Thursday, November 6, 2014

A painful lesson I learned about money

Has it really been so long since I've posted?  Life has been SO busy.  I hope that perhaps I'll be back sometime to write about more of it.  But for now, I just want to tell you a little story.  Most of all, I want to tell it to myself so I'll remember.

I already posted about how my father died after his long illness last December.  We were all heartbroken--and naturally Christmas felt achingly empty without him, especially since it came so soon after we lost him.  Nevertheless, we gathered in my mom's living room on Christmas Eve.  There was no Christmas tree except for the twelve-inch one we had bought and decorated in Daddy's hospital room just two days before he died.  I'm not sure if he ever saw it, but it now presided over our Christmas, standing on a table as if it wanted to be acknowledged.  There were few gifts for the adults, and the children's large gifts were not wrapped, but they didn't mind and we did the best we could to honor the holiday somewhat properly.  If nothing else, we were glad to be together.

My dad had never been the type to make handmade gifts, even though he was artistically talented and could have made some wonderful things.  He rarely picked out gifts for us at all.  He usually just gave us money, and this year he had of course been sick, too.  So, less than two weeks after we said our goodbyes in that dark little hospital room, we sat in my mom's living room opening a little box that contained a beautiful ornament my mother had bought, and the very last Christmas gift we would ever receive from my Daddy.  He had been in the habit of putting money into a special Christmas account, and by checking how much was in the account, Mama knew about how much he had intended to give each of us.  It was what most people would consider a lot of money.  It certainly felt like a lot of money, as I held it and wished I had something he had doodled on the back of a napkin just for me.  But we got money.  And as I sat there thinking how large and generous a gift it was, a nauseating thought occurred to me.

In the stress of his illness, in our grief, and because we were strapped for time and energy, we had run up our credit card balance.  We never carry a balance on our credit card, only charging what we know we can pay off right away.  But this particular year I'd had to buy more gifts than usual because, though I had tried, I just didn't have the creative energy to make gifts.  I had spent a lot of time at the hospital.  We'd stopped for fast food a lot, and I had shopped just because I felt bad.  I thought maybe if we bought the kids a few extra gifts, things they would really love, at least they might not be miserable at Christmas.  By December 24th, we had a credit card balance large enough to negate Daddy's last Christmas gift.  It hurt.  When you receive that kind of a gift, you want to use it to do something permanent, or at least something good.  Something that the person who gave you the money might have wanted you to do.  It hurt my heart to think that we would be using that money to pay off junk toys, a half dozen fast food meals, and a bunch of other stuff I can't even remember--most of which we could have said NO to.  Growing up, I always watched my parents wait at length on non-essential purchases, saving up and shopping carefully.  I remember exactly how my dad looked, sitting at the dining room table, working contentedly in his old plaid-covered checkbook, using a pen to balance it.  My parents always set a financially responsible example.  That made me feel even worse.

Christmas finally ended and we struggled to fit 20 times more toys than any child needs into our relatively small home.  Despite all we had spent and all we had been given, I was deeply unhappy.  On December 29, I stumbled upon a blog post entitled 31 Days of Living Well and Spending Zero.  31 days straight of zero non-essential spending?  It sounded, at once, both suffocating and liberating.  After reading the blogger's personal story, I was touched and intrigued.  After discussing it, Jordan and I decided to begin the spending freeze that very day.  It was evening already, but we reasoned that since we had not spent anything all day, it could count as day one.  It was one of the best months of my life.  It helped us get back in control of more than just finances, and gave us something to be happy about.  I'm so thankful that Ruth has put this gift out there for anyone who needs it to pull themselves back up.

This sad story has a happy ending.  We cut our spending off cold turkey, paid off the credit card, and had a little money to save, too.  Then, once the 31-day freeze was over, we continued limiting our spending.  We finally knew for sure that it truly didn't make us happy; quite the opposite, actually.  Instead of buying more stuff, we started selling things we didn't need!  We continued putting money into savings, and finally decided to find a new piece of furniture to replace the tiny, scratched-up yard sale table that was the first thing anyone saw upon entering our front door.  We wanted something with storage, yet beautiful and with character, too, and we didn't want to spend too much.  Just as spring was beginning to creep in, we visited a local antique mall and found the perfect piece, on sale--a buffet with two cabinets and three drawers.  We were told it was made in the 1940's.  So was my dad.  Every time I walk by it, I am reminded of the redemption that hard work and a little determination can bring.  I am also reminded of my dad and the way he probably would have jokingly called it a "fiiine piece of furnityure."

Harry Potter likes it too.

It's been too long since that first cleansing spending freeze, and we have found ourselves backsliding a little, so now we are doing another one.  Last time, thanks to Christmas and a few other factors, we were able to put money into savings and meet several financial goals.  This time will be different.  We have a dental check-up next month for all three kids.  I'm just praying there are no cavities this time.  We didn't have a car payment last time we did the freeze, but we do now because our dear old Betty broke down and we had to buy a new (to us) van before we wanted to.  Yes, we have some expenses coming up that can't be helped.  But even if we don't put a single dime into savings during this spending freeze--even if all we do is just barely stay in the black, keep our credit card balance at zero, and leave our emergency savings untouched--it will be totally worth it.  It will be so much better than letting things spiral because why bother, we won't get ahead anyway.  Someday soon, a gift or a Godbreeze will come, and we will be ready to receive it.  That's what I've learned.  That's what I'm reminded of when I look at our buffet.