This post is by Jezna. This story is part of our Reader Stories series. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income. Want submit your own reader story? Here's how.
I never would have thought how much growing up is done in your 20s. Like many, I went to college at 19, but only now, at 26, do I feel myself breaking free from my parents' money-mentality. And actually, it's incredibly scary.
My parents never taught me anything constructive about money or budgeting — just that we had no money and couldn't afford life. We were always just one car breakdown, illness, or emergency from disaster. Even today, I get anxious buying clothes because I always picture my mom's stressed-out face, and I feel the urge to put half the clothes back. I could always tell she was calculating how much money was in the bank. Often, half the clothes were put back and the other half was put on layaway.
Looking back, my parents were fantastic at penny-pinching. When we had no money, we were able to do without in order to save a little bit. We ate cheap meals and dressed modestly. However, as soon as things got comfortable, as soon as we had a little bit of money left over, they would spend it. We'd order pizza, go to the movies, get a dog, celebrate Christmas, etc. As expected, another emergency would crop up, and we would be back to cheap food, not answering the phone because of creditors and being afraid to ask for anything new.
I went to college from 2004-2008. Neither of my parents went to college, so it was a huge deal for my family. Loans were really easy to get and didn't require a cosigner (not that my parents cosigning would have lowered the rate). Since the loans were so easy to get and felt like free money, I didn't do enough research on them. I took out loans for more money than I needed to finance my life. I went to a pretty good state school and lived like a college student, but I still managed to get $40,000 in student loans and $3,000 on credit.
This isn't a story about how I got out of debt. I'm not out of debt. I'm still figuring things out. I did start dating someone who loathes debt. She was stunned that, two years out of school, I hadn't managed to pay off my credit card. I would get the card down to $1,000, and then I'd decide that I really needed something — a computer, a new bed, clothes, etc. I was doing exactly what my parents did. When that number got comfortable enough to not cause me anxiety, I would spend more money. My significant other kept telling me that it was laziness that I hadn't paid it off. I gave her every excuse.
“I'm working on it!”
“Look at all the progress I made without you!”
“You don't understand what the emergency cycle is like!”
I didn't understand at the time that she was right.
She refused to date someone with credit card debt and she asked for me to try it her way for a few months. We went on a money diet. At the beginning of the month, I would take out a set amount of cash. I would pay the bills and then everything else, including groceries, would be paid in cash. Everything left over went to my debt. The credit card was paid off in three months . She was right. We celebrated with store-brand ice cream that we bought with coupons.
The most exciting and downright terrifying realization was that the boom-and-bust cycle is over. I now have an emergency fund, but I still keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep expecting that something huge is going to go wrong and take all of my hard-fought money independence with it. Part of me feels a bit panicked about having money and would like to get rid of it so that I'm not responsible for it anymore. I don't know what I should be doing with it. My parents never had any money! Sites like Get Rich Slowly have been a godsend, because at least there is information out there somewhere reassuring me that someone, somewhere, has been through this.
Lastly, the scariest and hardest part of growing up and breaking free is that I still have to witness the financial struggles of my family. My mom is now making a lot of money, but the house is still being foreclosed on. My sister is making as much as I do, but only has $100 in the bank. If I say anything, I get called an elitist, or a know-it-all who thinks she's smarter than everyone else.
My approach has been to omit all money-related talk, but I'm struggling to divorce my feelings from their situation. I still associate some strong feelings with the boom- and-bust cycle. And subconsciously, I believe that they're still the victims in this world — that life handed them a raw deal.
While that may be partially true, I know they're also responsible for their own mess. I feel guilty that I'm putting money away in my IRA when my family is still struggling. I'm expecting that when I switch jobs that they'll figure out that I have money and either resent me behind my back or ask for some help.
How do you deal with irresponsible family members? Do you help in emergencies? What do you do when the guilt is just too much? Do you run away from the conversation, knowing that not helping might breed resentment (even though you know that you lived cheaply and worked hard for everything you have)?