By Cinthia Martinez
Some of my first memories all revolve around money. It’s a topic for so many families that can’t be avoided, no matter what the conversation is about. For my family, the money was always just enough for the necessities, but the stress surrounding buying the necessities was more than enough to influence my spending habits for years to come.
My first job was working at a grocery store for a year, starting from the summer before my senior year of high school. I applied for the job because I knew that it wasn’t financially possible for my college education to be covered effortlessly by my parents. I also knew that once I got the job, I wouldn’t be able to spend my paycheck leisurely like some of my other classmates did.
Affording college was so important to me because I saw it as a way out of being low-income. A study by the National Center for Children in Poverty shows that people who grew up poor are more likely to be poor in adulthood, compared to people who did not grow up poor.
I was terrified to live through the same stress my parents had and determined to be more financially comfortable. I learned very quickly as a child not to ask my parents for money or spend my own money sparingly. When I got my first paycheck, I was hesitant to spend too much, worrying I was cutting too much into my savings. As I continued with the job, I saw money in my bank account pile up to numbers I didn’t think I’d see so soon. Seeing it continue to grow motivated me to save as much as possible. On average,
I only spent about 10% of my monthly wage. I wasn’t used to spending that 10% each month, so in the moment it felt like I was overspending until I looked at the bigger picture and saw what I was saving each month. Working in amid the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing poverty rates rise exponentially showed me even more value in working and saving.
The satisfaction of seeing my savings went away after I faced the opportunity cost in my schoolwork and mental health. For years, my self-worth was tied to how well I performed in school. I saw my grades as a direct reflection of my entire character, rather than my current knowledge in a particular topic. When my grades took a toll due to my time at work, so did my mental health.
Though my work hours had decreased from the summer to the school year, a few friends expressed their amazement after I told them how many hours, I worked each week. My other strategy for affording college was being in dual credit classes. That way, I’d save money and time. That meant that on top of working and attending school, I was enrolled in 8 honors and dual credit classes with local colleges, so my homework load was significantly larger than the average amount. I spent hours each week doing homework and studying, struggling to stay caught up.
Though my mental health was on a severe decline, I was scared to make changes. I didn’t cut back on my work hours or switch to easier classes. I thought if I made any changes, it’d affect my chances of winning scholarships and affording tuition. Though I desperately wanted to return to my previous lifestyle, I didn’t want to risk missing out on vital money.
Despite the long shifts and all-nighters doing homework, I was able to graduate with an abundance of scholarships and plenty of money to sustain myself independently and focus solely on school for my first year of college. Growing up low-income taught me that taking early action can lead you straight to the best path, even if you must make some sacrifices. In my case, I was lucky enough to have teachers who were understanding and supportive of my situation because it is unfortunately so many students’ situation as well. I’m privileged enough to not have to work this school year, and it wouldn’t have been possible without my dedication to save and strategize for the future.
Martinez is a junior at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.