When I was younger, my family didn’t have a lot of money. My parents were just starting their life together when I was born, and neither of their families really had much money, so they started out with very little.
My life was full of constant reminders that money doesn’t come easy. My parents’ income dictated the things I could and couldn’t do, and I was aware of this at a young age. Even before I could fully grasp the concept of money, I always knew that we didn’t have a lot of it. But that didn’t stop me from asking my mom for things that I wanted, or from pouting whenever she said “no.” When I would beg her for something, she would tell me that in this life, you have to work for the things you want. “You don’t work because you like it,” she’d say to me in Spanish, “you work because you need it.” I used to hate that phrase.
My wardrobe for school consisted of secondhand clothes, knock-off shoes, and the occasional clearance item from regular stores. When I was old enough to become more cognizant of material items, I began comparing my clothes to the brand name clothes that my friends wore. I got made fun of at school for wearing “fake Vans,” as well as for wearing my favorite shirt two days in a row. I remember once that I wanted to keep wearing this particular black pair of shoes so badly after they faded that I stole a Sharpie from my teacher and colored over the parts that had worn. I always wore a shirt underneath my P.E. shirt so that when we changed, no one would notice that I wore the same bra every day. At lunch my friends and I would stand in line together, and when I got to the front, I would pretend like I wasn’t hungry because I didn’t have money. Some days I would ditch my friends to sit in the bathroom and eat the lunch I’d brought from home, but most of the time I’d just sit with them and forgo lunch instead.
I got a job as soon as I was old enough and splurged all of my paychecks on the luxury goods that I had always wanted but never had. I got my hair done frequently, bought expensive makeup, brand name clothes, shoes, jewelry — you name it. Each week, I’d plan out what I was going to buy when I got paid and I spent my money very quickly. I thought my things would increase my worth as a person, and honestly, I didn’t care about anything else.
During that time, I didn’t feel valuable unless I had the newest and nicest things. How the world viewed me and what others thought meant everything to me. The thing is, sometimes I didn’t even want certain things but felt like I had to buy them — my spending habits and routines soon began to spiral out of control, and after a few years I found that I was stuck in a never-ending cycle. I got tired of struggling to pay my bills and owing people money. I started to realize I would never be satisfied with my quality of life this way, and that I would need to find a place somewhere in the middle in order to be happy. I began cutting back on my spending, saving instead and truly thinking about whether I needed things before I bought them.
Now I am careful with how I spend my money, especially because I’ve become more financially independent. I choose to buy the majority of my clothes at thrift stores, and wear very little makeup. My hair is short, and I usually either have my mom cut it or I cut it myself. These days I choose to be pretty low maintenance, and I spend most of my money on food, school and bills. Instead of feeling like I need to buy material things to have personal worth, saying “no” to something at the store that I don’t need makes me feel happy and free.
Don’t get me wrong: There are still days that I get down on myself when I see my friends living more luxuriously, traveling frequently or spending a lot of money on food and clothes that I simply don’t have the budget for. But then I remember where I started, and that not everyone came from the same place as me. The bad feelings go away a lot quicker nowadays, and when I think about my past and how far I have come, I feel proud of myself.
When I think about the person I am now, I know that not having money when I was younger taught me a lot. Because of my struggles I know how to save, and how to be smart with my money. Having less for most of my life helped me to be content with less now, and I value the things that I have now much more than I would have if I’d never learned to appreciate them. Not having everything I wanted taught me to be flexible, creative and imaginative. It also forced me to work hard and earn my own way through life. I’d like to think that it taught me balance, and that I’ll always be happy with what I have, regardless of how much or how little.
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(Images via Marisa Kumtong)