8 Lessons in Growing Up Low-Income
Before I get vulnerable in a blog post about growing up low-income, allow me to make clear that "poor" is a very subjective word. Beyond food stamps and free lunch at school, my family and I were in the poor category when compared to American standards. But if I compare those same circumstances against those of my extended family in Guatemala, my parents' homeland, we were actually pretty well off.
However, my purpose in writing about my family’s humble beginnings is not to bring about pity or to start a "who grew up the poorest?" contest. At the end of the day, there’s easily someone who has it worse than you. My point is that I believe there's always lessons to be learned in the struggles life has for us, and I also believe that you can either succumb to those circumstances or you can take them, try to thrive despite them, and make the best of a negative situation. The choice is yours.
As for me, here's what I've learned and what's shaped me into the person I am today.
#1 Perspective is a Lifesaver
I recall a Winter in which we fell on hard times, and making rent was our biggest priority, but there wasn’t enough to pay the mounting light bill. Inevitably, the electricity was shut off, and we knew there wasn’t anything we could do until there was enough to pay what was owed. Sleeping with several blankets to keep warm, showering by candlelight, and cooking food on a portable stove became routine. When we could, mom would use the common area grill at the apartment complex to make dinner, and my brother and I would do our homework or charge our phones inside the sitting area (until we’d get kicked out at 9). Believe it or not, we got away with storing a turkey in the common area’s freezer, as Thanksgiving was around the corner. Christmas came and we ate out to celebrate before returning to the dark and cold of the apartment. This would go on for a total of five freezing months, and it was frustrating, and we fought and pointed fingers as to why we were in the situation we were in, but we were in it together. Despite what everyone was feeling, we stuck it out as a family. The realization that love and closeness of family isn’t something everyone has, shaped our perspective. Instead of every man for himself, we held tight and looked to walking forward with what we did have, instead of focusing on what we didn’t. And when the rough season ended, the literal darkness ended, we appreciated that we made it out together. I will never forget the look of joy on my younger brother’s face when he walked into the apartment to see electricity after I had called him to say there was a surprise at home.
#2 More Grateful, Less Entitled
Remember that awful MTV show “My Super Sweet 16?” In which spoiled teens yelled at their parents for unveiling their new Lexus at school instead of their expensive party? Or received diamond rings and threatened that there better be more gifts? Gross. This one is pretty obvious but it's something I see all the time. ENTITLEMENT. I constantly remind myself that the world doesn't owe me anything. Stay humble. Going back to the car example, my parents helped with a down payment when I was 18 so that I'd be able to get my first car, a used blue-green Honda Accord that I was pumped to have. I worked at Red Lobster as a host/server to pay it off. I was grateful that my parents helped with the initial payment but I knew I was fully capable of working myself to pay off the debt. I wasn't about to let them try to squeeze an extra monthly payment into their budget.
#3 If you Want it, Work for it
Speaking of putting in the work: In some cosmic, twist of fate kind of way, what talents I was born with, I've had to hone to be able to thrive with them. I fell in love with creative writing as early as elementary school, I found out I could sing when I was 18, and I discovered my fashion styling eye during my last year of college. I wasn't born a prodigy to any of these talents, only with the potential to excel at them. I sing on the worship team at The Pearl Church, but I took some classes when I was 18 to learn to use my voice, and then I'd practice weekly. I'm enamored with writing stories and I was able to find my voice and writing style through being an English major in college, and that voice carries into my prose today. Most of you know me because of fashion styling but I've had to LEARN what this career entails, a lot of times through mistakes, but my aesthetic has only grown. I actually really love where my styling is going. My point is I've learned to work for what I want. I WANT my sky-high fashion and writing dreams to come true. I'm not sitting at home waiting for someone to hand me results.
#4 Finding Ways to Make Ends Meet
When my brother and I were kids, once a month we would accompany my mom to this awesome white building. I remember we'd wait in a family room, coloring in sheets and grabbing free coffee while she picked out food from a large warehouse type of room with a vast selection of items. I specifically remember a long table with all sorts of bags of bread from the grocery store. We'd leave with a full box of food for home until it was time to come back the next month. It took me years to realize that this was a food bank. To be honest, I don't know how my mom found the place, I can only assume it was through word of mouth or through a friend, but it put food on the table. I've used that strategy in my adulthood when I've sold clothes to make my phone bill, done paid marketing surveys to make rent, or when I'd grab items from a food bank in college to save money groceries. No shame here.
#5 Knowledge is (Free) Power
We live in an age where tons of free knowledge is at our fingertips. The internet is a great resource. I learned to tape down shoes (and what kind of tape to use) for photo shoots from a Styling video on Youtube. I learned that the scorched fabric during an ironing mistake is melted polyester and that it's permanent. In short, I've learned to google it when I can't afford to pay to figure stuff out.
#6 Sweet Dreams Are Made of Thrift
It seems Thrift stores are more popular than ever, but beyond cool finds, thrift stores are cheap (well, most of the time)! What one item costs in retail can get you 5 items in a thrift store. Learning to really look through items, learning what days come with deals, and learning what locations have what you want leads to some wonderful finds. I found one of my favorite trench coats at a local Denver thrift store, but I didn't go in looking for a designer label, I went in looking for the style and visual of what I wanted and I got to be frugal in a stylish way.
#7 Learning to Cope
Getting evicted sucks, being broke sucks, being in debt sucks, comparing yourself to others sucks big time. But you learn to deal, you learn to cope. During times when I've felt like I was drowning, I've learned to breathe, I've told myself that I can only go up, and that everything will work itself out in time. The way I see it, you have to get back to point A, and you can get there tormenting yourself, or you can get there peacefully, knowing that you have to get there regardless.
#8 Don't Stop Believin' (In Yourself)
I have an unshakable confidence as an adult, but it took years of trial when I was younger to build that up. However, this confidence is mine and not a single thing that anyone wants to try can take that away. My upbringing, my circumstances, my faith, my struggles, my perspective have given me a thick skin and I can't stress how great that is. My confidence is priceless because I know I'm worthy, I know I'm capable, and I know I can do whatever I set my mind to. I truly believe that as long as you believe in yourself, nothing can stop you.
Denim Jacket- Hot Topic / Textured Turtleneck- ASOS / Hat- ASOS / Freddy Kreuger Socks- Abstract Denver / Boots: Nordstrom Rack
Photos by Noah Berg