6 Things I Learned From Being Dirt Poor


It’s easy to look back over the last several years and think if only I’d done this or that, we would have been a lot better off a lot sooner.

I’m sure that anyone would have thought we were crazy a few years ago when we didn’t have any money, and maybe on some levels, I would have been smarter to just get a job rather than be so determined to stay home with my kids! 

But we did eke it out. We stuck with our determination to make a living from home, we went through some serious rough patches, but we made it.

People think I’m exaggerating when I say we were dirt poor because we look alright from the outside – just maybe a little bit anti-social. But the truth is, we had a roof over our heads only because of the graciousness of our landlords, allowing us to delay our rent payment. We weren’t anti-social; we couldn’t afford to drive our car. 

And you know what? I wouldn’t trade the lessons those experiences taught me for the world! 

Money isn’t the answer to everything. Money can buy things, but it can’t buy experience, and it can’t buy character. 

Image shows several dirt covered potatoes sitting outside in some soil. Text overlay reads "6 Things I Learned From Being Dirt Poor"

6 Things I Learned from Being Dirt Poor

Happiness is a choice you make. Yes, you can be happy – even when you’re dirt poor. I’m ashamed that it took me so long to learn that lesson, but I can at least confidently say that I never would have learned that happiness is not based on material wealth if we hadn’t been so broke for so long. It truly is a gift from God.

You can work really hard. I thought I knew how to work, but then we went broke and had kids. Between having a toddler, being pregnant (and then mom to a newborn), growing as much food as we could, trying to help my family out when we lost our mom, and trying to build a business, I finally learned work ethic for real. My former, pre-pregnant self is a little ashamed of how hard my pregnant self could work (let’s not even get started on my teenage self!).

You don’t have to spend money. This is really important because if you have a spending problem, making more money won’t fix it – it will only grow with every paycheck. I’ve always believed that it was my duty to wisely steward the gifts God has given me, but now I realize that my stewardship always has room for improvement. 

Good food doesn’t actually cost a lot. Spending $20 a week on groceries was a luxury, and we learned to eat and eat well (or less) for the whole family. My cooking skills were forced to improve as we got creative with less expensive food (and FYI, tempeh tacos are actually really good!) and find free food where we could.

Image shows a large white bowl of apples on a weathered dresser. Several apples sit on the dresser next to the bowl. Each apple has one small bite taken from it.

(What toddlers do to a bowl of apples 😛 )

You can make more things from scratch than you think you can. You’ll be really surprised how many things you can make from scratch to save money. From the aforementioned tempeh to homemade body products. Not only are they cheaper, but they’re much more healthy!

You don’t have to be rich to live a healthy lifestyle. Fitness and good food don’t have to cost a fortune. Despite our meager food budget, we managed to eat well using tactics like buying frozen produce over fresh, cooking dried beans instead of buying canned, and hunting deer in the fall and winter. We set up a weight rack under our carport, which was a tremendous help in staying fit, and as a chronic outdoor runner, I find gyms boring. So even though we couldn’t have afforded a gym membership if we had wanted one, we didn’t need it and still managed to stay very active. 

Above all, I think experience with poverty gave us the ability to live apart from our wealth (or lack thereof). We don’t so much view money as an all-consuming need now. 

Earlier this year, I was offered a job that would have almost doubled our income. I knew the hours would work around Gabriel’s, so babysitting wasn’t an issue, but the fact is, I want to be home with my kids. So I said no. 

I’m earning enough money as a stay-at-home mom right now, and if God sees fit, He’s welcome to increase those earnings, but because I know that I can crunch my budget down to almost nothing, I can say “no” to that job offer, and stay home for my kids with confidence. 

Because the most important lesson I’ve learned from being poor is that I am not my money.

Other articles you may enjoy:

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How to be happy – even when you’re dirt poor

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The $20 Grocery Budget

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  1. So well said! My husband earns good wages so money has not been our issue. I am in a position to help family members my Mom and sis financially and I do. I am an Occupational therapy practitioner and I recently went down to per diem work taking only 4/5 days a month to be available to my Mom who needs increasing care. So there has been a cut in salary here which was nice to have. I still help my family financially consistently. I feel guilty with this mentality of Women that I am not contributing to my household and I think I feel some shame with my husband. And I will make it clear my husband supports me to work less. I am having a hard time getting through his in my head. I raised my kids without working outside the home. I am so grateful I did no regrets and we made sacrifices then. I want to find more ways to do more at home to save on expenses to give me more money to share. Just wanted to share. I commend you for what you do and thank you for sharing. Diane

    1. Thank you Diane! Yes, it’s unfortunate that as a society, we’ve moved toward the worldview that your worth is wrapped up int he size of your paycheck, but it’s just not true. Even if you earned NO paycheck, you have worth. Taking care of your family is worth more than the biggest paycheck. 🙂

  2. Love it! Thank you for this, it’s a hard time for me, financially, right now, and this gives me hope and another way to look at it.

    1. Agreed. And as for the “you are only as happy as you feel” type of idea in this blog, I agree…to a point. When you are sitting there, with no food in the house, and no way to get to a pantry and have no idea how to feed your kids for the night? That’s being truly dirt poor and happiness will not happen in that situation. I was in that place for three months once and I hope nobody ever has to go through that and I hope we never go through that again. And like Zee says, hunting is a great way to feed your family, but most people do not have that luxury.

    2. On the other hand big cities will have lots of competitors, and you can hunt for deals . In rural areas grocery stores have higher prices.

  3. I love this article. I am a mother of five, my husband works and I really want to stay home. I clean a few houses on the side which I find I’m completely exhausted on the days I do. It’s definitely worth it though. We have very little money but that is okay. I don’t care for the extras. If we have a roof over our head, clothes on our bodies and food in our bellies it is all we really need. Our oldest just turned 18 and our youngest is 8. Seeing how quickly our oldest already is and how fast it goes by, I don’t want to miss a single thing. I won’t lie lots of time it’s a struggle financially and I keep debating about going out and getting a full time job but in my heart I know this time is precious and I want to look back with a smile on my face knowing it was all worth it. Thanks for your encouragement!

    1. Don’t forget about yourself. Picking up behind the kids and hubby, cooking, and laundry, homework. Let’s be real, being home is a full time job. But if you really need the money do what you got to do.

  4. Dear Elise, I’m so pleased to have found your site. I don’t eat gluten-free but that doesn’t matter. I want to Thank You for showing, “Six Things I’ve Learned From Being Dirt-Poor.” I LOVE that you’ve taken the time to share what you’ve learned with others. I’m in that position now and as bad as it can get, it’s not as bad as you think. I hope you don’t mind but I’d like to add that being dirt-poor also teaches Empathy, Compassion and Gratitude. I’ve also seen that the poorest of the poor share the most. Your children are Most Fortunate to have You as their Mama. God has indeed Blessed You and Your Children. May you have a fabulous day. You new friend. 🙂

  5. These are very good tips, all of which I have used. I am a military wife and my parents were very frugal and wasn’t nothing. So you can say I have know how to do a lot with a little. 🙂 And you are right, money doesn’t equal worth or happiness. I can’t the time we empty our bank account to to make ends meet every month and that is with 2 incomes.

    We are working on paying off debt, but someday I hope to be able to stay home with my kids. Maybe once we find land land all credit card debit is paid off. I keep hoping.

  6. Thank you for the reminder that money isn’t everything. Great article. Many continued blessings to you & your family. <3 God is good to see us through our trials.

  7. I love the way you shop. Sure prices can’t be the same every where here go to the next town cheaper, wasted $$ on gas tho, so it wasn’t really cheaper. cheaper. For me, now that my husband is not living here anymore. I am buying actual food not all the boxed prepacked I call dead food. I’m disabled can’t drive. Mr over protective concluded I shoudnt cook. I have no feeling in my hands for temperature.. I know that. I take precautions. I make my own yogurt, save the why freeze it in ice cube trays than vacumn seal it. I use it in my smoothies made from blackberries that grow wild here and frozen yogurt that I made. We have chicken on sale 88 cents a lbs. Getting 2 part them out freeze them make broth. Make my own bread. Of course I am home bound so I have plenty of time to cook again. I forgot how much ok missed it and how good real food tastes. Budget? I have to cut every corner and make up some until the legal separation goes thru. I just want enough to pay the massive bills he left me with. He lost touch with reality. Tried to impale me to my bedroom door with his marine corp sword. Thought he was Jesus & I was Jezebel he was supposed to send me to hell. I am picking up the pieces wish him the best. I know being disabled in an electric wheelchair I am not running any risk having him near me.

  8. I am a trained CNA, at home, single mom with 4 special needs kids in home ages 23 to 3 1/2. I have SSI for one, an adoption stipend for one and get a very meager child support. The oldest two are in community college classes, not able to work. I have become adept at paperwork, applying for any programs we qualify for including reduced rent for handicapped. If its not absolutely necessary, wear-able, edible, readable, I don’t buy it. We live in a rented duplex with no yard, very controlling state landlords, no extra room due to our #’s and medical equipment so growing foods even herbs is out(and I’ve tried-no green thumb here.). My biggest challenge is feeding everyone. I have one with autism and sensory processing disorder-verylimited food choices, one with anorexia-always trying to entice him with variety and two that will eat most anything to the point of not leaving anything to work with for the others. And, one has OCD germ/cleansing issues and he goes through piles of t.p., latex gloves, wipes… I’ve managed to stop buying the gallons of germex but now bar soap, dish soap – always gone! I’m in therapy they are in therapy but my budget is still not balancing. I have seen a debt counselor at my bank, tried working part time and that did nothing but add to the stress as I had no sitter but the older kids and they couldn’t handle it. I’ve sold nearly everything of value, filed bankruptcy on my credit cards and just have my necessary monthly bills – insurance, phone, etc. Any suggestions?? I am SO open for ideas.

  9. I understand that you’ve accomplished a lot and your hard work is awesome. But if you are poor and cannot afford to feed you family. If you are living off the charities of others. If you are a burden to others. What are you really teaching your children? That you do not have to work because we can live off of others generosity. We can make people feel sorry for us and manipulate others and get what we want without having to work.

    If you are poor than you do not have the luxury of being a stay at home mom. You should be responsible, go to work and provide a decent living for your children.

    How many women would love to stay home with their children but can not afford to do so because they are poor? Why are you special? You children will learn more when they are shown that working and making sacrifices is what will get you ahead. We can not have our cake and eat it too.

    Do not get me wrong I would have loved to stay home with my son but we couldn’t afford that. I did not want my son to do without. I did what some many other courageous woman do: I went to work. I gave my son a better life. He watched me work hard to provide him with a decent life and he respected me for it. He watched me get promotions and pay raises. He watch our life improve because I went to work. Now he does the same for his child.

    It’s simple if you are poor you have to work.

    1. I’ve been there and done that. Childcare costs are expensive and can cost just as much as you make. There have been a couple times in my life that it wasn’t worth it to work and have my kids in childcare. One time when I was a single mom to 2 kids, I made .10 cents an hour more than I paid the babysitter. Add in gas and the drive time to and from work, I paid the babysitter more than I made. Another time, I brought home $200 a month after paying daycare. But I definitely spent that in gas a month driving to and from. Basically broke even, I worked full time and was away from my girls 40+ hours a week for nothing. Then add in vehicle maintenance, insurance, registration for that second vehicle. …. mom getting a job isn’t always the answer.

  10. I too decided to be a stay at home mom . My thoughts were if I went out to work . My family would get used to that money and I would have to work for the rest of my life or at least the most important years of my child’s life. I want to be home and be here when my child and husband are home from school or work. My husband works a regular 9-5 job . He works contract management and gets let go often . So we have had some rough patches quite often . I have put money aside for those rainy days and we made it through. And I Thank God for that . Thank you for your helpful advice . I am a new subscriber and look forward to your emails and articles of interest. Pamela Schmidt

  11. I’ve walked where you walk and have never regretted staying at home. We saw our income level, though it stayed pretty constant, drop below the poverty line. My four kids are all over 25 and successfully following their dreams. Loving what they do and able to support themselves. Two have college degrees. One is planning on graduate school in a couple of years. Two have found wonderful life partners. They actually are grateful they didn’t have a lot growing up. The lack of technology gave great room to their imaginations and artistic inclinations. And do these people know how to find a bargain! I thank The Lord he let me be their Mama.

  12. Girl you’re an inspiration to me! I am a struggling musician and If i decide to follow my dreams and not get a regular-soul removing job I’ll probably need to go through some time being broke! And i will do that! Soul and dreams over money forever! Thank you! May god bless your soul :))

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