I grew up not thinking about whether or not I was poor. My parents owned our farm, but some years were tough financially. My earliest years we lived in a trailer until my parents built a house. They paid it off fairly quickly. I don’t know how quickly exactly but I know they didn’t take out a 30 year mortgage like most people today do.
But… There were tight years.
My Daddy worked three jobs most of my life, and all of my childhood. He was a farmer full-time. He logged when the weather permitted. He worked as a mechanic/salesman for Turner Tractor Sales in the winter months.
He never complained. He worried, but he never complained. He found ways to make it work. Daddy’s idea of retirement was to sell the farm where I grew up and buy a smaller one, so he still farms and rebuilds tractors.
My Mom was a housewife, but being a farmer’s housewife also meant she did her share of gardening, fieldwork, and other farm chores. She also took on other jobs from time to time — selling Avon, Tupperware, Mary Kay, Home Interior, refinishing furniture, cleaning houses, etc. She was and still is an artist.
I started working on the farm when I was a very small child. I went with my parents to the fields and “helped” — mostly played — before I could really be helpful. But I was there. And I learned to work.
Growing up, I had chores and I had farm work to do. Everyone contributed. I worked in the tobacco fields. I worked in the garden. I stacked firewood in the winters. I picked peppers. I cleaned house. I cooked. Because, on a farm, that’s what everyone did. Everyone pitched in. Everyone did their fair share and sometimes more than their fair share whether or not there was “pay” for work done.
As I grew older, I also babysat for family and friends, cleaned houses, and did other odd jobs to earn money.
My parents also put huge value on education, so they taught me to learn, to read, to study, and to work at anything that didn’t come easy.
Starting college almost felt like a vacation. Suddenly, I didn’t have farm work or chores. I only had to clean up after myself, do my work study job, and study. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself, but I also had very little money.
I went to college on scholarships and grants. I had a work study job. Daddy gave me little money here and there to tide me over and bought me things that would help me concentrate on my studies. Still, I never had much money, and I had to make what I had last. There were weeks, I had no money for food and had to figure out how to make what I had on hand work, but I refused to ask for more unless it was absolutely necessary. Daddy put a little money in my bank account fairly regularly, and I felt if I couldn’t make that work along with my paycheck, then that was my problem. Yet, somehow, even when I was down to only a few cents in my bank account, I always felt confident I would find a way to make it work.
My financial situation fluctuated throughout college because my work situation fluctuated. I worked when I could and looked for extra ways to earn money. During my college years, I worked as a desk receptionist, an RA, a summer orientation leader, a foster treatment home aide, a babysitter, and a fast food cook. I also typed other students’ papers for extra money. During summers and vacations, I did farm work, painted houses, and cleaned houses to save money for expenses not paid by my scholarships and grants.
I always felt like there was a way to make the money I needed to survive even though I often didn’t have any money. I never doubted I could earn what I needed, so I never thought of myself as “poor” even though I was.
By the time I graduated from college, I had medical debt and credit card debt that I had to find a way to pay off. I got married and then my husband’s debt got combined with mine. That was the first time I felt “poor” because even though we were both working full-time jobs, there were weeks when we only had $10.00 left for groceries after we paid all our bills, even though we’d only paid the minimums due. It felt like we’d never get out of debt.
Eventually, my husband got a better paying job, and we started making slow headway on those bills. Still, there was a lot of financial insecurity. We put off medical care. We put off eating healthy. We put off car maintenance. We charged things because they were necessities. We had to prioritize.
We reached a point where we could make our payments every month and sometimes even put a little money in a savings account without sacrificing things we needed.
Yet, through all this I always felt like somehow it would work out if I just kept working at it and yet couldn’t imagine ever feeling financially secure.
Then I bought The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom (I found the book so helpful, I sent the updated version to my niece a few years ago.) by Suze Orman after seeing her on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I started reading the book, and I decided to work through some of the exercises in the book, particularly the one about exploring your money history beginning in childhood and how those lessons, intended and unintended, affected my attitude toward money. I began to see patterns in my life about my self-worth and money, about my time and money, about my work and money that made me uncomfortable.
Yet, as I worked through the rest of the book, I figured out something I hadn’t seen before. I had options. My husband and I were better off than we thought. He and I also often had different attitudes toward money and how we saw our financial situation. (We still do sometimes.)
I also saw that I acted from a place of fear far too often when it came to money and yet wasted money in ways I hadn’t quite noticed.
Around this same time, I saw something somewhere — I can’t remember where now — that suggested putting the money you would spend on something in a jar every time you would buy it to both stop the bad habit and to see how much money you wasted on the habit. I had a habit I was unhappy with. Every night when my husband went to buy cigarettes, he bought me a large Caramello. I’d put it in the fridge to eat the next day because I liked them cold. I would eat part of the cold one in the fridge when he brought me the “replacement” one. At one point I had two uneaten candy bars and one half eaten one in the refrigerator, but I still had him buy me one when he went. The habit was out of control. I decided to try the new trick I’d seen. We had a candy dish on the coffee table, so I started having him give me the money for the candy bar every night when he went to get his cigarettes. I mean, I had a reserve in the refrigerator, so no big deal. When I started seeing the money add up, I kept having him put money in the jar every time he went to buy cigarettes even after my reserve was long gone. By the end of the month, there was over $60 in the candy jar! I couldn’t believe it. Was I really wasting $60 a month on candy bars? When I showed it to him and we counted it again, we were both surprised. Not that we should have been. The math was quite simple, but we’d never stopped to do it. A couple dollars here and a couple dollars there is easy to shrug off until you pay attention. I took the money and deposited it in our savings account. Not long after my husband quit smoking though he denied his decision had anything to do with my little experiment, but cigarettes cost more than the candy bar did. I’m just saying.
I also realized around this point that the debt I’d thought insurmountable was almost paid off. We could probably afford the down payment for a house. We could afford to start saving more and investing some. It was scary but possible.
I started looking at our finances more closely then brought my husband into the conversation. We started slowly implementing several of the steps from the book. I worked on changing my attitude toward money.
Over the years, we became more financially secure. We found certain freedoms with that security that we didn’t have before. Sometimes, it’s easy for us to become a bit careless now that we have more security, and we have to do a check in to pull back and make sure we’re staying on target for our goals.
We’ve had setbacks that put our financial security in jeopardy and took work to keep it intact. Sometimes that meant sacrificing short term desires, postponing some goals, and/or disappointing people we didn’t want to disappoint. Still, we managed to come through those setbacks and find a greater security on the other side with a little bit of attention, patience, dedication, and luck.
It’s nice to not have to create a grocery list in a spreadsheet to figure out what we can and cannot afford to buy each week. It’s nice not have to worry about whether or not we can afford healthy food. It’s nice to be able to replace a piece of clothing that no longer fits without needing to plan for a month or two. It’s nice to be able to go to a concert, a play, the ballet, comedy show, etc. without needing to worry about how we’ll pay for it.
But, I’ve recently begun to think about the connection between happiness and financial security. I’m incredibly grateful for the financial security we have, the freedoms that security has given us, and the experiences it’s allowed us to have, but sometimes I stop to wonder if those things bring as much joy as they cost. I wonder if we spend money on things that are supposed to make us happy because they are supposed to make us happy or because they really do.
I don’t ever want to be in debt the way I was in my twenties, and sometimes that makes me reluctant to take certain risks that could be more beneficial than not. I worry about losing financial security more than I worried about finding it when I thought it was an unattainable goal.
Sometimes it’s important to take a risk, a calculated risk, to reach goals in life. It’s important to remember that people need to come before money, but that shouldn’t mean wasting money one doesn’t have.
In spite of being financially secure, I can’t help but notice that I often fight to place value on my own work and even downplay my successes when I have them. Would I be as blase about it if I didn’t have the security I have or would I push harder to sell more?
Financial security doesn’t magically fix those voices in your head that whisper “you’re not worthy. you’re not lovable.” It does however make it a little easier to breathe and to speak back to those voices.
Financial security isn’t a given. It doesn’t stay just because you have it today. It takes a lot of hard work and planning and even a little bit of good luck. So as secure as I feel today, I know how easy it is to lose that security.
Originally published March 27, 2019 at writewithtlc.blogspot.com.