Recently, my mother celebrated her birthday in her usual quiet fashion. She likely never mentioned the day to anyone, remaining just happy to receive a few calls and a gift or two from the people who remembered on that day. That’s just her style.
When I was young, my mother was always the person in the house that managed the checkbook. She would pay the bills, determine whether or not there was any extra money to spend, and prioritize things. She did this pretty quietly – the bills would simply be paid, the allowances would simply appear, and we all had so much faith in her that no one asked questions.
During the hard times – and there were hard ones, when my father was laid off from his job, for example – she managed to somehow keep every bill paid, keep food on the table, and keep the stress of the situation far away from us kids. We weren’t completely naive – we were aware that money was tight. Through it all, though, she kept her composure and calmness, keeping a miserable financial situation from becoming a negative influence on the rest of the family.
When times were good – when our family’s “side hustles” were booming – she didn’t always plan for the future as well as she could have. Instead, she spent the money on us. We would go out to eat as a family at a nice restaurant. She’d quietly pick up a video game or a book that I had been wanting and would just drop it on my lap with a smile and a hug.
More than anything else, though, she taught me to think for myself in a culture that often encouraged groupthink. She would constantly encourage me to read more about a topic I didn’t fully understand. If there was an ethical dilemma, she would sit me down and make me work through it on my own, teaching me how futile and wasteful such things as racism and sexism were along the way.
Through all of this, she would never take credit for the amazing things she did – being a parent for one of her own children and two step-children, being what amounted to a foster parent for several other children that lived nearby in tough home situations, paying the bills, preparing all the meals, keeping the house tidy, working a part-time job, playing a huge role in keeping several “side hustles” going, and still finding time to sit down with anyone who needed a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen to their problems. If you asked her then – or asked her now – how things were going, she would mostly just reflect on the accomplishments and activities of the people dearest to her, totally minimizing her own contributions to the effort.
Frugality. Humility. Compassion. Encouragement. Reasoning. Ethics. These were the tools that my mother gave to me that built me into the person I became.
With those tools, one might wonder how I ever got into financial trouble at all. If I was raised so well, how could I have dug such a big debt hole?
It’s quite simple. You might have all of the tools in the world, but it takes time and effort to learn how to use them. Consider a four year old with a hammer. He or she might have an understanding as to how the tool is used, but that won’t prevent them from swinging the hammer wildly and smashing their finger.
That’s the state I spent most of my early adulthood in. I was much like a young child with a hammer, swinging my credit cards and my checking account wildly around with only the vaguest ideas of how to use them as tools. Those wild swings hurt me quite a bit, putting me in a financial place that was hard to dig out of.
That’s when the final tool really came in handy: the ability to reflect on my mistakes and learn from them – and apply those lessons to further growth. The ability to recognize that I had messed up, to reflect on exactly how I messed up, and to apply those lessons to my future life was in fact the greatest gift.
I leave you with this one final thought: if you have found yourself in a sticky financial situation, don’t just thrash about for a quick-fix solution to the problem at hand. Instead, spend some time reflecting on how exactly you got into that situation in the first place and look for some larger changes in your life that you can make so that you never go back there. Out of all of the things my mother taught me, this was the most valuable lesson of all.
Thanks, Mom. Happy birthday.