A Mother’s Gifts

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.

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  1. Emmanuel says:

    Nice post Trent. You sound really passionate about your mum. I love that. I came about your blog a little while ago, minutes actually and all I can say is, “Your blog steams with great content”. I will definitely come back very often.

  2. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    Happy birthday, Trent’s mom.

  3. Lisa says:

    Trent,
    What an absolutely wonderful tribute to your mom. From mothers of sons everywhere, we thank you. We like to see sons that turn out great!
    I bet your mom prayed for you too.
    She sounds wonderful. Good for her.

  4. Trevor says:

    Do you think that you will try to teach your children good money management tactics? My situation is the same as yours more or less and I’ve thought long and hard about how to teach my children so that they don’t make the same mistakes that I did. So that they don’t get into the situations in the first place.

  5. Mike says:

    What a wonderful analogy about the four-year-old with the hammer. :)

  6. Toni says:

    I read somewhere that God couldn’t be everywhere and that’s why he created mothers. That was a truly inspiring post about your mom and she sounds like such a wonderful person. The world needs more of people like her. I’m raising my can of Cherry Coke in her honor. Happy birthday to mom!

  7. Jesse says:

    I couldn’t have said it better about my mom: I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t have a caring, loving mother.

  8. Movingonup! says:

    You’re lucky to have such a great mom!

  9. Ro says:

    It’s my birthday today as well and I only hope that my son is able to say half the things you’ve said about yours in this post when he’s an adult!

  10. Kelly says:

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY TRENT’S MOM!

    I love the inspiring stories of the lives of real people. Thank you Trent’s mom, and of course, thank you Trent for writing about and teaching us so eloquently!

  11. Kelly says:

    Comment #2, you have a good question, how do we teach our children about money? My only vague idea for now is that as my child(ren) get older I will explain what Mom and Dad do with money and why it’s important, and as they get a little older still maybe involve them in some of our money projects, like logging receipts or tracking our budget, or making a payment for something. But for now I want her to not worry at all -except eventually understand why Mom won’t buy everything that she wants in the store!

  12. Jessica says:

    This makes me remember how much I appreciate my mother for the same reasons – but I have had the same problem

    “You might have all of the tools in the world, but it takes time and effort to learn how to use them.”

    At least we have the tools!

  13. Beth says:

    Trent – It sounds like you have a wonderful mother, and the world could use more women like her.

    Thanks for providing some adjectives for me to work towards applying to myself!

    Best wishes to your mom and all of your family.

  14. Adrienne says:

    Happy Birthday Trent’s Mom

    I can only hope my own sons will write so lovingly about me when they are grown…

  15. Iris says:

    Happy birthday to your mom!

  16. Robert says:

    A very well written tribute to your mom, and one that has some very good points to it (about humility and the other values we sometimes seem to forget these days). I hope that your mother had a very happy birthday.

    @Trevor (Comment 2)- We naturally want to protect our children and somehow help them to avoid any and all mistakes, particularly the ones we ourselves have made. But I think we have to also realise that making mistakes and learning from them is a part of growing up. While we can, and must, try to help our children to learn from our experiences we also need to remember that our children will still make their own mistakes. When that happens it is our job to help them, both with overcoming the mistakes and (more importantly) with learning from them.

    As an example (though not directly related to finances, per se): Perhaps the greatest gift I ever received from my father came back in 1995. I was involved a car accident far from home after a weekend away visiting a friend. While thankfully no one was hurt, my car was totalled. Up until that point I had always relied upon (perhaps more accurately leaned upon) my father to help me fix my problems. When I called him that Sunday afternoon, expecting him to come get me and somehow set things right, his response was “Just what do you think I can do about it?” And with that, I found myself forced to deal with the problem myself, rather than expect him to fix it for me.

    While I wasn’t too happy about that response at the time, I did manage to work things out: Rent a car to get home, find and buy a replacement, deal with the insurance (mainly for the new car, the old was simply liability coverage), and finally arrange for the disposal of the old vehicle.

    The only thing my father did was to drive up behind me the following weekend so I could return the rental car and finish selling my old car to a junkyard near where I crashed. He then did the only thing that I actually needed him to do, which was to give me a lift home after I had taken care of the problem for myself. I eventually realised that by forcing me to deal with this issue for myself, he had given me the gift of self-confidence to realise tht I could handle these things for myself.

    My father passed away unexpectedly only 5 months later. To this day I believe that had he simply “fixed” my problem for me that one afternoon, rather than make me realise that I was capable of resolving it for myself, I would have not been prepared to handle his passing nearly as well. And I would not have been ready to go on without having him there as a safety net to fix my problems. Oh, I’m sure I would have eventually coped with both the loss of my father, and the safety net he represented, but it would have been far harder for me to do so.

  17. Chere says:

    Happy Birthday, Trent’s mom. Yes, you did great with the money side, but you also raised a great son! A little sane place, the simple dollar, in a very confusing world. Congrats all round.
    c

  18. CPA Kevin says:

    I agree with Robert, sometimes the best thing a parent can do is sit back and watch their kid(s) make mistakes. I certainly never learned frugality from my parents, even though they were frugal until I experienced the feeling of being in debt and living paycheck to paycheck. At least I did it in my early-mid 20s and have time to recover.

  19. steve says:

    @Kelly

    If you are interested in seeing one approach of teaching your kids about money, check out The First National Bank of Dad, (I don’t remember the author), which outlines one person’s very-well thought out method, as well as his actual experience using it with his kids.

  20. steve says:

    @CPA Kevin,

    I have a slightly different perspective of Robert’s story; I don’t think Robert’s dad was sitting back and watching him make mistakes. What he was doing was providing the space and the expectation that Robert had the ability to handle the situation himself, standing back because he knew that at this point of his son’s life, it was important for him as a parent to parent him by standing back and, both forcing and letting him use his own abilities and judgement.

  21. Kate says:

    I’m not sure that you can prevent your children from making mistakes…you can only lead by example and hope that they will follow your lead. Some kids are frugal right from the start and never get into problems–others stumble a little and then get themselves right and others have problems for a long time but eventually get on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, there are those who never seem to get it right. But, as Robert said so well in his post, if kids are never expected to work their ways out of difficult situations they never gain the self-confidence to know how to do it.

  22. Suzanne says:

    Really enjoyed this Trent. As a mother, sometimes I worry too much about the “big picture” or “their future”. I will continue doing my best to make a good impact on the areas of their life that matter–developing good character; showing grace and patience with themselves and others; and to cultivate true happiness within themselves.

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