02/14/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty: One Bill and One Deposit at a Time

My mother was a single mother of four. Her only source of income was government aid, and we were very poor. The money she received was barely enough to pay rent so every month she had to decide between rent and food or between utilities and food. We barely had enough to eat, our utilities got shut off all the time, and we got evicted from several places. Things only got a little better when she finally received subsidized housing, but still that was no way to live. I saw how my mother struggled and heard her cry at nights, and I knew I wanted something better for myself.

This is my story about breaking the cycle of generational poverty. I went from being hobbled by debt to becoming the first in my family to be a college graduate and homeowner. Pundits often talk about the takers in our society, drawing on government for support, but I have a story of empowerment about taking control of my finances and discovering a better life for me and my children.

I have always had a strong work ethic. I got my first job, making $4 an hour, at a small clothing store when I was only 12 years old and held steady jobs ever since. Always an honor student, I earned an associate's degree in business from Marian Court College in Swampscott, Mass.

After college, I got a decent job and soon after became a single parent. I was paying $1,200 a month in rent alone and could barely make ends meet, let alone save any money to create a better future for my daughter and me. I applied for various government programs and support, but I didn't qualify. It was frustrating to see others who weren't working take advantage of these government programs while I worked full-time but still struggled to make ends meet.

Then, I came across a flyer from Compass Working Capital, a Boston-based nonprofit offering a program for low-income families to save toward a first-time home, a college education, or small business. But I was skeptical. Could I, a single-mother raised on welfare, really become a homeowner one day? I jumped at the opportunity. I had nothing to lose.

Recent studies found that nearly one-third of Americans do not have any savings and more than 44 percent do not have enough savings to stay out of poverty for more than three months. I did not want to go that route.

I worked to raise my income in order to qualify for an affordable mortgage -- and that I should think about getting a second job or a different job. It was so encouraging. I started looking. When I received an offer from another company in Boston, my current employer countered with a substantial raise to hold on to me. As a Latina woman, it was rare for me to advocate for myself, but I did.

I also had bad credit. The hardest thing was to figure out how to pay it down, little by little. Coming from a poor family, you don't have that strong financial background. No one taught me. Then in college, they threw credit cards at me. My daughters will know how important credit is to do anything in life. In less than two years, I improved my credit score by 140 points.

I also worked hard to save my money. I used to pay my bills and then go spend my hard-earned money on my daughters, my mom, anyone who needed it. It was amazing for my friends to see that I, a single mother of two girls, could do it. Now I tell my friends and others -- start to believe it's possible -- you really can make it happen.

Without this new approach to my financial planning, I would never own a home. I would never have repaired my credit or started saving. I wouldn't have known how or where to start. I had never been one to save or be disciplined with money, but now I have the financial tools and understanding to be financially savvy and credit smart. I can now budget myself and save money to take steps and achieve whatever goal I set my mind to.