Social Mobility Doesn’t Have To Be a Pipe Dream for Lower Middle Class Kids

Sometimes people see a personal finance blogger striving for financial independence and think they must have grown up with well-off or financially savvy parents. The media promotes this thought, highlighting the stories of well-off kids who bought homes at age 21 on their parent’s dime and who seem to think everyone has the privilege they do. 

“If I can do it, anyone can!” they exclaim, oblivious that most of us don’t have wealthy parents. 

Some of Us Didn’t Have Wealthy Parents

We rarely see the true tales of self-reliance, where kids grow up in less-well-off households but manage to learn financial literacy on their own.  

But that’s my story. 

I’d classify my parents as lower middle class. They didn’t buy me a house, get me a great starter position at their company, pay for my college, let me live with them to save money, or even teach me any financial skills. 

My story proves that you don’t need wealthy parents who are good with money to embark on a quest for financial independence. It helps, but achieving financial success is possible without the help of generational wealth

Growing Up Lower Middle Class

I don’t know the details about my household income when I was younger. My parents owned a home in the southern suburbs of Chicago. We always had food to eat, got lovely Christmases, and went on vacation (camping) a few times per year. 

It seems solidly middle-class. 

However, we lived across the street from terrifying apartments, with cops patrolling more often than not.  Our neighbor across the alley got busted for dealing illegal substances. 

It wasn’t the best neighborhood, but it was far from the worst. We could play outside without fear as long as we stayed away from the apartments, a luxury many kids didn’t have.

When I was very young, my father worked as an insurance agent. He sold insurance in Chicago’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.

The job didn’t lead to wealth, but he made enough money to support the family. Our mom stayed home, as childcare for three kids was far too expensive for her to work. 

Dad Loses His Job

Unfortunately, my father lost his job with the insurance company when I was still in grade school. My parents turned to paper delivery to make a living. My siblings and I had to do paper routes three days a week after school to help them make ends meet.

For the first few years, we worked for free. At the time, I didn’t understand why I was forced to work without getting paid, but I get it now. 

They needed our labor to pay the bills. We were working to support the family. 

Please don’t be too harsh on my parents for this. They did what they had to to survive. Many kids had things far worse, and my parents did the best they could. 

To my parent’s credit, they took what they learned, delivering papers for someone else, and made a business out of it. They started hiring more neighborhood kids to deliver flyers and paying us for our work.

No Savings

Even with running their own business, there wasn’t much left to save at the end of each month. Or maybe my parents prioritized vacations and nice Christmases over emergency funds and retirement accounts.

Either way, they had no savings. 

They spent most of the money they made each month and allowed us kids to do the same. If we wanted something super expensive, they would tell us that we needed to save up on our own for it (my brother was obsessed with getting Scottie Pippen shoes, so he was the best about that!), but that was the extent of our lessons in savings.

I had some savings in an account my grandmother set up when I was born, but most of it got wiped out the first time I had to pay taxes. 

A Divorce

My parents got divorced when I was in high school. My dad kept the business and was able to rent a home from his sister, while my mom had nothing. After our family home was foreclosed on, she left the state to live near her parents.

Their divorce worked out in my favor. It’s much easier to get loans for college if you are a child of divorced parents with low incomes.  I got enough financial aid to pay for my college education (primarily via loans and grants). 

I didn’t use all of it because I decided to join the Reserve Officers Training Core (ROTC) when I got to college, which helped pay for my schooling.

20 Years Later

Even now, my parents are not good with money. Neither has a retirement plan or a solid emergency fund. They both work, even as they reach retirement age,  and I think they plan to continue working until they can’t anymore. 

Social security has helped them immensely. 

My siblings and I learned very different things from this upbringing. My brother learned that he could get by working until he dies. He doesn’t worry about saving money and values spending everything he earns to ensure his kids are happy (Just like my parents did).

My sister was the same for a very long time.  She valued appearances and expensive things because she didn’t want to feel poor.  However, in the last few years, she’s learned the value of saving money for the future through my obsession with financial independence. She wants to pursue FIRE too!

I went the opposite way.

I saw my parents keep their heads above water and decided that wasn’t what I wanted for my future. I took it upon myself to learn financial literacy. I’ve made many mistakes, but I think I’m getting there.

Financial Literacy

The point of this story is that learning financial literacy is not easy, but it is achievable for most people. 

It isn’t taught in school (at least it wasn’t in my school), and if you don’t grow up in an environment where it is practiced daily, it’s hard to grasp.

However, that doesn’t make it unattainable.  It would have been great if my parents could have given me a head start on this, but they couldn’t.

 Instead, I learned the value of hard work and that I didn’t want to be destitute in the future. These were valuable lessons too, and I’m glad I got them.

My parents may not have taught me financial literacy or provided a financial leg up,  but they gave me the tools I needed to learn it and be successful on my own. 

In the end, that was a far more important lesson.

5 thoughts on “Social Mobility Doesn’t Have To Be a Pipe Dream for Lower Middle Class Kids”

  1. Great message Melanie! As you pointed out I do think a lot of personal finance bloggers are perceived as having all there stuff together as in a good education and must have come from a great background. Since being apart of the community, I’ve definitely learned that thats simply not the case. While everyone doesn’t grow up with parents that have great money habits, that shouldn’t deter anyone as they get older from learning the basics and then some themselves.

    • Thanks Carmen! I agree, lots of people in the PF community came from backgrounds similar to mine. It makes learning about finance a little harder, but it’s not impossible. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I relate to the lower middle class background. Both parents worked once my brother and I were in school, but for either retail or transportation industries.

    Same as you – occasional vacations, good but reasonable Christmases, no savings for their retirement or our college, and a divorce when I was in high school.

    Dad has his financial house in order now. Mom moved multiple times and makes money decisions like the Grasshopper from “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”

    I appreciate hearing from other people, especially women and POC, in the FI community who didn’t have an inheritance fall in their lap at 23.
    Keep up the great content!

    • Thanks Sara! I love seeing stories from people who are in similar situations as well. There is hope for all of us!

Comments are closed.