One of the best and worst things about growing up poor — living in the projects, relying on public assistance, government welfare, and food banks to survive — is that, for most of my life, my relationship with money has been completely distorted. Anyone who grew up poor will be able to relate to the following sentences.
I know that money is important. I’m intimately familiar with a lifestyle of living on less than the minimum, only surviving because food and shelter are subsidized. I will never let myself get anywhere close to that, but at the same time, I’m not particularly focused on money.
To say I don’t care about it would not only be incorrect, but it wouldn’t be completely inaccurate. This apathy isn’t born from abundance, but rather, from stoicism forged in scarcity.
From my childhood, I know that you don’t need a lot of it to survive. More helps, but if you make stupid decisions, it doesn’t matter.
When I was 18, my dad died and I received $55k in life insurance money. By the following summer, I was overdrawing my bank account to eat. I learned money management from my mother, who managed to spend $125k of insurance money in two years with absolutely nothing to show for it except a plethora of lottery tickets and a variety of health conditions from overeating and smoking that took her life before age 60.
As a young adult, I was reckless and struggling with my own demons, but I also had a lot of fun, made great friends, and still found ways to be interesting. Having a little more money allowed me to be more generous. Having a little less led me to make questionable decisions involving other people’s property.
Many people are obsessed with money, so much so that they use it as the primary metric for success. Internally, they feel inadequate if they don’t earn a certain amount or live in a certain place. Externally, they assume that anyone who has the artificial trappings of monetary success must be someone worth listening to about everything else.
What’s more important that money?
Money is important, but only insofar as it removes stress from your life. Once your health and safety are taken care of, more money won’t do much to improve your quality of life.
Another way to look at this: once you have enough money to live in a neighborhood where the police actually show up on the rare occasion they need to be called, having more won’t do much for you.
Hospital bills in the United States are horrible. Money can take care of those. But 7 of the 11 leading causes of death in this country are preventable with lifestyle choices. It doesn’t matter how much (or little, for that matter) money you have if you still eat like an asshole, smoke, and drink alcohol like it’s a substitute for water.
Money won’t make you more interesting or more intelligent. It may allow you to do more interesting things, but doing those things alone won’t mean anything. The relationships you have with the people you do those things with are where the real value of the experiences comes into play.
And really, that’s the only reason people care about being interesting or intelligent: it makes it more likely that they’ll have friends or romantic partners. If you’re lonely, no amount of money can make you feel lovable. Jadakiss got it when he said, “I’d rather be broke together than rich alone.”
Money can’t take your place as a parent. I know a few kids who grew up just as poor as I did, but both parents were around and involved as they could be. While everyone’s idea of success might be different, prison, expulsion, teen pregnancy, and unemployment are all markers of failure. I can’t think of one of them who suffered this fate. On the other hand, I knew quite a few kids from the upper-middle class, whose parents worked all the time to provide a “better life” but fell into these traps. The research is clear on this.
Money doesn’t make girls like you. In 2023, I don’t even think it helps. That’s a hard one for a lot of guys to hear because it robs them of the idea that they can outearn a poor physique and lack of maturity. If you aim to make more money so more girls will like you, you’re going to be crushed when it not only doesn’t work but you see guys who have far less getting far more attention. Guys know that you can’t buy desire, which is why many would rather be considered an incel than buy escorts to satisfy sex.
On a similar note, money can’t make your partner love or forgive you. If you’re having trouble in your relationships, spending money won’t fix it. That includes gifts and vacations. The only acceptable use of money is if you get some therapy to figure out your own issues. Sometimes we need people to talk to that will help us identify the issues. You still have to do the work.
Money is a foundation; not a front
Money can only solve your money-related problems. Most of your problems aren’t related to money. You only think that more money will make your life better because it’s an easy target with a simple (though not necessarily easy) fix. The thinking goes like this:
“I’m unhappy. I can’t buy stuff to distract me from my unhappiness. Therefore, having more money would make me happier.”
Money is a foundational tool. It allows you to build a structure for your life, but it’s not a substitute for doing the work of developing character, skills, and relationships. While I think most people know this and don’t argue that point, I think many people pursue money FAR beyond a point of diminishing returns and at the expense of other areas in their life that need work.
The ideal situation is simple: get enough money to where you don’t have to think about money, but not so much that you can’t stop thinking about it either. Everyone has their own personal number, but if you’re like most people, you’ve probably overshot it for what you need.
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I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.More Stoic Street Smarts Newsletters!