I’m a single parent. I don’t say that to garner your sympathy. A lot of us are single parents, and most of us manage just fine.
I tell you that because I want you to understand something about my life. I’ve lived, since removing myself and my children from a dangerous and abusive relationship, paycheck to paycheck. It’s has been an uphill struggle since I divorced my ex-husband, and there are times when I feel that there’s no end in sight.
I’ve been doing it for a while now. My kids are now 10 and 8 years old, and they’ve grown accustomed to my complaints and my financial stress. All parents, single or not, understand that when financial stressors arise, it’s difficult to keep those troubles hidden from the kids.
When I was in high school, I was fortunate to attend a private school. My parents were by no means rich, but my parents were adamant that I not attend public school. The best available option was a preparatory school, and it’s there that I finished my senior year. My classmates were wealthy. So wealthy, in fact, that conversations surrounding graduation included descriptions of the houses their daddies were buying for them within commutable distance of Duke University.
I went to community college for two years, and then began applying to “big girl school.” My parents nor I had saved a penny toward higher education, and it was then that my financial struggles began.
I had no credit, and needed a cosigner for my student loans. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad had never learned to manage his money, either. His credit was so poor that our applications were rejected. My mother, like myself, had no credit. The only option I had was to work my way through college.
Again, I’m not telling you that I worked through college because I think it makes me sound like I’ve had a rough life. If we’re being honest, it’s what the kids call a “first world problem.” I did, after all, go to college. But I experienced severe anxiety, lost an unhealthy amount of weight, and my relationship with my parents still suffers.
It was hard. It was the hardest obstacle I’ve faced in my life. Since that time (it’s been 15 years now) I’ve felt like I’ve been playing a constant game of catch-up. It’s a weekly game of rent vs. groceries, and the legal costs of divorce certainly don’t help.
I’m doing what I can to make things right for my sons. They’ve never gone a day without a soft place to sleep or three hot meals in their little bellies. But they know what it costs me, both financially and psychologically, to make that happen.
We talk about money sometimes. And I don’t claim to be a perfect parent. I’m far, far from it, but I know what I’ve learned and I want my boys to learn it too. I do not want them to struggle the way I have over the past 20 years, and I try to teach them by example. Here are the three most important lessons I’ve tried to impart to my kids, so that they don’t experience what I have.
1. Save early. Each of my sons has a college savings account. I contribute a percentage of each of my paychecks toward those accounts, and they’re required to put a portion of their birthday and holiday money aside as well.
2. Learn the power (and the risk) of investing. I’m not a huge believer that playing the stock market is a sound investment. But there are merits to the “safer” methods of investing, like bonds and sometimes mutual funds. My kids have seen my portfolio and they’re learning how to invest wisely. We’ve played a few games online, and they’re gradually learning the ropes.
3. Know the true cost of everything. Sure, my kids know that the light bill averages $130 per month and that internet costs $60. But they’re also learning that if they really want to celebrate their birthdays by renting the skate park, it will cost them the new jackets they’ve been eyeing. There are choices that we can make, and there are choices which are made for us. You have to pay the electric bill. You have to pay the rent. But you do not have to choose the name brand shoes.
I wanted so badly to become an adult. I wanted a mortgage, a full time job and a family. Unfortunately, life got in the way, beginning with college expenses and ending with divorce. I’m now struggling, slowly working my way uphill toward a little more financial independence. In the process, I hope I’m serving as a sort of paradoxical role model for my sons. Follow my example: don’t do what I did.