Updated on 03.21.11

When Pride Gets in the Way of Success

Trent Hamm

After my article a few days ago on putting food on the table when you can’t make ends meet, a reader sent me an email that left me thinking.

A key part of the email:

When you write about such things on your website, they sound realistic and doable. But when I actually think about going to the food pantry or using food stamps or asking a pastor for help, I don’t want to. I feel like a loser using such things. I feel like all I am is a drain on the system and that I’m a better person than this. So I don’t use them. I don’t want to be a person that just lives off the system.

As this email stewed in my mind, I got another email from a reader on a similar topic:

I’m 25 years old. I graduated from college in 2008 with a bachelors degree in communication. Since then, I have found no work in my field. I read your suggestions about taking any job, but I don’t want just any job and if I spent my time working at Burger King I would miss out on other opportunities.

Both of these emails are talking about the same thing: pride.

In both cases – and for different reasons – an intrinsic belief that the person is above some financially beneficial behavior is holding them back from improving their financial situation.

In the first example, pride is keeping him from using food pantries or food stamps or pastoral help to reduce the financial pressure brought on by his food bill. His pride revolves around not wanting to feel poor.

In the second example, pride is keeping her from working at a entry-level service position to reduce financial pressures in her life. Her pride revolves around not wanting to take “just any job.”

In both cases, the best financial move they could make is to swallow their pride and take the step that improves their finances, but pride can be a very tricky thing to overcome.

I often see pride popping up in the emails and comments I get.

“I would never shop at Goodwill.” Why not?

“I’ve worked at this job for twenty five years, so I’ll accept the benefit cuts.” Why?

“I don’t really think a state school is a good fit for me, so I’m applying to some Ivy League schools.” Why is that, exactly?

Pride, again and again.

It took a lot of swallowing of pride and dismantling of the pride-based ideas I had in my head in order to change my life around and get the things in life that I wanted.

Shopping for clothes at Goodwill? It used to seem odd. Now it seems normal.

Using an old, slow computer with a slowly-failing video card? This would have been beneath me a few years ago. Now, I’ll wait until the video card fails and then do my best to just replace the video card before considering a whole computer upgrade.

Using homemade laundry detergent? Making homemade Christmas gifts? Using cloth diapers and a towel for a changing table? These things once seemed to be the things that poor people did. Now I recognize them for what they are – good moves by people who value their dollars.

This is not to say that pride can’t be good. Pride can certainly help you get a better deal when negotiating with others and it can keep you from making many other poor decisions.

However, when pride keeps you from making economically beneficial choices, it’s nothing more than an obstacle to your success.

Don’t let pride keep you from taking a job that’s “beneath” you when you’re unemployed. Get some money coming in and build up a work record that shows you’re willing to work hard.

Don’t let pride keep you from accepting aid that’s been put aside specifically for people in your situation. If you need it or could sorely use it, don’t hesitate to stop at the food pantry or sign up for SNAP.

Don’t let pride keep you from shopping at the discount grocery store. It’s the same jar of peanut butter, just a dollar less expensive.

Don’t let pride cause you to make a foolish choice.

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  1. Cheryl says:

    Doing those “menial” jobs can give you additional job skills and also a different slant on your job search. Many years ago a took a job doing data entry for the state dept. of revenue (read: state income tax form data entry). After the training period, we had to fill out an application. The supervisor asked me why I was doing it since I had a masters degree in another field. I became vary proficient at keyboard entry including numbers (always my slow point before) and met some interesting people in a town I had recently moved to.

  2. J says:

    To me, the first example sounds like the author has issues with guilt and shame for needing some help – that’s a more clomplex issue than just pride and not wanting to “feel poor.”

  3. Kerry D. says:

    I think one of those example letters at the start of the post also reflects NOT wanting to be a drain, not wanting to be on the “needing” side… but I think it’s important to think about the larger picture. It’s not forever–down the road, just “pass it on” and help someone else. For that matter, there are a lot of ways to pass it on, that don’t cost money such as volunteering or helping out a friend/acquaintance with a heavy or overwhelming task. I like to remember that if someone helps me out, they have the joy of being of help, and in other situations I get the joy of helping someone else out.

  4. levi says:

    One of the reasons I decided to marry my wife was that during a difficult time in her adult life she worked the drive thru at Burger King. She was not embarrassed by this job, and was proud that despite her college degree, she went worked hard and was pleasant to both coworkers and customers. She didn’t think she was “above” any sort of legal and ethical work. She also didn’t feel like her degree made her better than some of the high school dropouts that she worked with.

    In the time we’ve been married, she’s proven to be a kind person, a great partner, and skilled at managing our money.

    To me, college graduates who have worked at low-paying “unskilled” jobs have added a feather to their cap. And have nothing to be ashamed about.

  5. Johanna says:

    The second email doesn’t sound like it’s about pride to me either. “I don’t want just any job” could be about all sorts of things. I wouldn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an investment banker or President of the United States, not because of pride, but because that’s not what I want to spend my days doing. And it’s true that if you spend long hours working at a job you don’t want, you have less time and energy to pursue a job you do want.

    On the other hand, if this person has been looking for work in her field for three years and hasn’t found any, maybe she needs to face the fact that there aren’t that many opportunities out there. So if she were to take the job at Burger King, she wouldn’t actually be missing out on much.

  6. Tracy says:

    I think the first letter sounds more like depression than pride, like he or she is being overwhelmed.

  7. Katie says:

    And, for that matter, there are plenty of situations in which it makes perfect sense to go to an Ivy League school instead of a state school (e.g., many Ivy League law schools have excellent loan repayment programs for grads who go into public interest in addition to MUCH better job placement rates; going to a state school is not necessarily a good idea over that).

  8. Tracy says:

    Also, I know Trent doesn’t read the comments, but can anybody clarify the thinking on:

    ““I’ve worked at this job for twenty five years, so I’ll accept the benefit cuts.” Why?”

    How is that pride?

    I’d have guessed resignation or fear of change and could come up with a couple of other possibilities, including specialized skills that wouldn’t easily transfer out of the company/industry but I honestly don’t see how it could be construed as a form of pride.

  9. leslie says:

    #8 Tracy – I was wondering that myself. It doesn’t sound like pride to me. It sounds like resignation, or being stuck and not willing to break out of your rut but not really pride…

  10. Tanya says:

    I read today that frugality originally meant “fruitfulness,” or using your resources wisely to make the most of them. Viewed in that light, frugality is not a reason to feel bad, but a practical way to living. Be proud of using your resources – time and money – wisely.

  11. Wesley says:

    #8 Tracy – Agreed, I would actually argue that the example cited is actually showcasing the exact opposite of having too much pride. It shows that you have no pride in yourself to be able to go out there and find a job that isn’t going to cut your benefits, instead of just letting the company do what they want.

    Or it could be apathy.

  12. Gretchen says:

    The worst thing that you can happen when you apply to an Ivy is you don’t get in, so I don’t get that one either.

    Letter writer one very well may be depressed.

  13. valleycat1 says:

    Also, there’s a world of difference between opting to shop at a thrift store or to make your own detergent to save a few bucks and not being able to pay your bills each month due to circumstances beyond your control / being forced into extreme thrift measures or relying on others to survive.

  14. Nancy says:

    My daughter, after receiving 2 degrees in July of 2010 (BA & BS) encountered a rough job market. After seriously pursuing jobs for 4 months, she took a full time temporary job at a hospital where the requirement was to have a high school diploma. She was finally offered a job last month in her field from a pool of over 250 applicants. When she was offered the job of her dreams, she was told that the fact that she took a semi-related lesser job to stay in the hospital setting was the reason she was offered the position. Her advice, take that lesser job right away and keep plugging away!

  15. jackie says:

    I disagree with Gretchen. Lots of things can happen as a result of only applying to the ivy league. You could not get in, thereby losing your several hundred dollar application fee and leave yourself in a lurch until applications are accepted again at other schools, delaying your schooling by a semester or a year. You could be accepted only to not be able to afford the tuition and be again lose a semester or a year. You could get in and graduate at 5x the cost and 5x then student loan debt as you would have for a comparable education at a good state school. You could get in at 5x the cost and 5x the student loans as a state school only to drop out for any number of reasons.

  16. Katie says:

    You could not get in, thereby losing your several hundred dollar application fee and leave yourself in a lurch until applications are accepted again at other schools, delaying your schooling by a semester or a year. You could be accepted only to not be able to afford the tuition and be again lose a semester or a year.

    You can apply to more than one school at a time . . . .

  17. JS says:

    I worked for a call center doing surveys and political phone messages during grad school when the grant paying me ran out. It wasn’t fun, but it paid the rent and helped me improve my patience and my powers of persuasion, both of which have been helpful to me in other jobs.

  18. jackie says:

    True, you can apply to more than one school. The tone of the example was someone who didn’t want to apply anywhere but ivy league. Rereading, I guess I jumped to the conclusion.

  19. tentaculistic says:

    Accepting public assistance (food stamps, food pantry, etc) is a very different kettle of fish than taking a low-cachet job that one considers to be “beneath” one.

    My heart aches for people in real need who have to make the choice of swallowing pride to accept help – and it is that very way of thinking that pretty much guarantees that you will not be in this position for long, you will take that iron will and apply it so that you won’t stay in this situation. You are a far cry from a “drain on the system”, you’re exactly why the system was set up in the first place – a social safety net until you can get back on your feet. Please don’t beat yourself up about hitting one of life’s setbacks, we all do in one way or another. Take the help, especially if you have kids, and let it make you a kinder, more compassionate person who has a helping hand for others in this situation.

    The second person Trent mentioned is someone who actually is letting pride get in the way of life progress – and I totally feel for you! Yes, this job market sucks, no question! But you need money, and you need life and job skills, so take the jobs where you can. You’d be surprised by how proud you end up of yourself (cleaning toilets to put myself through school actually became a bragging point, weirdly enough). I was in the same place after graduation (good school, good grades, used to being top in all my classes) and it was really hard on me, money-wise, in my pride, spiritually. I took jobs waitressing, and in what little free time I had, I did an unpaid mornings-only internship at a nonprofit (hoping to segue into a job, which didn’t pan out), and on the weekends I volunteered at a fire station. I was very very *very* poor, and always exhausted – but damn I learned the value of money, the value of time, and the value of good work! I think it keeps me today very grounded, I don’t feel the need for the fancy car and the expensive apartment, which I see my peers falling into. I also ended up backing into a field I didn’t know about but love, that I wouldn’t have been able to find or get if I hadn’t volunteered in my free time.

    My advice is to take that job that’s “beneath” you (and yes, it will be hard on you mentally and spiritually, no question – just keep your chin up and challenge yourself to let it make you a better person), but also do *something* in your field to keep your resume current. You can put down something like “worked several jobs for self-support” and then focus the resume on the internship or volunteer work you did that is applicable to this job. You can do it, but not without taking a first step. Good luck, we’re rooting for you!

  20. Mary says:

    After I didn’t get a career in my field in December 2008, I took “menial” jobs to get by, and my loans were on forbearance because I made pretty much minimum wage. Honestly, I was used to always working part-time or full-time somewhere, either in school or not, from age 14 onward to now (24). Taking a menial job means you’re doing SOMETHING about your life, trying to make it better. I struggled a lot with this, as I absolutely loathed working for a vacuum company, watching my boss rip off hardworking people with a damn vacuum (sales is not my field, sorry to those who are). Another job I had I built floor trusses, and being a 5’4″ 120lb woman, it felt like being in boot camp for me – absolutely exhausting workout 6 days a week at $8.75 an hour.

    It may take a year, two years, heck even five, but I am now getting my first internship which may very well lead to a full-time permanent career. What I’ve been striving for for the past nearly three years. With that comes the blood, sweat and tears (literally) I endured. You have no idea how happy I am that I pushed through some of the hardest times of my life. Like poster #19, I really have learned the value of hard work, and I also feel pretty grounded with my finances. I drive a 16-year old Buick Century. I get smart about meal planning. I pack my meals every day. I shop at Goodwill and take care of my clothes. I make use of my time by really focusing on my career and health (homework, exercise, sleep). My friends got stable jobs when they graduated, but are buying so much stuff it’s sickening. That, I can say, is what’s going to get you career prospects. Not sitting on your butt thinking everything needs to come to you.

    From one person graduating in the bad economy to another. Good luck, it’s a rough road but you can do it.

  21. done that says:

    I have had some low spots and at one time have even checked out food stamps. I have lived in Eastern Washington and lined up for the agricultural surplus they give away every month. BUT, when I could tough it out without having to resort to assistance it made me feel rich that I could get by and let someone who was worse off benefit from the safety net. It made me feel privileged even though I was living low on the food chain.

  22. Steve in W MA says:

    It’s possible to be proud of lots of different things. How about shifting your pride to having pride of taking care of yourself by getting available resources and being proud of being able to reach out and accept help from others. Since those things are difficult for you, you should be justly proud of taking those steps instead of just sticking with what you know. You will likely find a lot of growth and an expanded sense of self and a different kind of connection with people when you take the step of actually communicating about your needs and asking if assistance is available.

  23. friend says:

    Tanya, I like what you said about the roots of frugality–using what you have fruitfully.

  24. Steve in W MA says:

    Mega Corporations in a relentless search for megabucks have been increasing their efficiency, offshoring jobs, and generally requiring fewer positions, all in search of more money on their bottom line.

    How does being made obsolete by a vastly more powerful entity or entities make you a “drain” on anything? Perhaps THEY could be viewed as a drain on you, looked at from another angle.

    Stop blaming yourself for a situation that is likely larger than you (“I don’t want to feel like a drain), and start looking for a solution that is bigger than you or at least includes people outside of yourself.

    If you want to contribute positively while getting assistance from a number of sources, seek out opportunies to help those same organizations with your skills or other opportunities to contribute your labor and skills to. If that’s really important to you. Not all contributions have to be paid work. In fact, I never really got the idea that people who have jobs are “contributing” to anything in particular. It always felt to me that people worked for the money and were able to keep their jobs solely based upon whether their companies were successful and people wanted to buy their products (or COULD buy their products.). I call people who are employed for pay FORTUNATE note:this includes ME. I consider myself fortunate to have a paying position with health care. I don’t think I’m special or that I’m contributing selflessly because of that. I work. I get paid. I get benefits. I am lucky that way. It doesn’t make me better than 5 or 10 guys I know who are unemployed because their industry (housing construction) collapsed 2 years ago and people like me are left holding the existing jobs, excluding them from the chance to work).

    In fact, I do contribute to something with my work, but I’m not primarily a CONTRIBUTOR just because I work and take home a paycheck. And I don’t call people who ask for help “drains.” I know lots of people who contribute to my own community who are on public assistance and who get food from a food pantry. Some of them contribute by keeping their families together and doing an excellent job providing guidance to their children, or by volunteering at different organizations in my town.

  25. Holly says:

    @#24 Steve:

    Those are truly beautiful sentiments. We are definitely thankful for our ‘luck’ these days :)

  26. Matt C says:

    If you’ve cut every last inch from every where on your budget – cell phones, cars, gas, food, tv, internet, thermostat etc… and still can’t make ends meet it is time to get outside help. My wife and I had to accept help while I was transitioning between careers because she became pregnant at the same time. We used WIC. that extra $75 each month in food helped to float us through the lean times for those 6 months. It was difficult to swallom my pride, especially when breaking out the WIC coupons in the line and seeing a sea of people flee from the line behind us. However, the career change has opened up many new opportunities that were not available before. It definately was worth the harsh looks, days of feeling less than a man, etc…

  27. Doug says:

    Right after I graduated college, I was looking forward to my “last summer.” Gen Con was coming up in August, and I was flat broke. So, knowing that I would be taking a vacation, I went down to a local temp agency and put in my application. I started working at a factory folding boxes. In the middle of summer. With no air conditioning. Here I was, a college graduate (from a fairly elite college) working alongside people who didn’t have a high school diploma.

    When the supervisor took me aside one day I thought I was in trouble for using the forklift to get down more supplies (my coworkers wouldn’t go and find someone with the requisite license). Nope, she offered me a full time job with the company due to my diligence and work ethic. Sadly, I had to decline, as I was already looking forward to a new job in my field in about six weeks.

    When I first moved to Colorado, I worked for a landscaper shoveling manure under newly planted trees. And then I went to work repackaging digital thingamabobs. Unskilled work being performed by a degreed professional. And I’ll do it again if I have to.

    My old mechanic had a rule of never hiring someone who wasn’t already working. Didn’t matter what the job was, it mattered that you didn’t sit on your duff and wait for something to fall into your lap. That advice has paid off handsomely.

  28. kristinelevy says:

    Caveat- if you use food stamps, or get government help with living expenses, it will be held against you should you ever find yourself in a custody battle. The state has a vested interest in choosing a parent who would not ever rely on help from the gov., this unless the other parent is proven unfit- very hard to do.

    Just something single parents should know. I happen to think that getting the help you need to take of your children in hard times is the right thing to do, and should not be penalized or judged negatively in any way.

  29. Pride got in the way of a lot for me, even after I lost my job. But I knew I had to do what I had to do. I filed for unemployment so I could at least make ends meet. I put myself in socially uncomfortable situations in order to network with other people. I took on another unpaid internship for the chance at full time employment after I said I wouldn’t do anymore. I understand where these people are coming from and I’m not going to scold them since I was once where they are. They’ll meet their tipping point where pride no longer matters.

  30. deRuiter says:

    I’ve worked at this job for twenty five years, so I’ll accept the benefit cuts.” Maybe it’s a civil servant who has gold plated health care, five weeks (or the whole summer plus more) vacation, ten holidays, sick days, personal days, job security, a pension and is being supported by workers in the private sector who earn less, have less vacation, get fewer holidays, pay their own health care and don’t get a lush pension?

  31. Michelle says:

    Wow… Troll much deRuiter? Do you actually know anyone who works in the civil service, or are you just listening to talk radio? As a government worker, I get 2 weeks PTO per year, and that’s it, anything beyond that is unpaid. My healthcare? That comes from my own paycheck. No pension here, I get to contribute to TSP. And let’s not even talk about getting furloughed for a few weeks at a time. Basically being out of work for 2 weeks, but unable to either apply for unemployment or get another job, or apply for other benefits. And then, on top of all that, I get to worry about my job being cut because someone thought it was a good idea to cut taxes when most governments are broke. Oh, and the mountain of work I bring home every night so that when positions DO get cut, I can show that I’m going above and beyond.

    Man, those government workers! Slackers all!

  32. VickiB says:

    I have to laugh when I hear all the whining about being “underemployed”. I graduated from college in 1989 – a terrible job market. I had no choice but to do things like work for temp agencies, christmas help at the mall, assembling bouquest for a flower wholesaler, etc. I am proud of every job I did well. The christmas help job led to full time, benefited employment of 13 years with that retailer as an administrative assistant, which, after the company folded, led to more corporate employment beyond administrative work. But KNOWING I can do any of these jobs – clerk, factory worker, secretary – what a comfort !!! I learned great customer service skills, and yes, I learned how to be poor and survive ! When my old company folded, I was the FIRST in my group to find new employment. Any job you do well is one to be proud of.

  33. Alice says:

    The second example – a graduate who can’t find work in their area of study – is exactly why students should NOT use student loans to pay for their education. Knowing that those student loan payments are going to kick in not long after graduation often forces folks to accept a job in a less than ‘perfect’ position simply to make ends meet.

  34. Nancy says:

    #33 About those student loans. (The daughter (#14) that took a while to find the job.) The constant conversation that we had was “Thank the Lord that you don’t have student loans!” She lived off campus in yucky neighborhoods ($250 a month), worked 70 hours during the summer, loaded up on credits, and didn’t have a car on campus. Many of her peers that lived in apartments that cost $900 a month would joke that the student loan check had come in and go out and buy things. They are now unemployed and facing $600 monthly loan payments. Our daily choices make our lives…

  35. luvleftovers says:

    Wow, I haven’t posted in ages.

    I understand how that person feels. I just applied for food stamps. Never thought I’d have to do that. But I can’t find full time work and will probably be filing for bankruptcy soon as well. I’ve paid for these social services all my life through my taxes, so I just look at it as getting back some of what I’ve put in. I don’t feel funny about it, which actually surprises me. I guess once I realized that I needed to do it, it became the natural thing to do.

  36. Ashby says:

    I really understand this – had to go to Consumer Credit Counseling for help with credit card debt. Married over 15 years with kids at the time, husband didn’t understand how “I got myself in such a mess.” Cards were used to support our lifestyle, trips, private school for kids, etc. Then one child had a major illness, treatable but not curable (Chron’s disease), I took money from retirement to pay medical bills not covered by insurance. Husband and I have separate finances and the medical had always been “mine” in the bill allocation. It’s taken five years of pinching and two jobs but now everything is paid off and I have no debt. He does – all credit cards in his name have huge balances. Yes it hurt my pride, but only for a short time, the relief of being out of this financial mess (myself) is amazing. I would do it again, but sooner.

  37. Anne says:

    I think I’d like to see more posts on what happens to people emotionally and psychologically during those times when you have no money, no job, and limited prospects. It’s more than simply swallowing your pride. How does one keep from being “swallowed by the pit” of depression or despair? How does a person continue to see the possiblity of a brighter future and believe that they can still attain it? Once you’ve lived with things stripped down to the bare bones, it can color and change how you see the world and can sometimes squeeze out any vision of a different life. How do we prevent that from happening to our friends and loved one or to ourselves?

  38. sylrayj says:

    When I first used the food bank, I cried. It was not an experience I ever wanted to feel, and we had to go there so we could manage.

    My mom and sister have since told me that they never ever donate to the food bank because the only people who use it are too busy spending their money on booze and smokes to bother.

    We donate every week, 3 cans of reduced salt/reduced sugar vegetables because we can afford it and being on a special diet can be hard when you have to depend upon others contributing to a vague pool of nonperishable goods. We’ve donated for well over six years now, more than making up for the few months we’d needed assistance.

    The food bank is our chosen charity, because sometimes, if you can have more and better groceries, you can rally your time and remaining resources to find that job you need, and get back on track. We got there – so can you.

  39. Tizzle says:

    To even get on food stamps (WA state), you have to make very little money. I’m working a job right now that should be full time, but isn’t. It does have potential. I’ll reevaluate soon.

    I just got on food stamps. They gave me $16/month, based on me making about $100 more than my rent. I might start going to the food bank, too, but it is hard to want to. I probably will cry after. It’s depressing being this broke.

    But something I read by Trent a long time ago was this: if you have to use the food bank, do it. But contribute back to it when you can, and it’ll even out your pride.

  40. nebula says:

    I think a sense of honor is a lot more important than a sense of pride As long as you live an honorable life, you’ll never have anything to be ashamed of, rich or poor.

  41. Riki says:

    I’m very fortunate in my life and have never needed to use the food bank . . . but these stories have just inspired me to donate. Thanks!

  42. AniVee says:

    @#38 sylrayj and @#39 Tizzle are right! You should not be too proud to use the food bank if you need it, and then, when things are better, you DONATE regularly to the food banks to pay back the help received, and you can be proud to do so.

    I’m always amused (and annoyed) by people who are to “proud” to be a “beggar” and ask for a handout, (so they call it a “loan”) but then, when things get better, are NOT “proud enough” to pay it back!

    And, once again, I totally agree with @#30 deRuiter – I was a public sector (Fed. Govt.) employee and the vacation was 4 weeks a year, the pay raises were automatic (but not very large), the insurance was excellent (average co-payment was $10-12 for a specialist visit), the working conditions were very pleasant and there was a (small) pension waiting at age 55 or later. There were many reasons for many of us in “late middle age” not to walk away. It wasn’t pride. It was practicality.

  43. KarenJ says:

    I’ve been in both situations. When I got out of college in 1977, I couldn’t find a job teaching, so I took a position as a fast food manager, a job I worked for 4 years. I’ve done just about anything you can imagine to earn money, including being a census taker and driving seniors to doctor appointments. I think when you need to earn a living, there is no shame in doing whatever is necessary to support yourself and your family. When my husband left me, I couldn’t get a temporary order for support so he systematically kept reducing my child support until I had no choice but to apply for food stamps. It is not easy to accept help when you’ve been self sufficient your whole life, but I had children to feed. I was in graduate school and working two part-time jobs. Fortunately, I finished school and got a job as a counselor, so I could support myself and keep a roof over our heads. As long as you are doing your best, there is no reason you shouldn’t take advantage of any help that is available to you.

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