Broke Vs. Poor

by Katy on November 1, 2011 · 31 comments

Today’s Get Rich Slowly post is by J.D. Roth is titled “What Are The Differences Between The Rich and The Poor?” and is getting commenters twenty kinds of riled up. The article lists the supposed differences between rich and poor people such as:

Rich people are committed to being rich. Poor people want to be rich.”

So yeah, it’s a lightning bolt for opinion. However, it reminded me of a post I had written a few years back, which I have reprinted below.


Broke vs. Poor

When I was growing up, my next-door-neighbor was a single mom who supported herself with her writing. Needless to say, she did not have issues of where to invest all that excess income.

One thing she used to say, which stuck in my mind was:

“I’m not poor, I’m just always broke.”

I remember being a little confused with this. Weren’t poor and broke the same thing? I just didn’t get it.

Now that I’m a certified grown-up, I think I understand what she was getting at.

To describe oneself as poor is to accept a place in a lower strata. To believe that there is a distinction between the classes, and you’re simply stuck at the bottom. It’s who you are, and there’s no way out. The long term view.

To be broke, means you have no money, but it’s a temporary situation. You’re just one good writing assignment away from financial stability. You may have an empty bank account now, but flush times are just around the corner.

Is there a real difference between poor and broke?

Of course not.

I’m not suggesting that poverty isn’t a valid and real existence for millions of people the world over.

But it sure is more satisfying to be frugal because you’re broke, rather than because you’re poor.

And I’ve certainly been broke in my life, but I sure as hell have never been poor.

Have you ever refused to take money saving measures because you didn’t want to be perceived as poor? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Click HERE to follow The Non-Consumer Advocate on Twitter.

Click HERE to join The Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook group.


{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl November 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

Having been called poor in the last week, this is something that’s been on my mind a bit the last few days, and I’m sure my brain’s meanderings will make their way into a blog post of my own soon.

Long story short, nope, I don’t think I’ve ever been poor, and to call me poor, especially in my current circumstances, is kind of ridiculous and honestly minimizes the condition of those in our world who truly DO live in a state of poverty.


Liza November 1, 2011 at 11:03 am

Well said Kristen!


Becky November 1, 2011 at 10:09 am

I have never been poor. My personal definition of “poor” is someone who does not have a safety net (financial or interpersonal) that makes them feel reasonably secure. They either have no-one they can count on to help them through hard times, or (more commonly) the people they can count on have so few resources to help them that their risk is still effectively high.

The times I feel “broke” are when I have chosen to earn less money, or spend it in a certain way. The times I feel “poor” (which is not the same is *being* poor) are when I don’t feel *able* to make more money or spend my money on what’s important to me.

I am very suspicious of people who think they know “what’s wrong with poor people” who have never, themselves, been *truly* without resources. Resources come in many forms, including education, health (physical and mental), family support, self-awareness, mentors, physical safety — the list is long. Many of these resources can be bought, but they are not directly financial in nature and so are hard to quantify. Sometimes they are even hard to see.


Kay November 1, 2011 at 10:45 am

Glad to see this comment here, far too many times I look to see more insightful, fair and educated thoughts on this sort of subject and do not find them. Instead there is the usual recycled, modified versions of the same idea that somehow “being poor” or poverty are somehow a result of one’s character and choices…. and that somehow everyone in this category is claiming to be a “victim” when they try to voice their situations…..just thanx-really..


ellie November 2, 2011 at 2:09 pm

I like both of these comments.

I think almost any of us can wind up “broke” – i.e., without much money at the moment. I’ve been “broke”, that’s for sure. Most of the kids (many from well-off families) that I knew at my fancy-shmancy college were often “broke” in school as well, and lived frugally after college. But it was temporary. Some people choose to live in a way that makes less money, and may wind up “broke” now and then, but it’s fine.

I would also add that people can be “broke” for stupid reasons. The people I tend to have little sympathy for are those who are “broke” and in debt despite decent incomes, because they spend their money on excess consumer goods. My always-broke, heavily indebted, high-income, super-materialistic SIL is the poster child for this kind of “it’s your own d— fault!” situation.

The thing about “broke” is that 1) it’s temporary, 2) it may be your own fault (see SIL example above), and, most importantly, 3) you’re still benefitting from what you had before. I may have eaten a lot of beans and rice, shopped at thrift stores, and minimized any unnecessary expense (oh right – I still do most of that so I can save for what’s important!), but I was – and sometimes still am – just broke, not suffering true poverty.

I’m not and never have been “poor” because of all the things I already had and have. Growing up, I had a stable home, a good diet, and proper medical and dental care (not to mention starting out with the advantage of being born to a healthy, well-nourished mother). I’ve had a good education, don’t struggle to read or function in society, and am unlikely to get taken advantage of. I am employable – and all that implies about not only credentials, but “proper” presentation as well. I already own lots of relatives’ cast-offs/inherited things thanks to relatives well-off enough to provide them. I already own sufficient clothing to be comfortable in any weather, and I can find a presentable “interview outfit” in my closet if I need one. Finally, because I come from a middle-class family and have middle-class friends, there are people I can turn to for short-term help (for example, when I was between jobs for a few months in my 20s, I just moved back into my parents’ house – plenty of room!). I’ve mostly managed to stay out of debt – in no small part because I’ve never had to go into debt to pay a medical or other necessary bill, or had to choose between going to college or avoiding massive debt.

Poor is different. People born and raised in true poverty often lack important things long term, like health care, education, safety, and sufficient material possessions. People who grow up truly poor can suffer the consequences of maternal and childhood malnutrition, and long-term lack of health and dental care. Having an unstable home life as a child can lead to life-long emotional problems (obviously, rich kids can have unstable home lives as well, but poverty makes almost every other sort of social problem worse). Poverty can be downright dangerous, too – who do you think is likely to live in a home with no smoke detector, or live in a dangerous neighborhood, or have to drink contaminated tap water? A poor education doesn’t just leave you with a lack of credentials; it can also leave you with the “wrong” accent, “wrong” look, and “wrong” manners that forever mark you as the “wrong” class, and make it hard to get hired at anything but a menial job. Lacking a good education (either a formal one or a “social” one) can also mean that you may struggle with basic skills, and/or can more easily be taken advantage of by people. And if everyone around you is also really poor, you may not have access to much free second-hand stuff, or any kind of “safety net” to help you out in the short-term. If you’ve always been poor, you may struggle just to be able to afford a winter coat or shoes for you kid, even second hand – you don’t already have stuff sitting in the closet. And true poverty can land you in debt that you can never climb out of – even if the debt was incurred for non-frivolous reasons, like medical bills.

My big issue with many discussions of being “poor” is that I feel like people often confound “broke”, indebted idiots like my SIL with the very real disadvantages of true poverty. The latter isn’t people’s “own fault”, and it can be very hard to overcome.

All right, I’ll get off the soap box now.


Laura's Last Ditch - Adventures in Thriftland November 1, 2011 at 10:10 am

I think broke vs. poor is a mindset. Poor says “poor me” while Broke says “I’m working to better my position. It’s the victim mentality that the world has done me harm, as opposed to the idea that I’m just starting out, or have endured a temporary setback.


Liza November 1, 2011 at 11:05 am

I have always thought of the difference between the two terms as a mindset too!


emma November 4, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Broke is a temporary setback, poor is a lack of general resources (health, money, housing, food, education, social networks, etc…). My husband worked in a public school district with the highest urban poverty in the state and dealt with some horror stories- it’s tough to get a decent education when you are dodging the gangs on your way to school, your school is one of the worst in the state, you are sleeping on the floor in a basement apartment which is aggravating your asthma because of the roaches, are hungry since the food bank ran out of food over the weekend and it is Monday so you have not eaten since school lunch on Friday, have no coat and it is snowing and your teeth hurt but the free clinic can’t see you for two months. Day to day survival can take everything you have, let alone pulling yourself up out of poverty. He worked with some kids who thought jail didn’t sound so bad because you got a bed, three meals a day and clothes to wear. They were eight years old.
Even if I lost everything tomorrow and was living in my car I would still have my education, work ethic and value system and could pass that on to my children. I would be broke, not poor.


Maureen Martin November 25, 2011 at 8:44 pm

I’ve been living in my van for almost 3 months now and I STILL don’t consider myself poor. To me, poor means having no food, clothing or some sort of roof over my head.


cathy November 1, 2011 at 10:11 am

I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of myself as poor, but I’ve often thought about being “not rich” and “not middle income”. There’s something about the term “broke” though that seems to imply irresponsibility when I hear it, so I definitely want to steer clear of that label because I don’t think my financial situation stems from my stupid choices …and I don’t ever want to make choices that are impulsive or frivolous. So, no broke for me!


Liza November 1, 2011 at 11:08 am

I have been broke due to impulsive, frivolous and/or stupid choices!!! I am extremely happy to say that I have grown wise to the fact that the object I desire is not what will make me happy! It has been a long road, but I am very grateful to have switched paths.


cathy November 1, 2011 at 11:37 am

Liza – I will definitely admit to having desires for things that when I stop and think about it for a while I really don’t need. And I find so much mental/emotional peace knowing that I didn’t spend money on an object I didn’t need. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have anything in my home that isn’t pretty or that brings pleasure to have, it just means I thought about it for awhile and figured out how to prioritize my spending and if the budget has room, then I can make a purchase free of guilt or misgivings. But like you said, it’s not the objects that bring the happiness!


BLG November 1, 2011 at 10:22 am

There is a big difference between broke and poor. I could be broke for some amount of time (and I have been), but I will still have my clothes, car, and education that slot me right into the middle-class. It’s completely different if you don’t have those assets when you’re trying to get a new job or even just dress warmly enough to make it through the winter. I will always have a great deal of privilege due to my college education alone that I probably wouldn’t have if I had grown up poor.


Jessie : Improved November 1, 2011 at 10:46 am

I believe that you are poor if you have little opportunity. I am blessed with land to grow food, a family with support, and a job to pay the bills. There are many in the world who don’t even have a chance to work for these things, because they are still fighting for the basics like safety and water. As long as I go to bed at night in a warm house with a full stomach, I will never be poor.


Shelley November 1, 2011 at 11:30 am

I grew up in a house where there wasn’t a lot of spare cash around. I sometimes got cereal for dinner, the gas or electric was periodically shut off for a short time, and once my grade school sent me home with a bag of clothing because Mom hadn’t yet managed to buy me a coat for winter. I was so excited about getting that many new (to me) things at one time and then the penny dropped and I remember asking if this meant we were poor. I was rather astonished at the idea. For one, I knew Mom and Daddy were both very clever, creative people who had just chosen to be self employed; the cash flow was a little variable and my Dad wasn’t very good with money. Mom, however, was sterling. The problem seemed to be that my Dad seemed to think he should be ‘head of the household.’ Men are that way sometimes. We had a reasonable house in a family oriented neighbourhood. I had all the time and attention from either of my parents, grandparents and a couple of aunts and uncles that I could want. Mom knew how to make great Halloween costumes and no one I ever to this day have known had a better Christmas tree. Our walls were lined with great books to read, Mom was a great cook and my Dad knew how to fix anything. I never could grasp the idea that we were poor. We just didn’t have a lot of money.


Judy November 1, 2011 at 11:44 am

I don’t think I’ve ever been poor, or if I was, I didn’t know it! Growing
up it wasn’t a factor. In HS, I knew I wasn’t like the “rich kids” cuz I went to HS in a wealthy area.
As an adult, I’ve never really been broke, or poor, but have had a
“temporary cash flow problem.”


Judy November 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I thought of something else. We are retired and live frugally now, and have all of our married life. There have been times when the budget has been stretched tightly, and times when we’ve both worked at the same time and built up our savings and/or retirement accounts, and paid off our mortgage early.
Now when we do our income taxes we fall into the low-income or below the poverty level if you base it only on our annual income. We get the papers from the state to apply for food stamps, etc. yet we really don’t qualify. We are not poor, broke, or rich, but doing just fine thank you.


Jennifer November 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I was talking with my brother in law the other day, who is far from broke, and he was looking for ways to whittle down their monthly bills. I mentioned the trash sharing idea that you talk about, Katy, and he said, “No I don’t want my neighbors to think I’m having financial trouble.” When did being smart with your money become something we have to be ashamed of?? I personally am happy as a clam to find ways to save dough and will gladly tell anyone about it, as I would love them save money too!


Megyn @Minimalist Mommi November 1, 2011 at 1:12 pm

How funny about your perspective and the comments because I have a very different outlook on the poor v. broke perceptions! To me, “poor” is someone struggling to get by, but is working at making a living and providing. When I hear “broke”, I think of people who used their money in dumb ways. I see being “broke” as a circumstance of idiocy where “poor” is a circumstance much further beyond the person’s control.

I don’t see us as either. We have savings, but are paycheck to paycheck with monthly bills. I’d rather say we are just struggling for now. 🙂


Robin November 1, 2011 at 1:15 pm

I don’t think I have ever been poor though I’m certain when I was a child we were definitely broke. I have always had the safety net of family in case something *really* bad happened and so did my parents.
These days I’m not likely to ever be poor and if I am broke it’s my own darn fault.
My thoughts on the difference (and correct me if I’m way off base) is that poor means you have a hard time with basic needs – food, shelter, basic clothing, etc. And by hard time I mean on a consistent basis and for the forseeable future. Broke means you may have a hard time with one or more of these things but it’s definitely not permanent or even long term but just temporary. It can definitely be a mind set as in ” I’m poor so why even try” versus “I’m broke but it will get better”.


Indigo November 1, 2011 at 2:04 pm

The first home I remember was a broken down bus in the middle of the Arizona Desert on reservation. The bathroom was outside, the fridge was a cooler, the kitchen was a fire pit outside. I lived there with my parents and my older brother. We’ve lived in tiny apartments, tents, a van, rented houses, our own house, etc over the years depending on a lot of things.

Divorce and a sudden loss of income could send us back into living in a van. A blizzard up north or a hurricane in the south might mean a few solid months of great paying work, enough to begin to settle.

I never felt poor as a kid. We always had food, even if it meant my Mum woke up early to go fishing. We bought our cloths at goodwill. Furniture were cast offs. My mum refused to go on welfare or the like. The closest to assistance was free lunch at school and a charity helped pay for my glasses.

I think it was the fact my mum never acted as if we were poor or as if we were somehow cheated. Other kids would have new video games, we would play outside on the tire swing or with the dogs. Some kids would go home to store bought cookies and juice. We went out in the woods and found blackberry patches. We would jump around in a giant trough to wash the cloths and hang them up to dry. It was fun.

I think to a certain extent poverty is a state of mind. We seem to think that we need so much more than what covered our needs in order to be wealthy.


Kathleen Harris November 1, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I think broke refers to having no money, and poor refers to being poor in spirit. One can be broke, but still feel quite rich. It’s all about what you value. I’m sure there are people with money who are poor in spirit. 🙂


Angela@MyYearWithoutSpending November 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Katy, I completely agree with your distinction between broke and poor. It also holds true for me, in that I feel I’ve been broke but never poor.

I can see why the Get Rich Slowly post is getting people riled up and why it’s one of the blogs in this sphere I have never warmed up to. While I agree that our attitudes can determine our actions and even our financial health, to believe and cherish ideas like Eker are to perpetuate wrong-headed ideas that the poor and working class are where they are because of who they are, and not because of a systemic failure. Roth casually makes this point, but doesn’t seem to really believe it. I think these kinds of “cultish” views of rich people being better and smarter than others is very offensive. In my experience, wealthy people have sometimes gotten there by hard work, and often because of where and to whom they were born.


Karen November 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm

I agree. We can split hairs between “poor” and “broke”, but what do we do with the very apt term “working poor”? That people are working poor does not reflect on their spirit as much as it does our unequal system. They’re working full time and still can’t make ends meet re the basics.

It’s sometimes easier to play with words than with the ideas behind them. I grew up in a wealthy city and find the idea that the wealthy are smarter offensive. These people were not better but had larger bank accounts. The wealthy often become so out of inheritance or dumb luck. This is not to say that we shouldn’t put some money aside and perhaps create better lives.


Practical Parsimony November 1, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Even though I live on less than $700/month, I don’t think of myself as poor. No one meeting me without knowing my income would. I own my own home, falling down. I have a MA degree, I dress and speak well, and do not have the down-in-the-mouth tone and conversation of other people who even have more than I do. I present myself well.

I go to a dinner on Thursday night at a church that serves food for: their members, the poor, the broke, a mother too tired to cook, those hungry for food or conversation, from any church or for the unchurched. Most of the people who eat there are marginalized. Most are women.

I am the only one who has a degree. Many did not go to college at all or even finish hs. Some are toothless. Some smell. Some are living off disability checks and regularly smoke and drink, squandering what little money they have. They support multiple animals and deadbeat children. None of these are vices, particularly, but the people limit themselves by their influences/choices/situations, but more by their inability to get away from the situations that control them. They have been limited by their situations all their lives, so they make uninformed choices.

I am NOT saying that if they made better choices, they would be better off. Sometimes, choices are made for people before they were born. There is no easy way out. Plus, most of these people are past forty. Being born into poverty of spirit is hard to overcome.

We grew up without much, but there were always books, reading, and talk of college someday. My parents set us all up for a better life.

While I consider myself broke, I do take care of my teeth, read something besides the Bible (they advertise this), present myself well in speech and dress and manners. I don’t smoke because of allergies, and just don’t even want to drink, (cannot afford either even if I desired to smoke or drink.) I am sort of ostracized because I really don’t fit.

No, I don’t mention my personal attributes, but don’t lie if I am asked where I have worked, where I live (Historic District), if I rent, where I got my coat, or what boyfriend does (engineer).

Some declare I do not have a disability because I can actually walk/hobble. But, so far, the MRIs indicate three separate surgeries. One woman asked what were my fibromyalgia symptoms. She said she might be able to get a disability check if she could tell doctors the right aches.

I have a beautiful coat from an expensive store (sort of). They asked where I got it, and when I told them, they said I had to have money somewhere to afford to shop there. No, I bought it 20 years ago when I had more money. Unfortunately, these individuals do not even understand what it is they don’t understand.

Oh well, I eat if the meal is not soy and take home lots of scraps from other tables for the hens–beans, corn, greens, sweet potatoes. Most people there won’t eat these things.

I am broke. There is always something to eat here because I go to food banks and only eat what is good for me. The chips and sugary cereal and cookies and candy are items I give away. A woman at a food bank gave me all her meat (whole hens, pork roasts, turkey, lamb chops, and beef cuts) because she only ate microwaved meals.

Right now, I am dehydrating 50 lbs of bananas. And, there are 40 lbs of potatoes to can or eat…lol.

My daughter gave me theatre tickets for my birthday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas. I was probably the only food stamp recipient watching the performance. Now, unfortunately for my daughter, she is pretty well broke since she divorced and became a single mother of two.
When I say I am broke, I feel hopeful. If I thought I were poor, I would feel hopeless.

Sorry this is so long.


Katy November 2, 2011 at 7:27 am

Thank you for sharing your story.



Robin November 1, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Practical – I think you wrote that beautifully and your last sentence is exquisite.


Jinger November 2, 2011 at 4:18 am

I lost everything suddenly…home, job, and all my possessions…all we had was my vehicle, one laptop, a dog, the clothes on our backs and 2 small backpacks with personal items and a few changes of clothing. And, yet I was not poor. Because as so many have said…I had resources, my education and family and friends as support. Once again, I am in a period of transition not knowing if I can afford my rent increase and stay in my apartment. But, still even though I have little money….I don’t think of myself as poor. Like Practical said…I am not hopeless.


Kate in NY November 2, 2011 at 4:53 am

I don’t know why, but this discussion made me think of an exchange I had with my younger son, whom we adopted from Ethiopia when he was nearly 7. He had been home for a few months at the time, and I had just decided to put up a clothesline outside. It was the beginning of my transition to frugality and self-sufficiency, and I was feeling rather pleased with myself. My son came outside and saw me hanging the clothes and gasped, horrified – “Mama. We poor now?” I will always remember the look of fear in his eyes – how he associated my choice to be frugal, green, etc. with the unrelenting, hopeless poverty of his early childhood. Nothing romantic about it.

I have to remind myself sometimes when I am “feeling” poor, or broke, that I am actually neither. We could always sell something, move, dip into our retirement funds, borrow from parents, etc. if we HAD to. “Temporary cash flow problems” are not fun, but they are not scary in the way I can only imagine true poverty must be.


Robin November 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Well put.


Sharon November 2, 2011 at 9:00 am

I was tickled to find your reference to J.D.’s blog post this morning. Unlike Angela the Get Rich Slowly blog is one of my favorites. It’s #2 on my morning reading list…right after yours. Honestly! So it bothers me just a tad that everyone seems so doggedly focused on simply defining the term “poor”. The post itself was full of incredible insights into the attitudes of those who aggressively make thier money work and grow for them and those of us who simply “play the money game to not lose.” For me the post was quite eye opening. It was about our overall atttitudes towards money and the differences we place on the value of our time, our finances and our own selfworth. Some people are financial risk takers and stategists who confidently play the money game and get rich. It’s not for everyone. But that group of people certainly have things to teach us about the value we place on ourselves and our money. Yes, sometimes our financial circumstances can be beyond our control but it comes down to our attitude and what we do with the last dollar in our pocket that can often make the difference between our being “rich” or our being “poor”.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: