Growing up, autumn was often the season when our utilities went off. I would go to cook dinner and yell, "Mom, the pilot is out on the stove!" only to hear her curse. The pilot wasn't out — our gas had been turned off. It happened often enough that I wasn’t entirely surprised when I flipped a light switch and nothing happened.
If you’ve ever been behind on your payments, you know that it takes quite a while before companies turn off your utilities. You get bills, late bills, and termination notices before you get the final rap on the door from an apologetic representative who has been sent to disconnect your power or gas. And yet, my parents never seemed to expect the lights to go out.
Their response to financial strain was to ignore it.
Their bills would stack up on the ancient table that served as my dad’s desk, and because my parents didn’t have the means to pay them, the envelopes sat unopened. In my endless middle school wisdom, I was frustrated with my parents. Like any teenager, I had all the answers and knew that if my mom and dad were simply more responsible they could calm their tumultuous finances. I was never embarrassed, but I did pity my parents’ inability to take control.
When I became an adult I was determined to break my parents' patterns, but freeing yourself from generational poverty isn't easy. At the time, there wasn't much I could do about making ends meet, but I vowed to at least acknowledge the situation. When I felt the thick knot of dread in my stomach, I immediately forced myself to log in to my accounts and check my balances.
When bills came, I opened them, even if I didn’t have the money to make a payment right away. If I fell behind on a student loan, I accepted that and called to arrange a more manageable payment plan.
There were times when I floated checks — putting a payment in the mail even if the money wasn’t there and hoping I could make a deposit before the funds were withdrawn. There were times I simply couldn’t make a payment. However, knowing exactly where I stood financially, even when that was in the red, helped me feel more in control of my future.
When it comes to finances, ignorance is anything but bliss. Instead of drowning in the out-of-control feeling that often accompanies poverty, I empowered myself to make a plan for the future.
Little by little, being proactive allowed me to catch up with my bills until I was working from ahead rather than behind. The late payments did, of course, have an effect, and my credit is still lower than I would like because of those years. But I’ve been able to work through that consequence, and most recently my planning allowed me to accomplish something my parents never did: homeownership.
These days I budget and am never late on payments. But still, those feelings of dread or helplessness can haunt me. As my husband and I prepared to close on our first home, I was terrified that the deposit money sitting in our account would simply disappear.
Of course, this was completely illogical. But when you grow up poor, it often feels like financial setbacks just happen to you, rather than being caused by something. Just as I did years ago, I took that nagging feeling as my cue to log in and check my balances. Seeing those numbers on the screen was the perfect antidote to my irrational, emotional thinking around finances.
I understand why my parents reacted the way they did to their financial situation. After all, in a confrontation with a beast that is threatening to consume you, it’s a lot easier to run away than it is to fight for your life. It was my hope that as I started my adult life, my financial burden would never overwhelm me like it did them.
It hasn’t been easy, but I’m happy to say that I took on the fight, and I’m winning. It’s a learning process, full of bumps along the way and temporary setbacks, but one thing that works to my advantage is that I always know exactly what I’m up against.