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Unlike Wanderer, I didn’t grow up in Canada. I grew up in a small rural village in Communist China and as a result, my childhood experience was a little different…
Childhood Friend: “Awww. Our skipping rope broke.”
Me:“Hey, do you wanna go to the medical waste heap and dig around for rubber bands to make another one?”
Childhood Friend (super enthusiastic): “DO I?!!!”
PROTIP: Apparently, contracting every single Hepatitis strain at the same time somehow makes them cancel each other out, turning you essentially immortal. Who knew?
So besides all the playing around in used needles, drinking contaminated water, and swimming in rivers filled with raw sewage, I had a pretty normal childhood.
But I never felt poor. After all, my parents kept me happy and fed—with heaping portions of porridge, dumplings, and noodles, with only the occasional bout with intestinal worms, life was good.
Then came the day when Mom and I boarded a plane for Canada. I had no idea at the time, but my life was going to get infinitely better.
The second the plane landed, my Dad, whom I hadn’t see for 3 years, handed me a can of coke, which I had seen in China but could never afford. I took one sip and my head nearly exploded. The excitement gave me a gushing nose bleed because I had never tasted ANYTHING so good in my life!
And after nursing the entire thing for a whole week, when my Dad tried to toss out the empty can, I screamed at him to stop. That can was far too precious to just be thrown in the trash. It was going to be my new cup, my toothbrush holder, and my hair curler. I think I even nicknamed it “CanCan” and slept with it every night. That’s right, folks. My teddy bear growing up was an empty can.
So when I went to primary school for the first time and the kids teased me about my thrift store clothes, my DIY haircut, and my bargain-bin lunch box, I was confused.
What was wrong with my things? And why were they calling my parents poor?
We had a 1-bedroom apartment, an abundance of food, clean water that came out of a tap that WASN’T contaminated with E. Coli, and clothes that were actually one single piece of cloth! What was the problem?
I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I was proud of my Dad, who was working for the university as a PhD student for a pittance, and terrified of my mom, who would regularly fly into fits of rage from stress, working long hours at her dishwashing and hotel cleaning jobs.
I knew we didn’t have a lot of money. And a big chunk of whatever they made had to be sent to our relatives back in China.
So I tried to make myself useful.
I got a job delivering newspapers. I cleaned up around the house (using cleaning products I bought with coupons of course), and whatever we needed around the apartment, I always managed to find it for next to nothing at garage sales.
We didn’t have much but I was happy. And I didn’t know it at the time, but all this hustling was turning me into a Bad-Ass. I was starting to develop the vital skills that would later turn me into a millionaire.
What are those skills?
Well, let me break them down for you:
When you’re rich, you don’t need to be creative. Why? Because the lack of constraints lets you get away with doing whatever you want. Hungry? Go grab a burger! Bored? Go see a movie! Don’t have the cash on you? Just put it on your credit card!
Not so when you’re poor. When you’re poor, you have to prioritize. You can’t go buying things you don’t need. You need to be ruthlessly efficient.
As a result, you end up pushing your brain cells to work harder to creatively solve problems while maximizing every precious dollar you had.
I couldn’t afford to buy a doll-house, so I made one out of a shoebox! I remember making it was even more fun than actually playing with it.
I couldn’t afford expensive food from the *gasp* grocery store, so we used restaurant leftovers Mom brought back after work and mixed it with tomatoes and spinach we grew on the windowsill. Tasty! And probably healthy.
I couldn’t afford $60 to go to my high school prom, so I walked to school for a month instead of taking the bus, and used that money I saved for prom.
When you’re rich, running into a problem means you can just throw money at it to make it go away.
Not so when you’re poor. When you’re poor, you have no choice but to tough it out.
We couldn’t afford cable, so I just stopped watching TV. Instead, I spent more time at the library. This is where I developed my love for writing.
We couldn’t afford a car, so we bought a used bike from a yard sale, wore multiple layers in the frigid Canadian winter, and biked around instead. Bonus? I was super fit.
One time, my eye was swollen shut from a wasp sting and we couldn’t afford anti-inflammatory meds. So instead, I just put on a pair of shades, and told my friends I wanted to be a rapper. (Jokes on them! I didn’t even have a radio!)
As a result of all this “toughing it out” when I was growing up, nothing really seems that insurmountable to me anymore. I got through one of the toughest engineering programs in the country despite programming being my worst subject, because I had to. Nor did I have the luxury of moving back in with my parents if things didn’t work out. I had exactly one shot. Failure was not an option.
Because we were new immigrants, we couldn’t qualify for a mortgage for many many years. As a result, we moved around a lot, chasing cheap apartment rentals.
I wasn’t happy about this, and every time we moved I’d have to say goodbye to my friends and start all over.
The first time, I broke down into uncontrollable sobs, refusing to let my friends go. My dad pulled me side, held my chin between his hands, and looked me directly in the eyes. “I know you’re sad you’re leaving your friends. But we need to move because I found a cheaper place that will save us money. Your cousins in China are counting on this money to go to school, and they have so much less than you. You don’t want to let them down do you?”
That quickly shut me up.
Those who have followed this blog for awhile or listened to any of my rants in the media may have noticed I tend to get a little peeved when people say they have to buy a house because kids need stability.
No. No they don’t.
When you’re poor, you can’t just get people to like you by buying nice things to fit in.
When you get teased about your thrift store clothes, all you can do is persevere. You can’t go keeping up with the Joneses to make them like you. So you grow a thick skin and learn to ignore them. And then use their vitriol to drive you toward bigger and better things. You persevere with what you have, and ignore the bullies.
Fast-forward 20 years
Now instead of making $20/week on a paper route, I was an engineer, making way more! Finally, I’d moved up in the world. I was no longer poor. By North American standards, I was “middle class”.
But that bad-assity I’d gained from growing up poor never went away. While my friends bought fancy clothes, over-priced houses and shiny new cars, and worked longer and longer hours to pay for them, I decided to put my bad-assity to work, and build my portfolio so I could be the youngest retiree in the country. And what do you know? It worked.
By using the skills I developed from growing up—Creativity, Resilience, Adapability, Perseverance—or CRAP (I’m not good at making acronyms), I became a millionaire.
I could’ve never gotten to where I am today without these skills. Growing up in North America, the mean kids at school made sure I knew I was poor. But all that did was make me stronger, and turn me into a bad-ass. That’s why when haters clog up the comment threads, I just shrug and go “whatever” while others crumble and hide under their bed.
And here’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed. In my extremely non-scientific poll of other early retiree bloggers (there are like 8 of us, and I’ve met 3 in person), I’ve noticed something weird.
In all the early retiree couples we’ve met, at least one of them is always an engineer (or something closely related). And at least one of them spent some part of their childhood in poverty. Note that sometimes these traits are blended between the two people.
That’s weird, isn’t it? I have a theory. Despite the fact that the ideas behind Financial Independence and Early Retirement have been around for a few decades, couples who pull it off in their 30’s are still exceedingly rare. I think it requires an interesting pairing of skills. The Engineering part means that person’s good with numbers and comfortable with math. Spreadsheets turn them on. And interestingly, engineers belong to one of the few professions that can earn a lot of money, yet don’t spend a lot of time caring what other people think of them. Engineers take their pride in what they’ve built, not how rich they appear.
And as for the poverty part, the skills I just described above are a huge part of what drives the couple to succeed, because they are willing to do whatever it takes to save money and damn what the haters think of them.
But that’s not saying you have to have grown up poor or have an engineering degree to do this. On paper, people who grew up wealthy or middle class have way more advantages than those who grew up poor. But don’t think that growing up wealthy or middle class is sufficient to become rich yourself. You still have to want it badly enough.
And if you grew up poor, don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can never become rich one day. You may be a bigger bad-ass than you think.
*Photo Credit: Susan Murtaugh @ Flickr.