Thursday, June 13, 2013
Family Financial History; Part II
My brother died and my mother inherited a rather large sum of money. She insisted upon sharing with my youngest brother and myself. I don't know how much money Mama inherited, but I know that the amount she gave us was substantial, another five figure amount. John and I applied every penny of it to our finances. We paid off the loan for the well, paid off a credit card that we seemed to have a perpetual balance on, and bought the kids some much needed shoes and basic clothing. We might as well have thrown the money into a black hole as far as we were concerned. It seemed that our debt balances just opened up and swallowed it all, with no apparent effect upon it overall. It was disheartening but at least this time I knew right where every penny had gone unlike that first windfall in my life.
Now as all histories go, there was a point in our financial lives that I'm ashamed of, but I'm going to be open and honest about it. I felt called to give this testimony in a church service one day and got a lot of responses from others who had done the same and went before the altar and their spouses to ask forgvieness. I think it might help someone else.
Due to John's work at one point, I was handling the checkbook between pay periods which I'd not done before. I was short one pay period and so I decided not to write down a check or two I'd written for groceries and gasoline, both necessities, but extra over what we'd normally spend. I knew we had a nice balance that would cushion the checks and I knew that John would only fuss (rightly!) about the need for extra and I didn't want to 'bother him' by discussing it beforehand. Oh deceit is so conniving! I borrowed a little again during the next pay period.
I took advantage of the fact that John didn't bother to read the bank statements, you see. And because the balance in our checkbook always looked to be what he thought it should, he never questioned me. Over time I had 'borrowed' most of our nice balance and often felt sickened when I'd see the bank statement with the true balance, but in the checkbook it looked as it always had. I should have gone straight to him and confessed early on, but my family history of financial deceit had kicked in hard, and I treated it all pretty much as I'd watched my parents treat it. Ignore it in the hopes it would get better all on it's own, go through periods of working hard at dragging it back up a little and as soon as I saw improvement, start borrowing again. This went on for about a year period.
I was miserable as could be and my relationship with John suffered horribly. I couldn't bear to have him be nice or affectionate towards me. I felt horribly guilty all of the time. I couldn't sleep at night. I was physically ill and in as much pain as I'd been at the time of the accident. Stress will do that to you. Towards the end of this time frame, I jumped eagerly at the opportunity to take a trip with Mama to the mountains, a trip she wanted to take her two youngest granddaughters on, with me along to help manage them. It sounded like heaven, a real chance to escape temporarily from my worries. I had only one concern. It was time for the bank statement to arrive and what if John opened it this once? The statement came the day before we were to leave. I hid it deep in the files and happily went off to 'enjoy' my vacation.
We arrived at our destination, a lovely Victorian bed and breakfast in a quaint little mountain town. The view was ghastly. It faced a branch of my bank. Every single time I looked out the window I saw that bank and thought of my terrible secret.
It was about two weeks later, on Katie's 8th birthday, that John and I went to run errands and he stopped in at the bank. I was with him. I can't remember why we were there or what we were doing but as he spoke with the financial officer, he said, "Oh while you're looking at our account, what's the balance? About 'X' isn't it? She looked at him and laughed and said 'No, it's about 'x'.' John looked genuinely puzzled and asked her to check again. In the meantime, I scribbled a fast note on the back of a deposit slip and passed it to him. "She's right. Don't make a scene. I'll tell you when we leave." I don't think for one minute that the financial officer was fooled, but she and John both dropped the subject immediately after she confirmed her first statement. We took care of our business and walked silently out of the doors of the bank. John didn't even look at me. I was so relieved to have my secret out in the open and scared all at once.
It wasn't until we were on the highway headed home that John turned and said "Talk. Tell me what has happened. Where's the money? What's wrong?" He didn't yell or scream or curse at me. He looked hurt and pale and shaken as I told him exactly what had happened. The look of hurt on his face cut me to the core. All he said to me was "WHY didn't you come to me and tell me you didn't have enough?"
When we got home, I handed him the checkbook and told him how genuinely sorry I was for it all. I vowed to him I'd never touch the checkbook again. And that's when he did get angry at me, truly angry. "You WILL handle this checkbook. You'll learn NOW how to manage money and how to save and hold on to it, too. It would be irresponsible of me to allow you to go through the rest of your life without learning this basic skill and I won't do that!"
I had been very foolish. I nearly wrecked marriage to this honest to goodness GOOD man because of my guilt and stupidity in not confessing to him earlier what I'd done. John never brought the matter up again. True, he looked over the bank statements each month and yes, he sometimes questioned me over a purchase or a higher than usual amount on a check I'd written, but he never once made me feel that I was untrustworthy or that he was checking behind me. I don't know if I could have been as trusting as he was. He did teach me why he paid bills in the manner that he did, showed me how he set a portion aside for savings and he asked me periodically if there was anything I needed above what we'd agreed I'd spend on groceries or gas or clothes.
Our balance grew slowly with care and wise spending. John and I began to dream of being out of debt. We gathered the paperwork showing what we owed and we bought a work book by Don Avinzini. His principle was the 'Snowball' debt repayment plan that most financial experts promote. We paid off the smallest debt and went to work on the next one and the next. I suggested we begin to treat our gas card purchases as though we'd written a check and write down every charge so we never carried a balance on it again. I began to sell some of my extra books and a few odds and ends on ebay. I still carried a small balance on a credit card in my name but these were always new charges related to the ebay expenses. We paid that off with the earnings first and use the extra $100-$200 each month to pay off the line of credit loan we'd used to buy our car.
It was during this time that I lost several family members over a two year period. My grandmother died and her home and land were left to my dad and his brother. My uncle died and eventually my dad. Grandmama's will had never been probated in the three years since her death, and when it was my brother and I became her heirs. We received a small cash settlement each right away. John and I used that money to pay off the last of the car loan, buy a new much needed sofa and chair and put the rest in savings. That windfall meant we only had the house debt remaining. It took nearly two years to work through the legalities of all three deaths. The house was in poor shape and we'd just hit the beginning of this recession/depression and the drop in real estate values.
I've shared this story years ago on Penny Ann Poundwise but I'm going to share it again. It too is part of my financial history and it needs to be told. Over these years that we'd been living here John and I had become more and more interested in the Biblical principles of financial management. We began to tithe, something I'm unaware of my parents ever doing. At first it was just a pittance but eventually we paid 10% of what we earned. We learned the tenets of being wise with our resources (which falls beautifully in line with frugality), sowing seed in times of need and waiting for provision. We'd been sowing little seeds to churches that had proclaimed their desire to be debt free believing that we'd find our way to becoming debt free as well. And here we were with all but the house debt paid off. So I wasn't shocked nor did I question John the night we were watching a ministry program that was asking for a seed faith blessing towards a debt they were trying to pay off and John told me to sow a seed of $250 to the ministry and write on the check that it was for the sell of Grandmama's house and the payoff of our own home loan.
For reasons I didn't question, my brother had not wanted to sell Grandmama's house or property. Within two days of sending off the check he stopped by one afternoon and told me that he'd put up a FOR SALE sign in the yard. By the end of the week he had a buyer. I thought we'd be six weeks or more waiting on the closing to go through, but no, by the end of week two we were set to close the sale.
Before I left home to go to the lawyer's office, I asked John to call our mortgage company and find out what the pay off on our home loan was. He wrote it down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I glanced at it and then folded the paper in half and laid it on the table. I prayed out loud, "Lord this is what we need to pay off this home. Please let us get this much from this sale." I told John that when I returned that evening we'd write out the check. All the way to the lawyer's office my brother told me that we'd have to pay for this and that from our own pockets, that we'd not get nearly enough from the sale for either of us to pay off our homes. We didn't have to pay one single penny from our own pocket. Though the house sold for a low price, I kept hard hold of my faith. When I glanced at the check made out to me, I honestly couldn't recall how much our pay off amount was.
When I got home, John and I sat down with the checkbook and wrote our first check to our church, paying tithe on the money we'd received. I subtracted that amount from the balance and we both looked at it and then John handed me the folded up bit of paper. I saw at a glance that we had enough to pay off the loan. I wrote out the check, subtracted that amount from our balance, and started to laugh and cry. John looked at the figures and shouted with laughter himself. We had $250.09 left of the check from the sell of Grandmama's home! And we were debt free.
Being debt free was not quite the life changing experience you might think it would be. That's because we didn't do what many people would do when they reached this state. We didn't change our spending patterns. We increased our savings each month. And that's what has carried us through these six years of increased costs and no raises to offset even a portion of the increases. We have struggled in this economy, as others have, too. But I hold on to the belief that this too is just a season, like many others we've been through and because of our history we have the skills to weather this period.
This is the financial history we give our children, the legacy of seeing what it is to be debt free. We've watched with pride as our children have stepped into the adult world and shown some skill in managing their financial lives. The worry and fears I carried through my childhood and early adult married years of financial failures were not theirs. Yes, they knew John and I struggled at times to pay our bills, but they knew that we PAID them. My children were always assured that if shoes were needed they'd get shoes. At times that meant budgeting until we had enough for the child who most needed them and then we budgeted for the next most needy one, but they knew that they were 'in line' to have their needs met. They never wondered if they would be turned out of house before sunset or whether there would be warm water and heat or food. My children don't know about my personal deceit issues, except Katie who was there the day I gave testimony in our church.
What John and I shake our head over these days as we listen to our kids is that when they are home they always mention those days of low income and heavy needs and they tell us how much FUN it was. We went on picnics and we went to museums and parks that were free. We'd rent a movie and make pizza for a Friday evening at home. They laugh over my skill at stretching foods to cover our own family and a handful of guests most nights in our home, but always end their stories with '...and it was GOOD!'
"and it was GOOD!" seems a nice finish for this story of my financial history. It IS good. I don't know what our future holds, but I'm assured that life has given me the skills to manage whatever comes.