“You’re not a little girl in trouble, you’re a grown woman with choices!”
My daughter and I had been discussing her financial difficulties, her choices and the possibilities to take responsibility for those difficulties.
She didn’t seem to believe the words from my mouth and in frustration with herself, me, and life, itself, shouted back, “But that’s how I feel! It’s always how I’ve felt about money! Like a little girl in trouble.”
Her words reverberated through my head, and my usual inner reaction of searching for where and why she believed this, where had I gone wrong in my mothering and teaching (or lack thereof)? shook my already ailing body.
The conversation continued till it finally ended on the obvious resolve that it was just time to start over. Find a new way.
Suffering from a terrible head cold, my physical self seemed to have taken over the wiser part of me. I felt I had not found the balance or what I needed for my daughter at that moment. Strange how the physical and spiritual can be so separate and yet have such an effect on the other. And as I swam through the thick mucus in my head, I seemed to grasp onto a piece of the past and then a piece of wisdom. Upon hanging up the phone, I prayed she had been able to sift through the fragments.
The next morning, I awoke feeling physically worse than I had the day before and was grateful that it was a pre-scheduled day off from work, so I could rest, force fluids and not push myself anymore. As I fixed my toast and coffee, it dawned on me that I, too, had always felt like a little girl when it came to money. I’d always waited for my husband to tell me when it was okay to spend money or to buy this or that. I’d always wanted him to take responsibility for the decision. And when I made one without him, I had always felt like and even shared with my daughter that I was sneaking around. My daughter and I would go shopping, and I would tell her, “Don’t tell your dad that we bought this or how much money we spent.” Later I would confess and my husband never really cared, although I knew and still know that if I had “asked permission” to spend that money, he would have said we couldn’t afford it.
I realized that I had found the answer to where her feelings about money had originated. But then wondered what it had been in my life that had made me feel that I could not be responsible for financial decisions. Why had I always waited for my husband to give the okay (and then ultimately resented him for his control over it all)?
Suddenly, I was seven-years-old again, standing in front of my mother’s dresser with the big rectangular mirror. Pulling out the top half drawer, I dug down in the front of the drawer through silky slips, to find my passbook from the local credit union. There, along with five other passbooks, I found the one marked with my name and stuffed the five dollars I’d earned doing chores inside. And there my money would wait till my parents made their weekly trip to deposit it all into our individual savings accounts. It was the unquestioned ritual, our money was managed and controlled from the time we were small, by our parents.
The only purchase I ever remembered having made from my hard-earned savings was a ten speed bike. I must have been about twelve. A new bike shop had opened in town, and my older siblings had decided it would be cool to have new bicycles. Somehow they convinced our parents that it was a worthy expenditure, and we were each allowed to withdraw enough money to purchase the bicycle of our choice. Mine was white with a red seat and red pin striping.
By the time I was seventeen, I had saved $2000. It doesn’t sound like much now, but in 1979, that was a lot of money – enough to buy a decent used car. And that is just what I had planned to do with it. My dad took me to the local car lot, owned and operated by a family that had been there “forever.” He picked out the car he felt would be good for me, paid for it with his money, and told me to make payments to pay it off, as there was no sense in taking my money out of the bank. I proceeded home, excited to have the freedom of my own ride and confused at the powerlessness that was diffusing the freedom. Inside the kitchen cupboard, I taped a piece of white school paper with the date and $2000 at the top. This would be my payment chart.
My parents had been raised in the Depression Era and money issues were fed to them with a carefully measured spoon. They carried the frugal ways and the vulnerability experienced by their parents in their wallets in the form of fear. Fear that there may be a shortage later, and the fear of regretful spending decisions. And that fear was passed on to me. I feared that I could not and would not be responsible with money. I either hoarded it or threw it all away.
When I was living with my ex-husband in He had been the one to pay the bills, but now needed me to take over the responsibility for that 30 days. His check would be deposited into our joint checking account. All I was required to do was to write the checks when the bills came and send them off in the mail. It seemed easy enough. Our bills consisted of utilities and rent, but since we were not married, the military was still paying him like a single enlisted guy living on base. It was a very meager income, supplemented by my inadequate income as a part-time hotel desk clerk., his military career took him out of the country for a month.
In my ex-husband’s absence, I felt a bit of freedom to spend some money on something fun for a change. With no one watching over me, I went to a local department store and bought new pretty bed sheets to replace the threadbare set we had been using, and as an accessory to the sheets, I bought myself some perfume. Sadly enough, though, when the bills came due, there wasn’t enough money left to pay them all. Since decisions were not my strong suite, I decided I just wouldn’t pay any of them. I put them on the shelf till my ex-husband returned. He would know which ones to pay. I’ll never forget his shock at my decision to pay none rather than pay the ones that I could.
Making conscious money decisions has been a choice that my husband and I just recently set upon together. After spending money we didn’t have to try to buy unreachable happiness in the form of quick fixes of pleasure and luxuries, and only digging ourselves a seemingly bottomless hole of money related stress, we finally realized that the best happiness we could give ourselves is not going to be something that the newness will wear off or will be digested and in the toilet the next day. The best happiness we could give ourselves is knowing we have made conscious spending decisions that will lead to financial freedom and freedom from regret and worry.
It took me a long time to come to this place. I’m forty-(almost)five. It feels good to know that no material thing, no luscious meal, or pleasurable experience is worth paying for with interest and worry. It is great to now know that I cannot buy happiness, for in that knowing, I take the wheel and money becomes the passenger instead of the other way around. When the temptation to buy what I cannot afford or to spend money that I do not have comes along, I now know that I am not filling myself with the fulfillment that I need and have available to me from other areas. I’m placing the responsibility for my happiness in someone or something else’s hand.
The choice to believe in one’s self is all it takes, because with belief in self, there is no temptation to validate your existence with spending. Choosing to be responsible for your actions and your life is the ultimate empowerment.