Are You Behaving Like a Poor Person?


Acting poor Rachel Knight, 31, has countless stories about money being tight when she was growing up. There was the time when she was six years old and her parents couldn’t afford to take her younger sister to the doctor.

There were the mornings in the middle of January when there was neither hot water nor bath soap, so she had to take a cold shower with grainy laundry detergent. There was the teasing from kids at school who mocked the clothes she wore—the oversize, stained T-shirts that her family got for free from the church mission.

“People talk about being poor,” says Knight. “but unless you know what it’s like to go hungry so your kid sister can have the other half of the only bologna sandwich you’ll get for the day,” she says, “you don’t know a thing.”

Now Knight, a wife and mother, has a good job, and, in theory, is living the American dream. Still, though her household income is about $140K per year, neither she nor her husband has any savings.

And every month, the minimum payments on their credit cards grow closer to exceeding the cost of their mortgage. She knows she’s headed for financial disaster, yet she continues to hit the spa and download shopping apps from her favorite stores.

Knight acknowledges that her extravagant spending is likely a knee-jerk reaction to the lean years of her childhood.

Why the Poor Spend More

And she’s not alone: In fact, her spending behavior is echoed by scientific research. A recent study published in the February 2013 edition of Psychological Science suggests that, surprisingly, adults who grow up with fewer financial resources are more likely to be heavy spenders during times of economic crisis, whereas those who grew up wealthier will respond to tough times by cutting back.

“‘Every time I see something I want, I buy it. If I don’t, my mind goes back to being that poor kid, living in the projects.’”

One would think that someone who knows what it’s like to be less fortunate would be afraid of doing anything that might put them back in that position again, but that’s not so according to Professor Joshua Ackerman, a co-author of the study: “As adults in times of stress, particularly economic stress,” he says, “people who grew up relatively wealthy tend to be more interested in saving whereas people who grew up relatively poor tend to be more interested in spending. Although neither strategy is irrational, the spend-now strategy could create longer-term problems over people’s lives. So, if you grew up relatively poor, you may have to battle your instincts or immediate preferences in times of stress in order to ensure your long-term financial health.”

RELATED: 4 Ways to Trick Your Brain Into Being Better With Money

And, for Rachel Knight and others like her, often that first instinct is to whip out your wallet. “Every time I see something I want, I buy it,” Knight says. “Because if I don’t, my mind goes back to being that poor kid, living in the projects, and all I can think is, ‘I know I deserve better…’”

How to Beat “I Deserve It” Syndrome

“I deserve it” is one line with which Katie Brewer, a certified financial planner™ with LearnVest Planning Services, is very familiar.

“I hear it from people all the time,” Brewer says of her financial planning clients. “They spoil themselves as adults because they’re making up for all the ways they felt deprived as kids.”

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In other words, although Knight is no longer poor, her spending habits are in danger of putting her back in the poor house.

“When I think about how my kids are growing up, I wonder if they are going to struggle with the same problems I’ve had because my parents never really saved much, and now I have nothing in my savings account,” she says.

But Brewer says Knight—and others like her—can change. “You are not your parents, and you are not your past,” she says. “Just because they went down a rocky path doesn’t mean that you have to.”

Here, the three things that Brewer says will keep you from reacting like a poor person—so you can finally live richly.

RELATED: The 4 Biggest Financial Fears—And How to Conquer Them

1. Avoid Deprivation Spending

Saying “I deserve it” is one of the biggest culprits behind failed diets—and failed budgets. You see something that you want to buy (or eat) but you don’t really need, so you tell yourself no. Then that “no” starts gnawing at you and you feel deprived.

You may begin telling yourself that you’re a grown-up who can spend her money however she chooses. So you decide to treat yourself just this once. The problem, Brewer says, is that it’s never a good idea to make financial decisions based on a feeling of deprivation. Instead, she suggests turning the “I deserve” on its head.

  • chelsea

    “And there’s nothing that’ll make them go overboard faster than a 20% off coupon.” Sounds about right!

    “unsubscribe from retailers’ mailing lists and flash sale sites” – I was thinking this almost as soon as I started reading the article.

    This is spot on. Thank you for the brief but effective tips!

    • shubbsie

      I thought the same thing. I had to do this myself, and it has helped tremendously!

      • Jodi

        Likewise. Now I only subscribe to e-mails from the stores where I do my grocery shopping.

  • shiela1953

    I grew up poor.. I don’t believe this article holds true to most who have grown up poor. I think most of us are cautious with our money so that we don’t end up back to the days when we had nothing. It’s just an excuse we use to spend…oh poor me.. it’s not my was because of my childhood. Another case of not taking responsibility for ourselves but instead..blaming circumstances or others..

    • Alice

      I think it depends. In my experience, most of my (poor) family always spend money if they have it despite other looming obligations. Also, you absolutely can attribute your spending habits to past circumstance. You can’t help but be affected. However, once it’s recognized to be a contributing factor, you have to do something about it. But you’re right in that it can’t simply be used as an excuse to avoid fixing the problem.

      • CrankyFranky

        yes – there is also the common ‘return to the familiar’ where most lottery winners blow the lot within 2 years –

        it seems poor people who grew up with nothing tend to splash any cash they get to quickly return to ‘having nothing’ –

        middle class folk who always had enough if they managed carefully – if they win lotto, put it in the bank, keep their jobs, no change to their daily life.

        I’ve also known rich folk used to luxury who when they are poor – scrimp and save for months to throw extravagant parties for their friends so they can still appear to be – rich …

  • Katelin

    This article is spot on! I grew up on the rough side of the financial spectrum and fought hard to work my way through college and be an accountant. But despite all of my training as an accountant and all of my personal experiences growing up, in times of great stress I find myself reaching for my wallet. It takes great stength every day to stay on budget. Thanks for the tips! I already started clicking unsubscribe on a couple “deal” emails….

  • Dislike

    This article is based on stereotypes and it does not hold true for all who grew up poor… I don’t reach for my wallet when stressed and say that I earned it when i know the economy is tough. the last thing I want to do is continue to be poor. I know many wealthy women who buy purses because they “earned it” due to bad dates. Even the title has offensive tones to it. I wish there was a dislike button.

    • mearajmms

      Did you read the attached research?

    • Kellea

      While there may indeed be a larger statistical correlation between a deprived childhood and reckless spending in adulthood I think that this link is probably affected by many other factors which the article doesn’t acknowledge, such as learning poor spending habits from peers and family. I have to say that I find the title, which was probably only meant to be an attention-grabber, mildly offensive as well. Perhaps I am one of the exceptions which prove the rule; however, I had a reactionary response to my poor childhood. I save a far larger percentage of my income than acquaintances who had a more comfortable upbringing and I carefully consider anything other than minor purchases. Another factor to consider is income disparities related socioeconomic status which would allow people from better backgrounds to spend money in a similar manner without being negatively affected, since they are generally funneled into a higher income bracket. All in all, while this article may be appropriate and even helpful for some, it casts far too wide a net with its assertions.

  • gc

    Spot on here too. I’ve actually justified blowing all of my savings on experiences with the sentence “I’m not afraid to not have.” As if I’m being brave by taking away my own security…

  • Robin

    I am not sure this title of this article is accurate. There seems to be two different trains of thought when one is brought up poor. This article describes one reaction to deprivation. However many of the people who grew up poor due to the depression were very thrifty as adults and tended to hoard or NEVER treat themselves to anything. It seems that the current generation feeds on entitlement vs the older generation that fed on self deprivation.

    • bonerdude67

      That’s probably true, but this isn’t about people who grew up in the depression. Get with the times.

    • Daughter of a Depression baby

      I was thinking the same thing — how is it that so many “Depression babies” were thrifty, even miserly, for the rest of their lives, while the people in this article went the other direction? Maybe it has something to do with context. In the Great Depression almost everyone had to be thrifty to get by. There was a sense of “we’re all in it together.” Not so with the people in this article – they were poor, but surrounded by plenty. It makes sense that having felt alone in their deprivation makes them want to even things out, now that they can.

  • PhilChance

    This is interesting. My mom grew up w/ money, never worried about it at all and had a nice lifestyle. As an adult she didn’t have it when she became single mom w/ 5 kids but still tried to keep that lifestyle. She eventually earned to make it but growing up with that mindset was not easy. We worried about food, shoes and heat. Now as an adult I am very into money including living debt free and saving it in case neither of us have an income. However I do have a sibling that grew up like I did and still does not save even when she has money. She also does not spend wisely. It varies among our siblings. I think our behaviour is patially environment and partially our own personality, at least in our family.

  • Nora

    This article provided some insight into manners of spending, although it doesn’t hold true for everyone. I grew up poor but have never felt deprived if I didn’t buy something I wanted. Lots of times even when I was growing up, I was pretty thrifty with spending. If, as an adult, I indulged in buying something I wanted, it was only because I wasn’t worried about financial situation, thinking I was alright. But for the most part, I was pretty careful with my spending. This of course may have had to do with my personal habits, which were to save more, always try to get a bargain, not to buy what I didn’t need, and most of all, to buy inexpensive items. I consider spending on luxurious items a huge waste, especially in today’s world where so many don’t even have the basic necessities. Though I don’t consider myself perfect in this regard.

    Still, despite the fact that this article doesn’t relate to me, I’ve seen what’s described in this article in others, even some ppl close to me, and their spending habits scare me. This is a great article to get ppl to look into the psychology behind spending and to try to get a grip over their spending habits. Thanks for the great read!

    • aggie-

      I to have the same feelings as you, my mother a widow taught us that having food on table was more important than all the glitz many people decide to have. I never felt poor as I had a loving mother who supplied all the necessities needed .
      Much depends on the individual

  • GPJ22

    This article definitely relates to me. I have struggled to stay on budget due to growing up poor. I think people may have a different definition of what “poor” means as well. My life growing up involved never going on vacations, never eating out at a restaurant, and really having the bare minimum while sharing everything with my sisters even when we became teenagers. Getting my first paycheck meant that the money was mine and I could get myself things that I saw other kids at school have, but I didn’t, (even in college, I couldn’t join in on some of the spending sprees my classmates went on together). Now I realize how foolish I was to look for instant gratification irresponsibly, so I try hard to budget and save while still enjoying life.

  • MahtaMouse

    That phrase “I deserve it” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I’ve known people like this and I can tell you that the people with that mentality don’t have it because they grew up poor, but because they were never taught financial responsibility by their parents.

    Being 1 of 6 kids, I didn’t grow up with much and as I got older, I was sometimes embarrassed because I wore hand-me-downs from my brothers as well as the neighbor kids and wore homemade clothes when homemade was far from chic. Food was homemade, not frozen, boxed or take out. We didn’t toss something when it broke, dad fixed and patched things. He even bought broken bikes, fixed them up and resold them at weekly garage sales to help make ends meet. But what all six of us got out of our upbringing was dad’s constant mantra to us to… pay your bills on time, save & bank what you can, fix things until you can no longer fix them, save up for what you need, then shop for the best bargain, and buy what you *want* only after saving for it. These teachings have served me well, especially after my husband died after a long illness, leaving me heavily in debt. I may be scraping by (I’m usually down to $33 after paying bills), but I’m managing to make do and do not feel deprived. Like dad, I have garage sales and sell on CraigsList to help make ends meet. I also use CL (free) and Freecycle to find things to make needed repairs or find things to recycle for my yard or house.

    I either do, or do without. This is something my sibling and I were taught and all of my siblings have done well. Growing up poor is no excuse for bad spending habits. Parents need to teach their kids fiscal responsibility.

  • aokimoonchild

    The title may be misleading, but the article was interesting. I experienced the same reaction myself, even though I did not grow up poor. In my case, I was the breadwinner of my family and even though my ex-husband brought in very little, he controlled the household finances and gave me a bit of pocket money at each pay period and that was it. If I spent more that my allotment for a reason he deemed unjustified I was punished. Fast forward to my divorce, all of a sudden I had all this money and credit available to me, abuse-free… I rebelled, went crazy and spent my way into debt for a few years. Fortunately I was able to pay it off and subsequently build my assets into a healthy nest egg, but it took counseling for me to see the pattern I was stuck in.

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  • Raziel

    Growing up we weren’t “poor” but we scathed by. There were many times when we ran out of something and had to improvise (like using coffee filters instead of toilet paper), and the one time when the only food in our house were frozen fries. But we always had a roof over our head. We pretty much lived paycheck to paycheck. And now, in general, I tend to want to save my money over spending it, because I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck like my parents did. No my fiance, who probably grew up more comfortable than I did (but had parents who did grow up poor), tends to live paycheck to paycheck, and seems to like spending his money more than saving it. His parents definitely have this “I deserve it” mentality but have ended up having to foreclose on a house they bought because of it.

  • Raziel

    Also, I think it’s actually this: those who grew up in a household that HAD to manage money in order to survive will be better savers when they’re older. Those whose family had no money to manage or so much money they didn’t have to manage it either, they’ll be the bigger spenders. For example, my bro-in-law (fiance’s brother), has NO idea about managing money and his wife is always complaining he spends to much, and that’s because he never had a job or bills or money to manage, so he has no clue about that. and my sis-in-law who grew up in a similar circumstance as me, family who were just getting by to make ends meet, she also likes saving to spending just like me.