In my previous post, I talked about some causes of poverty. Now I’ll be sharing strategies and ideas to overcome and get out of poverty slowly, steps that you can personally take to break your financial cycle.
I did not discover these ideas all at once. These are the result of years of personal experience, thinking about stuff, deep conversations with people, and reading books and articles in different subjects including personal finance, logic, feminism, public policy, even fiction.
I did not just wake up one day, and then bam! ideas! It took time. I’m sure there are a lot of other tips I haven’t heard of yet.
Before I start my TED talk, I want to emphasize the need to be kind both to yourself and to your family.
In the long journey to get out of poverty, there will times when you will alternately hate:
- yourself (for not being good enough)
- your parents (for bringing you to this world or making you their “retirement plan”)
- the government (those corrupt politicians! grrrrr!)
- the world (because it’s unfair) and
- maybe even the universe or whatever deity you believe in (“why have you forsaken meeeee”)
As I pointed out in Part 1, if your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were poor, it’s most likely not your or your parents’ fault that you guys are poor.
Circumstances were stacked against you.
GETTING OUT OF POVERTY 101
So now, I present in no particular order, what I call Get Out of Poverty 101. This is going to be long; you don’t have to finish reading this post in one go.
Feel free to try these tips one at a time, cherry pick them, or combine with other ideas or strategies you already have.
Read it in parts, get a drink or eat tacos while reading, whatever.
1. BE REALISTIC/DON'T BE DELUSIONAL
Yeah, so I just said that these tips are not arranged in any particular order but I highly suggest you start with this one.
The first step in getting out poverty is to realistically assess your situation as it is, right now.
This may include a review of your finances, education, work background, family support, and other related things I may not even be aware of but are applicable to you.
Do not factor in things that may possibly happen in the future in your assessment just yet.
For example, do not rely on a possible promotion and the attendant wage increase your boss promised unless it’s on paper. And even until then, that promotion’s not final and things might not work out the way you imagined.
Or maybe you think that you can convert your interest in hip-hop dance into a career in television. Unless you’re a skilled and trained dancer, are attractive, and lucky enough to belong to a dance company that has connections in the dance world and showbiz, the likelihood of you dancing on television for the big bucks is very slim.
This is the time to be honest with yourself. We cannot control circumstance and it’s better to be realistic than to be delusional.
We paint pretty pictures in our heads filled with the best versions of ourselves and the best possible outcomes for our plans. Our hopes cloud our judgment and blind us to what is actually right in front of us.
- You might not be as talented as you think you are.
- The increase you will get from the promotion is less than what you thought it would be.
- Career opportunities for the degree you’re pursuing are actually fewer than you previously thought.
So what to do?
If you’re about to enter college and are agonizing what program to take, remember this very important thing: you are poor.
If you’re a student:
- Work hard to be accepted in a state university so that you can finish college for free.
- Take a degree leading to a solid career both in the Philippines and abroad that won’t make you kill yourself.
If you’re already working and want to be promoted or get a higher salary:
- Start by listing down your education, skills, work experiences, training. What among these can help propel you to a higher position or to a higher wage in a different company, or maybe, even in a different industry?
- Do you need to retrain or acquire certain skills? Read up.
Research has never been easier because of the internet and social media. You can just post questions in Reddit or Facebook groups and people will bombard you with tips and personal anecdotes.
For example, I mentioned in my post about tracking real hourly wages that I worked in the BPO/call center industry before. In my first year of working in a call center, I noticed that those who belong in financial accounts had higher basic salaries compared to those who are in general customer service.
So I systematically hopped companies, joining financial accounts and improving my spoken English (I wasn’t very confident with my English), earning several pay increases in the process.
My salary increased so much in my last company that I was able to attend graduate school and switch to another industry, where I’m happily still employed.
It took me only 5.5 years to go from a shade above minimum wage to having enough extra income to be able to spend money on graduate studies.
It started with my realistic assessment of my skills and the demands of the job market followed by strategically exploiting the need of financial companies transferring their operations to the Philippines for skilled employees with years of experience.
I felt bad for our American trainers because they lost their Wall Street jobs after their jobs were outsourced to us at lower cost but the situation was a great opportunity for me and my coworkers.
Track your net worth
It’s crucial to find out the real status of your finances. I know it can be scary listing down your scant savings side by side your many expenses and debts.
I did not track my net worth for years because I was so afraid of facing the reality that my net worth was actually less than zero.
For years I had negative net worth.
But, how will you exactly assess your situation and the steps you need to take unless you find out how much your assets and debts are? The outcome of you tracking your network could be:
- Your financial situation is worse than you thought and you OWE WAY MORE than the ballpark figure you have in your brain.
- Your financial situation is better than you thought and that you OWE LESS than the ballpark figure you have in your head.
- Your financial situation is exactly the way you think it is.
One way or the other, you will know where you stand and you can now take steps to improve your finances.
2. EXAMINE YOUR SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
This is a big one. I’m almost scared writing this down because I may be accused of demonizing/belittling poor people, which is obviously what I’m not doing as a former poor person myself.
Also, harmful traits and environments are not restricted to poor families only; these are also common in higher income families. If you feel that your social environment including family, friends, and acquaintances are bringing you down and making it hard for you to achieve you goals, limit contact with them.
Think twice before accepting advice from your family
Most parents want to prepare their kids to succeed in the real world and prepare them as much as possible. But sometimes, due to lack of experience or bullheadedness, they give bad advice to their offspring.
Many of these are about which course to take in college and how to navigate the professional world.
For instance, when I was about to enter college, my father just read Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad (he hasn’t recovered since). With the conviction of a new convert, he counseled us kids that our college degrees wouldn’t matter as long as we can speak English because even college drop-outs like Bill Gates become billionaires.
As a good offspring, I didn’t really question this claim and was actually a huge believer of Kiyosaki myself. In my defense I was 16.
Obviously, I was too uninformed to point out that Rich Dad was a figment of Kiyosaki’s imagination and that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Harvard! Even if he didn’t attend one Harvard class he probably would have ended up rich because
- his family was already rich and engaged enough to ensure that he get into Harvard
- he lived in the USA, the land of milk and honey itself and
- he was already highly skilled in an emerging and profitable technology
There was no way that poor me graduating in the Philippines wielding a random degree can conceivably compare to that.
But what my father latched on were the words: college, drop-out, and rich.
What happened was by enrollment, I chose the degree which I felt was “me”, had the cutest uniforms in the university, and with almost zero employment opportunities (I was a dumb kid).
I chose this despite the fact that I was also accepted into an IT program with almost guaranteed employment after graduation.
Worse, I passed this horrible advice to my younger sister. When we graduated from college (she graduated 4 years after I did) we didn’t know what to do with our diplomas and where to go. Graduates of multidisciplinary and social studies were not really in demand in the labor market.
We love and trust our family but we also have to careful because in the end, we would be the ones who will live with the consequences of bad advice. They have our best interest at heart but sometimes their advice can actually harm us.
As for my father, I don’t blame him at all. He loved his children, wanted the best for us, and gave us advice that he believed would give us a better future.
He himself didn’t get similar care and instruction from his own parents. He didn’t go to college. His words of wisdom were clumsily culled from self-help and financial books that were written under different contexts, newspaper columns, television talkingheads, and folk wisdom.
Looking back, we now know that we were given bad advice by somebody who loved us and we suffered because of it.
But it’s hard if you’re young and have no access to outside information that will give you a deeper perspective on your career and professional life.
So if you know a kid about to enter the university or the workforce perhaps you can share this blog post?
Look elsewhere for career mentorship
One of my biggest struggles when I was finally ready to join the workforce was how to apply for jobs. And then when I finally landed a job, how to navigate a professional office setting.
See, nobody in my family has worked in an air conditioned office before, let alone one with computers, phones, and health insurance.
Nobody planned to hold a supervisory or managerial position since the landowner where my ancestors labored just pointed to whoever they liked and declared that they’re now encargado of the sugar plantation.
So obviously when I had my sights set to higher positions in the call center, nobody in my family had any input to give, apart from loving assurances that I can do it and to give it the best I can.
I have always been told by my family and community that I can do anything I set my mind to but nobody was able to tell me how.
The poor are disadvantaged when joining the corporate world because we have no one to model our careers and work behaviors from.
I was literally the first in our clan to join a multinational corporation. Nobody was able to clue me in on the importance of networking, how to position myself for promotion, and other things people normally do in the corporate setting.
Even my work outfits just barely looked professional because nobody taught me how to pick proper professional clothes. My younger sister had it better when she graduated from college because I was able to clue her in on what’s up.
You have no choice. You have to actively look outside your family for mentorship and support.
Talk to your professors, immediate bosses, friends’ parents. Join groups of like-minded people on the internet. Many career advice resources are free but some services you can pay for. One of my favorite websites, Get Bullish, is a great resource on being a badass female unicorn in the workplace and even offer career pep talk, guidance, and feminism for a monthly fee.
If you’re already at a level wherein you’ve exhausted everyone’s (free) expertise and need the help of a network of badass women, you might consider subscribing with the Bullish Society or a similar service.
Family as source of support
On the other hand, what poor families – especially those who live together – have in abundance is free childcare and labor.
I’m not saying that you should abuse your family’s free time and good will. But if you’re a single parent, your immediate family can help you in taking care of your child when you’re at work.
If you and your spouse need to hustle, you can hire a family member to care for your offspring. Not only are you sure that your child will not be one of those kids hurt by abusive nannies, you also get to pass along your relative good fortune to the rest of your clan by providing one of them a safe job. (P.S. if you’re not from the Philippines: Here, hiring nannies and house help is not only for the rich. Due to lack of jobs and cheap labor, people with a bit of extra income can afford to hire nannies and helpers.)
3. DON'T SUBSCRIBE TO, OR PERPETUATE, BURGIS IDEAS
Burgis is the Filipino slang for bourgeoisie.
What I’m saying is, stop listening to your middle class and rich friends who agonize over which degree to pursue in college, or whether they should seriously work on their careers when it’s only their first job and not what they actually want to do in life.
If you’re poor and the rest of your family is poor, I’m sorry to tell you that you don’t have this luxury. Sure you can do these things but in the end your friends will have support from their respective families and their money, and you’re still poor.
I’m not saying that poor people are doomed to be drones, forever pursuing unfulfilling careers that they only chose for money.
But consider this. How many of us really know what we want to do in life when we’re 16, 17, and even 20s?
There may be a few of us who had a strong sense of personal mission that they already knew what they want in life from a young age, pursued it afterwards without regret, AND able to get profitable employment from said mission.
For the vast majority of teens and young adults, this is not the case. So, our jobs don’t have to be based on what degrees we took while we were younger and clueless
"Pursue your passion" is crap advice
So if you’re in college or young enough to pursue further education, get a degree that will lead to a career that will give you great income and you don’t hate.
If in the future you do find your calling, good for you.
But melding a career with passion is not a prerequisite to a fulfilling career and life well-lived. Earning enough to get out of poverty and helping your family in the process is already a worthy, fulfilling goal.
There’s no shame in being a “regular” employee.
This is related to another idea that many in my generation and the internet need to realize: most probably, you can’t make a career out of your passion.
Among the delusions we have is that we can only be happy if we have the career we are passionate about.
But how many dancers, cosplayers, musicians can the economy support? I mean, I know we should all support the arts because they make life worth living but you don’t have to do them professionally, especially when you’re in poverty and have no other source of regular, stable income.
And I hate to remind you, but you’re poor.
Pursue your passions in your spare time and weekends. For the moment, exchange your life for money until you get out of poverty.
Take whatever job you are lucky to land seriously. Even if you’re not planning on making a long-term career out of it, your experience will help you develop your work ethic.
Cultivate transferable skills such as fluency in written and spoken English, customer service, problem solving, and delivering solutions, all of which you can develop even in call centers and BPOs.
Network with your colleagues and bosses. Often the best job openings are spread through word of mouth and are filled before they are advertised. Even if you don’t see yourself staying long at this “temporary” job, give it your best and learn from them as much as you can.
4. USE TUNNEL THINKING TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Tunnel thinking is the tendency to focus attention to the problem immediately in front of you while ignoring other stuff that may be more important but do not require immediate action.
Basically, it means that the mind will turn powerfully toward unfulfilled, immediate needs to address what’s scarce in your life.
For the hungry, the mind will turn to getting food.
For the lonely, relationships. For the worker who’s facing a deadline, work.
We become more attentive and efficient in solving our immediate unfilled need.
Things outside of the tunnel are oftentimes left out, deferred, or forgotten.
I know of families who can get by and even thrive with very little money with the power of tunneling.
It was not uncommon in my neighborhood for people to knock on doors early in the morning to borrow 20 pesos for food or school pocket money for kids until the father comes home from work. The mother would scour the entire neighborhood, focusing all thoughts and efforts until she finds somebody who has an extra bill to lend her.
But, this same laser-focus and efficiency impairs other functions. She loses brain bandwidth for thinking about more important stuff, like how to properly plan and budget money that comes in so that she doesn’t have to be constantly asking for loans. This same laser focus and efficiency perpetuates poverty.
People who experience constant scarcity can’t help themselves; that’s how the human brain works when faced with scarcity.
I read the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives last year and I was laughing and nodding my head in agreement all the while because the book is consistent with what I experienced and observed.
Just knowing about this tendency will help you in weighing and making decisions, to determine whether you’re being logical and strategic instead of operating in auto-pilot.
Weaponize tunnel thinking to zero in on a goal
Knowing that the human brain behaves this way, you can harness tunneling to your advantage.
The immediate, unfulfilled need that you need addressed right now: poverty.
Everything else: peripheral, can be deferred, or forgotten altogether. Eyes on the prize.
Always give yourself constant reminders what your goal is. Actively influence what you see in the tunnel and make getting out of poverty at the top of your mind. Use your goal of getting out of poverty the foremost reason for your daily actions.
- Carefully study the product handbook so you can be a more effective salesperson to get out of poverty.
- Study really hard and focus to get high grades and graduate with honors so that you can get great job offers and get out poverty.
- Power through your daily 9 to 5 and exchange your life force for money to get out of poverty.
You’re not just reading, studying, or typing; you’re working to get out of poverty.
I have a friend who’s famous in our group for doing this. After college, nobody had any contact with F. Last we heard, F was in law school. Nobody heard from F in years. Then about 5-6 years later, F reappeared, wielding a law degree, pursuing graduate law studies, hobnobbing with Court of Appeals and Supreme Court justices.
F became lead legal counsel of one of the country’s biggest companies at relatively young age because of laser focus.
The rest of the group and F continued our friendship as usual, no harm done. We all knew F is driven and ruthless in the pursuit of goals.
And F wasn’t even poor.
You don’t have to be poor to weaponize the tunnel thinking.
5. CREATE SLACK
Slack is the extra money or time on top of the exact amount needed to complete a task or goal.
- If you give yourself only the exact money or time to complete a task or goal, you have no slack.
- If you have more than enough time or money to finish a goal, you have slack.
- The more time or money you give yourself to complete a task, the more slack you have.
Slack is crucial because it’s the factor that frees us from making trade-offs.
For example: you need money right now to pay for an emergency rabies shot for your kid. Do you:
- Pay for the shots in full.
- Borrow money from the neighborhood 5-6 lender.
- Wash the wound vigorously with soap and garlic and keep an eye on the offending dog if it starts acting weird. At the same time, start praying to St. Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations.
The answer depends on how much money you can deploy asap.
If you have money tucked in, you will feel that the expense may be stiff but worth it. You have to take money away from your savings account BUT this is exactly the type of eventuality that you’ve been preparing for.
If you have no money right now but will collect salary at the 30th, you will think that the 20 percent interest is acceptable given that you need the money right away. Sure, the rate is usurious but what other choice do you have, especially on such short notice?
In the first two situations, the choices were pretty clear. But what happens when you have negative slack? Your emergency becomes a tragedy.
I may have made such a dramatic example but when you’re poor (and unprepared), an inconvenience can turn into a devastating emergency real fast. A lost 100 peso bill, an abscessed tooth, a missed train on the day of an important interview can keep you in your financial vicious cycle.
So how do we begin creating slack?
Build a baby emergency fund
We begin by slowly building an emergency fund.
The usual recommendation is for people to accumulate at least 3 to 6 months expenses saved in cash. Unfortunately for many of us, that’s a very hard goal to hit especially if you’re earning minimum wage.
So instead of 3-6 months of expenses, start with a baby emergency fund.
A baby emergency fund is the minimum amount you think can help you solve your most common emergencies.
Only you can know how much this amount is, but even a spare Php 1,000 pesos in your pocket can mitigate emergencies from becoming disasters.
Do everything you can to build your baby emergency fund as soon as you can to Php 10,000, then Php 20,000, and beyond.
Return empty bottles to the store to claim the deposit, sell old newspapers and magazines lying around to the junk shop, hold an ukay-ukay of your old clothes and other stuff. Sell everything extra for cash.
A baby emergency will be your buffer from disaster, so time is of the essence. Keep in mind that during emergencies, having the money on hand is very important. Don’t think that you can skip this step by relying on credit cards or waiting for your next salary to come in.
We want the money to be there to be used to save us from having to think of trade offs in times of emergency.
When do we build this baby emergency fund? During times of abundance.
Every bonus, 13th month pay, refunds, should be saved until you have your baby emergency fund.
Pay down all debts
After you have a reasonable baby emergency fund, pay down all your debts.
The money you pay on high-interest loans such as credit card debts and money borrowed from your neighborhood loan sharks.
Use the snowball method to motivate yourself, building your momentum slowly by paying off the smallest debt. To do this:
- Write down all your debts
- Zero in on the lowest balance
- Continue paying the MINIMUM amount on your other debts
- Use the rest of your money to pay off the smallest debt
- Once the smallest debt is paid off, pay off the next smallest debt
- Repeat until all debts are paid off
After paying off your debts, you can build a full emergency fund. You can also use your newly-freed up money for more fruitful expenses, like further education that can help you get ahead in your career like training, certifications, and seminars, as well as cultivating your network.
These expenses can pay dividends for your future.
I described the snowball method more fully in my post about implementing Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover in the Philippines. If you’re a fan of Dave, you might want to check it out.
Reduce your fixed expenses
Another important step to break your financial cycle is examining your fixed expenses and ruthlessly reducing them.
Fixed expenses cost the same amount each month, like your house mortgage or rent, groceries, your kid’s school fees, and utilities. These expenses make up the biggest chunk of our monthly budget so it only makes sense that this is the first place we look at if we want to be able to save.
Contrary to what most people believe, it is not the occasional luxuries you indulge in that prevents you from saving. These occasional luxuries can be cut in lean times.
But if you’ve arranged your life so that your entire salary is already allocated for your fixed expenses , then you have little to no slack and you will be very vulnerable in times of emergencies because you have nothing else to cut.
Thoughtfully examine your fixed expenses. You may be paying too much for your apartment. Or maybe you’re taking Uber, Grab, or Lyft to work too often instead of using public transportation.
Perhaps your kid doesn’t have to attend an expensive, private kindergarten when a neighborhood center is decently outfitted to teach children their age.
6. OPEN DOORS AND OPTIONS
One of the most powerful things that you can do to change the trajectory of your life is opening doors of opportunity for yourself and giving yourself the luxury of having options.
Whatever you’re doing right now, whether you’re a college student, a housewife, an employee, an expat, you need options.
- Pinpoint a strategic industry that pays well for a lot of people (like IT) and not only for select few (like say, yoga) and you have a reasonable interest in.
- Slowly build skills and competence in this industry, even if you’re not planning on shifting to that industry in the near future just yet.
We’re lucky to be living at a time when most of the world’s knowledge is accessible through the internet. We now have the opportunity to learn many or all the things through the internet.
Instead of whiling your time away in social media, use your time online learning valuable skills for future profit.
I know for a fact that cybersecurity is one of the fastest growing sectors where specialist have almost zero percent unemployment rate.
You can take courses on cybersecurity online for very minimal fees in places like Udemy, and Coursera. You can build your skills while slowly connecting with industry experts via Twitter or by participating in online fora. A great online course that has a fantastic online community with participants from all over the world is the famous Harvard class, CS50.
Or, you can also learn a profitable foreign language online since many call centers and BPOs pay premium rates for foreign language speakers. Start by using Duolingo then proceed to the many free online resources available.
While you’re at it, cultivate your network. Foster and maintain close ties to people you respect in your office, even if you’re both at the same level.
Be (positively) noticed by your bosses by contributing in your workplace. Maintain connections with people you meet in trade shows, seminars, and symposia.
I know many of us who grew up poor think negatively of networking because we’re raised to think that this is equivalent to sucking up to your superiors. We all hate the students and fellow employees who are chummy with the teachers and bosses.
But teachers and bosses are only human with their own agenda, which is to advance their own careers. Don’t think that networking is a one-way street, with the one in a lower position having all of the advantages. Oftentimes, it goes both ways.
The student may become a recruiter who can recommend his former teacher to his firm.
Or the employee becomes the foothold of his former boss to be able to join a new firm.
Networking is a symbiotic relationship with both parties gaining from each other’s networks, knowledge, and prestige.
As much as you can, open as many doors of opportunity for yourself. Be prepared and someday your chance will come.
I hope you learned something from this very long post.
Again, as I said earlier, you don’t have to read it in one go. You can read one portion at a time or revisit this post every once in a while. If you want, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
I’m interested to know other ways people use to break their financial vicious cycle and eventually get out of poverty. Let’s connect in the comments!