In January 2011, my debt hit an all-time high: I had $90,000 in student loans (which included loans for graduate school; I earned my master’s degree in marketing and communications in August 2010) and $10,000 in credit card debt. I couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t know how I was going to get myself out of that financial mess.
For the next year, I tried to pay down my debt but I didn’t feel like I was really getting anywhere. Then, in March 2012, I was set up on a blind date with David—the guy who’d eventually become my husband. After a few dates, I knew I was going to marry him. And while I was so nervous to talk to him about my debt, I sat him down and spilled the beans. I told him that I had a ton of debt, but that I was working on it. I also told him that I had recently read a LearnVest article about a woman who didn’t spend money on clothes or other non-essentials for a few months and that I was starting a similar kind of spending fast. I told him that I didn’t want to hold him—or us—back with my debt.
I put myself on a tough financial diet, spending money only on the absolute essentials, and I started aggressively paying down my debt. Within eight months, I paid off about $4,000 in credit card debt. David was impressed and soon after, he proposed. He helped me pay off the rest of my family-incurred debt, though I was against him taking it on at first.
David and I were proud of the progress that I’d made, and I felt like I was finally breaking free of the financial hold that my parents had on me.
Cutting the Family (Money) Ties
Then, one night, David and I were sitting on the couch relaxing when my mom called, crying, saying that my dad’s tooth was hurting him and he needed to see the dentist. She told me I had to help.
The irony is that while my mom was telling me they had no money, and I had to help, I knew that they were spending a lot of the money that they managed to scrounge up on non-essentials. For example, they always buy organic food—the most expensive eggs, butter and milk at the grocery store. They refuse to buy the cheap stuff or generic brands of anything. They also spend far too much money on my nephew, buying him the latest gaming system or whatever else he wants, including a big-screen TV.
That night when my mom called about my dad’s tooth, I was about to tell her I’d help—like I always did—and David just looked at me. He’d overheard what my mom was saying on the phone, and he just shook his head and said, “No.” I summoned up my courage and told my mom that I was sorry, but I couldn’t help out by giving them any money. I could tell it hurt my mom, but it was the right call. In that moment, I realized that if I continued to bail my parents out, nothing would ever change for them. They needed to get on a better financial track, and coming to their rescue wasn’t going to help them do that.
David and I got married in March. Right before my wedding (which, obviously, my parents couldn’t afford to help pay for), David and I had a tough conversation with my parents. We told them we’d closed the medical credit card and made it very clear that we couldn’t help them financially anymore. I think that really embarrassed them, and I felt badly about putting them in the hot seat, but David helped me see that coming to their rescue wasn’t really helping them in the long run.
Why I Still Feel the Need to Lie to Them
My salary has come a long way since the $15,000 I was making when I first graduated. Thanks to raises, promotions and bonuses, I now make $70,000 a year. Even though my husband and I made it clear to my parents that day that we’d no longer be helping them out, since then, they’ve still asked for help every now and then—particularly after each time I told them about a raise or a bonus I received at work. So, I stopped giving them that information, and I lie to them about my paycheck. I don’t feel guilty about this. It’s sad that I’m not able to share my successes with them and all of the accolades and promotions I’m getting at work, but I know it’s how it has to be.
Now, when they call to ask me for money or complain about not being able to afford something, I say, “O.K., I’m really sorry to hear that,” and I tell them about how David and I are saving our own money. I also show them our budget (without going into exact numbers) and how I track every expense in a spreadsheet so I can see where my money is going. I’m hopeful that I will set a better example for them and encourage them to be more responsible. When David and I visit them, we stock their fridge with extra food so that I know they’re not going to go hungry. Somehow they’re getting by—they’re about to rent a room in their house, so that’ll be a bit of a break on their rent—but I still worry. They still don’t have steady jobs, and they often rely on friends to hook them up with odd jobs, like housecleaning or babysitting, so they have some cash.
Watching my parents struggle and have no retirement savings has made it clear to me that their situation is not what I want for myself. That’s why my husband and I have been paying down debt aggressively before we buy a house or start a family.
I’ve learned so much from my parents’ lack of financial fitness. Now, with my husband’s support, I finally feel like I really can say “no” to them when they ask for money, whereas before I felt like it was my daughterly duty to help. And having a support system—someone who has my back when my parents cry or yell, who’ll sit on the couch with me, hold my hand, and tell me it’s O.K. to say “no” to my parents—has made it so much easier.
*Name has been changed.