148 | Struggle | The Psychology Of Poverty With Andréa Motenko

Andréa Motenko grew up with food and housing insecurity. She's on the show discussing the psychology of poverty and how it allows us to be resilient and push forward through adversity.

Andréa has committed her life to social studies and taking FI information to people experiencing poverty.

Andréa's Position

Andréa is uniquely positioned to bring information to people in poverty because she grew up in a similar situation. She is coming from a place that is rooted in resilience, based on childhood exposure to a harsh world.

She was raised in urban Boston by a single mother. At age seven, she saw her first violent murder. Throughout her childhood, she struggled with food insecurity and housing insecurity. However, she was also a student in the elite private school system, which led to an Ivy League education. At this point, she has reached Financial Independence.

After coming such a long way, she has a unique perspective on the relationship between poverty and FI.

The Psychology Of Poverty

The psychology of poverty is something that Andréa has spent a lot of time working on.

So, struggle is something that transcends how we socially look at people, right; everybody has some sense of what struggle is. And that struggle–it allows for us to connect across experience. The psychology of poverty is what's ingrained in us, having experienced struggle. It's how we look at survival and the skills and pieces of that process that then are integrated into our behaviors.

It is not surprising that the struggles of poverty in childhood have an effect on spending and saving patterns. Children in poverty understand what it means to do without. They learn that money is rooted in the experience of what it means to be rich. And their concept of resiliency and self-preservation is stronger than most.

Their reactions to these experiences might manifest in a larger emergency fund, cash under the mattress, more insecurity around shared finances, and overall hopelessness associated with money.

However, the overall psychology is something positive that needs to be harnessed. The pieces needed for financial success are already a part of the mental toughness. The grind, struggle, and resiliency that is rooted in behavior can allow someone to bounce back faster. It just requires redirecting your energy to your benefit and moving forward.

Andréa's Story

Prior to her father leaving, he was emotionally, physically, and financially abusive. Due to that, she was more responsible than most children. In fact, her first job was at 8 years old sweeping the floors at the vet clinic.

Although she always worked, that money was used to pay for household bills. She had to get into the habit of saving her earnings because she never knew when she would need to pitch in. Early on, she developed an understanding of the relationship between work and living and the need to find a balance.

However, she never allowed this work to be an excuse for school. Instead, she excelled in the classroom. She sat in private school classrooms with high-status children due to programs that opened doors for her. She attended local universities for night and summer courses. Overall, she sought to absorb as much knowledge as possible.

Is Education The Way Out?

Although education was a big piece of her journey, she does not see it as the only way out of poverty. Her mom encouraged her to see college as the opportunity to get out of poverty. So, her mom pushed her towards busy intersections that made learning possible.

There are so many programs for kids to learn from. Finances, STEM, and history are just a few of the many fields that reach out to children with programs. Based in Boston, she was in a location that allowed her to take advantage of many of these opportunities. As she learned from others, it exposed her to people that thought differently.

Andréa says education is not always the way out but it is an option. Planning and tenacity were more critical to her success.

Understanding Her Options

As she grew up, she was exposed to a wide range of situations. On one end of the spectrum, she saw drug addiction, prostitution, alcohol struggles, and homelessness. She saw friends living on government assistance and witness her mom skip meals so that she could eat.

Her mother never hid the money struggles that faced the family. She had open conversations about the house going into foreclosure. She walked through house refinancing processes with her mom and witnessed the stress of not being able to pay the bills.

All of these experiences led to understanding more of the struggle and realize the tenacity it would take to move forward.

Navigating And Asking

Showing up to hustle proved far more important than simply cracking a book to study. She studied hard, gathered information and degrees to lean into the education track.

It's all accessible to you. It's just about navigating that pathway. Asking the questions. Going up to something that you didn't think was possible and saying “This is what I want! How do I get here?” And not assuming that it's impossible to touch. But, I do think, that, what's really at the root of it, is the hustle. And falling into your passion, identifying what your personal and individual mission is, and aligning everything that you do with that mission.

She made it clear that your mindset is critically important. You cannot believe that something is impossible. The root of her success is hustle. She aligned everything in pursuit of a goal and hustled to success. For her, the goal was to figure out ways to change the systems in place and apply what she knew with a seat at the table.

The Hustle

The hustle started well before college. In high school, she showed up at Harvard to ask professors questions. Many campuses have programs to reach out but not many take advantage of that opportunity.

Also, it doesn't have to be an Ivy League school. You may decide to shadow a tradesman such as an electrician to learn more about that field. If you have an interest, you can always ask to shadow or be an assistant.

She also started to consult with nonprofits in high school. Although she only earned minimum wage, she was able to learn from the directors of nonprofits. It taught her how business worked and how she could help others in the future. The opportunity came from simply volunteering at walks for causes she was interested in.

Sometimes, she was sitting next to the director of the organization just listening and learning, other times she asked if she could help out on Saturdays; such experiences opened the door for more opportunities.

Now, it seems like an informational interview. But in high school, it was a way to satisfy her curiosity which led to opportunities. Those connections allowed her to go to college and completely transform her overall trajectory.

How To Scale The Message

Reframing the mindset of poverty can change lives. Andréa turned her hustle and grit into a success story. Now that she has achieved what so many think of as impossible, she is working to bring that message to others.

She wants to spread the idea that although the world doesn't give you anything it doesn't take your spirit. You can use your unbroken spirit to change the complex intergenerational hopelessness one step at a time. Learning how to transform their grind into a rich life is something achievable.

Mentorship is everything. It's stepping out of that circle of people that's directly around you and thinks just like you to introducing people that think a little bit differently.

Struggle Connects

Stepping outside of your inner circle and learning from others is essential. Consider taking people out to coffee, attending their talks, or reading books they recommend. Ask them what their biggest lessons are. Remember, just because they live a different life now doesn't mean that they don't have a common struggle in their past. We have all been through something, find a way to connect.

Struggle is a concept, it's an experience that allows people to connect across the boxes that society puts them in. And that's exactly what I'm talking about. It's breaking down these boundaries, these boxes that we check; whether we're of color, not of color, male, female, cis-gender, not native to the United States, whatever. And saying “We've all been through something and how can we connect on that level of something?”

For Andréa, asking questions along the way led to relationships with governors, former presidents, and other people that have changed their world. They also had the ability to change her world. Simply asking questions and a desire to learn more has shaken her life in a good way and she wants to pay that forward.

Most are willing to mentor others. It never hurts to reach out. Send a friendly email telling them your story and asking to learn more about their story. You will get more responses than you think.

These relationships can really change your life.

Pairing With The FI Community

Before finding FI, Andréa was in her first year of graduate school and diving into the consulting space. She recently had a stroke and became disabled at 28. As she found her health again, she really began to identify what FI was for her. She realized that the things she was doing already aligned with FI. The community of empowerment around personal finance was inspiring.

It helped her understand that her hustle is something that others are striving towards. Originally it felt like she had to remain humble about her achievements, but with the FI community, she found that she wanted to remain humble. Overall, it feels like she has found her tribe.

The Question

Is FI Accessible And Possible To People With Lower Incomes? And Maybe Grew Up In Poverty?

The short answer is YES.

After living through the trauma of poverty, hustle and a desire to save are already there. FI is not always the choice between a Honda and a BMW. It can be much bigger than that and is rooted in behavior. FI allows people with a mindset formed in poverty to transcend struggle into something that you already want to do. As more people continue from poverty to FI, it is important to share those stories. Looking at the bigger picture can lead to a totally different outlook.

It is important to diversify the story. Different perspectives in the FI community can help to fill in the gaps. The need to show each step along the journey is critical, not just those who start ahead of the game.


Struggle and adversity are things that everyone faces in life. As members of the FI community, it is important to share stories that diversify the experience. No matter where someone is today, the path is not straight. It is critical to share the steps along the way to help shift the mindset of others.

Check out the Friday Roundup for this episode here.

How To Connect

You can connect on her blog Thicker Grits. She is on Twitter and Instagram @thickergrits. Or you can email: [email protected]

The Hot Seat

Favorite Blog, Podcast, or Book: Rich And Regular, Clothed In Abundance, It Didn't Start With You Full Disclosure: We earn a commission if you click this link at no additional cost to you.  by Mark Wolynn

An Inflection Point: Getting sick, and deciding to get better. It took some time, but she decided to not let this illness define her life. She bought a one-way ticket to Africa for three months of travel and healing. “I was either going to live, or I wasn't.”

Favorite Life Hack: Meditation. If you are looking for ways to get started with Mindfulness Stress Reduction Techniques, then community groups and clinics are a great place to start.

Biggest Financial Mistake: Failing to assert her value. That led to avoiding negotiating for higher salaries or understanding what she was worth.

Listen: Negotiate Your Salary With Tori Dunlap

The Advice You Would Give Your Younger Self: Harness your hustle. Start now!

Bonus! What purchase have you made over the past 12 months that has brought the most value to your life? She has been investing in herself through training and skills. It has allowed her to expand the concept of personal worth and grow.

Related Articles

New to FI? Be sure to check out Episode 100: Welcome To The FI Community!

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ChooseFI seeks to uncover helpful services that help you be financially resilient. However, we may receive compensation, at no cost to you, from the issuers of some products mentioned in this article, including from CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Opinions are the author’s alone, and this content has not been provided by, reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of these entities. See our disclosures for more info.

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4 thoughts on “148 | Struggle | The Psychology Of Poverty With Andréa Motenko”

  1. Wow. What an incredibly inspiring story. I wish this episode was longer because there was so much more I wanted to hear about Andrea’s story and the opportunities she created for herself. I love how she promoted reading books and asking others to share their success stories with her. I wish I had been as bold as she was at such a young age, but perhaps that’s one of the gifts of her struggles — she obviously had no other choice than to be bold and constantly seek new options and opportunities in order to survive. Thank you, ChooseFI for giving her a platform in which to tell her story. It’s not one of the more conventional stories we hear in this community.

  2. While I appreciate her resolve and ability to find success inspire of her struggles, I feel that people truly in deep poverty will find it hart to Ben inspired by this story. I find it interesting how her story when from food insecurity and poverty to attending elite private schools and attending an Ivy League college yet she seems to devalue the influence of that in her path to success. This story seems more a tribute to one person’s success story than a truly deep look at the true psychological affects of living in poverty and how someone can beat the odds to reach FI.

  3. I found Drea’s story to be uplifting and encouraging to those of us who struggle with our everyday lives. I appreciate the story of telling how she embraced the privilege she’s been afforded, and thankfulness for the alternative paths given and experienced. Still, she’s given clear and manageable ways for folks without financial resources to pursue their way to financial independence. She’s also spoke a challenge to the rest of us who can was to listen and tell our own stories. Taking a moment to speak her truth took courage, and connecting us with the academics beneath it all was very powerful – yet also helpful. She’s given us ways we can each grow. Thank you Andrea’ for your truth and also willingness to speak and help others.

  4. Mind blown. Andrea has an incredible story and speaks so well about things that must be very emotional. I take my hat off to her.
    This is my first Choose FI podcast expectations are super high now. No pressure guys but please do a follow-up episode with Andrea I feel like you just scratched the surface.

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