Top 9 Signs That You’re Not Poor Anymore

by The Darwinian Doctor

This is a list of 9 signs that will reveal that you’re not poor anymore. From Ziploc bags and steak to parking tickets, this list has it all.

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I’m not in the 1%… yet

If you glanced quickly at my bank accounts and investments these days, you might assume that I’m an out of touch member of the 1%.  Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

According to Bankrate, the average income of the top 1% in 2022 was $785,968. I recently wrote about my active income as a locum tenens physician, which is around $400,000 annually. Along with my wife’s salary, together we approach (but do not quite hit) the top 1% level of income.

When it comes to our net worth, we’re quite far from the average wealth of the top 1%, which was was $33.4 million in 2022. #goals

Regardless, the fact remains that we’re quite blessed. I’m very grateful for how far we’ve come and I can’t wait to continue down the path to financial freedom and moFIRE.

But just because we’re well off now doesn’t mean that I don’t remember the feeling of being poor. 

I used to be poor

As a child in middle school, I clearly remember hearing my mother crying as she worried on the kitchen phone to her friend about affording groceries that week.  I also remember realizing the real reason why my mom got mad whenever we asked to get McDonald’s or even a meatball sub as kids.  It wasn’t the dubious nutritional value of the food – it was the cost. 

If we define things strictly by numbers and the poverty line in the USA in 1990, I don’t know if my family was actually poor.  We never talked about money in my family, so I had no way to know for sure. But it certainly felt that way.

I’m not poor anymore

After those tough times in middle school, my family’s financial situation seemed to eventually improve by the time I left for college. But that feeling of poverty stayed with me through college and medical school as I scraped by on student loans.

If I think back, I believe I made the transition from feeling poor to financial security during my residency training in Los Angeles. Recently, I’ve been thinking about that transition a lot. There were a number of markers during that time that I now recognize as signs that I was not poor anymore. 

I’m going to list them below and then go through them briefly.  Some of them are hyper-specific and likely only characteristic of my own personal journey. But I think that some will resonate.

I wonder how many of these signs you’ve noticed on your journey to financial freedom. Do they seem ridiculous or are you nodding your head in agreement?  Money is experienced differently for everyone, so let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Top 9 Signs You’re Not Poor Anymore

You buy Ziploc bags and throw them out after use

My first hyper-specific sign has to do with Ziploc bags.  As a kid, we never had real Ziploc bags.  If I was taking a sandwich to school, it would be wrapped in aluminum foil or plastic wrap.  If we did use a sealable plastic bag for storage purposes, it was never Ziploc.  Perhaps it was a Glad bag.  I always wished it was a Ziploc bag, because they were just better.  They sealed easier and more securely and were made of thicker material. 

If we did happen to use a Ziploc (or knockoff) bag, we would try to reuse them.  I remember seeing them washed and upended on the drying rack as a kid.

I know now that Ziploc bags are 50-100% more expensive than Glad bags, which is why we didn’t have them.

In medical school, I was living completely on student loans and got by on approximately $15,000 – $20,000 a year.  So I never felt like I could afford Ziploc bags in medical school either.  But then again, sandwich bags were the least of my problems in medical school.

These days, I buy Ziploc bags in bulk at Costco.  I’ll still reuse lightly used ones, but I don’t feel that financial pang of guilt when I throw them out.  (Now the guilt is just environmental.)

If there are Ziploc bags in your kitchen drawers, perhaps you’re not poor anymore.

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Losing things isn’t a disaster

Last year, my family flew to San Francisco to visit relatives.  While staying over, I somehow lost my Airpods Pro headphones in their house.  I realized it only after we were on the plane ride home.  I was annoyed, but after a couple days of mourning I just ordered myself another pair. 

If it had been a decade earlier, it would have been a completely different story.  I would have been utterly devastated and probably would have forced myself to get by with wired headphones for the next year. 

Because when you’re poor, $100 or $200 purchases are the highlight of your year!  Losing items spark a complex mix of emotion and financial calculations about their replacement cost. 

In college, while on an all-expenses paid tour with my a cappella group, I lost a Sony Discman in a Paris taxicab.  It was a disaster and wasn’t an item I could afford to replace. I was using the Discman to listen to French language CDs. Needless to say, I never learned finished learning French.

After graduating from college, I accidently threw out an envelope with $500 while moving out of my senior year off-campus housing.  It was a present from my grandparents, and I only realized the loss when I got back home after a three-hour drive. 

This was a huge disaster that led to a fight with my mother and a midnight drive back up the I-95.  Later, at 3AM with a flashlight, I performed a dumpster dive style search for the envelope.  (I actually found it, by the way.)

As you transition from being poor to financially stable, though, the loss of personal items will feel less and less like a disaster.  Instead, you’ll be able to transition to a more objective evaluation of each loss that’s governed by cost and benefit, rather than emotion. 

You don’t dread talking about Christmas presents

In middle school, when I believe my family was at the worst of our money issues, I remember getting a bicycle for Christmas.  That was my only present, and I was really happy about it. 

At church the next week, I remember one of the youth leaders asking me what I got for Christmas.  When I told him about the bike, he said, “That’s all?”  All of a sudden, a hot, prickly feeling of embarrassment flooded over me as I felt an acute sense of inadequacy. 

After that experience, I would dread talking to others about Christmas presents out of the fear that I’d be judged over my lack of presents. 

This was a harder transition to pin down, but at some point over the last decade or two, this just stopped being an issue.  At some point, I knew that if my family was being thrifty with our Christmas presents, it was by choice, not by necessity. 

You can buy meat at the grocery store

Access to protein is a big indictor of financial resources.  Especially now with a big dietary focus on protein in the US, it’s more relevant than ever.

I think I can count on one hand the number of times that I bought steak in my early 20s.  It was just too expensive.  If I was buying meat in the grocery store, it would be chicken.  After a while, I realized that chicken drumsticks or thighs were probably one of the cheapest sources of animal protein in the grocery store.  Chicken breast?  Too expensive. 

In fact, as a poor medical student in Pittsburgh, I lived almost exclusively on Michelina’s frozen meals.  I’d wrap them in tortillas and toast them in my George Foreman grill. It was surprisingly tasty.

In general, unless my fiancé (now wife) was visiting on the weekends, I would try to eat as cheaply as humanly possible. 

During residency training in Los Angeles, I was earning a meager paycheck and my wife was working an administrative job where her salary grew fairly quickly.  Together, this quickly increased our income to where I stopped the moratorium on buying meat in the grocery store. 

I still wince when I see how much beef and fish cost in the grocery store, but this is probably a reflex that I’m never going to overcome. 

You’re not terrified of a parking ticket anymore

I didn’t have a car in college, but my parents got me a used Honda Accord for medical school.  I loved that car, even though it was a lemon and would randomly not start every once in a while.  Every time I used the car, though, I was taking a big financial risk. 

With my living costs paid completely by student loans, I absolutely was terrified of getting a parking ticket.  A $55 parking ticket would literally knock out my ability to buy groceries for the week. 

If I was parking in an unfamiliar area, I would get out of the car and stare at the parking regulations on the signpost and read through them multiple times to make sure I understood all the rules.  Only after doing that would I feel comfortable leaving the car parked.  This habit supremely annoyed my fiancé, but I did it nonetheless. I couldn’t afford not to.

A speeding ticket was even more of a financial disaster, so whenever I’d drive from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia where my fiancé lived, I would spend the entire time scanning the road for police cars.  I felt the same way about flat tires. One nail and flat tire was a terrifying and frustrating problem that threatened my entire financial existence.

At some point when you have an emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses, fines and penalties become less of a terrifying proposition. When you start feeling more nonchalant about parking tickets and speeding tickets, you know that you’re not poor anymore.

You buy things online without 10 hours of research

This is another hyper-specific sign that you’re no longer poor:  you don’t spend countless hours researching items before buying it online.

In the early days of Amazon, I would only purchase things on the platform that were cheaper online than in the store, or not available nearby.  But for any purchase that was more than $20 hours, I had a problem.  Before I could hit purchase, I’d spend hours researching all of the other potential items before buying it. 

When you don’t have much money, every dollar is precious.  My years of having very little money turned into a compulsion where I needed to prove that I was buying the best deal. 

Some memorable recipients of dozens of hours of product research?  An electric razor.  An optical computer mouse.   An electric toothbrush.  You get the idea.

Now, I still research purchases online before I buy anything, but I can stop myself from going down the rabbit hole of product reviews.  I know that my time is worth more than the marginal benefit I’ll get from the comparison shopping.

You can buy sunglasses and fragrance

You know you’re not poor when you allow yourself to buy non-essential luxuries like sunglasses and fragrance. 

No one ever died from not having sunglasses or cologne.  It’s harder to go without essentials like shirts, pants, toothpaste, and shoes.  But sunglasses?  You can always just squint.  Perfume?  Honestly, soap and deodorant are enough for most people. 

When I was in high school, I agonized about sunglasses.  A few of the cool kids in class had Ray-Bans from Sunglass Hut or from the department store.  But even in the 1990s, these were over $100.  Completely out of the question. 

It was the same thing for cologne.  The best dressed kids in school also smelled great.  In high school, it was fragrances like Polo, Ralph Lauren, or Calvin Klein.  But a bottle cost $50, so again, this was out of the question. 

For sunglasses, I eventually mustered my meager funds to buy a $10 pair from the drug store. I also do recall that I eventually bought one bottle of cologne my senior year of high school. That was a big deal.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when this changed and I gave myself license to buy sunglasses and cologne. But as I noted above, I think it was in residency training.  Even though I didn’t make much (especially for Los Angeles), with my wife’s added income we had a much more comfortable residency life than most. 

You can raise or lower the thermostat

Temperature control in your home is a luxury of the 20th century that makes it possible for humans to live comfortably in very cold or hot environments.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s free.  In fact, more than half of your energy bill is generally devoted to heating or cooling. 

This is the reason why your parents would yell at you when you tried to make it cooler or warmer in your home.  As the people who paid the energy bill, they knew how expensive it was to change the temperature even one degree. 

I rented apartments throughout medical school and my utilities were generally covered by my landlord.  My wife and I bought a home of our own when we started residency training in Los Angeles.  (You can read more about that house here.) Thankfully, the climate is so mild in SoCal that in residency training we used a fraction of the energy than we do now in Memphis. 

But even in LA, I remember feeling very uncomfortable heating and cooling our house in the winter and summer to a truly comfortable level.  It was always slightly warmer or cooler than was comfortable. Call it an echo of my childhood.  As our salary grew during my six years of training, I became less and less concerned about our energy costs. 

You worry about how much you’re paying in taxes

You’ll know you’re not poor anymore when you start noticing your tax burden has risen to an annoyingly large number. 

When you’re not making any money, you don’t have to worry about taxes.  In the US, we have a progressive income tax system.  This means that the tax rate increases with your income.  Technically there’s a minimum 10% income tax on even the lowest earners.  But the standard deduction means that if you make less than $29,200 as a married couple, you effectively won’t pay any federal income tax (as of 2024). 

The more money you make, the more of your income will go towards taxes.  After a certain income threshold, your taxes become your biggest expense by far. 

As an attending surgeon in California, my effective tax rate for my combined state and federal taxes was 35-40%.  That means that for more than a third of year, all of my income was essentially going to fund the government, rather than to build my wealth. 

After a couple of years, this started to bother me enough that I decided to invest my money in a tax efficient manner to achieve financial freedom.

This led to this blog as a place to record my efforts and then to my interest in real estate investing.  In a roundabout way, my desire to reduce my taxable income led to my current life as a locum tenens physician and residential multifamily real estate investor.  This transition certainly achieved its goal of reducing my taxes, as I wrote about in this recent blog post about my 2022 federal taxes.

The rest, as they say, is history. 

Conclusion

You may have noticed that these examples are all hyper-specific and very tied to my own personal financial traumas. I think this is pretty typical for formative experiences related to money. I’m sure you have some other ideas of your own how you know you’re not poor anymore.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments below!

Daniel Shin, MD

The Darwinian Doctor


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Audrey
Audrey
18 days ago

I can relate to a lot of things you mentioned. My dad used to set the house temperature always on colder side in the winter and when I would complain he would point at this thermometer on the wall and say it was 18 degrees Celsius so it was fine. So one time I put the thermometer in the freezer to try to get him to increase the heat.
He looked at me and said did you put this in the freezer? I guess I left it in there too long.

I’m a female physician that immigrated to the USA as a child and my net worth just passed 8 digits and I STILL wash and reuse Ziplock bags if they were gently used.
I realize that I don’t have to do that but I travel a lot and use the washed bags for travel. It reminds me that I have come a long way.

Guy
Guy
13 days ago

I believe your data may not be correct. The top 1% net-worth in USA is about $5.8 million and not $33.4million as you cited in the article. The ultra-rich starts with $30million in the USA.

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