The Money Lesson I Wasn’t Expecting To Learn After My Mom Passed Away

When I was 21, my mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. While reckoning with the grief of losing my dearest friend and mentor, there was an endless amount of paperwork to take care of, much of which related to money. At this point, I knew very little about money, and I was not used to having any at my disposal. I had worked retail jobs during the summers in high school and had a part-time job throughout college. I saved a bit, but never more than a few hundred dollars. I was taking out student loans, but I thought I would make a living wage soon after graduating. This mentality was full of middle-class privilege, and my warped perception increased even as I was aware of how much I was benefitting from wealth I didn’t earn myself.

After my mother’s debts were subtracted from assets and divided between myself and my younger sister, I was left with $100,000 (a mix of a life insurance policy, retirement savings and selling the family home minus the mortgage and credit card debt). I was shocked. I felt a mixture of relief, gratitude, and awe of my mom who was the hardest-working person I had ever met. She worked two jobs as a nurse, and she was a very frugal person. I remember, the summer before she died, coming home and seeing an almost empty fridge, and I realized how much she was sacrificing to save up for a retirement — one that she would never be able to enjoy.

Once the money was transferred to me, I honestly thought I wouldn’t touch it. I would save it forever and it would be my safety net if I ever needed it. Unfortunately, I did not stick to this plan. Once the six-month post-graduation period passed, I had to start making student loan payments. I also decided to pay for my own health insurance and started seeing a grief counselor. At the time, these all seemed like reasonably good decisions. I felt fortunate to be able to pay for health insurance and take care of myself, even if it meant dipping into the inheritance funds. As for the student loans, I thought I should build a good credit score, so I used the inheritance for these payments as well. I was still fairly thrifty — I bought used clothes, had two roommates, rode my bike to work whenever possible. I had a weakness for splurging on good food, but I loved cooking at home, and it brought me joy at a time when very few things did.

For two years, I worked entry-level, low-paying jobs (making $25,000 a year or less), and supplemented extra expenses like health insurance, therapy sessions, and student loan payments with my inheritance. Instead of negotiating a higher hourly wage or for employment benefits, I started to think that I just wasn’t qualified or skilled enough for the kind of good jobs that would allow me these luxuries. So I decided to get my master’s degree in the same field as my undergraduate education and work experience. I decided to move to Europe and pay 10% of the tuition costs I would have in America, and it was one of the best decisions I made for my soul.

Two years of living abroad brought me back to life. I realized I loved the challenge of being a foreigner; I made amazing friends and changed the way I lived and saw the world. During this time, I was living exclusively off of my mother’s savings. While I do not regret going abroad, there are things I could have done differently. I used the excuse of not having a worker’s permit to not get a side job. In hindsight, there were ways I could have gotten around this barrier by working under the table and informal gigs. I was also a bit more relaxed with my spending, focusing more on being happy than saving with a militant discipline. Now I realize I could have done both — but that is how I learned.

Today, it has been two years since I graduated from my master’s program and six years since my mother died. I am still working entry-level, near-minimum-wage jobs. I am not on a “career path” of any promise. I still have student loans to pay off, I am still paying for my own health insurance, and I am still tempted to use my inheritance to pay for basics like groceries. My 21-year-old self could not have imagined the joy and opportunities this inheritance would give me, or how quickly I ran through it. I wish I had more interest in finance and money management to seek out guidance, instead of handling the situation on my own. When I was 21, I thought investing money was like gambling, and I did not truly understand how long $60,000 of student loans payments would linger. Nor did I understand how hard it would be to make more than minimum wage, even with a master’s degree and a few years of work experience all in the same field. In a way, I thought I was investing in myself and in my future, but the way I did it was flawed.

It pains me to remember how much my mom struggled economically, and how I took a very privileged position and did not make the most of it in a financially responsible way. Now I am committed to not only supporting myself fully, but I want to rebuild that safety net my mother worked so hard for.

Next month, I will be job hunting again, and even if I do not find a well-paid opportunity, I will try my hardest to negotiate for health insurance and a three-month review to discuss a possible raise. I will keep my current part-time, remote job to bring in extra income on the side. When I feel tired, discouraged, lost and alone, I will remember the strength and dedication of my mother, and use her memory as inspiration.

The reason I am sharing this story is that I have met other young people who have lost parents, been extremely fortunate to receive any amount of an inheritance, and blown through it at an astonishing rate. Without a parent or a mentor to guide you, it can be difficult to make choices you will be proud of years later, especially when dealing with an excruciating loss. I am grateful to resources like The Financial Diet that offer advice to people dealing with a variety of financial challenges or questions.

I have also met people who have lost a parent or guardian and not had the privilege of inheriting any sort of financial security. In a time where many people still depend on a parent’s health insurance until the age of 26 or live at home to save money on rent, I wish there were more resources for people who do not have access to emergency funds for any reason. I am extremely fortunate that I had an amazing, supportive mother until the age of 21. But there are plenty of amazing and supportive parents who do not have the means to support their children in life or after death. I did not plan on this post turning into an argument for increased social welfare, but there it is. I experienced the privilege of having a safety net while my mother was alive and after she died. This should not be a privilege.

I am committed to improving my financial literacy and taking ownership of my mistakes, while hopefully building a more secure future for myself and my neighbors. I hope as a nation we move forward to support the lives and wellbeing of everyone, and acknowledge the fact that shit happens, people make mistakes, and everyone deserves the opportunity to rebuild their life after a loss.

EJL is not qualified to give financial or life advice, but has benefitted from hearing the stories of others.

Image via Unsplash

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