Confession: I was a financial disaster

Don't let your spending control you the way I let it control me.

By MSN Money Partner Sep 22, 2011 10:26AM

This guest post comes from Andrea at So Over Debt.

 

Last night my son wanted ice cream after dinner. So, being the super cool (aka ice cream-loving) mom that I am, we jumped in my car and headed to DQ. (Note: The Nutter Butter Blizzard is NOT as amazing as I expected.) Anyway, we were waiting in the drive-thru line and something -- maybe the weather, maybe my mood -- reminded me of a moment from the past. It was kind of unsettling, actually, like I was having one of those TV flashbacks.

 

Begin flashback

It was the summer of 2007. My (then) husband S, 9-year-old Jayden (awww, so long ago!), and I were leaving the county fair and Jay asked for ice cream. So we went to McDonald's, ordered food for us and a McFlurry for him, and drove around to the window. S gave the girl his debit card and we watched her swipe it, wait, then swipe it again. We looked at each other and knew that we didn't have $14 in the bank to pay for our food.

 

We pulled out of the drive-thru, S fuming, and went to the bank. He withdrew $10, leaving a balance of $1.13 or so in our checking account. I decided I would eat something at home to allow the two of them to get their food. We made the Drive of Shame back to McDonald's, where the drive-thru girl looked at us like we were pond scum. When we left the parking lot, the argument started.

 

"Exactly how much did you spend yesterday?"

 

"All I bought was gas! Did your gym fees come out of the bank today?"

 

"I don't know, but you should keep up with the money better!"

 

"Well, maybe you should help out every now and then!"

 

On it went until we pulled in the driveway at home. Jay ate his ice cream, then went to his room and returned with his piggy bank. He plunked it down on the table so hard we both stopped yelling and turned to face him.

 

"Take my money, Mom. Then you guys won't have to fight anymore," he said, and walked back to his room.

 

I have never wanted the earth to open up and swallow me as much as I did in that moment. I'd like to say that I woke up then, realizing all my mistakes and turning my life around in a Lifetime-worthy transformation. But you guys know that's not what happened, so I'll leave the fantasies for my not-so-promising future in fiction writing. To this day, though, that night is one of my most horrible parenting memories.

 

Back to last night

So I snapped back out of my trip down memory lane in time to pay for our ice cream. FYI, my debit card was accepted with no problems. I didn't even briefly wonder if I had money in the bank because I don't have to do that anymore. The only argument on the way home was over which song we should listen to (Jay wanted Fall Out Boy's "Thnks fr th Mmrs" and I wanted the DJ Earworm smush "Funky Goes to Hollywood.") And I realized how much my life has changed and how many things I take for granted.

 

Being able to buy a fast-food meal is a tiny thing. Miniscule. But for many years of my life, I held my breath every single time I did it. Much like my former co-worker, Georgia, I know what it's like to put things back at the grocery store because the total is more than I had in the bank. I have also thrown a fit when my card was declined, insisting my bank screwed up my balance, even when I knew darn well I didn't have the money. I was a financial disaster.

 

One of the signs of addiction is making efforts to control your use of the addictive substance. Except I wasn't controlling my spending -- it was totally controlling me. Everything I did depended on how much money I hadn't spent yet, and while that's still true to an extent, it's not the same as it was before. Post continues after video.

Before, if I wanted something, I swiped my card and bought it. Later I would worry about how to afford the things I needed, like food and utilities. If necessary, I would "borrow" the money from my parents to make it through until the next payday. Sometimes I couldn't buy my son a Blizzard but I could afford a vanilla cone.

 

These days, I pay for the things I need first. Then if I want something, I save the money separately from the money I spend from day to day until I have enough to pay for it. As a result, I know how much money I have and I don't waste time worrying about what I can afford. If Jay wants a Blizzard, he gets a Blizzard -- not every day, but a few times a month. And I do this after getting divorced and losing my ex-husband's income.

 

Take control

If you've never been where I was, good for you! But if you have, or if you're there right now, aren't you tired of it? All the hoping and crossing fingers and (possibly) having to explain to your child why s/he can't have a Happy Meal or a coloring book? I'm over it. If you are too, the only way to stop it is to take control of your spending.

 

You need to know where your money goes. You need to check your bank balance regularly, even when it scares you. You need a realistic idea of how much money it takes to keep you afloat. Create a budget, for crying out loud. Do whatever it takes so that you aren't consumed by worrying about and fighting over money. Believe me, I know it's not easy, especially if you aren't used to it. But it's the only way to make things different.

 

Stop dreaming of winning the lottery. Stop saying, "If we just had more income we'd be fine!" Accept your role, whatever it may be, in creating financial mayhem in your life and take steps today to fix it. If you don't know where to start, ask for help. Hell, ask me for help if you don't have anyone else. Just. Do. It. Now.

 

The memory that popped into my head last night is one of many I don't want. I hate remembering how dumb I was and wondering if my son is going to grow up with messed-up ideas about relationships and money. I can't take back what happened. But I can spend my time making enough positive memories to outweigh the negatives. And now that my money is under control, I have a lot more time to spare.

 

Is your spending under control, or is it controlling you? What steps have you taken or do you need to take to get things back on track? I'd love to hear your story.

 

More on So Over Debt and MSN Money:

VIDEO ON MSN MONEY

9Comments
Sep 22, 2011 3:55PM
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Due to illness and unemployment,  my family's income has taken a severe hit. Right now it is less than half of what we were bringing in 2 years ago. We are about to lose one car, and our checking account has been almost constantly overdrawn lately. While I can't change our income at the moment, I knew I had to do SOMETHING. After eliminating all unnecessary expenditures (for example, cable) and cutting back on services where ever I could,  I drew up a budget for the next 6 months, based on the income we have now, when we recieve it, and when the bills are due. Losing the one car is not such a severe blow because of my husband's illness, he will probably never be able to drive again. But I was able to come up with a plan to catch up on the payments on the other car and keep it on time from here on out. To my surprise, there is actually going to be money left over most weeks, sometimes nearly $200, and on a couple of occassions even more. Of course, things will change some when he gets his social security disability. Not so much the income, that will remain about the same as it is now, just the timing will change. And hopefully I will find a job soon, increasing the money we have coming in. But at least, having a plan written out that I can refer to each week gives me some breathing room, and knowing that in three more weeks we will actually start to have money left over after bills.
Sep 22, 2011 5:09PM
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@Mister Manners - If only the problems in my marriage were purely financial. I guess it's easy to make snap judgments anonymously on the internet, but saving myself (and my son) was much more important than saving my marriage.

@olekobe - I never said my son doesn't work. He completes chores and earns allowance every week. But that doesn't mean he should have to pay for everything himself. He'll have a whole adulthood to do that.
Sep 22, 2011 5:46PM
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I completely understand what you went through. Growing up my family was always struggling to make ends meet. My parents did not teach us anything about money, and I grew up with zero knowledge on how to manage it. When I began college, on scholarships, I was so relieved that my parents did not have to get more into debt to get me through it. Let's just say I would not have even bothered going because I knew how strained they were and still are. I taught myself everything that I know by trial and error... in hind sight I should have probably sought a class on money management...

Anyhow, since I saw my parents struggle I did not want to live like that even if I had to work three jobs while going to school, which I did. I managed to get through school without debt and pay off my used car shortly after graduating. I got my own place and at 23 I got a house on a fixed 30 year loan. It took a good hard look at what my parents were doing wrong and an even greater determination not to let me be in their situation. Since then I got married and have a child and I can't say that I am a millionaire, but at least I don't have to worry about how I am going to pay everything for the month. I learned that doing my budget for two weeks at a time, or period between paychecks, and treating saving as an expense, was the best solution for my family.

I miss the days where I could say 'I want to go to (city name)' and take off with no worries, but life changes and as you said, it takes a flashback to realize how much worse it could be. We are on a tight budget right now but so is everyone else. Priorities change and as long as you have the right ones taken care of, the rest will follow.

Sep 22, 2011 9:57PM
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The best lesson this woman could have taught herself AND her son was to admit that they could NOT afford an extra stop for ice cream after going to a county fair.   Or they could have picked up a half gallon of ice cream at the supermarket for a few dollars as their "treat."  Seriously......sayin​g "no" to your kids will not mar them for life!
Sep 22, 2011 3:23PM
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I can outdo you. I called BB&T's 1-800 number to check my balance and I was charged three dollars for the call WHICH I didn't have in my account so I was charged $33.00  for the call and then holy hell broke loose as every other thing started to bounce !!!  
Sep 23, 2011 12:10AM
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Contrary to what you think,  you will not be able to "erase" the bad memories you have created for your son.  Your responsibility is to help your son understand the circumstances and the solutions, so he makes the correct choices in his life.  Bad memories are many times motivators for change in our lives.
Sep 22, 2011 6:49PM
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@Mister Manners - I have no plans to discuss the details of my personal life on an online forum. A person's circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, and the tiny snapshot you read here doesn't give you enough information or authority to make judgments. Thank you for your spirited comments but they are irrelevant to my post.
Sep 22, 2011 6:37PM
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Saving yourself and your son?? OK, did he threaten your lives or something?? And your biggest issue at the time was your finances?? Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees!
Sep 22, 2011 4:53PM
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And just think, if only you'd have done this common sense stuff sooner, you probably could have saved your marriage as well.
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