Letter To Student, Raised Below Poverty Line, at Threshold of Middle Class

FS = former student

I’m a high school teacher, and this past summer I was very honoured to be invited to the wedding of a former student (I’ll call her FS). Even in her rebellious teen years, FS knew how to work hard. A co-op student in the school library for 3 semesters, she always loved books. After graduating from high school, FS worked as a custodian for 3 years before finally chasing her dream and  enrolling in library studies at college.

While pursuing her diploma, FS has worked part-time at the library of a government department downtown, and she has a great chance of being hired there full-time once she graduates next spring from college. FS recently came into her old high school to give me an update on her life: Just before she graduates, she’ll have a baby!

FS grew up below the poverty line, and so did her husband. She has given me permission to write this post – which is a letter of financial advice to her. I write it with a great belief in and hope for her future.

Dear Former Student,

Thank you for indulging me and letting me write this letter of advice to you. You are at such a critical time of life – just starting your marriage, just about to start your career, just about to become a mom! The decisions you make now and the habits you form now will have powerful ripple effects into your future – for better or for worse. And I’m hoping better!

I don’t know if you’re aware of how amazing your accomplishments so far have been.

You grew up in challenging circumstances – with a single mom on disability, a distant dad, limited resources … You left home as a teen and made your living through part-time jobs as you finished high school. In your social life, you had more than enough drama, and you acted out plenty of rebellion – as many teens do without anything close to your excuse.

But hiccups and all, you kept moving forward. You worked for 3 years to save as much money as you could before going to college to pursue your dream career. You’re on your way to secure employment – with benefits, a good salary, and high job satisfaction at a place where people value your work ethic. And you met a young man – with a tender heart and a steady character and a great love for you – and you’re starting a family together.

Wow. Wow. And wow!

It will be challenging to start up your career and your family at the same time, but you’ve got a plan, and since you’re someone who stubbornly makes things happen, I believe it will all work out. You’ll have the full-time job. Your husband will be the main care-giver and work part-time on weekends. You’ve already got your breast-milk pump. All set.

You are on your way to the middle class. Welcome. And beware.

First of all, I say “beware” because old patterns die hard. Growing up, you and your husband both had to deal with hardships that were beyond your control. Your troubles were not of your making, but they were your reality. It can be very hard to release an expectation of adversity. It can be very strange to embrace hope. So watch out for old patterns of thought and reaction and habit that you might not even be conscious of. The ones that will try to keep you rooted in struggle. The ones that will work to sabotage your forward progress. Be on the alert for them, and be ready to challenge them and face them down.

And then there are the people in your life who won’t be comfortable with the changes they will see in you. They are used to you being a struggler against the odds who is ultimately stuck. But that’s not who you are. You are a struggler against the odds who is moving in a radically new direction. People don’t like “new”, so be prepared for the efforts of some of your friends to pull you back to the place where they first knew you – where they’re comfortable with you being. Your “new” will be an insecurity for them. A threat. And some might feel entitled to your financial support. Be prepared to assert boundaries.

“the middle class is filled with people who blow their privilege”

Another reason I say “beware” is that the middle class is filled with people who blow their privilege by maxing out through debt. I should know. The marketing machine of Buy-now-pay-later! because You-deserve-it! and Owning-this-will-make-you-a-winner! is extremely powerful.. Very smart people do very dumb things with their money all of the time.

Right now, you say you are living like your mother because she is the “best teacher for how to use the least money to provide the most comfort and stability.” Keep following her example for as long as possible – even when you’ve got that great full-time job. In partnership with your husband, get a solid grip on your numbers. What is your take-home pay? What are your expenses? Create a plan to build your wealth through savings – right from the get-go. If you can only save 3% of your take-home pay, great! If you can save 10%, better! If you can save 30% or even more, why not? Make it a no-brainer. A thing you do by automatic default. Save.

The secret to financial health is to live below your means.

Don’t buy on credit. Use short-term savings to purchase all consumer goods in full. Don’t get a car loan. Save a small car-payment’s worth every month until you can buy your (used) car outright – and then drive it for as many years as possible – while saving for the next one.

When the time comes to buy a house, don’t max out on the mortgage. Choose a home that you can pay off in 15 years by putting no more than 25% of your take-home income towards regular payments. Don’t rely solely on your work’s pension plan for your retirement savings. Invest long-term in your own financial freedom.

“The company you keep will rub off on you – for better or for worse.”

Find role models, and learn from them. Learn from couples who have been happily married for many years. Learn from families that function well. Learn from people who manage their money wisely. Spend time with people who have built their lives on a firm foundation. The company you keep will rub off on you – again, for better or for worse.

FS, I believe that you are undergoing a remarkable transformation. And the life that you provide for your child will be very different from the childhood you experienced. Your hard work, your perseverance, your proactive measures to make things work, and your wonderful choice of life partner all combine to spell out good things. I promise you that a wisely planned, intentional financial management strategy will play into all other aspects of your life – from marriage to parenting to work to social life – for the better.

So all the best to you. Here’s to your family, your career, your future. Here’s to the firm foundation upon which you’ll build your life. And here’s to the day when people seeking life wisdom seek you.

Your old teacher,

PD


Your comments are welcome.


 

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  • It’s great to know FS, has a resource in her corner like you Ruth and she’s wise enough to seek advice. FS has done a wonderful job so far. Marriage, new job, and a baby on the way, those are all big changes in one’s life. So a “beware” is a great approach. Change, adds stress, and stress can add emotional spending. It’s important for her to realize her accomplishments so far and to work together with her new husband to keep the momentum going. Best of luck FS!

    • FS wasn’t seeking my advice, but she was gracious enough to let me offer it. I’m not sure how much of it she actually needs. She’s fiercely independent and self-made, and has done a fine, fine job of turning her life in a positive direction despite many challenges. I was more moved at that wedding than I expected to be. FS has chosen a husband who couldn’t be more perfect for her. To “work together with her new husband to keep the momentum going” is exactly what I hope will happen. Thanks, Brian : )

  • Okay, that just about made me want to bawl! Such great advice. When you’re young and your life is all fresh and ahead of you, it’s not easy to realize all of the traps and obstacles out there. I hope FS bookmarks this and prints it out and refers to it often. I was doing everything right until I met my husband. Then I just went along with his “wisdom”. Well, you know the rest. If FS would like a cautionary tale, refer her to that post I did in here. You know the one. That should do the trick. (smh)

    • “I was doing everything right until I met my husband.” Yikes! Do you talk with him about this, Kay? I understand the whole “Then I just went along with his ‘wisdom'” thing. It was an unspoken way-of-the-world in our culture of that time – and, sad but true, emphasized by the church. I hope that you and your husband are able to air out all the old mistakes with an understanding that there’s a new operating system at work now. (And what does “smh” mean?)

      • LOL, you are the best Ruth! 😀 SMH just means “shaking my head”. Kind of like, “I don’t know WHAT I was thinking!” 😀 As for talking about the money thing with hubby, yep, we’ve talked about it many times over the years. He doesn’t know what he was thinking either. He had learned from his dad that credit was good and that you just kept using it. I don’t think his dad extended education on it as in how not to got into trouble with it. Or else Hubby wasn’t listening to that part. Fortunately, we’re in a much better mindset now and moving ahead nicely. If I’d stuck with what I had learned from my parents, we would have avoided all those pitfalls. I learned that if you couldn’t afford something, you waited until you could. No credit or loans. Hubby learned the opposite and he liked stuff. A LOT. No minimalist is he! Oh well, hindsight and all. FS has the advantage of foresight. It’s good to learn from the mistakes and the triumphs of others. Just don’t let love mess you up financially. Stick to what you believe is right. Amen 🙂

        • “Just don’t let love mess you up financially.” It happens. I’m glad you and your husband have talked it out and that you’re “in a much better mindset now and moving ahead nicely.” Sounds to me like you both learned something. He learned the limits of his dad’s credit philosophy, and you learned to have more confidence in your own convictions. Both good lessons. Thanks, Kay : )

  • awe that’s incredibly sweet and what an honor it is that she asked you to write that letter. I agree with the company you keep. Even the strongest person can be swayed by negative influence so better just to be around positive, good people.

    • She didn’t ask me to write the letter. She gave me permission to write it. Very true about the company we keep. The “strongest person” is so often in denial about it. Thanks, Tonya.: )

    • Thanks, Gary. Fortunately, FS has a strong sense of what she should and shouldn’t do in moving forward. She’ll know exactly what to take in her step here – and exactly what to ignore.

  • Oh, man. This is beautiful. Such great advice and after reading this, I honestly feel like I know her. And am just as proud of her.

    Your advice is so important. I walked a slightly different path, but should have been watching out for similar things along the way, and didn’t know to. Listen to Ruth!

    • I’m glad the letter gives you an understanding of FS. Like you, I’m so, so proud of her. Very interesting that you “walked a slightly different path, but should have been watching out for similar things.” I might have to pick your brain about that, Femme. Thanks : )

  • Such a great story, Ruth, as well as terrific advice.

    I’ll only add one thing…in the vein of the company you keep rubbing off and the middle class blowing their privilege…don’t get fooled by appearances. There are plenty of folks who appear financially secure that aren’t. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking someone’s curated appearance truly reflects their reality, and make your own path to your own successes.

    • “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking someone’s curated appearance truly reflects their reality” – that is something I still find myself falling for. Just a week or two ago, I bumped into a former neighbour whose very well curated lifestyle I didn’t doubt for a second. As it turns out, she and I were both struggling financially at the same time – neither one of us knowing it at the time. If we’d been more real with each other, we might actually have provided mutual support to change things around at a much earlier stage of life. Ugh! Anyway, thanks for that addition of advice, Emily.

  • Beautiful story & message, and an appropriate warning. It seems that, depending on where people are coming from and how that intersects with their personality, there are some extremes to watch out for: over-spending, or remaining very tight with and worried about money. It’s wise to watch out for both.

    • Kalie, you have a remarkable ability to share profound ideas with great clarity – and even brevity. Thanks for what you’ve said here. FS has chosen a very winning path, and I think she’ll avoid both types of pitfalls. She has been on the watch out for a long time – and her understanding of what to watch out for keeps pace with where she’s at in life. I believe her story will keep being beautiful.

  • What a remarkable person FS is. I’m so glad she has the wisdom to seek out mentors like you and is open to advice on how to proceed in these new waters. The pitfalls are similar to those she escaped but they’re just as well hidden to those who aren’t versed in marketing and how the middle class cover up their debts and money struggles. It’s less obvious because you can use debt to hide it!

    • Thanks Revanche. FS is indeed a remarkable person. I don’t know if she sees me as a mentor, but I believe she recognizes me as someone who believes in her, encourages her, and eagerly wishes the best for her. For anyone entering the middle class from poverty, it is a great advantage to know at the outset that so many of us in that class have covered our money struggles – hiding them with debt. With that kind of awareness, people are much less likely to fall into the debt&cover-up-with-more-debt-trap.

  • Amazing letter, Ruth, and ditto, ditto, ditto from me!! As you know, I grew up with circumstances very similar to FS. I hope she learns from you – and from me – not to get caught up in that cycle of finally having money and trying to make up for all those years of not being able to spend by going crazy with spending. Lord, give them wisdom!! Congrats, FS and family – you’re doing GREAT! Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you, Laurie. I knew that if I got your seal of approval for this letter, it would mean I got it right. I really appreciate your comment and your two-thumbs-up. I can tell that you feel the same eagerness for the thriving of FS and her young family as I do : )

  • It sounds like Mr & Mrs FS have a bright future ahead of them. I sort of teared up reading your advice, since I hope that some of the young ladies that I mentor will be in the position of moving into the middle class too. I hope that I can pass this letter onto them in just under a decade or so 🙂

    • Thanks, Hannah. I can see why you teared up. It’s a real privilege to be able to work with young people, and it’s truly wonderful to witness the blossoming of a life – especially one that has had to break through very difficult obstacles. I hope you see plenty of blossoms when the time comes.

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