Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

Lessons from living down and out

MSN Money readers talk about childhoods spent in poverty and shame -- and tell how they managed to turn those struggles into success stories.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

I've been broke. I've never been poor.

"Broke" is temporary. It's running out of money before you run out of month (and being thankful that Seattle is overgrown with blackberries in the summer, because at least you've got a free source of fruit until the next paycheck comes in).

"Poor" is something else. It's hunger, and clothes that don't fit, and homes that are uncomfortable and unsafe. It's not having enough or even the prospect of having enough.

To illustrate the difference, I asked some of the Your Money message board readers who have experienced poverty to share their stories and how they climbed out.

If you're poor, I hope these tales will provide some comfort -- you're certainly not alone -- and some inspiration. If you're just broke, I hope the stories will help you see the difference and perhaps inspire a little gratitude.

Scrounging at the dump

A poster named "musicfan1965" remembers growing up on welfare with an alcoholic father who drank away "what little money he would make on whatever job he would have that week."

"We would . . . go to the local dump to scrounge for whatever we could salvage: clothes, shoes, household items, etc. At the time it seemed like a treasure hunt for us kids. . . . And I could never understand what would make a person throw out something that was still usable.

"We (lived) in a rusted-out trailer with holes in the floors where rodents and snakes would come up through to visit. . . . The trailer would be freezing most of the winter as the heat didn't work most of the time. . . . We had a wood stove on the front porch that we would use to cook a lot of the time in the winter.

"There was no money for vacations, trips to amusement parks, fast food or malls. . . . I don't remember a time when there was ever any extra money for anything that would have been considered a luxury or anything fun."

Like many who recounted their experiences, musicfan1965 thought such conditions were normal "until I went to someone else's house and saw that they would have their own room, a phone, a bathroom with a door. Things that others took for granted. I was amazed, and then ashamed of my family and our financial status, and our home."

Still, musicfan1965 credits a mother who, under difficult circumstances, tried to "make life as normal as possible, (put) food on the table, (give us) clean clothes and our everyday necessities she would do without."

Musicfan1965 went to work early, picking tomatoes while still in elementary school. "It was hard, hot, dirty work, but any extra money for anything was a help.

"My work ethic is such that I have worked three jobs at once to achieve various goals, including putting myself through college. Lots of sacrifices throughout my life . . . allowed me to buy a house, have a vehicle that is paid for and I've been able to travel. I still work two jobs, but I would rather do that for a while and know that I can buy things that I need and pay cash. I try to not use my credit cards at all unless it's a necessity. I've learned a lot about budgeting, working hard to achieve my dreams and goals and saving for the future."

The roller coaster ride of poverty

From age 9 to 12, poster "supersavercalistox" and his family struggled with a disabled father and a mother who was in college to become a teacher.

"We had food stamps (back then, the food stamps were actual paper and everyone knew we were paying with them) that lasted for about two weeks out of the month. Meat meals were unheard of. Fortunately we got a free lunch from school, (and) the food bank would let us come pick up a box once a month. The food bank was located in a cemetery; I hated having to go there. We tried to make the food last as long as we could, but it would never last the month. My youngest brother was 2 and stayed at home with my dad. Sometime we would have to bring home food from the (school) cafeteria to feed him.

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Supersavercalistox went through a growth spurt during this time and could barely fit into his clothes. Of course, there was no money for new ones, and "school was humiliating." Even social situations were awkward. "I never went to anyone's birthday because I couldn't afford a gift," he wrote.

Continued: Living in a truck canopy

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