• Bad Choices

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    Since we recently got engaged, I’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone with my mom, discussing wedding plans. This conversation has opened the door for my mom to share her memories of being young and married. My parents married at 18, and my mom gave birth to her first child at 19, then another at 21. I was an unexpected baby when my mom was 41, so I don’t know much about her life as a young wife and mother. Today she opened up and talked about her life choices and I was surprised to learn just how many bad choices she made. It seems as though every chance she had to make a decision that would impact her lifelong finances, she chose the obviously bad option.

    First, she chose not to go to college, despite her good grades and her wealthy parent’s offer to pay for school. She says she lacked confidence and never really considered it as an option. Instead, she married a man with an 8th grade education. This combination of choices pretty much set the stage for the rest of their financial achievements. Immediately after getting married, she chose to have children. I asked her if their poverty played a factor in her decision, and she said no. I asked why not and she replied, “Because things have a way of working out in the end.”

    Boy did they. A few friends had given my parents some used furniture to start their new home (an unheated studio). My sister was born and had a digestive problem that required a special goat’s milk diet. My father was earning less than $70 per week, my mom wasn’t working at all, and the special milk was expensive. One week they had no money at all, so they chose to sell all their furniture for $4 to a pawn shop. Things went on like this for a few months, and then my mom chose to get pregnant again.

    My dad finally got a good blue-collar job and my parents purchased their first home. Within a year, my mom suspected my father of having an affair with a neighbor and chose to put their house on the market and take the first offer, which was 1/3 of what they had paid for the home.

    Finally mom chose to start working. But there were few options available to an uneducated mother, so she chose to start a home day care. She chose to spend all the revenue from the day care on toys, furnishings and supplies for the day care, claiming that this was a good tax write-off and a “good” financial choice.

    Over the years she has made similar “tax advantage” choices, such as buying a new expensive vehicle instead of driving the old car.

    She has also made some pretty heinous choices on my behalf that will have long-term effects on our finances. For example, I chose to attend an out-of-state college, which required me to pay additional tuition. If my parents had agreed to allow me to become a legal independent, I could have paid the in-state rate and qualified for grants and scholarships based on my income alone. This cost me an additional $36,000 in student loan debt. She didn’t want me to become an independent because she wanted to be able to claim me as a dependent on her tax return, saving her maybe $750 on her taxes each year. She convinced me I needed her permission to become an independent, and she threatened that if I were audited and the IRS saw that my parents were claiming me as a dependent when I was an independent, then I would be in big trouble. Looking back on it now, that’s ludicrous! The mistake would have been theirs, not mine. I’ve tried discussing it with my mom over the years, but she dismisses me completely, saying that she was following her tax advisor’s instructions.

    Since our conversation this morning, I have a new understanding of how my mom deals with finances…or more correctly, doesn’t. I’m focusing this rant on her because she has been the single point of control over the finances in my parent’s entire marriage. I suppose my dad is equally to blame. If you have contributed nothing, I guess you’ve contributed to failure as a couple.

    This whole thing has made me more aware of how well we’re doing financially. Even if our bank accounts look shaky, at least we’re making good choices together. I’ve always been afraid of ending up as financially wrecked as my parents, but this gives me confidence that we’re on a completely different path.

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