The 5 Financial Independence Lessons I Learned Growing Up In The Ghetto

The 5 Financial Independence Lessons I Learned Growing Up In The Ghetto

ghetto photo of a broke down building

This post was originally published on Peerless Money Mentor and has been edited for brevity.

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I might make a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Before We Begin

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.

Cops chased and cornered the car and both the car and I were saved.

I vaguely remember waiting with the cops for my parents to come get me and the car.

Imagine how life would have turned out if cops hasn’t found 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)

After the first ghetto, 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 good, and it allowed them to be their own bosses.

Up to that point, the bosses they worked for were abusive and paid them below minimum wage, but as an immigrant with limited English, they did what they had to do to survive.

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

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

My family have been in the business owner quadrant for close to a hundred years, so they didn’t like being employees, especially to abusive bosses.

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, 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 the bullying that my poorer Asian family had to deal with.

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.

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. I felt bad for him.


What Did This Teach Me?

It taught me to have thicker skin.

It taught me that sometimes, life won’t always be fair.

This inspirational scene with Rocky Balboa talking to his son epitomizes that message.

“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 enroute to financial independence.

Such actions like:

Now all of my clothes fit in a duffel bag after I donated most of my clothes that no longer sparked joy.

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 the status quo.

I do things differently compared to my friends and I have more in my Vanguard index funds than the majority of them do in their 401k’s, while earning less than them.

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

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

I remember growing up around people 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 all the time about the things I DIDN’T have.

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

We had shelter, food, and loving parents.

We even had gameboys and scooters.

It was more than enough for a kid growing up in the ghetto.

I also grew up around reactive people with extractive mindsets that influenced 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.

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.

Be more proactive when heading toward your goals 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 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.


T. Harv Eker in his book, Secrets of The Millionaire Mind, mentioned 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.

They were always looking to help others.

It’s about mindset.

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

Having a proactive mindset will help you on your path to financial independence.

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.

W 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.

“Give us the money!” they shouted at him, wanting his allowance.

Before they could hit him again, just as they were about to strike, we heard 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.

Next time, there might not be someone nearby to help you.

You learn self sufficiency.

“Can I take care of myself should the need arise?”

And you learn self-protection.

I learned karate and Muay Thai for a bit.

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 nothing.

How Does This Relate To Reaching Financial Independence?

When I emailed FIRECracker from the F.I.R.E. blog, Millennial Revolution,  to ask her about financial advisors, she mentioned how by the time I reach FIRE, 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 each, earning half the minimum wage, 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.

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 different neighborhood and moved there.

This year marks our 10th year anniversary in the new location.

So my parents have been at it for over 20 years since coming to America.


The Lesson

Whatever hardships you may be enduring right now, have patience, keep working hard and working smart.

Never stop looking for a way out.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years.

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 door step.

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 worked as hard as everyone around us, we would have stayed in that ghetto.

If we were as smart as them, 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.

“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 socio-economic ladder.

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

They were either dead, still drug dealing on the streets, obese, or working dead-end jobs doing nothing to better their lives, still living in the same projects.


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.

In one chapter, 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 be better than the Joneses.

Not for the superficial award of being materially better than them.

We have to be better than our former selves, whatever form that may be.

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

Looking back, I could 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 more 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 sales of drugs or other things to make cash money.

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 safer neighborhood with less crime, drugs, and death.

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).

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 hand-outs 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 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 remain and help me on the road to financial independence.

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Jack The Dreamer

I'm a dreamer. But you know what? All the best people are. And if you're one too, join the revolution! My blog is about being financially independent and working towards that goal each and every single day so that we can all start living the life we've always dreamed of! Jack the Dreamer, over and out!