How To Be Happy – Even When You’re Dirt Poor


Two years ago, I stood in the kitchen trying not to cry.

A conversation with my husband had been the last straw. It wasn’t mean, it wasn’t ugly. He’d simply suggested that we needed that we needed to spend less money.

How many more notches can the belt be tightened before it breaks? I wondered.

how to be happy when you're dirt poor

Beyond that, I was tired. Tired of not being able to afford anything. Tired of trying to make ends meet. Tired of the crummy toys that littered the living room floor. Tired of saying no to anything that wasn’t an absolute necessity.

Although things continued to get worse in our financial situation, with a disaster of a calf crop, work being hard to find, and impending medical expenses (our second child was born that summer), for me, that was the low point.

I was doing everything I could – Everything – to save money. Using cloth diapers, maintaining a very low grocery budget, and making my own soap were (and still are) barely scratching the surface of our money saving strategies.

Not only were we saving as much as we could, I was also dabbling in selling soap and kefir grains on Etsy, as well as selling things on eBay (that was actually kind of fun, and I wish I still had time for it.).

It took me a while, but I finally realized that while all those things were good things, I was still missing the key ingredient.

My attitude.

Poor me.

Why me?

I hate this.

I can’t live like this.

I don’t want this.

My attitude was a recipe for disaster.

how to be happy when you're dirt poor

Eleven Ways to Be Happy – Even When You’re Dirt Poor

The hard truth – the truth that none of us wants to believe – is that nothing will make us happy. Rich, poor, married, single, healthy, or not – those aren’t the things that make us happy.

Happiness is a choice.

But it’s more than a choice; it’s a state of mind.

What does that mean exactly? Well, think about this: do you feel like you deserve what you have, or more than you have? Do you feel that certain things – an older car perhaps – or people are beneath you?

Or do you feel grateful for what you have? Are the people and things in your life a blessing? Does your neighbor’s kindness humble you?

You see, the former state of mind is entitled. The latter? Well, there’s lots of to describe it: humble, grateful, blessed, joyful, happy.

Do you see the difference?

So here are eleven ways to be happy – even when you’re poor as a church mouse:

Recognize that everything you have is a gift.

The truth is, we don’t deserve anything. When our worldview is in the right place, and we realize that every single thing we own is a gift from God, it becomes a lot easier to maintain an air of humble gratefulness.

Realize that this is a training ground.

You’re here to learn. Whatever you’re going through, you’re picking up valuable skills that can be used later in life. Whether that’s becoming super efficient with money, an ace budgeter, or communication skills cultivated as a result of having lots of heart to heart talks over a sensitive subject with your spouse, you’re growing as a person.

Consider that status symbols are arbitrary.

Everyone in your neighborhood has a pool in their backyard, or a brand new car. Does that mean you have to? You don’t have to adopt their status symbols.

Read inspiring books.

If you’re struggling with the status symbol thing, I encourage you to read The Millionaire Next Door. Even if you’re not, it’s a good read for anyone who wants to eventually be financially secure, and be inspired to do what it takes to get there (even if it means living very poorly for a while). Some other Favorites are The Total Money Makeover, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and the Cash flow Quadrant.

Determine What You Really Want Out Of Life

Getting a handle on what I wanted for the long haul really helped me develop long term thinking about our situation, and be okay with the temporary state of being dirt poor. For me, that includes being home with my kids full time, and eating healthy, but also working toward being financially secure. All of those things require sacrifices, whether it’s a cut in income because I’m not working a job, or adhering to a strict budget so that we can save more money to invest.

Surround Yourself With The Right People

Take a good look at your friends. Are they cheering you on? Are they onboard with your goals? Do they truly care about you and your family? I’m not saying friendships should be all about you – it definitely goes both ways – but you need to spend the majority of your time with people who will build you up, who care about your goals, and not just whether their friends meet the status quo, or are easy to be around. Spending time with people who inspire you is a complete game changer.

Set Boundaries For Yourself

If you are constantly thinking about your financial situation, how you can squeeze more mileage out of every penny, and wondering how you’re going to make ends meet this month, you will burn out. Set specific budget meetings, brain-storming sessions, “worry times”. Write everything down so you aren’t trying to juggle it in your brain. I guarantee this freedom of thought will make you feel ten years younger! A bonus to this is, even though it breaks the rules, your best ideas and solutions will come to you when your mind is relaxed and probably thinking about something totally unrelated!

Believe that this is just a season

I’m not talking about believing the impossible, I’m not talking about pretending to believe, I’m talking about knowing that things will get better. Be determined, make a plan, educate yourself, and equip yourself to do what it takes. You (or your spouse) will find that job, or build that business, or pay off that debt if you’re diligent, and work hard.

Learn To Enjoy The Process

This may seem to be impossible right now, but I can tell you that there’s a reason why people call couponing “the grocery game” – because to those people who are really “in” to it, it is a game! It’s the same with nearly everything. You can either learn to enjoy meal planning, finding ways to save money, and living on next to nothing, or you can continue in your misery. If you can choose, wouldn’t you rather choose joy? Make it fun!

Set Goals

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a goal. Being poor, mucking along, no light at the end of the tunnel, feeling trapped like there’s not way out – it’s disheartening. Have a goal. Having a goal – something you’re working toward is a complete game changer. When you look at your goal, you can see progress, however slow. You can see light at the end of the tunnel; it inspires you to keep at it. It gives you hope. I admit that it took me a long time to really “get” goal setting, but once I started doing it, I never looked back. It’s important!

Plan for the occasional splurge

If you’re budget can allow it at all, you should budget in a little splurge money. Even if it’s just two dollars a month – and yes, that’s a real number from our budget. Our splurge included to mini shakes from Sonic at a dollar each. A tiny splurge, but it was something special that Gabriel and I did together, and it helped us keep from feeling crazy.

Our financial situation ended up getting much worse over the next year, with our main business – the cattle operation – failing miserably.

But even in that, some good things happened. I got more adventurous in my business endeavors, read lots of books, and started dreaming big.

And out of that financial distress, my husband and I talking, and reading books together, we have slowly, finally begun to understand how the other ticks. It’s not that we never talked together before, but I don’t think we really understood each other. We weren’t on the same page.

I can finally say that we’re on the same page with our goals. Maybe we’re on different parts of the page, but it’s the same page. 😉

And that by itself has made a huge difference, because when we talk together casually, there’s an underlying understanding of each other. I can honestly say that when finances pop up in our conversations, it’s not stressful anymore, thanks to these lean times forcing us to communicate about it.

So yes, we tightened the belt even more, found even more creative ways to save and make money, and you know what? Things did get better. No, we’re not anywhere near wealthy (yet), but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve paid off nearly everything, and have made fairly ambitious savings goals for the year.

It really is exciting!

You can be happy – no matter how little money you have. It’s up to you!

Other articles you may enjoy:

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6 Things I Learned From Being Dirt Poor


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  1. You don’t need to be struggling with finances to use these ideas. There is so much ‘entitlement’ out there, especially in the workplace, that’s it’s getting hard for some of us ‘older workers’ to deal with. Great thoughts and pray they’ll help many others.

  2. Love this Elise! We had several years of marriage where we were barely making end’s meet. These points are SO true. Learning to trust, communicate and have our expectations in Jesus makes a world of difference!

  3. Excellent article, Elise. You bring up many points that we should always remember. Attitudes of entitlement have many levels that never occurred to me. Thank you for pointing these out. You are absolutely right and have given me lots of food for thought.

  4. My grandmother left the farm and her children to work in town, sending the money home, so the children could have piano lessons and better things. How was this remembered these generations later? I was shocked to hear my aunts say they felt their mother hated them. My uncles talked about their father always being there for them. At the end of the family reunion, it seemed like my grandmother thought she was giving her children something better but ended up losing her relationship with them. Tragic.

    1. Wow. That IS tragic. And it really speaks to me, because I have strong tendency to want to provide things (like piano lessons – currently looking for a local teacher), rather than just spend time with the kids. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Hello,
    I absolutely agree with most everything that you say. I don’t feel unhappy because I feel like I deserve more, because I don’t.
    I feel very blessed for family & friends..for the things that I have in my life.
    But I suffer from severe depression and anxiety and regardless of how grateful I am, no matter what is going on, I cannot feel happiness. I don’t know what happiness even feels like. Yes I’ve had happy moments in my life, but true happiness? I just don’t even know what that means.
    I don’t even know what would make me happy. I feel like everyday I have nothing to look forward to. Nothing.
    Things that I used to get excited about, I have no intetest in.
    I hate coming home because my house is a disaster yet I can’t even wrap my head around where to start. I have chronic pain and physical limitations. Beyond that, I am inflicted with this horrible fault/quality (depending on the issue) where I see beyond the next step. So its like…Great.. so you sacrifice and sacrifice and you pay all your debt off. okay then what? what’s so great going to happen when I’m out of debt? I’m still not going to have any interest in anything. I’m still not going to be able to do the things that I once wanted to do. What I was once ABLE to do. Its still just work, and at my age, there isnt enough time to invest so you can “Live like no one else”. (Dave Ramsey)
    I WANT to choose happiness, I just can’t find it.
    Medications, supplements, changing diet, therapy, etc. done it all.
    I want to choose happiness but I don’t know how to make my brain feel what my heart wants.
    Sorry, I don’t mean to be all gloomy. It’s a great article, it’s so great that it just touched a very raw nerve in me. so I apologize for the darkness of my post, but I’m hoping someone has an idea I haven’t thought of yet. At the very least, perhaps it will leave someone grateful that they are not me.

    1. I’m so, so sorry, and I wish I knew what to say. My own personal motivation for sacrificing now so we can “live like no one else” is to hopefully pass down better financial habits to my kids, as well as leave them an income-producing inheritance.

      I pray that you find happiness!


    2. While you may not be able to see what is ahead on the road in your life’s journey….know that we all have a purpose and it is revealed in due time. For many that do not suffer from depression, we find ourselves in the same state of mine as you currently are. I think you should try to implement some of the ideas in this article and set some goals that your heart wants to start. Once you have this started, perhaps the brain can be persuaded to get onboard. Check out local volunteer groups/churches/orphanages and see how the interaction with others make you feel, it would really help with the time you spend reminding yourself of how you have nothing to look forward to, plus volunteering gives you something to look forward too.
      I hope this helps and although I do not know you personally, I truly hope things get better for you. The world is a great place with you in it, I promise you that. The best of luck to you!


    3. Been there. Way too many years. It is awful. I know. Scary shit. First time I was able to come out of it, after many years, was with my awesome doctor. Mind you it took quite a few visits to believe anything she was telling me, but I so wanted to be “normal” wanted to be feeling better, wanted something to change. she had a book she worked from, doing cognitive therapy with me. Oh man I argued some points with her as I could not understand it from where I was in my head. She took me off work onto sick benefits so I could at least leave that amount of stress out of my days. I wanted it so bad, so I tried to listen. she recommended books from the library about women who have made changes in their lives. I read these and found more. also picked up anything by women I could find. I realized only i could make the change I needed. It was all up to me. I slowly started doing some yoga just to have a peaceful period each day. I searched out meditations on line I could download for free and really enjoyed them. took me out of my head. Changed my diet too. eating better made another difference I found. It ended up being a lot of little things I put together, like a puzzle. When I read We all deserve to be happy each day, I thought really? I wanted that. still working at all this, but it made me realized I do have control of my life and how I feel. I have that power and by gawd I will use it! wish it hadn’t taken so long. Is my life perfect? No, but much better the last few years. This year I lost my husband and I find myself drifting into bad habits and old thought patterns but I work hard to get out of it. I know now to take somewhat better care of me. We are all we truly have. choices must be made each day if we are to learn and get thru. I must tell you that I went back into a stressful job and had to do it over again. stupid but over. Now I am alone and it is strange. I do hope my words help a little. and I did end up, after much declining, on medication. Took 3 different types before we found one that was ok. My dr told me my brain chemicals were out of whack and I needed to regulate them to think better. Just like when ur blood pressure is off you take something to smooth it out so you don’t have a stroke. So this helps me so I don’t get so down I think shutting off life is the answer. Coz apparently if we don’t learn the lessons we need to while here, and think we can escape this, we are put back to do it all over again. Fk that! lol. This is long I know, i am done now. Love and Light to you girl. It’s your life. Live it your way.

    4. Hello,
      I too differ from depression. I’m married to a wonderful woman who tries to make me happy. Most of the time I feel like I’m just pretending to be happy on the outside but inside, I truly feel like I don’t know how that feels. I try to be positive but it’s soooo hard. We rent and have been for a long time now. I just want to own a place of our own and yet it feels as though no matter how hard I work, or how much money I make, it’s never enough. We just never seem to have enough. As much as I love my wife, she doesn’t know how to save money. If it’s there she’ll spent it. We have had many an argument over this as I am very much a go without person, whereas she is most definitely not. It all seems too hard sometimes. I hate my job but it’s the only one I know how to do and I don’t have the confidence or intelligence to do anything different at my age (46). I hate not being able to look after my wife and make happy by giving her everything she desires. And most of all, I hate myself. It’s hard to get out of this mindset when you’ve had depression for as long as I have (since age 15). I’ve tried so many positive thinking links, but now I’m just so tired. Sorry to be such a downer. Just wanted to let you know that I understand how you feel. I did enjoy reading this article.

  6. Great article. I’m really sorry that you hesitated to post it sooner. I’ve been married for 43 years and have 5 kids and 15 grande. My husband and I grew up in an America that once was great.But over the past 60 or 70 years things have slowly been changing and not for the good. I could write a book on this but just let me say that We have trusted Christ as our Saviour and the rest of the family has too. We know we are here for a purpose and know that God is in control of everything. We have been through awesome times and really hard times but we are blessed with what we have. Our cars and appliances keep going and we have our home and food and each other. I was injured at work 8months ago and am fighting a corrupt insurance system but I know it will all work out. My faith and hop is in Christ.
    Have a blessed day!

  7. I’m so glad I found your post! So many great tips and honestly no one is alone in feeling stress of financial difficulties. And It’s so true a bad additude/outlook won’t get you anywhere. It is hard sometime not to feel overwhelmed but putting on a brave face and thinking positive can sure make a big difference. I thought a lot of your tips were really great and I think there is a lot we all can apply to our own lives. I also have to agree with having a good support system like friends/family is really important because if you don’t it can make things more challenging. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you, take care all. Ashley xxx

    1. Thank you Ashley! Putting on a “brave face” regardless of what your emotions tell you isn’t popular these days, but even studies show that “fake it till you make it” helps you “make it” In other words, faking a good attitude can actually lead to having a good attitude!


  8. For years I prayed for happiness, and then I learned (finally!) that I had to make my own. Giving to others makes me happy, but then it made me financially broke, and didn’t make people love me more, anyway. Now, I’ve learned that giving my TIME and attention to someone less fortunate than I am truly makes me happy!
    Am I in debt? Certainly! I’m 67 and have to scrimp to pay the bills. I handed all my worries over to God a couple of years ago, which gives me serenity. I have to admit, though, that I sometimes “reel them back in” which makes me crazy with financial fears. BUT, I remember, then, that I don’t HAVE to worry, and hand them back to God. I have to attest then, that somehow, the bills get paid, I have enough to eat, my own house, and living a life of GRATITUDE, and THAT makes me happy!
    Thanks for posting your thoughts, and hope it inspires others to realize that perhaps we don’t necessarily have everything we want, but have what we need.

  9. I have to say that wishing for a better car isn’t always entitlement. If you’re poor enough, the better car may mean fewer repair bills (at least for several years, and maybe by then you’ll be doing better) because of fewer breakdowns which will mean, at least temporarily, that you have less to worry about. And then there’s being so poor that you can’t have a car at all. That’s a nightmare. Even in a city with public transit, when all you have access to is a bus which literally eats up your entire day.

    I get your general gist though.

  10. Beautiful informative article.I have to depend on my Medes to get through the day plus “talking” to someone helps. I wish you all the best.

  11. Pingback: 20 Simple Things To Be Happy About + 5 Inspiring Blogs - Dida Did Id
    1. It’s a long story, but in a nutshell, we had moved a herd of cattle from the dry part of Colorado, and they didn’t adjust well to Tennessee, which caused some weak calves, and a poor breed-back rate (so I’m told – honestly, I’m not the cattle expert!). Things definitely got better the next year, although we ended up selling some who continued to do poorly, and we eventually sold them all when we moved to Texas to help out my husband’s parents.

  12. look i realize that attitude is a lot….it really is……and i totally agree with another lady who reminded you that some people have depression…or anxiety…and only meds can fix that….
    but honestly you describing basically a family in poverty just, sucking it up…..i mean..its what the rich tell us stupid lazy poor folks all the time..and its a slap in the face.
    hubby and i were starving to death…..and then we finally through luck made teh move to another state…where there were actual jobs….paying a living wage..magically we arent starving any more…imagine……

    maybe a little less boot strap bs would help everyone.

  13. Hello…raising 4 children on one income was a challenge, but now that my husband and I are entering retirement and have plenty, I can honestly say that I miss those days of being tight. Two more things I would like to add to the list is that lack of funds will develop creativity and also faith. These are cherished lessons in life that I will always remember with fondness. For example, wanting a new curtain for my daughter’s bedroom, I was inspired to cut a set of old set of curtains to make a new one with a pretty ruffle. Also, I will never forget the time when Christmas was coming and we had nothing extra in the budget for gifts. At breakfast my husband and I prayed together and asked God to provide, and when I went to the mailbox that day there was a check for $200! God bless you as you enjoy this special time in your life! Debbie

  14. What an inspiring article Elsie, my husband and I have been through alot in 38 years. We’ve been tested many times, but finding something positive in everyday to be thankful for keeps you going. I am blessed.
    A new chapter in our lives begin…we are now “farming” our 1 acre of land. God bless you and your family!

  15. What a lovely article. I can so relate to your experience and your solutions. We, too, struggled with money problems – even had to declare bankruptcy once – but by staying close to one another and talking through it, we survived. We are almost to retirement now. We’re not wealthy y any stretch of the imagination, but we are comfortable.

    Thank you for sharing.

  16. Thank you. I was in despair when I searched for how to be happy when you’re dirt poor. Life just fell apart in the last 18 months and sometimes feel like I led a great life for the first 40 years and maybe that’s all I was supposed to live. Being poor and suffering isn’t in my dna. Down to my last 150 now, no income, lots of hurdles to overcome. This gives me hope. Thank you.

  17. My husband and I are happy to say, we live off of 1532.00 a month. We own our home. 40 years married and have been frugal everyday. Passing it on to our 9 year old granddaughter. We bake, cook from scratch, hang laundry to dry. Loving life.

  18. This article was helpful! In this society (as opposed to places where ppl live in 1 eoom huts and still stay happy), it’s a unique but very valid perspective. It IS critical to avoid feeling entitled. Good points.

  19. Good advice but at least you had a business. Many haven’t even that and if on welfare it sometimes is mordant secure and pays similar to working. Also the gods gift bit is only for believers for me it’s a copout

  20. We can all have more when we pay less! The biggest problems that I have found in cutting costs was not seeing the invisible or behavioral costs we justify when we splurge. I’ve cut well over $1,000 a month of expenses since retirement and a LOT of that was simply from not looking at the total costs. Not only did I cut $120 a month when I cut cable television but I have saved the 8% tax and the $5-7 per month of electricity to run that cable box and DVR 24/7. I am also saving the time involved from watching commercials that can now be used to earn or save money in other ways. I cannot tell anyone else how to tame their budgets to match their priorities and values but I CAN say that the results are worth the time investments.

  21. This really touched my soul and has given me peace. Great ideas on looking at my current situation. We are currently in a “hunker down” season with our finances. I am realizing, or God is showing me, that we had some bad spending habits from the past so this current struggle is a shock to our system. It is humbling. It is just a season, and there is a light at the end. Resources are starting to take root and give us relief. Thank you for posting this!

  22. Having grown up in an area where a far worse version of these (actually good) ideas were drilled into my head on a constant basis, I came up with my own version of this kind of thing. it goes a little like this: go your own way. Let emotions come. Happiness isn’t the end all be all. Virtue is. Also, I feel it’s important to mention depression or other medical conditions can and will tank all good intentions for some people so these tips will not work for everyone; please be gentle with them if you feel like telling someone how to feel better. They’ve probably heard similar.

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