I still remember handing my mom those color-coded slips. It was my first year of private Catholic high school, an institution that my mother insisted I attend in order to get a better education. Our neighborhood didn’t have the best rep when it came to schools, and my parents always insisted that I strive for academic excellence.
But after my father passed away, when I was in middle school, my mother found herself with the overwhelming task of raising me alone. My father’s death was unexpected and left my mother in a tricky financial situation. She persevered and decided to sacrifice a little more and pay the monthly (albeit slightly reduced) payments for me to attend a great school. And while I got a solid education from high school, I learned the truly important lessons from watching her survive those years.
I owe a lot of my best financial habits to my mother. To be fair, she did help me a lot once I started college (like the time when she took it upon herself to cover monthly payments for a new car until I could afford to do so). But those first few years after my dad’s death were rough and whether she meant to or not, she became my financial role model. Here are five lessons I learned from my single mom:
1. Nice clothes don’t need to be super expensive.
Even during my most hardcore wannabe-punk years, my mother refused to let me leave the house with raggedy jeans or torn clothing. She taught me the value of keeping up a good appearance — without spending a ton of money. We visited plenty of department stores and always took advantage of coupons. I translated this penny-pinching fashion-scouting into my frequent trips to thrift shops, and my newfound love for Ebates. I also sell my clothes at Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads, often for store credit. I once attended a ritzy art auction wearing a pair of $7 Dia de Los Muertos-themed heels I got from a closing-out sale. That night I got numerous compliments, and someone even asked me, “are those by a local designer?”
2. Don’t ever regret spending money on food — but don’t be excessive, or wasteful.
One of my mom’s biggest mantras is “don’t ever feel guilty about spending money on food.” It makes a lot of sense, since we need it to live and all. She always made sure I ate well and I watched closely as she selected the best-priced groceries (and again, brought along her coupons). We rarely went out to eat. I, unfortunately, love eating out now, but I try to cook at home often, and eventually enforced a rule where I can only eat out once a week. I installed Snap on my phone and got a credit card that gives me 2% cash back on groceries. I use Pinterest to keep track of recipes that are cheap and will yield plenty of leftovers. One of my favorite recipe blogs is Damn Delicious, which has plenty of “one pan wonders.”
3. Gifts are great, but it really is the thought that counts.
As a little girl, I often used my cute, chubby face to get what I wanted. That included a Barbie jeep that I pouted about for days. I remember my mom not wanting to budge, but my dad eventually gave in (as he usually did). I always thought of her as the strict parent, but guess what? She was right. I lost interest in the car pretty quickly. My mom didn’t have a lot of money to buy me fancy presents, but she would always show affection through little gifts like the Yan-Yan packets she would leave on my desk. I enjoy buying gifts for others, but the price tag is not as important to me. I love the DIY trend because putting time and effort into a gift, rather than tons of money, really goes a long way. Last Christmas, I made these jewelry dishes using some of my boyfriend’s leftover clay.
4. Spending time together should be priceless.
Probably due to our financial situation, we rarely went on big trips. I actually don’t really enjoy Disneyland (don’t judge me) and my mom didn’t make it a point to talk up theme parks. That worked out just fine for me. I still remember the old stool where I used to sit in the kitchen to talk with my mom after school. I value a great conversation just as much today, and I learned that simply spending time with someone is more important than spending money to see that someone. I regularly check event listing websites, like Discover Los Angeles, and keep tabs on gallery openings (which are always free and sometimes include free booze). I have slowly converted some of my friends into casual art lovers.
5. Don’t get too comfortable.
I still struggle to understand how my mom made it through that rough period after my father passed away— financially and emotionally. But the experience, as she tells me often, made her stronger and wiser. I learned to keep my calm during rough financial periods, and use my more stable financial moments to save as much as possible. By learning to live more simply, I could put away more money in my savings — and prepare for the unexpected. I made it a goal to keep my habits the same even when my income increased. I also use Keep the Change, a system that rounds out your purchases to the next dollar bill, and puts that change in your savings account. Maintaining strong financial habits helped ease the difficulty of unexpected situations, like finding out I owed more than $1,000 in taxes for freelance work, or losing my laptop.
Eva Recinos is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She is less than five feet tall.
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