5 Lessons I Learned From Growing Up In The Ghetto (And How They Helped Me On The Road To Financial Independence)

“Just like a rocket ship needs a lot of fuel (energy) to escape Earth’s gravitational pull before it can get into the freedom of space, to escape the ghetto we needed to expend a lot of energy in the form of hard work to gather enough money to escape the gravitational pull of the ghetto and into the freedom of a better life.”
-Jack The Dreamer


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Today’s post is written by Jack who blogs about fire, personal finance, and minimalism at Jack The Dreamer.

I first came across Jack’s blog when an article of his was featured on Rockstar finance.  The article was titled What Living On A Farm For A Year Taught Me About Financial Independence And Life.  I really enjoyed reading it, and I think you will, too!  Check it out after reading this post.

Instead of writing about the lessons he learned on the farm, today he will be sharing the lessons he learned while growing up in the ghetto.

The Inspiration

Peerless Money Mentor’s article “Growing Up In The Ghetto” inspired me to reach out to him because I also grew up in the ghetto and eventually my family made it out with money from starting our own business.

Reading his article was very nice because I was like, “Ah! Someone who grew up in similar circumstances and understands!”

His article made me re-assess how growing up in the ghetto during my formative years affected me.

I say this because ever since we left, I never really took a good hard look at how the ghetto affected me, from how I walked and talked, to how I dressed, thought, and ultimately, how it affected my path to being financial independent.

A Short Story

Before we begin, I want to share with you a short story of our first year in the ghetto.

We came to America from Thailand after losing all of our money in the Thai stock market crash of the late 1990’s.

We didn’t have much money so we settled in a ghetto in Connecticut.

I was super young and was asleep in the back seat of our family’s minivan when my dad stepped out to unlock the door to the apartment.

Someone hopped into the driver’s side and drove off with the car, with me still asleep in the back seat.

Luckily I woke up to a cop waking me up.

Cops apparently found and cornered the car and both the car and I were saved.

I vaguely remember being wrapped in a blanket while waiting for my parents to come meet us to get me and the car.

Imagine how life would have turned out if cops couldn’t find the car?

Would I still be in the ghetto?

Would the thief have dropped me off somewhere and driven away with the car?

Or would I have been taken into the criminal underworld and trained to become a drug dealing mule? A dangerous Asian thug without a cause? Another child foot soldier in the struggle against life?


Without further adieu, here are the 5 Lessons I learned from growing up in the ghetto and how they relate to striving for financial independence.

1) Being Different Can Make You Stronger (And Richer)

We moved to another ghetto outside of New York City.

My parents each worked 3 jobs and saved up money for 3 years before opening a restaurant.

They opened a restaurant because it didn’t require a college degree, their English wasn’t that good, and it allowed them to be their own bosses.

Also, they came from a small business background in Thailand, and according to Robert Kiyosaki’s Cash Flow Quadrant from Rich Dad, Poor Dad, once you’re in a certain quadrant, you tend to stay there.

The 4 quadrants are employee, small business employer, big business employer, and investor.

My family have been in the small business quadrant for close to a hundred years in Thailand, and I’m looking to grow myself beyond that and break the dynastic cycle of platitudes.

But that’s a post for another day.

Back to the story.

Other kids probably resented me and my siblings because we had a business while their parents were either illegal immigrants, unemployed, or in Section 8 low-income housing barely getting by.

And because we looked different from them, we were Asian while they were majority black and Hispanic, they bullied us by making racial slurs.

Mind you, this was back in middle school.

I was one of two Asian families in the school system.

The other Asian family was rich and came from the richer neighborhood and had richer friends.

So they were isolated from the struggles and bullying my poorer Asian family experienced.

I remember how every morning was a struggle to stay safe while waiting for the school bus in front of the projects.

The kids from the projects would always be playing wall ball before the bus came or looking for people to bother when they were bored.

I mainly kept my head down and tried to act like their taunts didn’t bother me.

But my brother got the full brunt of their racism and bullying because he was younger and more sensitive.

They knew they could easily make him cry so I always felt bad for him.

I didn’t stand up for him because I was worried about what would happen to me if I did.

I feared bodily harm form the bullies.

Looking back, I am ashamed at how weak I was but also at how I lacked the necessary tools to deal with the bullying.

At the time, I didn’t know conflict resolution techniques.

What Did This Teach Me?

It taught me to have thicker skin. That sometimes, life won’t always be fair.

This inspirational scene with Rocky Balboa talking to his son epitomizes how I feel on this matter.

HD - Rocky Balboa (2006) - inspirational speech

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain"t all sunshine and rainbows. It"s a very mean and nasty place and I don"t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.



“Sometimes life will beat you to your knees and keep you there if you let it. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. Because that’s how winning is done!”

From being bullied and developing a thicker skin, I now could care less how people judge me and my actions on route to financial independence.

I sleep on the floor.

I gave away 95% (over 1500) of my books from my personal library.

I now live out of my duffel bag after giving away closets full of clothes.

Jack The Dreamer living out of a duffel bag
My duffel bag

Heck, those difficult times helped me embrace my differences, because being an effective entrepreneur means doing things differently from what the status quo have been doing.

I do quirky and different things compared to my friends and I have more in my Vanguard index funds than the majority of them do in all of their 401k and savings accounts, all the while earning less than they do.

Don’t be afraid to be different if you truly think you’ll be better off.

Even if this means doing the dirtier, grittier job or side hustle in order to earn and invest more money than everyone around you.

2) Have A Proactive Growth Mindset

I remember in college reading about how successful people have a proactive mindset while less successful people have reactive mindsets.

For example, a person with a proactive mindset might think, “Okay, I’m not where I want to be, what do I need to do to get to where I want to be?”

A reactive mindset person might think, “I’m here in this crap ghetto because of the President, the government, my parents, etc.”

I remember growing up in this reactive environment.

If we’re one part nature and one part nurture, you can imagine, I was a very reactive and angsty teenager constantly complaining to my family about all the things we DIDN’T have.

Only years later did I realize that I wasn’t appreciative about all the things we DID have.

I also grew up around reactive people with extractive mindsets that affected my mindset early on.

I always thought, “What can I get from them?” Or “What can I get from this situation?”

Whereas my father had to keep reminding me that doing business is not about what you can GET from the other person.

It’s about what you can GIVE to the other person.

Another way to put this is: what value can you add to the customer’s life? Focus only on that and the money will take care of itself.

And every now and again when I feel my like I’ve wandered too far from the proactive entrepreneur path, I try to remember those words by my father to add value to the customer first.

So be more proactive when heading toward any goal and think about the things that you can change, instead of complaining about all the things you cannot change.

Focus on your circle of influence.

Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People calls this your “Circle of Influence.”

Too many people spend most of their time concerned about things they can’t change, things outside of their circle of influence.

But if you start to focus your energy inside your circle of influence, your life will start to change for the better.

Also, T. Harv Eker in his book, Secrets of The Millionaire Mind, mentions how, after he made his money and moved into the rich neighborhood, he had limiting beliefs from his dad that rich people were mean.

After meeting the rich people in his neighborhood, he found them to actually be the nicest people he’s ever met, and they were always looking to help others.

I know it’s beating a dead horse with this, but it’s about mindset.

It’s also about how can you grow and give back to the world that has given you so much.

Grow yourself. Then grow others.

3) Self Reliance And Sufficiency

In the ghetto, I tried to walk with friends because there was safety in numbers.

Walking by yourself can spell trouble if groups of kids wanted to bother you.

For example, I was walking down the street with my brother and his friend. Remember, we were in middle school.

We were going to his friend’s apartment to hang out when, during the walk, his friend told us about the allowance he just got and showed it to us, very briefly.

And I guess we were too naive at the time to notice the small group of guys who started following us until it was too late.

Thinking quickly, we dashed through a McDonald’s and thought we were safe when we went out the back.

But they were waiting for us on the other side.

By now their group had gotten bigger and they surrounded us outside the McDonald’s.

They pushed me and my brother away and jumped my brother’s friend.

They punched him in the gut and knocked him to the ground.

“Where’s our money!” they shouted at him, wanting his allowance.

Before they could hit him again, just as they were about to strike, we hear the all too familiar sound of cop sirens.

“Hey! What are you kids doing?” shouted the police officer from the cop car.

At the sight of the cop car, the group of hoodlums ran away, and the three of us were saved.

I’ve never been so glad to see cops.

What did this teach me?

This incident taught me to be more aware of my surroundings from then on.

It also taught me to never take money out in public.

Because of this, I’ve developed faster, more discreet, methods of handling money in public, whether in America or traveling abroad, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

When you’re by yourself, you learn to be more self reliant, after all, there might not be anyone nearby to help you.

You learn self sufficiency, “can I take care of myself should the need arise?”

And you learn self protection.

I took up karate for a bit. Learned a little bit of Muay Thai.

I started working out when I got to high school.

Not saying any of this will help if the next confrontation should ever arise, but it’s better than not knowing them at all.

How does this relate to reaching financial independence?

When I emailed FIRECracker from the financial independence blog, Millennial Revolution, to ask her about financial advisors, she mentioned how by the time I reach FIRE, chances are, I wouldn’t even need one.

This comes from being self sufficient and training your money muscles to be able to provide for your future, and protect yourself again hard times, should the need ever arise.

4) Have Patience

It took my parents 3 years working 3 jobs per person until they had enough money to open their own little restaurant in the ghetto.

Luckily, rich white folks from nearby neighborhoods would venture to eat at our restaurant because the food was some of the best in the county.

Like we won awards for best Thai food, got featured in the local magazines, newspapers, etc.

Then it took them 7 years in that little restaurant to save up enough money to get out of the ghetto.

Then we found a better location for our restaurant in a more affluent neighborhood and moved there.

Now, this year marks our 10th year anniversary in the new location.

The lesson is, whatever hardships you may be enduring right now, have patience and never stop looking for a way out.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years.

And Daymond John, the founder of FUBU, who is always on Shark Tank, said that “the average overnight success takes 15 years.”

Those 7 years in the ghetto were filled with balancing racial tensions, racism, bullying, and straight up hate crimes.

One time, we opened our door to find that someone had taken the time to poop on our doorstep.

Not cool, man.

So have patience.

Continue to work on improving yourself and one day, you will reach escape velocity and have the lifestyle you want.

5) Out Work Everyone

We had to out work everyone to leave the ghetto.

If we only worked as lackadaisical as everyone else around us, we would have stayed in that ghetto.

If we were as smart as everyone else in the ghetto, we would have stayed there too.

We had to work harder, be smarter, and be more business savvy than everyone around us.

Just like a rocket ship needs a lot of fuel (energy) to escape Earth’s gravitational pull before it can get into the freedom of space, to escape the ghetto we needed to expend a lot of energy in the form of hard work to gather enough money to escape the gravitational pull of the ghetto and into the freedom of a better life.

Work smart, save smarter, and move up the socioeconomic ladder.

The last time I checked up on the people I grew up with was 6 years ago.

They were either dead, still drug dealing on the streets, in prison, on drugs, obese, working dead end jobs doing nothing to better their lives, etc.

I remember seeing this quote on Twitter: “Being poor is hard. Being rich is hard. Choose your hard.”

I’m currently reading “From Third World to First” by Lee Kuan Yew, the man who helped lift Singapore from a third world country into a first world nation. (Was inspired to read it after watching Crazy Rich Asians).

In one of the chapters, he mentioned how the ethos in Singapore was to provide cheaper yet better goods than what was currently being produced by other countries.

They worked harder to create faster, cheaper, and better products and opportunities than their neighbors (Malaysia and Indonesia).

Surpass The Joneses

This reminded me of the saying we have in America, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

If all we do is worry about keeping up with the Jones family, we will only ever be as good as them.


We want to surpass the Joneses.

We want to beat them.

We want to be better than them.

Otherwise, we’d be stuck in the same plateau as them and then how would life progress?

Looking back, I can see that my parents weren’t content with keeping up with the ghetto Joneses around us because it was a race to the bottom of “who can appear poor?”

Remember, if you appeared rich, you got jumped.

Also Section 8 low-income housing can disincentivize people from getting richer because the rent goes up if your income goes up.

So there were people who kept their income low in order to keep paying low rent.

This caused them to be stuck in a purgatorial state of low income.

Some people would engage in illegal sources of income like drug dealing or selling things illegally without a license.

This allowed them to not report higher income to escape paying higher rent.

Ideally, you work harder, make more money, save and invest more money even though you pay higher rent.

And then eventually, you reach escape velocity and can afford to live in a better neighborhood with less crime, death, and drugs.

But I understand that if your parents didn’t speak English nor strove to learn English, they could stay stuck in that poverty trap because they couldn’t earn higher than a certain wage in a certain job, e.g., dishwashing (which my dad originally did).

And there are only so many hours in a day where you can work two to three jobs.

At some point, you gotta sleep or your body breaks down.

It’s a perilous position to be in and you can get stuck in it if you’re not careful.

I was lucky to have parents who didn’t take government handouts, who didn’t beg, and who fought tooth and nail with everything they had to get us out.

Like Lee Kuan Yew’s Singaporean ethos when he was building up Singapore after their independence from Malaysia, “We will not sit by the begging bowl.”

Our Moral Obligation

We have a moral obligation to use our GIFT OF LIFE to the fullest extent of our abilities.

To always seek to think better, do better, and become better than who we were yesterday.

It’s not about keeping up with The Joneses.

It’s not about surpassing them either.

It’s about surpassing yourself.

The last, last, time I checked on the ghetto was about four years ago and gone were the gangs standing at the street corners of the projects.

The streets looked cleaner.

They felt safer.

I saw white people jogging around (a usual indicator of safety).

I say this because when I was growing up, white people jogging these streets were a rare sight.

Via gentrification, more high-income condominiums were being built in the neighborhood all around the projects.

This attracted families and high-earning millennials from NYC to live here and use the train station nearby to commute into the city for work.

Within the next ten to twenty years, the ghetto I grew up in will be a remnant of a figment of my distant memory.

And while the ghetto itself may change, the effects it had on the landscape of my life will always remain with me.

Community Feedback

  • How can you apply some of the lesson’s Jack learned while growing up in the ghetto to improve your life?
  • Has there been a time in your life when you struggled?  How did you bounce back?
  • Have you ever lived in a low-income environment?  What was your experience like?

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Author: Jerry

Jerry is a Business Insider Contributing Writer who is obsessed with personal finance. He believes you can improve your financial situation by applying principles taught by the financial independence community to your financial life.

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5 thoughts on “5 Lessons I Learned From Growing Up In The Ghetto (And How They Helped Me On The Road To Financial Independence)

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Jack. I have so much respect for families able to escape poverty. I know it’s not hard and the barriers are high, so props to you all.

    Jerry, you may be on to something with these stories. Maybe this could be a regular series?

    1. Thank you FP! 🙂

      Much respect for my parents too. Now I gotta live up to all their hard work (while being content and enjoying life too!).

      Jerry, you could really be on to something here too 😉 any other people want to contribute to the “straight outta ghetto series”? lol.

  2. I truly appreciated and resonated with this post. Many immigrants have similar stories that not only impact their life and finances but their mindset. I think it’s important to share these stories with the society so that everyone understands that not all start at the same starting line. I’m inspired to write my own story!

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