My parents definitely weren’t big spenders. My dad worked a blue collar job and my mom stayed home with us. They were expert savers, though I didn’t realize it when I was young. My sister and I had the same clothes and toys as our friends, and we paid full price for school meals even though I later learned we could have qualified for free lunch. I had no clue how much (or little) my dad made or how much effort my parents made to shield us from poverty.
Despite their good intentions, my parents made a mistake in hiding their financial difficulties. All I knew was I had the same LA Gear hightops and Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers as my friends at school – I didn’t notice the fact that my mom wore hand-me-downs from neighbors, or that we rode to school in my dad’s work van to save the gas in our family vehicle. Instead of learning the value of saving and spending carefully to have nice things, I learned that appearances were more important than reality. I became obsessed with accumulating things instead of realizing how much they actually cost. I love my parents and they are my biggest supporters, but they missed numerous opportunities to teach me the value of money and how to use it wisely.
I was just shy of 15 when I started dating the guy who would become my husband (and now ex-husband), S. He had a job delivering pizzas and couldn’t really afford “real” dates, but I didn’t mind. About four months into the relationship I found out I was pregnant. He asked me if I wanted to get married, but even in my irresponsible teenage head I knew it didn’t make sense to get married when I couldn’t even drive a car. We continued dating after our son was born, and he flew through job after job. My parents were disgusted, but at least he did buy diapers and formula (though I admit my parents contributed a lot). I was determined to finish school and go to college, and luckily my mom was able to babysit during the day while I did that. Make no mistake, though – I raised my child. When I wasn’t at school, I was taking care of him 24/7. It was hard and sometimes I thought I would never make it. Thank goodness I was ambitious, and I completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree by the time I was 23.
In 2001, S got a state job and liked it enough to stay. He’s still working there, in fact. We got married in 2002 when our son was 3 1/2 years old. I was taking full time college classes and he made about $20,000 that first year. Everyone warned us how difficult it would be and how frugal we would need to be, but I didn’t listen. Like my parents taught me, however accidental, I was going to work around our low income instead of learning to work with it. We financed brand new furniture through a “personal loan” with 15% interest. I got a string of credit cards to buy clothes, TVs, decorations for the house, and other junk. I took out the maximum amount for student loans every semester to pay for dinners out and shopping trips. I was responsible in my own mind because I also paid off my credit cards each semester, only to charge them up again. In short, our finances were a hot mess and we didn’t even realize it.
Want the rest of the story? Check out Part Two of my financial history.