The Psychology of Poverty — How Adversity Taught Me The Lessons I Needed To FIRE

Andrea sitting on the steps

Hey all! I’m super excited about this Guest Post by Andréa. I first heard Andréa on the ChooseFI podcast and spent my morning walk enthralled by her story. I grew up with a lot of privilege and haven’t experienced what it’s like to live in poverty. As it’s not something I can speak to myself, I was thrilled when Andréa agreed to write a guest post to expound on her academic research and share her story with us.

I wasn’t a stranger to heatless winters and a hungry belly coming up. My mom would do her best to make sure I ate dinner but I got tired of seeing her scrambling for my crumbs and drinking warm water to try to fill her belly. So by the time I hit seven, I was choosing to skip meals at home so that she could have them.

I wasn’t new to resoling my shoes with cardboard or a stack of paper bags and a plastic grocery bag, or playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe with the utility bills. While I didn’t have to do my homework under a street light, I did go to in local bookstores to access books I couldn’t afford, or visit graduate libraries in order to use their computers for my elementary school homework. When I was done, I went home to crawl under the one lamp we clicked to read my book. See, sacrifice was just what we did. It was a means to an end, and we did it as a family, for one another.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the sacrifice that was our daily life was exactly what would set me up for FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) later on. That struggle was teaching me grit, perseverance and fortitude that would not only save my life, but would prevent me from having to pass my pain on to the next generation.

Success is Tied To Adversity

In early October, I had the amazing opportunity to do an interview on the ChooseFI Podcast to discuss a bit about the psychology of poverty. The interview allowed me to share my own experiences of struggle, and began to touch on some of my academic research, digging into a framework for success that takes a social determinants approach to understanding success and behavior. 

In the way we discuss people and success in media and literature, we tend to draw connections between identity and achievement. In my experience and research, though, I’ve come to realize that our life achievements are more closely linked to the adversity we’ve overcome

Adversity Shapes Us

This social determinants view makes a pointed effort to incorporate the whole person when assessing how, or what hindrances exist in that individual’s pursuit of success. This idea that the whole person (and their social belonging) influences the outcome of his or her wellbeing (health, wealth, etc) is somehow radical and new. 

The idea that a person can be shifted or moved like a weathered stone undoes this idea that the outcome— like sea glass— is something other than beautiful. In fact, it is the adversity that develops the beauty: the framework from which this new and different person approaches issues in spending, wellbeing, or survival— the psychology developed through adversity and circumstance. 

In a conversation on wealth and behavioral finance, these concepts gave way to new relationships between people that would traditionally be separated by their individual flavor of othering. People from all walks of life have a tendency to find likeness in a common burden (particularly, those of struggle, belonging and otherness).

It is the adversity that develops the beauty.Click To Tweet

What Does Struggle Look Like?

Struggle is heavy, and it’s not something we set down easily. It’s big, and it changes you.  I will forever carry the struggles of my childhood, and tag onto the struggles of my communities, and of my ancestors

Historical Oppression

I carry major historical structures of hierarchical oppression (race, sex, and expectations of those things) and I carry the cultural significance of historically traumatizing events and systems, unacknowledged history and consistent social struggle in a space of institutionalized disenfranchisement and systematic oppression.  I carry disempowerment, exploitation, and erasure of the Black body. 

Being an "Other"

I experienced racism that some would think to be of another time. I picked KKK flyers out of my locker, and battled with a poverty that reared its head as housing and food insecurity and exhausted utility budgets

I didn’t know what belonging was. So I sang out about the journey of my ancestors. Looking back, I was born into that struggle. I carried, too, the trauma of my parents and grandparents– of former generations– and in my every day, I saw the outcomes connected to their transitions. Today, I feel an emotional obligation to acknowledge the struggle and pain of the past, I recognize that this story was already transferred to me.

The Pain Was In My DNA

My research revealed that the traumatic effects of otherness is not just ours to bear— it is passed down from generation to generation. Experiencing trauma through adverse events, marginalization and institutionalized disenfranchisement shifts our DNA through a process called epigenetic modification. This transfers pain on to our children in the form of newly shifted DNA.  

As a result, at birth, we carry the trauma of our parents and grandparents of former generations and see outcomes connected to this transition. Most notably, these changes in DNA can manifest in our bodies in the form of physical health conditions (diabetes, blood pressure, obesity, heart health, birth weight, and overall health equity) and can influence learning and behavioral health, causing learning differences, depression, anxiety, and mental illness 

In this vein, while it is clear that the experiences of our parents and grandparents shift how we understand and process things around us, they also shift our bodies, success, and the ways in which we create experiences in our own realities.

As we think about the social systems serving as hurdles to success, we have to also consider ways to adapt what and how we preach to make sense in different contexts. 

The Struggle of Otherness

My introduction to struggle neither defines my journey, and nor is it unique to me. Nearly all of us have experienced struggle– something that was particularly difficult or some point where we were made to feel as though we didn’t belong.

 For many of us, we experience struggle as otherness resulting from this-or-that choices related to identity that we’ve been pushed to make, or that have been made for us: race, sexuality or gender, ethnicity, disability, nativity or other categorical identities rooted in power that we face. Instead, for once, we choose our own realities and step into spaces of unbridled authenticity and self-measured success.

How Struggle Helped My FIRE Journey

Access to education played a big part in my story– exposure to other ways of thinking. I was thirsty for knowledge and drank it in; but education by itself didn’t give me a way out.  What education and my different perspective did do, however, was to remove the fear of rejection, and give me the tools to develop my own way of walking my own path. 

I reached FIRE at 31, but my journey started with the habits born in struggle: doing more with less, being creative to solve problems, and finding solutions in spite of the rest.

I saved all I could, set strategic and meaningful goals for my life in the immediate and long term, and I stopped accepting less

My Way to Financial Freedom

1. I figured out my numbers.

I was always taught that you can’t tell where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. I took a systematic approach to identifying my numbers. I calculated my net worth, built a budget, and calculated my FI number.

2. I set aside an emergency fund, and hid my mattress money.

Yep, I said it. I needed both. I needed both because the experience of prolonged poverty left me with anxieties about not having enough, and a deep-seated need never to return to that place. So, I had a 12-month emergency fund (yep!) and 1-2 months of expenses tucked away in cash somewhere close by. 

3. I focused on paying off my debt.

I was always averse to credit cards, but student loans were a different story. As a result, I made my budget as tight as I could and made it my mission to triple my payments, even if it meant I ate rice for the week.

4. I set a strategic vision that united all parts of me.

It acknowledged my joy and my pain, strengths and weaknesses, and made allowances accordingly. In return, I ended up with pointed measures that filled my spirit and a clear direction to pursue them.

5. I started working for my mission and abandoned the idea of working for my employer’s bottom line.

I needed my work to matter, so I resolved to limit my projects, tasks, and employment to activities that furthered the impact I was hoping to make.

I actively sought out opportunities and said yes when they aligned with my goals. I kept an ear to the ground, recognizing that changing employers on a regular schedule (ie, every 2-3 years) allowed for faster increases in my income than I would otherwise be able to achieve while staying at the same employer. 

6. I leaned into a hunger for learning, asked for help, and found mentors.

I asked deep, personal and significant questions that were designed to grant me access. They were questions that started with how, and why, and tell me your story. 

My questions pried for the way out, and built relationships with people who could show me better than they could tell me. When it came to programs, I made programs tell me no before discounting myself, and spoke up when I needed help. 

7. I transitioned my side hustle to something that filled my spirit.

I leaned into what made my spirit happy and found a way to make money doing it. For me, it was teaching dance.  Afro-Cuban dance (casino, rueda y rumba) had nothing to do with my academic brain, and everything to do with what brought me joy.

8. I prioritized savings and lived on what remained

I literally refused to adjust my savings goals, so sometimes I would end up with $100 in grocery money for the month. And the brilliant part was, my experience with struggle allowed me to recognize ways in which I could not only make it work, but ways I could spend $30 of the budget doing something social.

9. When my debt was paid off, I saved for big goals

I incorporated rewards into my budget. Travel became a passion, and I sought out opportunities to see the world cheaply and with a spontaneous joy. I stalked airline deals and flew to places like Dubai and Mumbai for $75 round trip. And it gave me even more reason to continue meeting my goals. 

10. I shared my journey along the way.

I did this to keep myself accountable, to help others along the way, and to make sure I stayed in touch with my core values.

Poverty Taught Me Lessons That Helped Me FIRE

The core sentiment behind all of this is that poverty– struggle– was a setup for the FIRE journey. It prepared me for the hard work, perseverance, and determination that would have to come with choosing to sacrifice now so that I could live my dream tomorrow. 

The grit that came from early sacrifice and hard work is synonymous with the hardest part of the journey to FIRE. It takes the same guts. 

FIRE Isn't Just For The Rich

FIRE isn’t always about choosing between a Civic and a BMW, but FIRE is for the homeless college student, sleeping in her work-study lab while working to pay the mortgage back home.

FIRE is for the rest of us, too.  I tell my story to demonstrate one instance of that: that the behaviors and choices developed in the midst of the hardest times really do better prepare us to thrive later, particularly if we know the steps to get there. The road isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

To the individual who identifies with struggle, I hope you find your struggle as a source of motivation for change in a way that makes sense. Until we can understand how and why someone thinks the way they do, we can’t develop systems that work for them. We must create spaces for growth and  take into consideration the whole person when we consider their success.

The behaviors developed in the midst of the hardest times prepare us to thrive.Click To Tweet

Share Your Story & Make FIRE Accessible

And for the community of storytellers, understanding the way struggle plugs into decision-making allows us to understand the spaces that can be adjusted to meet our individual needs in ways that also work within the larger paradigm of FIRE.  As writers of these journeys, we have a responsibility to attempt to understand the journey from each and every road leading in. We have an obligation to tell the story in a way that includes these voices. 

Framing this discussion of reaching FI in terms of struggle makes this journey accessible. It starts the dialogue in a way we can all understand, in a time where we really need it. Struggle allows us to relate to one another, to break down barriers socially erected between people of similar experiences, and to communally understand and address these walls in a way that works for everyone. For each of us, the journey to FIRE may require some adjustments to the process or timeline, but the end goal is within reach.

FIRE & Being Forged In The Struggle

To me, the FIRE journey is a validation of the person forged in the struggle: an acknowledgment of the impact of circumstance on our bodies and minds, on our ancestors and future generations.

This journey represents the end of the negative impacts of adversity.  It represents self-empowerment and a holistic approach to improving our health (physical and mental) while creating environments of social impact that align individual and personal needs and identities with the daily exchanges.

This journey encourages people to identify their traumas, and lean into their growth edges. 

This journey is about transformation, drawing connections based on mutual experiences in a way that disregards social  division.

What Does The Journey To FIRE Mean To You?

Is struggle central to your story? Lean into it. Leave a comment below and come talk about it with us at Thicker Grits.
Andrea sitting in front of a brick building
Andréa Harris Motenko
Founder and CEO of Thicker Grits

Andréa is Founder and CEO of Thicker Grits , a community dedicated to uniting people across experience of struggle and otherness in pursuit of unapologetic authenticity and unbounded success. She is a storyteller deeply dedicated to the inclusion of the whole person in transformative growth, highlighting the great lessons that can be derived from grit. She believes greatness and resilience are born in adversity, and the necessary result is discourse and connection.

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  1. Thanks for sharing. I believe adversity builds grit too. Our family went through a few rough years when I was young. Anything I face now is much easier in comparison. If my parent can come though those years, I can do it too. Adversity gives you a tougher baseline.
    Also, I’ve never heard of epigenetic science. I’ll check it out.

    1. All of these experiences change you. What’s better, they make you stronger. Thank you for sharing, and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions as you dive into epigenetics! I’d be happy to answer what I can, and point you to any resources that might be helpful.

  2. A great read and an important topic. I didn’t have the stacking of oppressions and it was only later that I realized how much that mattered and stopped considering myself “self made.” I was poor, but still white and male and I saw the difference that made. My early childhood poverty did give me a hunger and grit, and the same deep insecurity about money you describe so well.

    Even now, when we’re in solid financial shape and have plenty I still hear that whisper about ending up broke and destitute. I’m not sure I’ll ever shake that voice, but I’ve learned to set up systems and do the math frequently to keep it quiet. The main reason I choose education is to help as many other people as possible climb out of that.

    Thank you for writing this.

    1. Thank you for this! Absolutely– I’m not sure whether those whispers will ever really go away, but the adaptations and systems are critical to the peace. Best of all, not only is all of that okay, it’s an asset to your process. Thank you!

  3. I definitely had it easy growing up in a middle class family. We didn’t struggle with bills and, as careful as my mom was with money, she’d find ways to incorporate fun into the budget.

    My grit comes from a serious neurological illness when I was 19 that put me on life support for three months and left me with chronic fatigue. In comparison, not much can faze me, especially now that I jettisoned a spender now-ex-husband who was causing most of my financial turmoil.

    That said I’ve still never adapted to living as peanut as you did while paying off student debt. It’s not a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Then again, I don’t seek FIRE so I guess it’s not as big a deal for me.

    1. Thanks for this, Abigail! Lifestyle sacrifices aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay. The brilliant thing that you pointed out is that your struggle– your experience– better prepared you for dealing with other things coming forward. I found this to also be true with physical illness. That’s at the heart of the story. Whatever your personal measure of success, please know that you are wholly capable, and potentially better prepared. Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. My dad skipped out on my mom. To cope, my mom sent me and my older sister to Haiti. I was 11 months and didn’t see or know anything about my parents until 7 years old. I don’t think one ever gets over the void of abandonment. Having to answer for my last name or my parents whereabouts at 4 years old was rough. Being broke was woven into my DNA as well. I learned to take ownership and be accountable for the things that I can do.

    I’m on the path to being a millionaire in 5 years (something that has never been done in my family). I’m setting a new legacy beyond paycheck to paycheck, beyond paycheck to depression, beyond paycheck to debt. FIRE isn’t for me. I’m planning to work and milk the system for my future grandkids’ kids.

    Breaking the mold. Dope write up and keep up the great work.

  5. Thanks for sharing this story. It’s always eye-opening to me to read about the struggles of others, especially from different backgrounds. It makes me appreciate all that I have, but also has me rooting for the success of others. We all have our own stories and it’s inspiring to read ones like this.

  6. So so good, thank you Andrea. I recently heard your ChooseFI interview and was really moved by your story. It is so hard for me to relate as I do come from privilege and I truly am so glad that your voice is out there. I do not take my privilege for granted and to your point, your upbringing has made you learn about grit and perseverance which has helped shaped you to become the amazing person you are now. Major major kudos to all of your success!!! My hope is that all of us in the FIRE community continue to educate EVERYONE so we can help bring as many people out of debt as possible.

    1. It’s completely possible– and all of us can find our own truth in the lessons shared in the FIRE space. Thank you for noticing the common grounds, and for embracing the conversation!

  7. Andréa,

    Thank you for writing this guest post! I really appreciate this perspective. And it’s allowed me to see my own journey in a new light. While I definitely have/had a lot of privilege, one disadvantage that I have is mental health challenges. This is definitely also passed down in both DNA and daily interactions I’ve experienced as well as my ancestors as well. It’s interesting to think about how this trauma could be both genetically determines and also influencing our DNA as well.

    I also see my journey to FI as redemptive in many ways. It’s my way of figuring out how to be my best self and not put up with situations that are damaging for my mental health. With a level of financial freedom (and even long before reaching FI), I am able to put this into practice and not accept less than I deserve. FI also means that I don’t need to follow the narrative constructed by society of working a full-time job (which would be very challenging with my anxiety). I can chart my own course, be happier, and hopefully influence others who have experienced similar adversity.

    Thank you again for this perspective. I will definitely be following your work from now on!

    1. Thank you, Jessica! For so long, mental health has been omitted from the open discourse of struggle, but it’s such a valid and important part of process. Better, it teaches a great deal about harnessing struggle in the face of belonging and otherness in this world. Thank you for speaking your truth, and for taking the time to share a bit about your journey. I’m excited to connect with you as the conversation grows!

  8. I’m not going to try to out humblebrag you but I once had a paper round that earned me about £1 or $1.50 for a hard hour of (often wet) work.
    It still makes me think that £1 is worth saving or not spending because I know how much effort £1 can take to make.

    1. No humblebrag here. None of this is intended as any sort of competitive comparison. Still, I’m so excited that you’ve found for yourself that your hard work can assist you in reaching your goals.

  9. I recently was commenting to my wife that I wished I’d had an easier path when I was younger because I believe with the same effort I’d be way further then I am today. Starting behind brought many struggles.

    My wife sagely responded, would you have worked as hard without the struggles.. we are all a product of our past.

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