A Family Financial History, Part 1

An interesting discussion came up the other day with a couple of other ladies about a current financial guru who has helped many to establish better financial lives.  One of the women mentioned that at the time she was growing up, discussing finances was taboo.  However, as each of us told our story of how we became frugalites, we discovered that taboo or not, our family pasts deeply affected our present lives and certainly had a marked effect upon our present financial lives.  Our stories to each other reminded me of family histories...and they are.  It's a financial history of our families we shared, just one facet of the history of who we ourselves are and how we arrived where we are today.

I would agree with my friend.  Money matters weren't discussed, but that doesn't mean as a child I was clueless of what our financial state was.  One of my earliest memories is of men walking into our house and loading up all the new furniture.   My parents filed for bankruptcy when I was four years old.  Mama and Daddy both worked, we lived in a nice neighborhood, had a newer home, two cars, a sort of nanny/maid.  Bankruptcy in the early to mid-1960's was not the common thing it's become these days.  Back then it was seen as a sign of poor character.  Daddy worked for an insurance company and they fired him when he filed for bankruptcy.  We soon moved to a new town into a rental home and from there to a smaller, cheaper rental as his months of unemployment dragged on.

We moved from that town to a house just up the road from Granny.  It was meant to be an 'experiment' Mama told me, to see if they could live that close to Granny and Grandaddy, but the truth was, it was likely because the rent in that house was very cheap and Granny was close by to babysit for free.  The house had no running water, a single light bulb (with outlet attached) hanging from the middle of the ceiling in each room and an outhouse for 'conveniences'.  We spent about a year and a half living in that house.  It probably wasn't a very comfortable house but bless childhood that sees privation but doesn't feel it as much as the adults do.  We were in the country, we had Granny nearby.  We children were very happy despite the cracks in the walls and between the floor boards, despite bathing in a washtub and using an outhouse and the single little Ben Franklin coal stove that barely heated two feet around the stove.

We were happy but I remember Mama's shame at living in such a state. Daddy soon got a new job and I remember the new car he bought for Mama.  A brand new car sitting outside a house like that!  Eventually we moved to a nicer home, another rental.  Daddy worked two and sometimes three jobs.  Mama worked, too.   In those days, you repaid your debts.  We kids went to a baby sitter after school until the year I turned 8.  Then we went home each afternoon and I was 'in charge' of watching the boys, doing housework and reheating the dinner Mama started in the morning. 

We moved twice more, into homes they bought.  Outwardly we had the appearance of being in a good financial state. We had the latest model car, a big house in the country, new furnishings, a vacation to the mountains twice a year, nice new clothes every season. We had air conditioning in the summer months (in a day when most houses didn't). But underneath was the real state: tattered underthings, shoes that were too small, a phone that rang non-stop with collection agencies, a stack of unopened envelopes marked "FINAL NOTICE", a grave fear of illness that might require a doctor visit, heating only a room or two during winter months.  It wasn't uncommon to live without propane for hot water.  Vacations spent in the car, sleeping in third rate cabins and eating a week of picnic meals from the trunk of the car. WE thought them fun, but the details blurred when telling others we'd spent a week in the mountains!  We had a garden and fruit trees and we preserved, canned and froze every single thing it produced and all that Granny or Granddaddy brought us from their gardens.  We never went hungry.  But not being hungry does not instill a sense of security in a child.  We learned early on to never ask for anything that wasn't a requirement for school. Should we dare mention our worry or fear about the financial situation in our home, we were reprimanded and told it was none of our business.

Mama had determined after the bankruptcy that she'd establish her own financial life. She and Daddy had some sort of agreement about who was to pay for what.  That's not to say she was any better than Daddy in her management.  She had several credit cards that were maxed out, used layaways often, took out loans.  She was a compulsive shopper.  Neither she nor Daddy discussed their personal finances unless one or the other was in too deep and then they helped one another out.  Our lives pretty much revolved around the annual tax refund when bills might be temporarily paid.

By the time I was in my mid-teens Daddy was out of work again, this time on a medical retirement that didn't quite turn out the way he'd thought it would.  Our always perilously tilting financial state worsened.  It was like being on a ship that sank in stages, shifting in the current, always dangerous.

At 19, after working two years, having graduated high school early, I married.  Not one time in the months preceding my marriage did my fiance and I discuss finances.  I knew he had a job.  He knew I had a job.  I had a car, he had a truck.  I had no savings.  My car was the family car, after an accident totalled my parents' new,  uninsured, family vehicle.  I paid for the car, the gasoline, insurance.  I had about $10 a month to spare from my salary and often as not Mama borrowed that to cover some need for the household.   Growing up as we had, I'd never had an allowance of any size to learn to manage money.  When I was working, I had no money leftover to manage.  It was simply a matter of paying the bills in my name and hoping I didn't need anything in between pay periods.

My fiance bought a home. We moved in and married on the same weekend. There we were, with no clue what either one of us made, a home payment, two car payments, three insurance bills, and very little to spare between us after utilities were paid.  My husband thought nothing of buying tools or putting expensive extras into his vehicle but often failed to plan for the small luxuries like eating or electricity.  We struggled month to month, but it got worse.  I lost my job.  This was during the days of the recession of the late 1970's/early 1980's.  Jobs were hard to come by, especially in an agricultural area devastated by drought years.

Let's just say there was a repeat of my parents lives, minus the bankruptcy.  We sold our new home and moved to a rental and eventually bought another home.  My husband changed jobs and each was better than the last but  our homes were less and less nice.  Even the home we bought was beyond shabby.  Bill collectors routinely called, when we had phone service but we often didn't. At the height of our debt load my husband quit his job and took another, losing $18,000 a year in salary.  We weren't making it at the higher salary, and we suffered privation at the lower one.  I took over the checkbook during those years but I wasn't very good with money, or so I was told,  but really it wasn't me.  Just as in my parents home, there was financial deceit which is another subject to be addressed later.  The truth is we were in such a hopeless financial state.  I  did what I could to plug tiny holes in a ship that had gaping ones.  I learned to be extremely creative in how to manage menus, clothing needs, home decor.  I learned to do with out and make do.I learned to scavenge for wild foods and thanked God that Mama had me preserving garden produce in her home.  I canned everything I could!

Now can I just say this?  These were years of being poor, but in all those years from childhood through that marriage, there was more money coming into both households than I've ever seen since.  My husband, as had my parents, made very good money.  It was just so mismanaged and so poorly used, that no one ever had the benefits of it.

Eventually the stress and strains broke down our marriage. He was drafted for the Gulf War based upon his MOS from his service days.  I had a job at that point and in the three months that my husband was gone, I picked up and paid for nearly $1200 in bounced checks (yes we lived through that horror over and over again as well), brought all our bills except house and car payments up to date. I never received one penny of BAH or anything else because I had no clue I was due those things and because I didn't ask, my husband didn't bother to send them home.  I did what I did on my own, from my salary,  roughly 1/4 what my husband made,  eating from our pantry, doing all I could to drastically trim our expenses.  I'd have caught up the house and car payments as well if I'd had the financial info needed to figure out the reduced interest rates for the loans, but that too wasn't forthcoming. I had two months of each bill's past due balance in my account, ready to pay those bills as soon as they had the paperwork in order.  And I think it was at that time that I realized I could have a more stable life on my own.

My husband returned after three months, never having seen active duty or left training camp.  I left him a week later.  A week later I was hit by a drunk driver on my way to work.  Six months later, after a few months in the hospital and recovery time, I filed for divorce.  Two months following my divorce I received a settlement from the drunk driver's insurance that was in the five figure amount.  I bought a  few modest furnishings:  a set of living room furniture, a dining room table and chairs, a bed for my daughter, a washer and dryer.  I purchased those things slowly and thoughtfully.

But I am ashamed to say that over the following months I foolishly allowed Mama to convince me  that my children and I 'deserved' a lot of things I could well have lived without and to this day can only vaguely recall.  I was asked to loan money to her several times, though she earned far more money than I. I was foolish, stupid, even.  Here I was, for the first time in my life with MONEY at hand and I had never learned to use it properly.  I knew the family history and yet I listened to the 'advice' and pleas and gave in to them.

A year later I had NOTHING left except my job, a car that could barely make it around the block despite repeated trips to the mechanic and a more distant relationship with Mama.  I was a single parent not receiving the court ordered child support and I barely hung on.  But my pride, my real and honest pride was that in all those months after I was in my own rental home, even after all the 'extra' money was gone,  no one ever called my home requesting I pay a bill  that was late.  I never had electric, water or gas turned off.  My kids never missed a meal or went without a need.  We might not have had what we wanted, but life was far more secure and far less stressful than it had been for all my life. 

That's when I met John.  John had a better grasp of how to handle money.  He'd grown up in a household where money was used as a tool rather than treated as though it were just a frivolous thing.  He'd seen his parents work and save and never known what it was to have bill collectors call or to wonder where they'd move when the place sold for back taxes or was lost.  He didn't make a big salary.  We decided to live together.  One of the first discussions we had was to determine how much of the household bills we'd each pay and who would be responsible for what. I was the one who brought the matter up and I was sick at my stomach in fear.  John was pleased as could be at my forthrightness and we worked out an agreement that we both felt was fair.   Together we managed. 

It was during this time that I lost my car.  It had broken down again and rather than ask for help I'd struggled to pay the repair bill on my own.  I got behind on car payments and I never mentioned to John that I was behind, until the day I got the call from the repo company saying they were coming to pick up my car.

There was none of the drama you see on tv.  In honesty the car was one HUGE repair bill after another for three solid years. It was the only thing I ever let go in all these years.  The dealership acknowledged the car was in far better shape than when it left the lot and cancelled my debt to them.  It didn't change the fact that I'd failed to make payments, but I am grateful that they chose to forgive the debt.  John and his dad talked it over and bought a huge old LTD for me for just a few hundred dollars.  We drove that car for two years or more.  It was ugly and a gas hog but I could put all five kids and two adults in that car without anyone getting squished.  It got us where we were going and back home again until the day it refused to go any further.

At John's insistence, I quit my job  after we'd been together a year.  My job situation was a very stressful. I was still in deep pain daily from the effects of the car accident and caring for an infant, a severely handicapped step-son as well as the three other children and our household needs after work took their toll.  These were tough days mentally and physically.  I was chronically ill, never quite recovering from one bout of bronchitis before having another.  John strongly felt my work environment added to my illnesses and urged me to take time off to recover.

The months of unemployment were seriously difficult financially but with John managing his salary to cover bills and groceries and basic clothing needs and the rare child support check used to stock up on basic groceries, we managed.  Eventually I found a new job that was less stressful.  But again, I had my pride.  John and I weren't married in those days.  When I received my tax refund that year I paid back every single penny he'd paid to cover my share of the expenses during that time of unemployment.  It was more important to me, mind you, than it was to him.  He never asked me to do it and offered me the check back twice, but I insisted.   I was just that determined to be financially independent.  I still have the cancelled check I wrote him.  I keep it to remind myself that I kept a major promise to myself: that I'd learn to pay my debts.

My next job barely covered my daycare expenses and insurance on the kids.  John finished training to be an EMT.  We married. We stretched and scratched to make our wages cover our needs and as our rental home deteriorated around us, we began to look for a place of our own.  Mama sold us the property here for a small fee.  We took out a home loan, bought a doublewide, took out another loan and put in a well.  I was working a well paying job at that time and I paid for the septic tank and electric pole installations.   That spring the good job panned out. I'd been struggling along hoping the business would turn around, paid their electric bill one month, which they paid back, but the day my boss paid me in two fishes, I quit.  True it was food on the table but it wasn't going to put gasoline in the tank of my car!   I spent the summer at home with the kids, then took another job in the fall and worked until the next summer before becoming a stay at home mom to Katie and Sam.  John trained to become an EMTP (Paramedic).  Our lives kept changing, our finances were constantly changing, as well.  It seemed we'd take one step forward and two steps back but looking bacwards now, at how short each season was in our lives, I realize that we were progressing all along.

I'll end here and continue later.  I'm finding this is getting very long.


a8383 said...

Fascinating... I, too, grew up without financial security. My parents were constantly selling our homes to pay debts and buy cars then starting over with a new GI loan (0% down). They had $200. to split after 18 years of marriage. I worked to buy school supplies, clothes, shampoo, etc from 5th grade on. I did not want my kids to know that, so like you I taught myself to do better. It has not been perfect but I can see by there lifestyles that they learned to be self sufficient. Thank you for sharing. Angela

Tracy said...

My, you have been through a lot, Terri! Thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to reading more.

Lena said...

Terri, your story is really inspiring. I grew up in a fairly poor family (but then back in Russia everyone was about equally poor) but my Mom was amazing with our finances and stretching every dollar (or should I say, rubl :) They never really told us we were poor but we knew as much as we could understand at our tender age, what our situation was and what we could do to make it better.

I can't wait to hear the rest of the story!

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