What I Learned from My Mother’s Overspending

I’ve never bought my own handbag. For years, I was afraid to buy my own clothes. For years, I didn’t need to buy my own clothes. Because my mother bought them all for me.

Growing up as an only child gave my mother a privileged existence. Unencumbered by siblings, her parents spent freely on her, so she did the same. Once she married my father, she transferred spending on herself to spending on me and my sister. I would come home to find a large stack of clothes piled high on my bed. She would smile, look both ways down the hall, and shoo me into my room. Then she’d lower her voice to a conspiratorial whisper and say what became her mantra: “Don’t tell your father!”

But these surprises never felt like the fun, spontaneous gifts they were supposed to be. I wasn’t excited because I knew what would follow—an all-out screaming match between her and my dad. Her secret shopping sprees would never stay secret for long, especially since they shared a checking account. We ran into debt every paycheck. She spent without looking back. Sometimes we had to “go easy” on grocery shopping that week because there wasn’t enough money for food. Not that I ever starved—but there was definitely penny-pinching going on.

For her it was an addiction, no less real than alcoholism, or drug use. More like The Lost Weekend and less like Confessions of a Shopaholic. But with clothes.

It wasn’t like she was trying to buy my affections. She was always affectionate with me and my sister, and we never lacked for attention. Rather, it felt like something that I didn’t earn. It felt empty, like she was doing it because she wanted those clothes for herself, and was using me as her clothing model for things she couldn’t wear anymore. I wore the clothes she bought because she made me feel guilty if I didn’t. “But I bought that for you! Everyone is wearing them now!” Many of them I didn’t even like, but wore to please her. My closet was stuffed to the point of claustrophobia. I couldn’t move hangers because there was simply no more room to put them.

Mainly, I felt guilty because these presents didn’t feel earned. Despite the privilege of having a mom who wanted her daughters to have “everything” it didn’t mean much because I didn’t feel I had done anything special to deserve it.

When I was 13, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She dealt with it the only way she could—by spending. As her cancer got worse, the bills piled up. It would continue this way for the next 13 years, until her death. And that’s how I started the first of my own many splurges.

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that in trying not to become my mother, I inadvertently did. I spent money on CDs and books to bury my grief, to find meaning in music and literature. At least that’s what I told myself. Retail therapy—how original. But it was an escape. I rationalized that I was a more careful spender because I spent it on books and CDs. I need that $25 deluxe edition of Elvis Costello’s “My Aim is True!” I bought 10, 20 books at a time that, five years later, I still haven’t gotten around to.

Because I wasn’t spending my money on clothing, I thought I was being more cautious with my finances. But I wasn’t. I was just spending it on other things.

I felt the anxious tug of buyer’s remorse looking at the bags from Amoeba Records and used bookstores piled up around me, but I felt I could justify it. At least I bought them myself!

Still, when I got my first out-of-college job, that’s when what I spent my money on felt like I earned. Whatever burden it was, it was my own burden, and not my parents’. I could spend whatever I wanted, and there were no consequences.

This false confidence in my spending habits wasn’t really felt until I got fired from my first job. I got okay benefits, but it wasn’t enough to get by. I had just enough left over to keep me afloat until the next check. Somehow, instead of seeing it as a cushion, my brain went “I’M RICH.” I spent the remaining $30 on my beloved vices—books and CDs.

I thought that I was preventing myself from becoming my mother. And then I realized: I’m not the opposite of her. I’m just like her.

I got laid off from my third job writing business plans. I was glad to be rid of it. But after three months, my checks stopped coming in. When I called the unemployment office, I found out that my boss did not fill out the required paperwork. And I couldn’t file for an extension until July 2010, which, at the time, was seven months away. I was out of money, indefinitely.

I hated borrowing money from my father while I looked for jobs. He already worried about me enough, and I didn’t want to give him another financial burden. But I was desperate for anything, so I accepted the occasional check for gas and the electric bill.

After a few months of this, my father called me and asked me to come over. Sitting across from me, he handed me a manila envelope.

“Open it,” he said.

I found a stack of savings bonds from a safety deposit box he’d found in my mother’s safe at the bank. They were savings bonds they’d collected for me since I was a baby, to use for college and emergencies.

“This is my way of helping you, by cutting you loose. I don’t want you to be dependent on me. Use these to pay your rent. Survive on it. If you can’t find a job when this is gone, you are more than welcome to move home. Until then, use this.”

I didn’t feel scary or like I was being cut off. I knew its purpose—he was trying to help me become independent. It freed me from asking him for money. After cashing in the bonds at the bank, it was almost $6,000, enough to last me for at least six months. I divided two-thirds of it into an online credit Union so that the interest would grow faster, and deposited the remainder into my checking account. For the next few months, I looked on Craigslist for jobs, my checking account steadily depleting. Knowing this was the last money I’d have for a while, I didn’t spend it on much besides the basic rent, utilities and food. I managed to avoid bookstores and record shops by not leaving the house, so I couldn’t be tempted. If you can’t see it, it’s not there.

In December of 2010, now $3,000 down, I was offered a job as a customer service representative at an online clothing company. And I was insanely bored. Not many calls came in, and we weren’t allowed to use the Internet outside of the company website. In desperation to find a way to fill in the mindless, vacuous hours, I turned to counting my receipts. This was the turning point that helped me get my finances back on track. I wrote down every transaction, cash and debit. It was alarming to see how much things added up.

But something happened once I starting recording my spending habits: I stopped overdrafting my checking account. Every other month since I started working, I’d overdraft my account and get hit by $100 overdraft protection fees from Bank of America. This method worked. I didn’t even have to log into my Bank of America account because I knew exactly how much I’d spent that month. There it was, scrawled in my checkbook. If I even had a thought of spending it on things I didn’t need, my leftover balance was there to remind me.

A year and a half later, it still works. I can treat myself to a concert or splurge on a new dress and still turn in an $850 rent check at the end of each month. Even after getting a new job that pays twice as much as my last one, I think I have a pretty good handle on my spending habits. And when I do spend on myself, it feels earned because I know it’s mine.


Hava is a writer and she likes to make lists. She also blogs about Pulitzer Prize-winning books. Follow her on Twitter. She lives in Torrance, Calif. Photo: Shutterstock/Novac Florin


15 Comments / Post A Comment

This was a great piece! My parents were always super frugal when I was growing up, so my problem was over-spending once I became financially independent because my parents could no longer tell me when I couldn’t have something. If I wanted it, I could buy it! I quickly discovered that this did not feel as great when I realized I didn’t really need that thing, and that my hard-earned money was gone. Kudos to getting a handle on those spending habits! I’ve definitely gotten better at managing mine in the last 2 years. <3

Harriet Welch (#127)

I love hearing about the impact parent’s spending habits have on their kids. My parents were always pretty poor, but they were crazy thrifty. My mom can stretch a dollar like nobody’s business. They prioritized fun, so we never felt like we missed out. For example: We had theme park tickets every year. We wore thrift store clothes, didn’t have AC and use coupons for everything. When we did go to the theme park we would pack picnic lunch and use the gas card rewards to pay for gas.
So I am really good with money all of the time and really careful.
I actually just prioritize fun, but without the understanding that a bunch of other stuff has to be paid for FIRST. If I owe $80 for my cell bill and I only have $65 if I don’t know how I will get the other $15 I will just spend the $65. You know, since the bill wasn’t going to be paid anyway, might as well enjoy it. Whereas my mom would call the cell company, talk nicely and bat her eyelashes and get them to take $50 in order to keep her as a customer.
I am learning to be better, but it’s a process. It’s weird how even if your parents are good with money you can totally suck at life.

Mal*Pal (#1,597)

I feel like parental spending habits have little to do overall with one’s spending habits as an adult. I feel like for every story where one says their parents were spendy or thrifty and they ended up the same way, there’s someone saying the opposite.

My parents can’t ever have been very good at saving money, but they have always managed to stay afloat one way or the other. I know they have a mortgage and credit card debt but I don’t know how much. Mainly, they have always avoided talking about the details of their finances with us and if that works for them, I guess that’s their deal. I was very frugal for years, from about the age of 16-21 (except for naively taking out student loans which I would have avoided if only I knew). After I started getting more money for school, and started wanting to look cool and do what cool people were doing, I began to fall into the trap of overspending. I have never had a serious financial problem and until now, fresh out of college, I have never been jobless. I am still resolving my desires to buy things on a whim and while I’m better at avoiding it, I still need to keep myself on a tight leash lest things to awry.

selenana (#673)

I think parents do (or can) affect our spending, but it’s not a formula. It’s not like, if parents do X, we will then do Y. But I do think it can have an impact. My dad grew up pretty poor (7 kids in a trailer at times, living in a tent on the beach at times) and when he became an adult, he liked to spend his money a lot more lavishly. I could be wrong, but it seems like this is a reaction to not having any money as a kid. In contrast, I am quite thrifty and hate buying stuff (especially material stuff). I don’t mind spending money on food or vacations but I hate buying physical things, especially if I already have a servicable one. I attribute this directly to my dad’s habit of overbuying and having like four DVD players when one is really enough. His spending habits made me conscious of conspicuous consumerism.

Harriet Welch (#127)

I think it has an impact, but I agree that it’s not a formula. My dad also grew up with 7 kids in a trailer, but he saw his parents squander money and spend it poorly. In elementary school he would steal money out of his mom’s purse and save it so that at the end of the month when they needed groceries he would have it.
Everyone’s different, I think people see what their parents (or other models for adulthood) do and then come up with some way that they’ll do it better and come up with their own crazy money spending/saving schemes.

@Harriet Welch I agree. I think it’s a lot like smoking; if your parents are smokers you might smoke because you learned it from them, or you might hate it and be adamantly against it your entire life. The same could be said about a lot of things: abusiveness, religion, vegetarianism, jazz music….

Vincennes (#1,693)

It’s possible that where you’re at when you become financially independent has more of an impact than how your parents behave. I moved in with a partner straight out of college, we had salaries in the low to crazy low range, we were really frugal and most of my savings are from that period of my life. That’s a pattern that my parents stayed in all their lives because they did more or less the same thing – got married actually at University with no money at all to speak of. Whereas that relationship ended for me and when I worked out I could afford to live alone I realised this also meant I could also afford to spend more on things that I liked – which I did with remarkably little moderation for some years after.

Harriet Welch (#127)

@Vincennes That is a great point. I think the two could also be connected. I became financially independent when I moved out of my parents house because my dad said (this sounds mean, but I promise, it’s loving)”Take your bed, because you can’t come back.”
They were just really adamant about their adults being adults. My oldest brother was born when he was 16 and he became an adult.
So, you saw your parents do something, and how it impacted them and you. It’s still an example and probably impacts your thinking in some way.
I definitely find, in my limited and anecdotal experience, that people who were kicked out of the nest earlier tend to be more frugal. Born of necessity I’m sure.
Where your at when you become financially dependent, to a degree, kind of depends on your parents and their willingness/ability to continue funding you.
All interesting stuff…

cryptolect (#1,135)

Yes, but isn’t “My Aim is True” such a great album? Definitely worth $25, especially if you weren’t buying each consecutive reissue as it came out. You probably saved money on that one.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

Wow, this piece really hit home for me. In my case, my dad has recently been a compulsive overshopper (and he’s also an alcoholic – it switches back and forth whether he’s drinking or shopping), while my mom is compulsively frugal. So guess what, he hides his overspending from her. We always had little money and tons of debt, they’ve declared bankruptcy more than once, etc. As a result I pretty much did the same thing you did – overspent on books and CDs mostly, and lived in denial about what it was costing me. Rack up the credit card debt, pay it down, then rack it up again. I literally just this week signed up for that mint.com budget tracking thing and already I feel better about just facing what is going on with my finances instead of trying to ignore them. Hopefully I will find the happy ending you did!

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@WaityKatie And I’ve realized that a lot of my spending was a sort of defective reaction to having grown up with no money, like “I never got to have the fancy soap growing up, but now I’m working and I can buy the fancy soap for myself!” I was biased against generic brand products for a long time because it just felt like such a huge freedom to be able to buy “the good stuff.” (But that is crazy, because generic stuff is great obviously).

Harriet Welch (#127)

@WaityKatie hahaha The first time I bought toothpaste I was like “Fuck yeah! I can get any kind of toothpaste I want. I can get all of the toothpaste. No one is telling me what kind of paste to put on my tooth! Wait, this shit is expensive! Where’s the cheap kind?”
Then I bought the same brand of toothpaste my mom has been buying my entire life.
The cheapest.
Also YAY FOR YOU! Good job getting the Mint thing and facing up to everything. It’s so lovely to have your head in the sand, but you are doing the right thing. Go YOU!

My own financial upbringing almost exactly resembles this! Shopping sprees with mom, and being told to take the bags into my room, and not tell dad. Coming home from school to cute new outfits laid out on the bed for me (luckily my mom has great taste). These were not great lessons to learn about how to use money and credit cards.

I found myself with almost $10k in credit card debt at 27 years old, realizing I had no sense of financial responsibility at all. I had to learn the hard way how to control my spending and finances. Now, at 30, I’ve paid down more than half of my debt, and while I still don’t have a savings account, at least I’m not racking up any more debt, and I live comfortably on the money I make.

dfr (#1,973)

Spending lessons to me came the hard way. At one point in time I had acquired 4 major credit cards to prestigious banks. These cards gave me a total of $22,500 credit and I spent it assuming I was going to be able to pay it off. I needed help from Dad as well as explanations, receipts and bills. That was a big blow to my ego! After these bills got paid off I was free…to spend again, and did just that.
The next time I went into great debt I was in my mid 30s and moved home with my parents. I ended up staying there longer than I thought I ever would and was embarrased by the fact that I ever moved back home. I lost toucj with all of my friends over this. It wasn’t that they were going to be judgemental about this, but I didn’t want to be around anyone because of this embarrased.
When I moved out of their home 6 years later I was still in debt, but I had turned to a consolidation agency to help me, and they did. It took me, however, close to 10 years to get everything paid off due to the times I had to negotiate a monthly payment reduction. Now they limit pay off plans to 5 years. I am the longest-lasting client they ever had and the one who caused the 5 year limit to take hold.
Having low-paying jobs never helps, even if you have 2 at the same time, and that has been me for several years. At least I never had to worry about having no income, even if limited, whenever I lost a job. It doesn’t help, either, if you have periods of unemployment, even if you’re receiving unemployment compensation benefits, since the time gap between jobs only works against you in the eyes of employers during your new job search, which I’m doing now. I keep getting extensions on my unemployment compensation and still am finding it difficult to find work. It sucks!

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