for years, as we hovered just above the poverty line until I was an adult. But things didn’t change when our financial situation became better, when I moved out and got a job of my own — because poverty isn’t just a way of life, it’s also a state of mind.
Our lack of money growing up has made me an anxious and apprehensive adult, now that the particulars of running a household are more firmly on my shoulders. I’m more than a little anal about our family’s spending habits and get overwhelmed when large expenses pop up. I am constantly doing and redoing our budget and am constantly worried if we’ll be able to make ends meet each month. And I am always working odd jobs to pick up extra cash, just in case.
Our financial struggles have made me self-conscious, too. I spend far too long worrying how others perceive me — and even how I perceive me. But that is because both socially and emotionally, I was stunted.
And I still hear voices of judgment everywhere I go — every laugh, every whisper, and every conversation is about me.
It must be about me.
But it wasn’t (and isn’t) all bad. Growing up poor taught me to respect and appreciate money. I understand the value of the almighty dollar, and I never spend money without purpose. I only buy my daughter toys on her birthday or on holidays. I avoid overpriced brands by shopping in big box stores as much as possible. I clip coupons and scour sales. And I have my daughter donate both objects and outfits she’s outgrown at least twice a year, so we’re giving back to others every chance we can.
But — and here’s the big irony — when I do decide to spend money, I do it in large and grandiose ways, on things like a family vacation to Disney World or a big Barbie dream house for my daughter. It may not always be easy, but I want my little girl to enjoy the good things in life, and I don’t want her to live in fear or anxiety that Mom and Dad might not be able to pay the bills on time. Or have enough food for dinner. Or be able to buy her new clothes for school.
Growing up poor taught me a lot about grit and survival. But I’m doing everything in my power to make sure that’s a reality my little girl never has to live firsthand.