Financial Literacy v. “Survival Mode”: A Personal Narrative

For the past year, I’ve unlearned “survival mode” to achieve financial literacy. I’ve done pretty well in my investments in crypto and stocks, reached my financial goals for savings, and I am now working full-time on my favorite hustles: copywriting and content writing.


But I always wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t realized that I had been in “survival mode” for most of my life. When I say “survival mode,” I use attorney Lemar Moore’s definition: “the short-term, fear-based mode of thinking you enter when your fight-or-flight response is triggered.” I understood that I had to acknowledge my past to enter the conversation of financial literacy, and it all started with my mother. My WHOLE childhood consisted of me being in survival mode.



I will never discredit my mother’s love and care for me and my sibling. I also acknowledge my living situation for what it was: my mother didn’t attend college and she was a single parent to two children after my father’s death. She focused more on “survival”: paying the bills, buying groceries, having enough money for rent, and taking care of us. There were times where my mom couldn’t pay the light bill in order to feed us.


My mother’s experience is a common one for many Black women. There may be different ranges of experiences, but some of them include stress and trauma. According to a study from Juzang, the constant stressors for Black women are “family problems, the daunting responsibility of raising children as a single mother, and issues with their children as sources as their stress and anxiety.” This kind of sole responsibility, along with a lack of resources and support, is a considerable strain on Black women.


My mother tried her best to embody the “superwoman schema” and hide her stress from me and my sibling . It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to see the reality of the situation. My mom lost her job, and she lived off of unemployment for my entire senior year. When it was time to navigate college applications and student loans, I had to take on that experience independently. When it was time for applying for the FAFSA, I signed all of the paperwork myself.


And high school wasn’t any better either. The guidance counselor was hardly in attendance, and our principal was more focused on a “positive reputation” rather than genuinely helping the students achieve their collegiate goals. My classmates and I were never taught about the FAFSA, student loans, or scholarships.


One of the biggest reasons for financial literacy not being taught in school is “a general failure of the education system to identify the most relevant skills students should possess.” If that is the case, we were all navigating our next steps independently. Would life be simpler for me now if my guidance counselor took the time to help me out with my college applications? Or if our high school implemented financial literacy in its curriculum? I will never truly know.


So, being on my own for the first time….it was jarring, especially with financial literacy. Students entering college do not understand that attending school is an investment, that college is the first piece of instruction in financial literacy.



Pretty much, I learned the basics to get me through my college and grad school experience. From the FAFSA to taxes to budgeting, I got through those six years of school. I even got a credit card for the final year of grad school, thinking I could handle the high-interest rates and repayment. It never kicked in for me that I was a Black, first-generation college & grad student until I graduated. I was in survival mode, myself, because of my lack of resources.


The reality of student loan debt hit me in February of 2017, and my loans amounted to over a hundred thousand dollars. I interviewed as much as I could for jobs that had a bachelor’s degree as a requirement. Thanks to the unfortunate misogynoir in receiving employment, I had to resort to customer service jobs to get by even with my degrees. This incident is pretty typical for Black women: taking lesser-paying jobs due to the misogynoir in employment opportunities, and I, unfortunately, had to do this to survive after graduation.


Like my mother, I stayed in survival mode – this time, for four years. According to a study, it is common for children to emulate their parents’ financial habits, that “children of parents who are future-oriented will observe a wide variety of behaviors that stem from that orientation, and so will have plenty of opportunities for social learning.” Another study shows that parents with considerable financial troubles or lack of financial literacy are in “survival mode.” In that same study, those who happen to be in poverty or at financial risk are under constant stress. That stress interferes with making good decisions; everything’s based on “survival mode” due to the chaos and unpredictable outcomes.


Because of that, I never got to fully enjoy life or delve into things I wanted to do. It wasn’t until my husband started helping and teaching me about financial literacy during the pandemic that I started to see some sort of change in my mentality. With his remote work and side business, he also inspired me to take myself more seriously and to help build into our future.



Additionally, 21 states require students to take courses on financial literacy to graduate high school. Clearly, high schools are making a greater effort in this regard than when I was growing up. While this requirement is helpful, society still needs to address racial disparity for Black folks regarding financial literacy. That way Black folks – especially those who hold similar stories to my mother – can do better and have access to resources to reach their financial goals and teach others to make better financial decisions.








Works Cited


● Nina Banks. Black women's labor market history reveals deep-seated race and gender discrimination.

● Michelle Fox. Teaching personal finance to kids can help to close the Black wealth gap.

● Ivan J. Juzung. Moving Beyond Survival Mode: Promoting Mental Wellness and Resiliency as a Way to Cope with Urban Trauma.

● Lemar Moore, JD. Survival Mode is Killing You.

● National Financial Educators Council. Why Isn't Personal Finance Taught in School: Data.

● Derek Thompson. Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions.

● Paul Webley and Ellen K. Nylus. Parents' influence on children's future orientation and saving.

● Cheryl L. Woods- Giscombe, Ph.D., Superwoman Schema: African American Women's Views on Stress, Strength, and Health.

● Sheena Zimmerson, M. Ed. Students Basics for Financial Literacy - Affording Tuition.

● National Financial Educators Council. Why Isn't Personal Finance Taught in School: Data.



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