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).
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.
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.
4. I set a strategic vision that united all parts of me.
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.
8. I prioritized savings and lived on what remained
9. When my debt was paid off, I saved for big goals
10. I shared my journey along the way.
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.
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?
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.