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In this video, one woman explains how growing up in poverty set her up badly as an adult — and how, despite a very flawed system, she overcame it and got out of debt. This video is adapted from a piece in our weekly newsletter — click here to subscribe! https://thefinancialdiet.ck.page/1f7aa618fc

Through bi-weekly video essays, "Making It Work" showcases how *real* people have upgraded their personal or financial lives in some meaningful way. Making your life work for you doesn't mean getting rich just for the sake of it. It means making the most of what you have to build a life you love, both in your present and in your future. And while managing money is a crucial life skill for everyone, there's no one "right way" to go about it — you have to figure out what works best for *you,* full stop.

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Written by Katelynn Sortino

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Growing up, my mom and I were unglamorously poor, as in periodically living in our van poor.

Will we eat dinner tonight or just pretend we did poor. For those who haven't lived the chaos of childhood poverty, I imagine it's tempting to think of a low-income upbringing as something simply to overcome when you turn 18 and someone hands you a pair of bootstraps so you can make your own path.

But what many people don't realize about childhood poverty is that you fundamentally lack the basic tools and resources to not immediately go into unbelievable debt the moment you become a legal adult. At 17, I prepared to apply for colleges and my mom gave me the "you'll figure it out, good luck" pep talk. She had no money, and I didn't even think to ask for help because that conversation would only hurt her feelings.

So I took on astronomical student debt. When I went to sign up for my first bank account at 18, they would only give me the discounted college student bank account if I agreed to sign up for a credit card. Having no financial literacy, I didn't know that the predatory interest rates alone would eventually force me to default on that card and only pay it off 10 years later.

Then, in my first month of college, alone in a big, new city, I started to feel a terrible pain in my stomach. I did what I thought you should do and went to the hospital. Several uninsured hours later, I found out I was perfectly fine, but now with a fun, new $8,000 debt I had no idea how to pay off.

Shortly after, I went to the dentist and was told, no joke, you need to marry rich or pull all your teeth out because you'll never afford these repairs. A childhood of malnourishment and poor oral hygiene had done so much damage, but I could only afford to pull one of the most decayed teeth and walk out defeated. So just two months after turning 18, I was already over $100,000 in current and future debt.

Nobody held a gun to my head and made me sign the promissory note, sign up for a credit card, or go to the ER. I'm not looking to assign blame. But it's hard to talk about childhood poverty without discussing how completely effed so many of us start our lives.

After graduating and starting my first big-girl job, $13 an hour, the crushing, constant stress of barely making minimum debt payments was already stifling. Growing up, my mom told me debt will always be there, enjoy your money while you have it, pay only the minimum, juggle bills, use one card to pay for another, transfer balances, play chicken with interest rates, get by, have fun. This is terrible advice.

But it's hard not to buy into this mentality when it feels so accurate. The interest grows faster than the money can be made, and being poor is terribly expensive. The poverty mindset ingrained in me was powerful.

I became a hoarder and compulsive shopper. I had disordered eating. My anxiety was constant.

I defaulted on accounts regularly, and debt collectors would call me all day and night saying hilarious things like, you owe $3,500, would you like to pay that in full with a credit card or debit card? If you can't pay the whole balance, why bother paying anything? When you don't know when your next meal will come, you want to eat as fast as possible before it's taken away.

That's what poverty is like. You have very little, and it seems like everyone wants what little you have. It feels like you're being suffocated.

You work hard just to have nothing to show for it. Poverty and debt are treated like personal failures, and the shame of it is constant. Again, I don't want to sound like I'm a victim, because I'm not.

So many people have it so much harder than me. I was born in the wealthiest country in the world with a set of undeniable privileges, but it took a long time to convince myself that I wasn't a victim. I didn't even want to play by the rules because the rules felt very unfairly stacked against me.

Eventually, I had enough of making excuses and justifications for remaining stuck in my poverty mindset. Sure, many of my friends and peers were still financially supported by their parents well into their 20s. And while I would have loved that kind of support, I simply didn't have it.

No amount of being sad or mad about that fact would change it. I had to write my narrative. My financially disadvantaged upbringing was not my fault, but my future was my responsibility.

So I educated myself. I worked two jobs, sometimes three, for almost my entire 20s. I sold a bunch of stuff.

I worked a night job and a day job so one income could go directly to my student loan debt until it was gone. Account after account was paid off. I sacrificed a lot.

But the alternative was frittering away my life on predatory interest rates and the expensive exploitative trap of debt and poverty. My rage at the system, and a lot of coffee, fueled me through the process until I finally became fully, miraculously debt-free. The American debt system needs an unbelievably massive overhaul, but I couldn't wait around for Congress to care or whatever politician was in office to forgive my student loans.

Ultimately, I had to decide that I'd rather sacrifice and work harder than I should have to in order to give myself a chance at financial stability. I'm not sure if I will have kids one day, but if I do, I plan to ensure they are far more financially informed and prepared than I was. The cycle of generational poverty stops with me.