Being Broke Is Expensive, Part I
“Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.”
I’d never considered the question, but I suppose I was. As an abandoned baby from Turkey, I can only guess as to the economic situation of my birth mother and/or father. I was adopted seventeen months later by an American couple. He was in the Navy and they were stationed in Turkey and unable to have children at the time.
In the military many needs are provided for the one who serves and for his or her dependents. This includes health care, housing, and reduced prices for goods and services. I remember at the age of ten my mom taking my brother and I to Saturday catechism classes and from there we would walk to the base theater and watch two movies for free until about 4:00. It was free childcare for my mom every Saturday. She might meet us before the movies and get us lunch at the base cafeteria. Popcorn was ten cents. Sodas and candy weren’t much more. I did this every Saturday for about a year. (To this day when I see movie credits, I want to have popcorn.)
Other services were provided for military dependents like art classes or sports and to my knowledge all of these activities were at a reduced price or free. When we moved to another military base, movie prices were an astronomical 25 cents. Yet as a kid almost everything in my life was doubly-provided for – first from my parents, then from the military.
Yet despite all this, something was rotten in paradise. My dad almost always worked two jobs. He would leave the house many nights to teach English to Japanese adults. When we left Japan and moved to California, both parents worked. Between those two stops we lived in Indiana with my grandparents for a few months while my dad stayed free of charge in a small apartment called Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (BOQ). Yet despite both parents staying rent free, my mom felt the need to get a job for those few months. I also remember her complaining that her own parents wouldn’t give her gas from the gas tank they had on their farm and a depressing conversation about money troubles she was having. I don’t remember the details, but I remember how hopeless I felt.
There was another more significant sign. Every once in a while, after my parents gave me money or I had earned it, they would question me about where the money went. Most of the time, I didn’t know. Honestly. I really couldn’t recall where my money went. Sometimes I knew I had spent it on comic books, but most of the time I really couldn’t remember. These were often tense conversations. There were two underlying problems with these conversations:
· first, I could not make an account of my spending; and,
· second, though my parents berated me for wasting money, they never, not even once, told me how I should handle money.
I never heard words or phrases like “invest,” “delayed gratification,” or even “save.” They just told me I wasn’t good with money. So, then I would stop spending for a while or, amazingly, give away the things I had bought thinking that would undo what I had done, but eventually I would go back to my old habits.
If I had any philosophy about money at all…and I don’t think I did…it was, “If I have money, I can spend it. If I don’t, I can borrow it.”
I may have picked this up from my parents. They seemed to spend money when they had it and had lots of bills when they didn’t. To be honest, I’m not sure. But I do know that birthdays and Christmases were often extravagant affairs. In addition, they had four strong, active, healthy boys, all of whom ate lots of food, drank lots of milk, and had lots of needs and wants. Of the four, I may have been the most ambitious. I mowed lawns, babysat, and delivered newspapers starting at the age of 13. When I turned 17, I got a job at McDonalds (though that didn’t work out so well; I was ambitious, but I could also take the path of least resistance, which isn’t a good trait in the fast-food industry…or any job). But from the age of 13, I never stopped working. I might also add that I’ve been very fortunate and have never been out of work for more than two-and-a-half weeks, unless it was by choice, for my entire life.
And yet, I have almost always been broke.
Even when I was married, there were financial struggles though we both had full-time jobs. Two people who are not good with money are not going to suddenly become one who is good with money. (More on this later.)
Here are some of the financial lowlights (not highlights) of my life:
· defaulting on a student loan simply because I did not provide a change of address and paying thousands of extra dollars in penalties over a period of years
· having to work fifty hours in one week just to be able to buy tires for a car that was almost as old as I was
· having people I knew see me going through trash cans to get recyclables
· constant stress with my kids over supplying basic needs and not-so-basic wants
· always, always, ALWAYS having to look for sales, discounts, and bargains not out of thrift, but out of necessity
· standing in a Wal-Mart wondering if I could afford a $2. mini tube of toothpaste
· realizing I had not saved any money for my kids’ college
· not being able to live where I wanted
· not wanting to go to a college reunion from embarrassment that I was in worse financial shape than I was when I was in college (when I was also broke)
· having the lack of money be a constant problem throughout my life no matter how much I earned
· realizing that I was worth more dead than alive.
This blog and subsequent blogs will be about my financial journey. That journey has been largely an unhappy one and for the last three years it all culminated in one of the most difficult periods of my life. During those three times I would be filled with daily anxiety, fights with my kids, feelings of disappointment and worthlessness, fractured relationships, limited choices, and, at times, uncontrollable sobbing at how my life came to this point. In addition, even when I did my best, events seemed to conspire against me. This is not a pretty story and, as of this writing, it is an unfinished story. But hopefully it will be a helpful one.
Through it all and at this point, I have learned two things that help me to Get Started and Keep Going:
· I survived this difficulty as I have survived many others, and
· I can change myself and thus change my life.
 Shortly after adopting me, my mother got pregnant and had three more children over the next ten years.