Lessons From My Mom’s Overspending

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Check out another great post from our friends at The Billfold:

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.

Find out how Hava got back on track at The Billfold.

  • Srmorningbelle

    I have had to come to the same conclusion. My mother just spent and spent and spent and my parents spent their entire marriage fighting about money.  To this day, my mother cannot save money.  In their post-divorce life, my father has summed up their relationship with the expression: “I could not go to sleep if I had less than $50 in my wallet for emergencies and your mother could not go to sleep if I had $50 in my wallet because she needed to spend it.”  I tried so hard to not be like her but I also spent money on books and CDS – books that I have not read yet… CDs that I didn’t end up loving…

    It took me  a long time to sit down and be honest with myself about what I wanted (my own home, money to travel, a retirement and savings acount) and to sit down and decide what was more important – to get the newest in bestselling books or that CD that everyone is talking about – or to be financially secure.  I moved out of my dad’s home and scared myself into not spending so that I could pay rent and my bills.  It’s hard – it’s been two years and I’ve paid off all my credit cards and I’ve only bought five new books in those two years (which is still not perfect).  I avoid book stores.  On Amazon, I put things in my shopping cart and then give myself a week to think about it.  I make myself review my bank statement before I click “buy” to remind myself what I’m saving for.  When you have an emotional connection to things like books and cds, it’s hard to change your mindset – and I struggle every day when I listen to iTunes to not buy such and such artist.  I’ve collected a list of songs and albums I want and organized them by price.   I told myself that for now, once a month, I can buy one song.  When I finish paying off one of my student loans next year, I can move that up to two songs.  When I finish paying off another, i can do three songs. It’s not the best solution – the point isn’t to own everything I want.  But it makes me feel like I’m rewarding myself and not denying myself.  Perhaps I need to explore my attachments more deeply and why I feel the need for these items – but, honestly, I’m scared it will all go back to some issue that I’ve buried so deeply.  So instead, I’ve convinced myself that I can reward myself- just not as often.