“What Does It Feel Like To Be Poor?”

Photo by Gratisography: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-clean-housework-launderette-4414/

I was once asked by a coworker what it felt like to be poor after discussing with another coworker some of the “struggle hacks” I experienced growing up navigating poverty. We talked about things like

  • Boiling a pot of water to bathe when the hot water went out
  • Eating sandwiches of syrup and peanut butter
  • The versatility of Ramen noodles and the various ways to prepare them
  • Hand washing clothes in the sink or bathtub and hoping they dried in time for school the next day
  • White rice with butter and sugar for breakfast
  • Tuna helper!

As we laughed while exchanging notes our other coworkers stared, grimaced, and ever gasped in awe at some of the experiences they’ve never faced or thought of facing. Eventually the question came up, “What does it feel like to be poor?”

“Being Poor Is Unexplainable”

In that moment I didn’t exactly know how to respond. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I should be offended. I think I responded something to the tune of “it’s not a fun experience!” And while the spectrum of poverty is an ever broadening one, it really comes down to feelings of helplessness, shame, fear, and a host of other feelings that impact not only your freedom to do things but also the way you feel about yourself.

Fight or Flight

Most times when someone hears the words poverty or poor they think of a lack of money. While money is very much apart of the equation, I find myself repeating a sort of mantra:

“As much as it’s about the money, it’s not.”

Because feeling poor has an impact on your mental. It impacts your worldview of what is and isn’t possible. It impacts your perception of time. It also impacts your self esteem. I took to Twitter and asked my audience what they thought it felt like to be poor and here are some of my favorite responses.

Feelings of hopelessness and desperation
Feelings of frustration and demoralization
Self explanatory
Hated… because you don’t have

Humble Beginnings

In my TED Talk I discuss how poverty made me aspire to be poor but then a change in environment and mindset helped remedy that. I’m often asked about that statement, “why did you want to be poor?” to which I have to clarify that it wasn’t in wanting to be poor that I aspired for. It was in learning to survive that I wanted to mirror. Watching my mom make a way out of no way, learning how to make due with little to nothing, learning how to exist off of the fumes of will. In hindsight I am grateful for my upbringing, for the struggle.

It taught me resilience.

It’s humbling…

A Waste Of Time

Being poor is also a huge drain on your time. I remember dragging a cart full of clothes to the local laundromat and having to sit for hours watching the wash cycle followed by the drying cycle while whatever tv programming played in the background.

I remember begging my mom for quarters to feed the arcade or vending machine and her not having it to give. I remember one special occasion my mom sent me with money to grab some food for us from McDonalds and as I walked happily back to the laundromat, some neighborhood kids ran up behind me, reached around my shoulders, and snatched the bag of food right off the tray I was carrying, knocking my drinks to the ground and leaving me in shock while they ran away.

I remember taking trips to the mall several towns over and sitting on a bus for 45 minutes to an hour one way. I remember walking 2 miles to buy groceries and walking 2 miles back having to take frequent breaks because the bags were so heavy. Occasionally we would be able to take a taxi home.

My perception of distance and time was skewed because those same trips would take 5 to 15 minutes if we had access to a vehicle.

I learned recently that this wasn’t a unique experience to me either.

You are in constant “go” mode not because you want to be but because you have to be. This can have long term health implications including high blood pressure, high stress, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Financial Trauma

The work I do as a financial educator and coach specifically focuses on this concept of financial trauma that may or may not come as a result of experiencing poverty.

That is to say that not all financial trauma is influenced by experiencing poverty, but experiencing poverty certainly inflicts financial trauma.

Financial trauma can be defined as any instance experienced or observed that negatively influences the way you interact with, or what you belief about money.

It’s evident through the collection of responses I’ve gathered that financial trauma via “feeling poor” has an impact not only on our pockets, but on our worldview and self esteem.

I’ve created a course that speaks to improving your mindset around money. If these feelings of guilt, anxiety, shame, hopelessness, etc impact you based on a previous experience I’d love to connect. Click on the linked text for access to the course.



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Rahkim Sabree

Rahkim Sabree

I’m an author/columnist, speaker, & coach. I’ve written for some of your favorite publications and decided why not start my own. All social media @rahkimsabree