Before graduating Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World, and before I got to where I am now, I’ve always been in poverty, always had low-wage jobs not making much money and struggling to make ends meet all the time. If you are living in that survival mode, when you get money, you usually spend it right away. Either you have needs you’ve been putting off that you need to spend it on right now, or you have something new that comes up that you need to spend it on right away. You aren’t thinking about budgeting it. Budgeting wasn’t in my mindset at that time. So, you know, when I got my paychecks, I wasn’t thinking ahead three months from now of a birthday coming up or Christmas or later on in the summer when the electric bill will skyrocket. You know that stuff is coming, but when you are in survival mode, you aren’t thinking about that stuff; you are thinking about right now. This is the mindset of a lot of people living in poverty.

At tax time, especially if you have children and you are working, you have an earned income tax credit, and you get a refund. It is a decent sum of money you get all at one time, not only for me but for others that I know. Tax refund time is a fun time of the year. You get a big sum of money and it’s time to splurge, go do fun things, buy things. I’ve used my tax returns on big screen TVs, bought stuff that I could not buy before. I didn’t really need the stuff, but it was disposable money. I really didn’t look at my tax return like it was money I could use for other things.

For a short amount of time, the tax return money absolutely took the pain of poverty away. In poverty you are stressed out constantly, living in the tyranny of the moment, and everything is hard. When you get the tax refund, all that goes away for a little while. You get to live a little bit, you don’t have to stress about things for a short time, and you don’t have to worry. It is an emotional vacation, so to speak, for that short time period. That is how I always viewed my refunds at tax time. That is what I did with it.

When I got into Getting Ahead, one of the biggest things for me was learning about the hidden rules, especially the part about money and the driving forces behind money. I was looking at that, and I realized I viewed my tax return as money to be spent and used versus budgeting. It opened my eyes to how I view certain things and how that view did not help me at all. I was stuck in the same cycle over and over again.

When I started making changes and thinking about managing my money, I realized my tax returns were approximately $6,000 because I have children, and I really could use that money to ease up my finances for the whole year. That is how I started getting out of the hole I was in, by using my tax returns. First, I used my tax returns to pay off my debts that were in collections. After a couple years, when I got all those taken care of, I started to budget out exactly what my bills would be for the year.

I know what my tax returns will be, and I use that information to help me budget for the year. I pay my daycare fee for the entire year, put a big lump sum into a bank account just for my electric bill, and I pay my insurance for the year. I pay off all these bills ahead of time so I don’t have to worry about them throughout the year. It definitely makes it a lot easier.

I don’t make a huge amount of money now, but while I’m technically not in poverty by the government standard, I still struggle to make ends meet. I’m at that threshold of making $100 more than the poverty threshold, so I lose benefits due to the cliff effect. After going through Getting Ahead and learning more about hidden rules and money, changing my thinking was the biggest challenge, especially at tax time. It is nice to spend that lump sum of money and get short-term relief from the tyranny of the moment, but using it to help throughout the year makes life easier.

Tax time is still a fun time. Nobody likes giving their money away, but it is kind of fun to go into daycare, give them a couple thousand of bucks, and say, “Here is my bill for the year,” and never see my name highlighted on the list for not being current with my bills. I’m excited to get my taxes back this year as I have bills to pay off, and I still put some of that money aside for birthdays and Christmas so I get to spend a little extra for my kids. Getting to see them have joy is the number one thing for me. It allows me to spread the “emotional vacation” out throughout the year, and I don’t stress as much.

I still save a few hundred dollars for myself so I can go out to eat. It is my hard-earned money. I tell this to my Getting Ahead facilitators. Budget entertainment in. Otherwise, it makes life hard.

Going through Getting Ahead is a good start toward financial well-being. You’re with likeminded people and facilitators who are going through it with you or who have been there and are now succeeding. It is important, getting that information and realizing how familiar it is when you start reading this stuff about the way you think about things and the way that relates to being in poverty. Without motivation like Getting Ahead, many people don’t do anything. You get stuck in the same mode: Survive and make it work. Unfortunately, that mode is depressing and emotionally draining. It is hard to get the motivation and learn how to get out of it. The biggest struggle is the motivation piece.

I joined a Getting Ahead group in 2011 when I had no job, I was homeless, and I had no money. I had never had a place in my name, and I was dealing with an addiction problem. I had all the struggles that come with that—and then some. If you take the time to better yourself and go through things like Getting Ahead, you can succeed. I’m pretty stable where I’m at now. It took years; with the financial benefits cliff effect, it took me several years. Now I’m happy to say that I’m debt-free except for my house and car payments, but those are assets. It is a good feeling to finally be debt-free and to have my credit at a good spot. My story is proof that it’s definitely doable for people who are struggling.

The funny thing about this is that when I took Getting Ahead and they were talking about purchasing a home, my mindset was that I would absolutely never in my lifetime own my own home. I was dead set in thinking that owning a home was not in my future. It was achievable for others, but not for me. What’s funny about that? Four years later I bought my own home.

It is amazing what you can see yourself achieving. The biggest thing for me was having support, having people there to be by my side to help me with things. When you come from an experience of not really knowing anything in the middle-class world, and then you jump in and try it, it is really scary. It is really hard. Things like banks are intimidating. But then you achieve small things and people congratulate you, and you can finally see what you are able to do.

I think it is fair to say that Getting Ahead definitely helped guide me in a time when I needed it. Without learning the things in Getting Ahead with the people I did, my mindset would not have changed. Don’t get me wrong; I still have a desire to spend money when I get it, but the desire for financial stability wins out. Going through Getting Ahead helped me with that. Even though I’ve been facilitating Getting Ahead groups for eight years now, I learn something new with each group. Having new people with different experiences in every group keeps the material fresh—and it helps keep me on track. Getting Ahead turns into a support group, and the relationships formed have been key for both me and the participants.