My life started in a typical Midwestern, middle-class fashion. I lived with my mom and my older sister in a nice house on a small cul-de-sac. We passed our days building forts and playing capture the flag with the neighborhood kids. We weren’t wealthy, but we always had enough for the essentials and some leftover for summer camps or small vacations. Every other weekend, I’d visit my dad, who lived a few hours away in a similar house on a similar cul-de-sac with his wife and, eventually, two young daughters. Life was pretty great. And like most kids in the similar situations, I never thought about money.
When I was about twelve, my life changed dramatically. One day, my aunt, who lived across town, picked my sister and me up from school. This wasn’t all that abnormal — we loved playing with our cousins and spent many afternoons at their place, and they spent many at ours. But it became a bit odd when we didn’t go home that night. Or the next. The nights turned to weeks, and we were eventually told that our mom was in the hospital for the foreseeable future. Because we couldn’t stay with our aunt or grandma forever, we were sent to live with our dad permanently. This move was a big change for us in many regards; however, financially, our lives remained very similar. We were still just middle-class kids. However, over the next few years, things started to change.
My mom spent the next several years in and out of the hospital dealing with severe mental health problems. These problems, combined with the long stints in the hospital, made holding down a job nearly impossible for her. She also lost any child support she had been receiving. I believe my dad was helping her out some, but it simply wasn’t enough. The bank notices piled up, and she soon lost our house. Weekend visits with her changed location frequently: sometimes we saw her at our grandma’s, sometimes it was the house of the woman who was letting her sleep on the couch in exchange for help with housework. She didn’t always have a car to come get us or take us home, and we sometimes found ourselves commuting with college kids who let us tag along for some gas money. As a kid, it was very scary and confusing not knowing where she was staying or how she was surviving.
Simultaneously, things were changing for my dad. He was the CFO at a company that was doing very well, and his salary was growing to reflect that success. Our life with him started to change, too. It started with one Caribbean vacation that eventually evolved into a yearly trip to somewhere tropical. Road trips that once included PB & J sandwiches in Ziplock bags now involved restaurant stops and gas station treats. School clothes that were once Target brand became Nike. They renovated the kitchen with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. While my mom transitioned from middle class to poverty, my dad had transitioned from middle class to upper class.
This strange dichotomy created a lot of internal conflict for me. I worried a lot about my mom, wondering where she would live and how she would survive. I felt the pain of a foreclosure, losing the place I’d called home. Yet I never had to worry about myself. I vividly remember riding on a sailboat in Mexico, thinking about how my mom lived an entire month on what my dad had spent on this one boat ride. I felt guilty if I enjoyed myself, and guilty if I didn’t. While I knew that it wasn’t his fault, I sometimes resented my dad, wondering how he could enjoy this life while my mom was struggling so much. In retrospect, I’m not sure he even knew the severity of the situation.
Both of my parents grew up poor. With a lot of hard work, my dad climbed his way to the top. Contrarily, a victim of bad luck, circumstances, and a few bad choices, my mom never got to make the same change.
I’ve learned a lot about money from both of them. My dad taught me how to open different accounts and choose wise investments. He taught me about budgeting and the importance of saving. He also taught me the importance of spending on things that are important when you have the chance. My mom taught me importance of giving back. She is the most generous person I’ve ever met; she’d give a stranger the shirt off her back if they needed it. I recently moved across the country for work, and she saved extensively to give me $100 to help with the costs. My mom also taught me never to judge people in any situation. It’s impossible to tell how or why they ended up there. Finally, my mom taught me the importance of having an emergency fund. You never know what will happen, and you need to be as prepared as possible.
Witnessing my parents change socioeconomic situations in opposite directions has given me a very unique perspective on money. I’ve seen first hand how easy it is to go from having plenty to having nothing, and how it’s possible to go from having nothing to having everything. I live with the immense privilege of knowing that, should something happen, my dad would be generous enough to help me out. Most people don’t have that kind of safety net, and for it I am very grateful. I also live with the reality of knowing that, someday, I will likely be financially responsible for my mom. She survives now on government assistance and some income from a job she works a few hours a day; however, there’s no guarantee either of those things will last. So for now, I’ll be over here working on my emergency fund.
Patricia prefers to write under a pen name.
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