Image: Woman writing in check book © Bruce Laurance, Digital Vision, Getty Images

I wasn’t born into a single-parent household. Life took a few turns along the way, and I ended up in one.

My mother and father were model post-divorce parents -- they remained in constant contact, we continued to share holidays as a family and my father faithfully paid child support until the day he died. Since he was a retired Navy senior chief, we received financial support from the military following his death.

Still, money was tight.

As the new head of our family, my mother had to make several tough financial decisions. By watching her, I learned five key money lessons that have greatly affected how I view (and spend!) money as an adult. 

1. Live within your means

My mother always told me that she moved to Florida with $2,500 and a prayer in her pocket, so she ran our household in a way that it wouldn’t fall apart if her prayer went unanswered. Once a week, she picked up ingredients for modest, yet filling homemade meals that we shared as a family. Now that I’m older, I appreciate the practicality of staying in with chicken and rice, rather than going out to eat.

When she could afford to purchase a few back-to-school threads for me and my brother, they were often pulled from the clearance racks at department stores. And since we didn’t have cable, our nights consisted of board games and novels, which we would take turns reading aloud.

After I landed my current job, I succumbed to the temptation to buck all those years of frugality. Within a year, I racked up four digits’ worth of new work clothes, vacations and other unnecessary expenditures. I’ve since transferred that balance to a low-interest account, and I hope to be credit card debt-free by 2014. Sometimes you pay for the lesson -- if I had been a little smarter, I could have learned it for free just by heeding Mom’s avice. (Yes, Mom, I’m admitting it. You were right.)

2. Earn your own money

On the day that I turned 16, my mother made a deal with me: pay for my share of her car insurance policy, and I could use the family wheels. It took four months of saving my paychecks from the local Domino’s Pizza to fulfill my end of the deal, but to this day, I can still feel that pride of laying those hundred dollar bills on her dresser. It was almost as exhilarating as cruising to school on my own for the first time. She could have paid for my insurance, but she instead taught me how to budget, save and meet a financial goal.

After college, I found myself jobless and living at home again. Mom gave me the occasional $20 to spend out with friends, but I was well aware of the fact that I had to find a job. Within a month, I was waiting tables to earn a few dollars each week. It wasn’t exactly a dream situation, but borrowing money was certainly something that I was happy to end.

3. Make it work

I’ll always remember the day my mother sat my brother and me down to slowly explain, in a very serious tone, that she only had $50 to keep our family afloat until payday. When you’re 9 years old, $50 seems like a small fortune. My mother, of course, knew just how quickly that money could vanish into the gas tank and grocery store cart, especially while raising two kids.

There are weeks when I find myself in the same financial predicament. During those times, I remind myself that, if my mother could take care of a family of three for five days on half a Benjamin, I can certainly bring my lunch to work, skip happy hour and find free ways to occupy my time.

4. Stop complaining and just handle it

“You want new clothes? Get a job, and buy them yourself” was a phrase that my mother kept ready in a holster. It had several variations: “You want to join a sorority? I’m not paying your dues.” “You’re going on spring break with your friends? Hope you have money to cover the gas.” My mother is by no means stingy. It’s actually the opposite -- she’s one of the most generous people I know. She always made sure that her children had what they needed, but she made it clear that special extras were on us.

Throughout high school and college, I worked at least one job at all times; during one very stressful semester, I took on three paid positions on campus. Even now that I have a full-time job, I still seek out freelance projects to smooth over tight months. Working the occasional late night or weekend beats complaining any day.

5. Be grateful if you can afford to pay your bills

My brother was diagnosed with a serious illness when he was in high school. Health insurance picked up some of the bills, but the long list of prescriptions and doctor’s visits took a toll on our family’s finances. On more than one occasion, I overheard my mother negotiate new payment schedules with banks and agencies so that she wouldn’t fall behind.

Today, I’m grateful every single time that I’m able to make a payment on time. Sometimes the number left over after my bills are paid is small, but I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never been late on my rent, student loan or credit card payments. And if that has to change due to an unforeseen circumstance, I hope that I’ll handle it as gracefully and practically as my mother did.

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