There's No Shame In Being Broke

Apart from a brief period, I’ve been broke, to a greater or lesser degree, for most of my life. (I’m making a distinction between broke and poor here, which I’ll explain below.) It’s embarrassing to be broke. To get your card declined at the store. To admit to people you know that you can’t really afford to do or buy something. To take loans and handouts from friends and family when you’re having a hard time.

All this stuff feels shameful. But it shouldn’t, for two reasons.

Reason one: we live in a society that requires a lot of people to be broke. There’s no shame in not beating a game that’s rigged against you. Capitalism is not a system in which some people are rich and other people are broke. It’s a system in which some people are rich BECAUSE other people are broke. The Waltons (the evil ones, not the beloved 70’s TV family) have lots of money BECAUSE they keep their labor costs low by underpaying their employees. And by squeezing their suppliers so they too have to underpay their employees.

If you don’t come from money, you’re going to have to take on student debt to get an education, which means while your wealthy classmates are saving and investing money, you’re paying back loans, and you will literally never be able to catch up to them financially.

Not to mention how expensive it is to be broke. When you don’t have money to, for example, do preventative maintenance on your car, you’re going to have to pay much more when it eventually shits the bed. (Same for your teeth and basically anything in your life that requires upkeep.). When you can only afford to spend a small amount of money at a time on, say, toilet paper, you’re going to have to buy the smallest container, which costs way more per sheet than the super economy pack. Like I said—the system is designed to keep you broke. If you’re one of the people who are broke, it means that the system is working as designed.

(But…what a terrible, inhumane system! Yep. It sure is. Makes you think maybe we should get a new one!)

Reason two: the more money you have, the more ethical compromises you’re going to have to make. Now I’m not talking only about billionaires, whose lack of conscience and empathy is obvious: I’m talking about everyone.

Because the aforementioned system is rigged and evil, if you’re benefiting from it, you are, at the very best, recognizing that you’re a cog in an evil machine and accepting the evil because it allows you to provide for yourself and your family.

Of course, all work involves ethical compromises. Even working for crappy wages at a nonprofit! (Oh, I’ve got stories). But the more money you’re making, the deeper the ethical problems. I’ll give you an example from my own life. I worked briefly in an edtech startup. My salary was seventy-five thousand dollars per year. This is the highest salary I’ve ever been paid from any job I’ve ever had. (I briefly had more money—more on this below). Their main product was a course that taught college students workplace skills. Not an inherently evil product, though I guess you could argue that it was helping already privileged students to get a leg up in the workplace. Anyway, they had enough money to pay me because they had sold a version of their product to the Saudi government. Now, no government on earth is blameless, but the Saudi government is one of the worst. I guess at least we weren’t selling them bone saws, but I was aware that my salary was being paid with money that came from truly terrible people. And I was only making 75K!

So, to sum up, you should never be ashamed of being broke because the system is designed to make you broke and keep you broke unless you’re already rich. Some people can beat the system. Most can’t. The shame is that so many people benefit from a system that causes other people misery, not that you’re one of the miserable ones.

And two, the fact that you’re broke most likely means you’ve had fewer opportunities to behave unethically than people who are not broke. You haven’t had to tell your conscience to shut up as many times. Good for you! Let your broke flag fly!


Since I benefited from accidents of birth, I’ve had access to advantages that poor people don’t have. So, for example, after my dad’s death, I never had to move despite the financial blow of losing my dad because my mom and dad had been able to secure a mortgage in 1972 as a stay at home parent and a freelance artist because white privilege. So, having met actual poor people, I feel it would be presumptuous for me, with the advantages I’ve had, to say that I’ve ever been poor, even though I’ve mostly been broke.

The time in my life when I was not broke was largely due to money I made from selling a couple of books. (It Takes a Worried Man, which British and German publishers paid a shit ton of money for, and Donorboy, which a US publisher paid a shit ton of money for.). In this case, I did not feel like I had done anything particularly ethically questionable to get this money. And yet, because I worked with some poor students, I felt incredibly guilty about this monetary windfall because I knew I didn’t deserve to have so much more money than them. I gave a lot of this money away, which helped me return to what is apparently my true state of brokeness faster than I otherwise might have.