As a kid, Christmas in my house was a magical event. My mom went to great lengths to keep us believing in Santa by splashing intricate decorations on every wall and allowing us to make extremely long wish lists. I was also born on December 25th, which took my mother’s obsession with having a very Merry Christmas up a bunch of notches.
I only just started to notice how anxious my dad got about mom’s holiday spending when I entered the teen years. It was easy to tune out his very understandable worry when I’d wake up to a room overflowing with just about every Christmas gift I could imagine. My siblings and I would quickly rip open everything except for a few precious final boxes we wanted to leave for last. We’d haphazardly toss the gifts that didn’t hold our attention behind us, as holiday tunes played softly in the background and the smell of cookies wafted through the house. It was amazing. And I never wanted it to end.
Except that it always did. And when January showed up, a dark emotional fog rolled into our home every single year of my childhood.
It was at this point when my dad’s financial anxiety would soar through the roof, and my mom’s overspending caught up to her in the form of overwhelming consumer debt. I watched her verbally battle with creditors and fight with my dad when he’d ask her to stop constantly shopping. I witnessed how disempowered my mother would become with each anxiety-ridden conversation that never left her feeling truly seen by my dad. And during the ride to school, I heard my father obsessively vent to me about his deepest fear – that we’d go bankrupt.
And then there were the mornings when my dad would leave a messy pile of crinkled dollars on the table as allowance for my mom while she stayed home with the three of us. My parents didn’t share a checking account, and my mother had no clue how much my father was making, except that she knew he was earning enough to fund a comfortable lifestyle. We were by no means rich, but we certainly weren’t poor. We sat somewhere in the middle, and to be honest, I don’t even know how much my dad made because he never talked about it.
I think my father was worried that if he openly discussed finances too much with any of us, his money would somehow disappear. And when I say “his” money, it’s because I grew up watching my dad work a busy, important job, while my mom hustled for free as a stay-at-home mom. And the daily reminder of the financial disparity between them eventually became branded on my brain.
It still sticks with me, even now as a grown woman with children of her own.
While my husband Matt and I are not at the point of losing our home, we are in the thick of some major financial struggles. We live paycheck to paycheck, have nothing saved up, and often find ourselves eating a box of pasta every night for a week when we’re trying to stretch that final 50 bucks left in our account. We’ve been overdrawn more times than I can count since my firstborn arrived, and we’ve had to constantly lean on our families to help us get by. And while we’re making just slightly too much income to qualify for government aid at the moment, it’s not lost on me that anything could happen to us in the future.
I’m basically living out the financial fears I was conditioned to believe as a child. And it is beyond frustrating.
When Matt met me, I was babysitting to pay the bills and hustling hard as an actor in Los Angeles. Performing was the only path I’d been encouraged to take as a kid, because I was really good at it and seemed to enjoy doing it. My dad and I continued our family’s path to crippling debt by both taking out loans to help me go to one of the best college drama programs in the country. I had virtually no clue about the dynamics of a loan, and I’m still sitting with a huge balance 13 years later.
Because of my childhood memories, I spent so many years terrified to sign up for a single credit card or even research how to responsibly use one. But in my previous marriage, I wasn’t making enough to pay for extra things like plane tickets so I could fly back East and visit my family. Just before I turned 30, I tentatively decided to open a line of credit. I didn’t expect the divorce that would follow less than a year later, and when it happened, I desperately took out three more lines of credit to afford the cost of living entirely on my own for the first time as an adult.
When I met Matt, he was carrying an extremely heavy weight on his shoulders due to the obscene amount of student loan debt he had from attending a for-profit college. He was also divorced and living as frugally as possible while he worked as an animation artist in the city. As you’d expect, neither of us had broadcast our financial woes on the dating app we initially started chatting on. And because both he and I hadn’t been particularly encouraged to ever be mindful in this area, we didn’t even think to ask each other about our individual histories with money.
Looking back, I also don’t know how much would have changed for either us if we had. I was stuck on a financial roller coaster that never seemed to end, and so was Matt. We didn’t spend gratuitously or waste resources – we just didn’t make enough to live and raise kids in an unbearably high-cost city. Existing on a single income as I stayed home with our firstborn certainly made things tougher, and then struggling to find part-time work I could do at home wore us down even more.
And inner shame has been rearing its ugly head the whole goddamn time.
We’ve tried relocating for the past six months to see if bringing our living costs down might help. And it did — until it didn’t. There have recently been emergencies and surprise bills and unexpected extra costs that have piled on top of our dwindling income, and we never feel like we can catch our breath. And after running out of ways to solve our chronic problems with cash flow, I feel so disappointed in myself for being this much of a late financial bloomer.
I would not recommend this way of living for the faint of heart. But I also want to point out that all is not lost.
There have been some major benefits to being neck-deep in what seems to be my greatest money fears. By facing what I’ve spent so long worrying about, I’ve seen myself come out the other end surviving. No matter how bleak our bank balance has been, we’ve made it work. We’ve always had some sort of food on the table. My kids are so fucking happy, whether we have fancy things or not. And our parents have supported us immensely with this current move back home. My family may be struggling a ridiculous amount with finances, but I’m not even close to my dad’s level of anxiety so long ago. And knowing I can get through even the darkest of times has helped me realize how very strong I am.
Developing the skill of earning, managing, and saving money has felt for years like I’m a first-time hiker trying to climb Mount Everest. But just because I’m far away from seeing the top, that doesn’t mean I haven’t earned the right to climb in the first place. I have discovered at the most disappointing of moments that it’s no longer benefiting me to feel constant shame over a job I was never taught properly how to do. But it is ultimately my responsibility to figure it out, and I’m owning that.
Now that my eyes are wide fucking open to where I want to grow financially, I am going to make sure I have the supportive conversations with my husband, and myself, that my parents never had. I am going to remember that progress is never linear, but it is still worth aiming for. And I’m definitely going to treat myself with as much patience and compassion as I possibly can.