How Growing Up Poor Made Me A Bad-Ass

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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…

Typical Conversation

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?

Hepatitis Q?!? There's a Hepatitis Q?
Hepatitis Q?!? There’s a Hepatitis Q?

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.

My home sweet home: Concrete walls with all the fixin's.
My home sweet home: Concrete walls with all the fixin’s.


Looks remarkably like the set for “Dark Water” doesn’t it?

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.

Until one fateful night when I rolled over in bed and THIS happened. *sniff* Never forget.
Until one fateful night when I rolled over in bed and THIS happened. *sniff* Never forget.

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:

1) Creativity


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.

2) Resilience

Svklimkin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]
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.

3) Adaptability


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.

4) Perseverance

photo credit: Hansueli Krapf @wikipedia

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.

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107 thoughts on “How Growing Up Poor Made Me A Bad-Ass”

  1. I love the CRAP out of this post! 😉

    I recently came across a tweet of yours (in response to troll criticisms ?) which is how I found your blog. I’m so glad I did!! I love your humor and style of writing but I especially love the transparency of this post. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Thanks for writing and sharing this! Being Asian and an immigrant myself I can totally relate to your trials and tribulations. I am looking forward to reading more of your blogs. Keep it up!

  3. Wow, I love hearing the backstory of those who retired early and how that foundation led them to where they are now. I was born in the US, but relate to your upbringing as my parents emigrated to the US from China. So of course frugality is ingrained in my head as well. However, there are some who take a different path. They feel like they had a deprived upbringing and decide to splurge now that they have money. It depends on the person I guess. I’m curious as to what your parents think of your early retirement? I can understand the immigrant mindset where they grew up in poverty and know that education and hard-work will give the next generation a better life. While they should be proud, I can see parents with that mindset (like mine) would think that it’s ridiculous to leave a high paying job…

    1. Yes, I guess it depends on personality. Neither of my parents felt deprived and went into ultra spendy mode, so guess it rubbed off on me?

      What do my parents think of my early retirement? Well, let’s just say, when I told them it did not go over well. I’m trying to keep some distance so at least we can still be cordial to each other. I offered to show my Dad the math and how it works, but he didn’t want to hear it (strange, considering how we’re both engineers and math/logic is all we understand).

      That’s okay. I think they’ll eventually come around. I personally feel that life is too short to live by someone else’s terms. I’m finally happy and living my life exactly how I want, so no regrets 🙂

      1. You also learned hard work from your parents. For some, that is a badge of honor. For others it is a requirement to be a contributing member of society, hard work is an obligation. That may be what your parents are struggling with regarding your early retirement.
        Great post!

        1. I hear ya! They’ve worked hard all their lives so they don’t get it when you’re not working. That being said, I’d rather work smart than work hard. Working hard for the sake of working hard makes no sense. It needs to be towards a goal.

          I now spend more time helping people and volunteering for non-profits. That’s WAY more rewarding than working a job I hate just to work hard and make money I no longer need.

      2. Great story! I just started reading your blog and love it! Sadly, I just “discovered” this possibility of being FIRE last year when I turned 40 but it’s never too late to start, right? Even so, I understood the whole concept of living your life in your own terms. Currently we are on a mini-retirement (3-4 years) to raise our 2 yr old daughter and also travel a little bit. We did another mini-retirement soon after we got married about 10 years ago to travel for a year (Europe, Asia, US). It’s funny how hard it is to explain what we are doing. People think no job=poor…lol. My mom was especially concerned that I left behind a lucrative career. To be clear, I did like my line of work and would be happy to pick up where I left off, in my own terms. Jobs will be there if/when I want them. I am an Engineer too and though not necessarily poor, I was surrounded by poverty in the Philippines where I grew up. We currently live in the US. So yes I used those same skills you outlined that afforded us this privilege. While we are enjoying ourselves at the moment, I am so excited to get on this FIRE goal! Keep on spreading the word!

      3. So funny to read your parents’ reaction to your early retirement. I’m not event retired, and when I mentioned to my parents about our plan for early retirement, they think my husband and I have sinked even lower. – “What are you going to do when you aren’t working?” They were thinking of saying “a disgrace to the family” and were too “polite” to verbalize it. My parents and I are all immigrants from China as well, and I had thought they’d be proud of me putting my brain to work getting cracking on retiring earlier, but they were more concerned with my hands being idle. Ai-ya… You strategy to keep a distance is probably what I’m going to end up doing.

        1. Yup, that’s the Asian way. Work hard for the sake of working hard, rather than work smart. On the plus side, now that we’ve been retired for 1.5 years, and we have MORE money than we started, my Dad seems to have finally understood how this lifestyle works. He actually told me the other day “I’m proud of you”. Holy shit. This is NOT something Asian parents ever say to their kids (because otherwise we’d stop trying), so I was completely speechless.

          1. Omg, did you ask your dad to repeat what he said and record that? Last time I hurt my parents say “proud of you” I thought they sneezed. Actually they probably did sneeze because I haven’t hurt it since. All kidding aside, that must’ve melted my heart. I know it did to mine. 🙂

            1. LOL. I didn’t get the recorder in time. *sigh* And I’m sure that was a one time deal too. Oh well. Guess I’ll have to achieve something even more amazing for him to say it again.

  4. This article is a breakthrough…a hopefully-sustainable shift to your magnanimous side (which has been hiding who-knows-where)…and the makings of true leadership…it gets to the heart of the matter of what actually makes a difference. And it’s real. It’s authentic. It’s moving. Everyone who read the CBC article needs to read this one too.

    1. Wow, what a comment! Hopefully my head won’t get so big I can no longer fit it through the door of my AirBnB 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words!

  5. Hi FIRECracker,
    I loved your story because like you I also grew up in rural China in the 80’s and there are so many similarities. As many children at that time I was left with my grandparents while mom and dad went abroad (my dad actually pursued his phd in Germany). But before coming to Germany as a child I never felt poor, since in communist China everyone was alike. It wasn’t until later I realized that we were poor immigrants here in this rich country!
    I am (still) working as an engineer because it is a down-to-earth job which gives a good income and my hubby is actually also one, only that he is from a middle class family and never encountered how it is to be poor. But actually he is a better saver than me because he was playing in the woods his whole childhood and never had materialistic cravings, haha.
    But the reason why we are on our way to FI is not that we want to become rich, but we want to be free to decide what we want to do with our free time. We saved a lot of our salary since the beginning of our working career in 2011, because we were too lazy/stupid/smart(?) to spend the money, so it just accumulated until in 2014 we slowly began to realize what it could do for us.
    Actually I believe that growing up poor in China was not the deciding factor, because many did so and still many of my generation later on became very materialistic after the boom in China. It was the fact that I was poor in a rich country and the people around let me feel what I was. That gives me the confidence to be different and feel comfortable in doing so.

    1. “But the reason why we are on our way to FI is not that we want to become rich, but we want to be free to decide what we want to do with our free time”
      Well said. That is why we decided to become FI too.

      And I agree with you that being poor in a rich country kept us grounded. I think for me, it forced to me develop the ability to not care what anyone else thinks, which makes it easy to NOT keep up with the Joneses.

  6. Am FI Blogger. I’m not an engineer, but I am in IT. I grew up dependent on gov’t benefits to live. It made me never want to be that poor again. And I haven’t been. And hopefully never will be ever again. By hopefully I mean I’m going to work my ass off to never be in that situation again.

  7. An excellent article that is detailed and insightful. If I recall correctly you wrote a book geared towards ‘tweeners, but I think you should consider writing a new book about the subjects your website covers. You have experienced this stuff first hand and obviously are passionate about it which should translate well into such a book. Think of a “Rich Dad, Poor Dad for millennials” theme and you should find an eager and willing target market.

    Also, I am curious about how you as a child experienced lack of neighborhood living stability that was out of your control. In the future when you have your own children would still go transient and have them experience a similar disruptive upbringing? Or would you recall the personal sacrifices you made regarding constantly losing out on building childhood friends and thus would not want your own kids to also suffer through that (since you now have financial flexibility and options)?

    1. Why did we write a book for tweeners? Because we’re idiots and thought fiction was the path to riches! HA! *shakes head at utter stupidity*

      I love your idea of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad for Millennials”. We may write the book if there’s enough demand for it.

      As for whether I would “want my kids to suffer”, like I mentioned in the article, I don’t really consider moving from place to place “suffering”. I see it as building character. If we have kids, I’d want them to experience some adversity (as long as it’s not catastrophic) to help them learn that life is not always easy peasy. If I did everything for them and made sure they were happy all the time, they won’t know how to solve their own problems or endure some hardship. My parents gave me this gift and I’m stronger for it.

      1. Doing a book for tween is a great idea. My tweens are already starting to figure out what direction their life would take. And this is a time they are starting their relationship with money and having a choice on how to spend it. Rich dad, poor dad tailored for kids would definitely be a best seller.

        1. Do you think the kids themselves would want to read it though? Or would the parents have to push their kids to read it? (’cause clearly kids think their parents’ choice of books is so “cool”, right?) ;p)

      2. A little late to this discussion, so may be the book is already in the works given how efficiently I hear you two work. I’d concur that a “Rich Dad Poor Dad book for Millenials” is long over due because among other reasons, it’s time to debunk the myth of real estate investing as a great form of passive income generation. Don’t get me wrong, the idea in the original book of relying on passive income vs. earned income was revolutionary for me. When I read the book (at my dad’s recommendation) in collage, I felt a breath of fresh air, and felt so liberated at being introduced to the idea of real estate investing. I even got my real estate license and helped my parents flip a few houses after collage. However, like you and the Wanderer, the math of real estate investing didn’t make much sense to me. Also saving for a downpayment that’d be sunk into a house for years seems to be a big opportunity cost given other investment opportunities (especially after I googled the inflation adjusted rate of return for housing vs. S&P in the U.S.) Coupled with watching my parents “slaving away” to this day at being landlords, real estate investing is just not sexy for me. But wait, I’d tell myself, but I should consider it because this darn book that made so much sense at the time. That’s why when I recently discovered MMM, then Mad Fientist, then you two, I was so excited to see how others are making early retirement possible through ways that’s feasible and sensible. So godspeed if you ever decide to work on the book!

        1. Do we work efficiently? We tend to stumble out of bed at the crack of noon, pig out at the food hawker stalls, then do a lot of swimming throughout the day. So yeah. It might take a while for that book to be done…

    2. I had a childhood where I moved every 1-3 years including changing countries and not speaking the language. I never thought this was a problem for me until I had my own children and studied child psychology. I then realized the problems in my life stemmed from lack of being connected to friends, extended family, community (ie. Extra curricular activities) . Having no roots does create a bad ass attitude, just hope it’s energy is focused in a legal direction. Stability for kids does matter.

      1. Yes, I can definitely understand how moving countries would cause problems. Having to learn a whole new language and feeling like you’re behind in school would be very tough.

        In my case though, I felt that since we moved within the same city, or just from one city to the other, it wasn’t a big deal for me. I learned to adapt and make new friends. As long as you’re not constantly having to learn a new language, it makes life easier.

  8. Wow, I didn’t know you grew up poor! Mrs. Root of Good had a similar childhood here in the US (and way worse back in the SE Asia refugee camps – starvation was frequent and she almost died from malnutrition).

    I guess I grew up relatively affluent (in a country where poor means you can’t afford to add HBO to your cable package). Clothes and shoes from a retail store, having only 3 homes that I recall while growing up (ignoring that one time we were “homeless” for a few weeks and lived in the campground in a tiny decrepit camp trailer).

    Your success today is a beautiful middle finger to your childhood poverty. Now you can buy dozens of REAL jump ropes.

    1. Geez, my childhood looked like happy-go-fun-times compared to Mrs.Root of Good’s. That sounds insanely hard 🙁 At least you guys are doing amazingly well now!

      And yes, I can buy all the jump ropes I want now! MUAHAHAHAH!

      1. Yeah, the bright side is she remembers very little of it. :/

        But now we all get to enjoy unlimited jump ropes. And an insanely easy life of luxury.

  9. Thanks for sharing your interesting story! Too bad the news reporter did not start with this intro before announcing your 1M portfolio.

    Our parents also came from China with nothing and they worked hard in a garment factory. Although, my wife and I were borned in the US we still have the immigrant mentality. I recall that my brother was 8 and I was 12. We cleaned the house, did laundry and cooked our own food while our parents worked 12-14 hours a day and many times 7 days a week. My wife grew up doing the family laundry by hand and she also cooked for her family. Her parent’s income were poverty level and they never applied for welfare.

    I am glad that you guys made good money right out of college and had the foresight to become FI at such a young age!

    We started at 19K a yr in 1986/1987 and it took 13 years to break 6 figures at age 35. We persevere in our IT jobs that we hate to have passive income triple our expenses from our munis, pensions at 55 and our 401Ks at 60. Why triple? Because life always throw a curve ball. Once we stop working, Jane and I never want to be forced to work again.

    I started reading financial blogs around 2012-2013. Readers are quite civilized and helpful with ideas to become FI. I was shocked to read many of your 1,000 comments were from ppl so negative! These ppl are not financially savvy. Although, we are tail end baby boomers we understand your POV and that it is best to not buy a house when it is too expensive. In fact, I told my millennial cousins to not buy a house years ago especially when they can’t afford it.

    Quite frankly, I don’t care if the naysayers get what you are saying to reach FI! Why? Because, those of us that are FI need these naysayers to keep buying stuff to keep the economy going and for them to keep working to fund our social security program! If everyone was FI and stopped working then I think the world economy would be in trouble.

    Keep up the good work, travel and enjoy your life. I agree with several readers that you should write that finanical book. Self publish and sell it on Amazon. Also, consider writing a book on how you guys travel to so many places for such low cost and a travel guide to so many places you visited. That is at least 3 books so get to work! 😉


    1. “Also, consider writing a book on how you guys travel to so many places for such low cost and a travel guide to so many places you visited. That is at least 3 books so get to work”

      Yes, sir and m’am! *rolls up sleeves* *types furiously*

  10. I agree the way we grow up make us who we are. I grew up in Soviet Union, and while my apartment was fine, food on the table, and water not contaminated, the amounts of things, the choices, the clothes…all of that was minimal. My life is divided by half: 23.5 years in Russia, 23.5 years in US. And despite my adult life spent in a country of abundance, I haven’t changed. I can do without. And I have a hefty saving for that:)

  11. Great pictures! Love cement walls. I used to train on the cement ping pong tables at Bei Shi Da in 1997! So fun.

    Love this “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.”

    It’s always interesting to observe the immigrant story and how they really pull themselves up, despite language barriers, cultural differences, discrimination etc versus those who grow up in a rich country and end up not so motivated.

    Why Canada over the US btw? Immigration laws perhaps?


    1. My Dad applied to US and CAD universities for PHD, and he got accepted to a Canadian one. I guess the US ones are more competitive.

  12. You beauty. I love this post. I live in New Zealand where everyone else seems to be extending their mortgage to get new carpet or go to Fiji for a week’s holiday. They cannot see that we live in luxury because we have running water in more than one room – and even an option for it to be instantly hot! It’s all a matter of perspective, and you’ve provided that.

    1. Yes, it definitely is about perspective. The richest person in the poorest neighbourhood will always be happier than poorest person in the richest neighbourhood. Thanks for reading!

  13. Thanks for this post, FIRECracker. I’d love your thoughts on something else though. I believe there’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like: “The first generation makes the money, the second generation maintains the cash, the third generation spends the money”

    Come to think of it, I bet it’s a proverb in many cultures and languages ( but hey, all proverbs are Chinese these days, right? )

    As a WASP who immigrated from another WASP country ( UK ) as a kid, we didn’t have too many hardships, but grew up without the “super-benefits” like free daycare from relatives and stuff. My dad was a blue-collar worker and I was from a big family ( big enough not to fit in a minivan ).

    Although we weren’t poor, I could easily say that we were lower-middle-class. I had a paper route when I was in primary ( but we were in a small town ). Mom didn’t work, and we were provided with necessities, but any “wants” we had needed to be met half-way. If we had part-time jobs, a percentage of that income went to “the household” as room & board.

    Why am I relating this story? Well, it’s because I’ve noticed that (especially in the city) it’s usually the Asian Canadian parents that dote on their kids the most. I’ve always wondered if this was due to a natural desire to never make your kids go through what you did. It seems, though, that they’re encouraged not to work and rarely if ever required to pay anything toward the household. At times, the parentals will pony up a DP on a house, or buy them a car.

    I tend to notice this specifically in immigrant families and I’ve always wondered about it. It’s not JUST Asians, but also the immigrant Italians and Portuguese kids who settled here in the 60s were the same.

    Do you see ( or feel ) that pressure to give your kids everything among others you’re around? Or do you see a similar bad-assery develop among those kids?

    Just as a final note, I’m actually seeing this widespread in ALL demographics and cultures recently, as people start having kids much later and end up having fewer of them with more disposable income to… erm, dispose of on their children.

    1. It’s possible that more and more parents are “doting” on their kids because other parents are doing it. The media is also constantly bombarding us with ads for organic baby food, name-brand baby clothing, and Montessori schools. So you get this “herd” mentality, similar to the herd mentality with people buying houses.

      Personally, I’m pretty good at NOT caving to peer pressure (you may have noticed, it’s the exact reason why I was able to break free from the status quo), so I think I will continue that rebellious streak 🙂 Kids really don’t need much to be happy. I think society is trying to capitalize on our maternal instincts, and trying to sell us a bunch of stuff we don’t need, stuff that’s supposed to “make our kids happier and live better lives”. It’s all bullshit and I’m not going to fall for it. Just like I didn’t fall for the housing cult 🙂

      I think experiencing some hardship and adversity was good for me. If my parents babied me I would’ve NEVER gotten to where I am today. They made me stronger and I don’t regret any of it. I want my future kids to be independent and useful members of society so I’m not going to baby them.

  14. I’m very impressed with what you’ve done. I’m Chinese but was born in the US. I grew up in the Midwest in a pretty ordinary middle class type family. I didn’t have to deal with the financial difficulties that you did, but I certainly dealth with other kids and bullies giving you a hard time about being different in some way. I agree, it makes you much stronger mentally. I’m currently a practicing oncologist and I think growing up having to deal with bullies makes you much more capable of dealing with all sorts of people and personalities when you grow older. Congrats!

    1. Thanks! Sorry to hear about you getting bullied. Kids can be really cruel sometimes. The important thing is to remember that there are many things we can’t control in life, we can only control how we react to them.

  15. I’m in this mindset that I want to save, retire early, and have financial stability while living an exciting life (traveling and whatever else is exciting!), and you inspire me so much but there’s a difference between us that bothers me: you finished school. My baby-boomer father and oldest brother are forcing me to finish school. I am 23, have been in university for 5 years, switched majors twice, and every single year I have the same thought that whatever I’m studying is not what I need. This is the biggest reason among others. I get very depressed every single year, and finally want to take a break, but I’m being forced not to by my father and brother, and also advised not to by other members of the family. I don’t even want to go back to that school. I’m not learning what I want. I’ve got a list of things I’m interested in learning, but I’ve searched multiples programs in multiple schools and don’t want to be in any of these programs. I also don’t have the money to continue schooling, and would rather seek alternative education and pay back my debts once I finally do. What I need right now is to master coding/web development and hopefully start a business with that, but I’m this shy girl who, to myself, doesn’t seem to be a good fit to be entrepreneurial, even though I’d love to work for myself and dream about it. Also because I can hardly sell. Anyway, I’m not sure why I wrote this, but I just feel like a failure for not finishing school even though I try telling myself I’m not. Thanks for your blog. 🙂

    1. “What I need right now is to master coding/web development”

      See, that right there, shows you know what you’re talking about. You know what skills are useful and how it can benefit you. The part about “starting a business” is the challenging part.

      You won’t know whether it’s a good fit unless you try it. But in order to do that, you need a sustainable cash flow to live on, while you try and fail. (And in the beginning you will fail, because that’s how you learn. We failed for 5 years, before getting published).

      To save money, can you get a 2 year degree in computer science or an equivalent? That will decrease your cost of school and help you get into the job market faster. I have friends who never went to university, got a 2 year community college degree, and are now making 6-figures in IT. It’s such an in demand field, I don’t think you need an ivy league education to get in. I mean, even Annabel Chong (the famous porn star) has quit the business and is now working as a web developer in Silicon Valley. That shit is lucrative 😉

      I think you said it best when you said “What I need right now is to master coding/web development.” Focus on that. Once you master that, everything else will fall into place. Anyone can learn how to start a business. But it takes a lot of time and failure to get there. In my case, I worked while trying to write on the side, and that allowed me to hedge my risk. Maybe you can work in IT and start a business on the side. The contacts you get from work, will also be helpful in your business. Nothing you learn is ever wasted.

        1. FYI, try to find a college program that has a internship/co-op program. This will put experience under your belt when you graduate. Also helps you pay for tuition.

          1. Why does everyone need a uni degree?

            What’s wring with making a 100 grand a year fixing people’s toilets.

            The US has a massive shortage of trades people and a massively over abundance of University trained Baristas who are drowning in debt.

            PS love your site

  16. wow this is a really impressive post, thanks for sharing. now i see how you can deal with all the haters. i agree with the comment above, it’s too bad cbc didn’t start with your backstory, as that would likely have put a different spin on things for sure.

    ps – been thinking of writing in to you guys for awhile now, esp when you exploded on my fb feed from my friends posting the cbc article with all the hater comments. my hubby and i are similar (same?) age as you two, your wedding photo reminds me of ours, also taken in 2010, lol. i will write in to you another day 🙂

  17. What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing. And you were very smart not to get involved in the housing price bubble in several Canadian cities (I live on Vancouver Island, so I read about what’s going on in Vancouver and Toronto.) Many people are going to be very sorry when the music finally, and inevitably, stops.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, what I did was stop trying to predict the real-estate market and start running towards a goal I WANTED to attain. It’s worked out great! I no longer care which way the housing market goes. But hopefully it doesn’t crash, because I don’t want people to lose their jobs and houses.

  18. Love your blog. I binge read all your posts yesterday. Inspires me to keep moving forward toward financial independence, although at a slower pace than you guys.

    1. The pace doesn’t matter. As long as you keep moving forward, you will get there! 🙂 Also, if you plan to make even $10k/year after quitting, you won’t need our salary or the same portfolio size. We were being extra cautious. Good luck!

      1. Thanks FIRECracker. That’s a good point too about working after “retiring”. Actually I just recently that when my wife and I hit 40 years old (9 more year), I could leave the corporate world and teach at a community college part time. I think I would really enjoy that and it was give our portfolio more time to grow.

  19. Wow, this really puts life into perspective for me. We weren’t millionaires growing up, but I had an abundance of food, toys, and health–that’s what made me so rich. Thanks for reminding me to stay humble and compassionate. Your story is amazing. 🙂

  20. Hi there and thanks for this post – gives more clarity to your badassity 🙂

    I have a question please – do you know of any ‘bootcamps’ or similar type, short-term training IT/coding programs in Canada (Toronto / Vancouver / Calgary) that provides internship and job placement that you would recommend?


  21. Yes I love this so much. I wasn’t as poor as you when I was young, but I wasn’t rich either. We didn’t go on big vacations or have fancy things, but we were fed and sheltered. I also studied engineering and now I’m on the path to early retirement, having paid off my student loans in a year, and now saving as much as possible. My childhood did shape my outlook on life, and not caring what other people think is a huge factor in being able to live the life I want instead of the life others think I should be living.

    1. Well done on paying off your student loans! You’ve already checked off the “growing up poor, is an engineer” checkboxes, so very likely you will succeed on your path to becoming FI 🙂

  22. This is one of the secrets of co-op programs like Waterloo engineering: it attracts people with “CRAP” who had to deal with crap when growing up and this helps us see the value of a co-op (funded) education. You guys are great examples of this!

    1. “it attracts people with “CRAP” who had to deal with crap when growing up…”

      Bwahahaha. I love this sentence.

  23. Just chiming in and coming out of the FIRE closet to say “Hear, hear.” We pulled off FIRE in our 30s (my husband and I were both 38 at the time), and we fit the pattern you’ve described. Both of us were engineers, and I grew up in Detroit with immigrant parents from Poland. I was not nearly as poor as you were in China, of course. You’ve described much of my childhood perfectly. By the time I was 18, living completely on my own and paying for everything (as I was reasonably expected to do), working three jobs and all that, I was simply perplexed by the behavior of my peers who racked up credit card debt and routinely asked their parents for money. I was even more surprised when their parents just handed it over.

    I most loved the part about your dad reminding you about your family in China when you didn’t want to move. That’s an aspect of parenting that I feel has gone out the window. On the few occasions my brother or I whined about something (which was rare, by ours and my parents’ recollection, as most of the time we knew better than to complain and add to our parents’ stress level) one or both of my parents would be all “Look. Here’s the deal.” They didn’t constantly share adult information with us about how hard things were, but neither did they hide anything. They leveled with us when it mattered, and even said things that — by today’s standards — would probably earn a visit from Child and Family Services: “You’re not the most important person in this equation” and “Your family still in Poland has it a lot worse than you, so you need to be quiet.”

  24. This was fantastic! My husband and I are both engineers. I grew up poor, he grew up middle class. We resemble your theory! (We aren’t FIRE. Well, if we sold our house in California and moved almost anywhere, we could be. We are also late 40’s with 2 kids.)

    Growing up poor meant all those things…resilience, creativity, adaptability, perseverance. Our parents taught us to work hard too. Of course I wonder how to teach my boys this in a different environment. This post was *exactly* what I needed, when I think I may need to upgrade the 2BR house.

    1. Thanks, Marcia! Very cool that you’re both engineers.

      And since we both grew up poor, we have a perspective that will keep us from killing ourselves with stress, trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” It’s very liberating.

  25. Arrived here via ‘Financial Samurai’ and just wanted to say, what a truly inspiring story for this fifty something cynic, still aspiring to FI but going in the right direction.

    Great site and looking forward to working my way through more of your posts.

  26. What a great story! I also grew up lower middle-class but thankfully, had the early interest in math and science to get into one of the top engineering programs in the world. It’s been an interesting ride since then. Despite being in management for years, it’s engineering that still gets me excited. I think a new formula deserves to be developed: Engineering or Science degree * (1 – Childhood poverty index)^Free thinking spirit = Millionaire Early Retiree!

  27. I feel like you wrote this one just for me. LOL.

    “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.”

    Engineer – check.
    Grew up in poverty – sort of check (lower middle-class).

    The catch-22 of reading your blogs is the more I read them, the more I now feel guilty about every purchase, every dollar I chose to spend (I treated myself and the girlfriend to donuts last night and now I am $2.36 poorer today!). But it’s an obvious catch-22 because I am on my journey to FI.

    Keep up the awesome writing.


  28. Very cool. We are not FIRE probably close but won’t. Could we? Yes. Will we? No. DH loves his job too much now. We did however just quit his very well paying job last September 2015 and moved cross country, sold our house, moved where we knew no one, resettled our kids, and he went and got a new career. He did it because he wanted to. Turns out it pays even better than he was doing before. Plus he got his dream job. He has no desire to RE, but likes being FI. He liked saying FU to his job and moving where we wanted to move. We’re in our late 30s but DH couldn’t hack being at home unemployed for 11 months. He went crazy with the kids at home. And we’re kids of immigrants and DH is from Canada. I was poor by US standards single parent social worker, DH was middle class both parents worked. So I guess we’re naturally frugal.

    1. Congrats on becoming FI! The RE part of FIRE is less important than the FI part. As long as you have options, you can also find a better job whenever you want without worrying about the money. And clearly, your husband proved the value of being FI with his awesome new career!

  29. You rock! Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished. You’re an inspiration to anyone who wants to FIRE regardless of where they start.

    Just out of curiosity, how old were you when you moved to Canada? I never would have guessed that you weren’t a native English speaker.

    1. I was 8 years old. Couldn’t speak a word of English but as it turns out, before the age of 14, it’s really easy to learn a 2nd language.

  30. Love your acronym CRAP! Reminds me a lot of GRIT, as I’m in education field and we often discuss how to build GRIT in kids. Mostly I see what you see- poor kids already have it. It’s the middle class kids whose parents overspend, and do everything for them to make sure they have everything they’d ever want (not NEED), that become much harder to build GRIT in.

  31. I built up my CRAP growing up with very little as well. Sally Anne’s (Salvation Army) was our clothing store, funny how when you look at your baby pics can’t even tell where your clothes came from yet when you are little kids were mean. It all makes you stronger in the end. Good on you for finding your happiness and success!

  32. This is spot on “almost every one of them is an engineer and one of them is from poverty”, my husband is an engineer (from Mexico) and I grew up in the Soviet Union. Completely relate to this blog post, I feel like a childhood in any communist country has a lot in common.

  33. I didn’t grow up in China, but we had no money growing up and I was the youngest of five. I felt my back was always against the wall. I didn’t know what it was like to have nice things, but I knew I didn’t want to live like we did. I knew I was my only way out, so I was going to be resourceful and if needed, work myself to death. Luckily I found out after I went to college that working yourself to death wasn’t necessary. I studied accounting and worked at a very mediocre pace, but still managed to do well. Frugality and investing were the key. Now I’m 40 and looking to retire soon. I’ll have to re-read your getting the spouse on the FI train article. Having a spouse who had all her needs and some wants taken care of growing up is, ahehmmmmm, shall we say, challenging?

  34. After reading some comments i feel that having a hard time when your young is valuated. Making you stronger, harder, bad-ass tough!!! I have to say it worked for me but not for my sister. Being bullied at school and at home my parents where fighting about money all the time. She had no place to establish a good reference in life. She can endure a lot but in the same time she is broken inside. No ambition no motivation, no friends. She never complains about what she don’t have.
    We are filled with remorse and wonder what we could have done better. My parents broke up putting the fault on each other.

    Growing up I realized I was not a good brother or a good friend. When I changed from class or school it gave me a break from the bullies. I met new kinder friends that make me realise the previous ones were bad. And by changing of group one after another I met better persons and model myself to become a better person and more integrated. Started from far. I think those change saved me. Making me more flexible, adaptable and showed me more example.

    Like you I had to build my toys. It left me some scars in the hands by working with knife and wood.
    I had to distribute newspaper in the morning to pay for my clothes. I was bullied because I weared often the same things, but hey I was paying for it! I even bougth a bike which was stolen a year later.

    After high school I realy benefited from compound education and changed my life radically. I worked in a drugstore while studying to be a technician. Then I got better and better summer jobs which allowed me to pay for school while I lived with my parents. Then university to make a bachelor degree in engineering with well paid internships. I saved enough by that time to make a student exchange in europe. I got the time of my life there and made very good friends. There were holes in my old jeans and shoes but I chose to travel and see the world.
    It expanded my life horizon so much, feeling that almost everything is possible in life. It transformed me again.

    Kids need to have good references to grow, good examples. They need to know how to have fun. Have a place and feel a bit special. After that, money is not essential.

    Thank you FireCracker fore sharing your life story it is inspiring.

    1. I wanted to thank you also for your fight against wrong house ownership. Because back then most of our problem began after my parents bougth the house. Buy a house and have kids. Except my mother could not go back to work after having us because of complications. Then the inflation was high in the 80’s and the interest rate went higher. The real estate market crashed in montreal and the value of the house was less than the mortgage so they could not sell it, they tried anyway but nobody wanted to buy. So my father was the only income of the familly and he got to take the night shift at work to get a raise. He hated his job and abusive boss but he could not quit. To keep the budget togheter sometimes he had to go to work without a lunch, manual work and hungry. My parents always feeded us in priority my sister and I. Not a cent was wasted. Eventually my mother were able to work years later and they made it trough. Except that company he was working for closed and the pension fund was victim of a fraud and my father was left with less than half of his pension fund to manage by himself, then there was nortel and after the divorce… But he worked hard and made it anyway!

      *Sorry for my english it is not my first language.

      1. Wow, props to your Dad for getting through such a tough time and keep your guys clothes and fed. Not an easy task by any means.

    2. Sorry, to hear about your sister 🙁 Having a good support network definitely helps you get through the bad times. It sucks that she didn’t have that.

      Looks like your badassity helped you get pretty far in life so kudos to you for that! And I’m glad you were able to meet better friends who were a better influence on you. Thanks for sharing your story!

      1. Thanks FireCracker, appreciated. This topic make me think about a book, Man’s search for meaning from Victor Frankl. Those which have enough meaning were those which survived these difficult time. Same principles apply to succeed in easier time.
        Continue your excellent blog. I’m addicted 😉

  35. Thank You for this incredibly moving post. You’re an inspiration and true bad ass…. and I am so honored you found my crushed Coke can painting to illustrate your story. Thank You again and carry on girl.

    1. I should be thanking you, Susan, for your awesome art! Thank so much for letting me use it for my story 🙂

  36. haha, that’s how my home in China looked too. Thanks for this post. Sometimes, people don’t understand what it means when we say we grew up poor. To them it might be living in the projects or trailer park. But for us, it’s sharing a communal toilet that’s really just a shack with a hole lol.

  37. Thanks for the story, being a FIRE myself, although not as early as 31.
    When I first read this post, I shown it to my daughter, hoping to make a little wakeup call in her perfect world.
    2 days ago I mentioned this story again (I totally forgot that I have already shown her before). Guess what, she read, understood and remember!
    That’s already a success for me.

  38. I accidentally came across your website and you have a very interesting background. I actually grew up totally opposite. An Asian born in Canada growing up in a middle class- upper middle class white suburb. But with the same goals you have. After graduating from a top Canadian school I worked in Canada for a year and went to NYC to work in the IT dept. However having been laid off 3 times I was disillusioned. I spent 7 years in the corporate world back and forth US/Canada and finally had enough. I went to China to work for 20 hours a week teaching IT. That was back in 2010. Mine you the money I saved during those 7 years helped but I still did not know how to invest yet. 1 year later in China, I learned dividend growth investing, that was back in 2011. Now married to a Chinese women, and with 2 kids I am still growing my portfolio and it is at 600K. It has doubled since 2011 and I don’t touch it since I am still not living in Canada. I have switched jobs a number of times in China, but they are still 20 hour a week jobs and teaching material directly related to my field. So I guess you could say I have been semi-retired since 2011 and since living here is damn cheap compared with Canada my salary is enough to feed the kids and support the wife and same time. I don’t pay for rent or electricity either here, which adds up for 4 people .

    1. Wow, incredible! You were able to grow your portfolio to 600K and live in China cheaply with 2 kids! So I guess your employer pays for your rent and electricity?

      1. Yes, rent and electric /water/gas is all paid for. Although it is large 1 bedroom apartment, it can get a little crowded with 2 kids. But for us the only expenses are daily food, clothing, kindergarten expenses and maybe some other expenses here and there that come with kids. Here I pay 1300 RMB a month in kindergarten expenses, but in Canada I think it would be 1400 CAD a month. The pay here is definitely enough to get by comfortably, even with 4 people. Especially for 20 hours a week work I am not complaining. We are even going to Thailand for a month during the upcoming winter holiday. Meanwhile my portfolio is not being touched and the dividends I receive are being re-invested whenever I see buying opportunities that come up.

  39. I know I’m a little late to the commenting game here, but I just found your site after listening to your interview on the ChooseFI Podcast. Your explanation of how people react to poverty is so interesting to me and something I’ve thought about a lot. I grew up poor, but under different circumstances–more having to do with poor money decisions and physical/mental health issues.

    We didn’t always have food on the table (and we had to visit soup kitchens at time), so I think I grew up with more of a scarcity mindset. I became a saver as a result, but it is also really difficult for me to overcome my negative feelings associated with buying thrift store clothing, for example. I don’t want to keep up with the Joneses–I just want to have clothes that fit well and that I like, which I didn’t always have growing up. Finding this balance when you don’t have a “normal” to compare your decision-making to is difficult. This redefining of “normal” is what attracts me to the FI community, but it is also hard to take certain recommendations of living with less seriously from people who grew up with so much–as in it feels really easy to say “eat beans and rice” or “don’t worry about what people think of your clothes” from someone who never HAD to eat beans and rice 7 days a week or wasn’t made fun of for their clothes when they were 8 years old. I don’t want to be a complainer or excuse bad spending habits, but I think it’s just a lot more difficult to overcome because there is a huge psychological aspect.

    Curious on your thoughts and also any recommendations for other FI bloggers who have written about this topic!

    1. I can’t speak for everyone who grew up poor, but personally I see the scarcity mindset affect immigrants in 2 different ways:

      1) gaining the perspective that people in other countries have it SO much worse and as a result being very grateful for having running water and heat (this was my situation). This leads you to be able to see the positives in everything.

      2) Becoming super spendy to make up for a childhood of doing without.

      And even though my scarcity mindset helped me gain perspective, it does have its short comings (I became too risk adverse as a result). And with other people, it could cause overspending as a way to overcompensate for poverty in childhood. The key is to realize that money isn’t inherently bad or good, it’s simply a tool you use. It takes a while to come to this realization but once you do, life becomes much better.

      I’m not sure why people would think eating beans and rice or dressing poorly is a pre-requisite for FI. I don’t know a single FI person who is on that diet or had to eat beans to get there. It’s about prioritizing and optimization, not depravity.

      1. That really resonates with me: money isn’t good or bad. It’s just a tool. And that it’s not about depriving yourself, but rather using your resources (money) in an optimal way. Great post.

        Also, I just finished reading your book, Quit Like a Millionaire. I bought the Kindle and Audiobook. Fabulous read. Loved your narrative. I was wondering what software(s) you use to track your portfolio to help keep it at 95% or better success rate.

  40. I just found your blog today and I gotta say, I love it so far. Your story is inspiring.

    Funny enough, I grew up on the other end of life. I grew up relatively privileged (white, male, middle class family after 8yrs old, etc.). Yet for some reason this privilege made me worse off as I turned into an adult. Now I’m working hard to undo all of the bad assumptions I made growing up. I’ve realized hard work and perseverance (like you mention) can make me rich, eventually.

  41. Hi,
    Very much enjoyed this article.. I too use to go to our local dump( my parents took us there to view bears.. and on the off days(bears are sooo lazy) we were allowed to scramble for treasures..ahh the good days).
    I so much appreciate your candor and humor.. Life is tough stuff but why add fuel to the fire with a bad attitude. I very much agree that tough times can put things in a different perspective which can be such a great tool to plow through the malarky life throws you. My Dad died when I was a teenager and so I too understood what was really of true value at a young age.. for this I am forever grateful.
    You might want to consider comedy if this blog thing doesn’t work out. Thanks again for sharing .

  42. Love how you don’t use growing up poor as a crutch and instead see it as a tool that allowed you to get rich. Read your book back in 2020, but I just started coming to your blog. Thank you for all the content you have put out.

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