The Reality of Raising Kids When You’re Strapped for Cash


raising kidsThere is no shame in being broke, theoretically. But that hasn’t stopped me from feeling horrible shame at how broke my family is

Then I feel guilty for feeling that shame. After all, if I feel angry at myself for not earning more, I must also be angry at my husband for not earning more. Yet, in reality, we are both in the same boat: eminently employable adults with great resumes who find ourselves, along with a flood of similar people, unable to secure a steady income in this post-2008 economy. 

I’ve worked as a journalist and a marketing copywriter, and have watched the number of available jobs shrink as the applicant pool grows. Both my husband and I—a videogame producer and a writer—have expanded our definitions of “jobs we’ll take” until we’re so overeager it’s surely painful to witness.

In the meantime, until I find something steadier, I’ve been freelance writing and working at my children’s daycare co-op. My husband takes freelance assignments, works part-time for a car service and began his own produce delivery company that’s still establishing itself.

I have reached out repeatedly to friends at places like Google and Pixar, asking for information about jobs I see listed, only to have them say things like, “Why would you want that? It’s a mid-level job you’re overqualified for.”

Thanks for that, I guess. I still need the gig.

How Do You Tell Your Kids You’re Broke?

The hardest part is watching my kids. At ages 2 and 4, they’re still so young they can’t tell the difference between shopping at Goodwill and shopping at Target or Nordstrom. But they do notice that all their school friends go to the same dance class on Monday afternoons. When the other girls stroll down the street in their tutus, I feel awful.

“That’s why Mommy’s going back to school this summer,” I told them, thinking I was handling this all extremely well and finding a teachable moment amid the tears.

RELATED: The Surprising Kid Costs at Every Age

I explained that ballet lessons cost money, and I needed to make more money, and the best way to do that was to switch my job. To do that, I said, I needed to go back to school. (I’m going to become a special ed teacher.) This was a sore point between me and the girls: They like having me around and the idea of my going back to school upset them mightily. I was trying to draw a line between the “what” and the “why.” You want what your friends have? Your mom has to start wearing pants that zip. 

A few days later, a friend and fellow school parent said she’d run into my daughter on the playground. When my friend asked, “How are you?” my daughter reportedly stuck her hand on her hip and said, “Well, I’m not taking ballet class because my mom ran out of money, but she’s going to go to school and I will not see her all day, and that’s not fair. Also, one time, my sister went to school but I didn’t because I had a fever, and that was not fair, too.”


Now my friends know I tell my kids we’re broke. And now all the moms will know, as they walk their daughters down the hill, why I’m not joining them. Not having money is as unfair as getting sick when someone else is well. It feels awful, but all you can do is get better.

  • Emm

    Growing up strapped for cash was the BEST thing my parents could have ever done for me and my siblings. My Mom was stay-at-home and she made it work. My Dad was going to night school and working during the day, plus they pinched pennies to put us in Catholic school. My mom grocery shopped with a calculator and we wore hand-me-downs and went to the thrift shop. We never received an allowance or a gift unless it was our birthday or Christmas. We did not own movies, music, or cable. Then, when we were in high school my Dad’s business took off and we became upper class. My parents still did not buy us cars, give us credit cards, or spoil us. We had to pay our way through our young adulthood, and that was a gift. I see people in their twenties and thirties thinking they are entitled to a vacation every year, that new pair of boots, or that new smartphone. That stuff doesn’t matter! The penny-pinched years of my life are stuck in my head and they were some of the happiest years! I’m so glad I am free from consumerism and don’t need to keep up with the Jones’. So the author is truly blessed her kids are growing up with what really matters– love, food, and shelter. They will be better for it.

    • Shazzer4400

      I totally agree. I was raised the same way and I have developed wonderful strategies around money. So much so that I am going to be able to retire this year, before I turn 40. 

    • struggling divorced mama

      thank you for these words.

    • Linda

      Love the article!

    • Chapman1531

      Emm is a very lucky woman. So many of your generation (I’m probably your mother’s age) were spoiled by the good times of the 80′s and 90′s. I know our older children realize now how easy they had it, and are finding the new reality takes an adjustment of their worldview.
      As young mothers, I hope you will be able to make that adjustment. Yes, it is HARD stretching pennies till they scream…I’m doing that too these days. Do know, however, that their childhood will fly by in a blur! They need YOU, not THINGS or classes. Find some new mommy- friends who like to do inexpensive outings with others and form some new friendships with others who are also discovering the joy of simpler living and enjoying time with their children.
      There are many positive consequences to the economical mess this country continues to be in…personally, I think children are better off not being shuttled to lessons and sports practices every day after school. Kids need “down time.” That is when imagination-muscles get strengthened! Love your kids, they honestly won’t know what you think they’re missing!

  • Judybaker77

    The line about mommy needing to wear pants that zip is a great one.  2008 was a pivotal year for me — but a liberating one as well.  When  I realized it’s about creating work and not finding a job, my response to the question “What do you do?” is ever changing.

  • Marrosmith

    Growing up my parents didn’t make a lot of money as my dad went to work and my mom raised three kids. They didn’t choose to fall on hard times. They choose to love my sisters and myself by giving us a home out of the foster system. We didn’t get an allowance or gifts unless Christmas or birthdays. We shopped goodwill or Walmart or Kmart and our older sisters closet. We didn’t get cars until we were 18 and could pay for them ourselves.
    Now I am a mother of one who has hit hard times. I will fall back on what my parents taught me to raise my daughter right.

  • Lauren

    You’ve written a few essays for Learnvest now and I’d really like to hear about why you haven’t considered moving. Both you and your husband are freelancers, you’re clearly strapped, and you live in one of the most expensive areas in the country. It honestly seems like a no-brainer to me, and I just wonder why you haven’t considered it. 

    • JES

      which is why I moved from Boston to the mid-west.  I wanted a house and driveway and unless my earning potential increased into the miraculous category, I would never move out of the roommate phase out East.   I have a driveway, but it would take me a 15 hours to see the ocean.  There are always  lifestyle tradeoff choices to consider.

      • BuddaLady

        why don’t you go to Lake Michigan.there’s nothing in that Great Lake that will eat you and the veiws are second to none.Just a thought.

    • Harlem Girl

      I completely agree.  I’ve read her pieces before expecting to learn new ways to get by on a tight budget, and I always walk away with the feeling that she just wants to complain.  Her family is clearly trying to live a lifestyle they can’t afford. 

      If not having money makes her so angry, why not truly try to either make more (teaching is an honorable profession but that’s not seriously something you go into to make more money to get you to an upper middle class lifestyle) or spend less (i.e. move to a less expensive city or widen your social circle to friends who are less consumption oriented)?  

      I just can’t feel pity for her because she seems a bit naive and immature. She’d rather go with less and complain about it than actually try to get more.

  • Minerva B

    I don’t think there’s any shame in not being rich. Most of the country falls in that category. It’s important for children to be aware of the financial situation the family is in to understand what is important and what is not. The experience is a learning one for parent and kids and one that will last a lifetime. It’s unfortunate more parents hide their financial situation from their kids and set them up for disappointment later in life. I am employed making a decent income as a Product Marketing Specialist but have taking to shopping at thrift stores for my clothes as well as knicknacks for the house. I avoid traditional retail whenever possible. I have no cable or internet at home. My life is not any poorer, but my bank account is slighly richer. I hope to be ready for anything that comes up. I only recently started doing all this from seeing my sisters and mother hit estate sales and thrift stores. Those outings are now considered an “adventure” and I am not ashamed to admit it. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Ann

      I would love not to have internet bills too,but I can’t drive because of my disability. Having a teenager in high school all his homework is by internet, computer. I also have a cell phone,would rather not have to pay for one. If I have medical problem happening, a cell phone is used to call someone. Regular phones are not in my reach to get too.

  • pkb

    Thank you. It is helpful to hear that others are in the same situation that my family is in.

  • Acooper786

    I grew up poor and had a child young(ish). I went back to college and can provide for her now – even though I still pay for the 17/month dance classes opposed to the 60/month (60/month for a toddler?! no thanks). It’s a rough road and I was pretty sure I was either going to get through it or have a heart attack from the stress but it happened and I ended up in the job of my dreams. It is possible. I promise you’ll ultimately like the kids who watch you struggle to provide things they need more than you’ll like the kids who grow up being given everything they ask for. 

    I don’t know exactly how poor you are, but look into the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) which provides assistance for low-income families to pay for daycare. I wouldn’t have been able to go back to school if it wasn’t for those vouchers. 

  • Michelle Witt

    I also grew up in a family with 5 children and a stay at home mom.  Money was tight but became non-existant when my parents divorced.  I learned a lot from that time in my life (the biggest of which is to ALWAYS have a back up plan and a cushion to catch you) The most important thing I have always done is to let my children know I love them more than anything whether we are on vacation in Disneyland or pinching pennies in 2008 until my husband opened his own business.  I believe your attention to their lives and their hopes and dreams is worth more than all the money in the world.

  • Cgaffney30

    Thank you so much for this article. We’ll soon be adding to our family and I’ve been worried about how it’ll all work financially with my husband unemployed and in school to further his options and me working low wage jobs to make ends meet. It’s so helpful to hear I’m not the only one and that the kids will be all right. 

    • Melissa

      with this situation, why oh why are you having another baby????

      • Claudia

        Babies are a gift from God. They don’t always arrive on our “schedule.” Come on, Melissa, is this comment really helpful to a struggling sister?

        • Aras

          Pregnancy typically results when no birth control is used. This has nothing to do with God; it is simple basic biology.
          Melissa is asking a very real question about this woman’s admitted financial predicament. Having children when you cannot afford them is irresponsible – the same as it would be if she went out and bought a sports car or a McMansion without having a plan of how to pay for them long-term.
          children are very expensive; to pretend otherwise is foolish and immature.

          • Sara Guitar

            so does that mean that those of us that don’t make a lot of money should miss out on the joys of having children??? i graduated college the same month in 2008 that the recession was announced by congress and have struggled finding adequate work ever since. as i get older, having a family is at the top of my mind… i don’t think that someone should have to miss out on something that enriches one’s life so much just because they don’t make a ton of money. also, i know people who used birth control and got pregnant anyway. so maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge how others live their lives. :)

          • BuddaLady

            You are a condecending,judgemental,shallow,self rightous shell of a real human.what happened in your life to make you so perfect?

          • RickD

            In two years you posted two examples of your stupidfty and uselessness. I hope another two years passes before we here your shite again.

          • BuddaLady

            You sound more like a Troll than a intelligent human.

          • RickD

            Your opinion is duly noted, as is both your sparse history of silly postings here and your inability to even spell Buddha….

          • BuddaLady

            If you think spelling Buddha is difficult,try spelling stupidity.Read your message.You need to step away from the bottle!

          • RickD

            Thank you for your vitriolic response , coupled with my own contempt for your “style” it seems proof that no further discussion between us is of value.

            The fact remains that, in your time here, you had posted twice, both silly and vitriolic nonsense contributing nothing.

            I wish you well and hope that, in the fullness of time you grow a few more brain cells.

          • BuddaLady

            Rick,you sound a bit agitated. I think you better have your Mangina checked out.

          • RickD

            Thank you for providing even further proof of your childish stupidity.

  • Chapman1531

    Your kids will be fine. See my reply to Emm, below. We Mom’s are the ones who need to re-calibrate our expectations of what makes a “great” childhood. We’ve been told a lot of lies about what we and our children “need.” There are a lot of lies that women believe, but this is one of the most destructive, yielding anger, jealousy and discontentment.
    Learning to be content in whatever our circumstance is a gift (and a Biblical concept–the Bible is a great handbook for living.)
    One particularly hard year when I was seriously ill and finances were extremely tight, my daughter astounded me when she shared she’d had “the best summer of her life.” We had simply spent lots of time together enjoying each other.
    Poor is a state of mind. With a husband and family who love you, you are richer than many who live in mansions.

  • Yalonda H.

    One thing I have to offer, and maybe I’m just really living in a fantasy world, try God. When you seek that which created you life is so much better. There isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t realize that you are wealthy beyond your means. And when you begin to appreciate what you have it begins to appreciate. In other words be thankful for what you have and you will have more but the journey starts within not from without. The appearance of the outside world is always false. I’ve never been materially wealthy, but my children have always had food clothing and shelter anything extra was all gravy. Enjoy the time spent with them as they grow because it goes so fast in the blink of an eye you’ll be watching them graduate high school. 

  • Heather

    My first question is also, why does she live in SF? Unless they are in a rent control apartment, rents in this city are out of control right now. I just moved outside of SF to a bigger/cheaper place that is easily walkable to many great free things. 

  • Natalie

    I’m a single parent who struggles to make ends meet and can’t get a part time job (in addition to my full time job) because I’d be paying even more in daycare costs. You are blessed to have the option to go back to school and to have a man who cares to help. I get no help; financially or emotionally. But we’ll both get through and we’ll both be fine. Ultimately our kids are lucky to be so loved. :) Good luck with the future!

  • beenthere

    You have choices – not just choices that are physical in nature – such as moving to a less expensive area or going to school. You have choices in how you deal with this time in your life; how you approach the difficulties and present them to your children. They will take their cues for living from you. If you resent the fact that your life is not what you expected, they will too. If you accept that changes are challenges and can be incredibly positive, that is what they will learn. Don’t let other people’s choices become yours. If your friends have dropped you because you can’t keep up financially, or you have dropped them, you probably need to find new ones. I have been where you are. I lived in an expensive city which I loved. But the time came when it was no longer viable for us as a family. We moved to less expensive areas with good public schools. We have never had money but somehow we have always had enough. We have always struggled to make ends meet, but somehow always had food, clothing and a roof over our heads. My kids are stable, intelligent, well-socialized kids who have gone to public schools their entire life. One received a full-tuition scholarship to college. Don’t live with unfulfilled expectations and sadness. Live with positive reality and joyous hopes. You get one shot. You make the choice.

  • Necole

    I too am attending school to become a math teacher. I have two children 2 yrs & 4 yrs old and a very new ex husband and an encouraging outlook on our journey. I didn’t see anything about why you chose education. I hope you don’t become a teacher that’s so sore about “having” to get back into the job market, teaching was the only option you came up with. We need GREAT teachers NOT teachers in it for reasons outside of the children they teach. I’m making a way for my own children as well, but just keep in mind even if this isn’t your first love (as it has always been my dream career), young minds are at stake. They are far too precious to have anyone other than those caring and passionate enough about their future to lead them.

  • Sarah

    Your children will be grateful for the lessons and values you give them, even if they don’t realize it now. I grew up in a poor household that then became an even poorer, single parent household when I was 10. I didn’t always understand why I was missing out on things my friends were doing because we couldn’t afford them, or why my mother was leaving the house at 7am and not coming home until after dinner. But as I grew older and learnt more about how money works I realized how much she was doing for us.

    She put aside her pride to make sure we got everything she wanted for us, and she taught me that money isn’t everything. Your children may not understand now why they don’t go to ballet right now, or why you are going back to school, but when they are older they will appreciate just how hard you worked for them. Chin up, you’re doing great.

  • glorydayz3

    We thrift store shopped before “poppin’ tags” was cool. I know that while my kids don’t have every advantage that some of their friends have, they understand what work is, why they need to do it, and how important it is to help others and give back. I’m glad we haven’t fallen into the trap of “giving our kids everything we didn’t have as a kid”, because you can tell that the families that do are raising the kids who believe that they are intitled to everything, don’t know how to work, and don’t know how to work together to accomplish something.

  • bcalnyc

    When adjusted for local expenses my family & I have lived below the poverty line in New York our whole lives. And we’ve managed just fine. I have one son who struck out on his own at 18 (and managed his finances), one daughter who just finished college and is now working and paying off her loans (with almost no help from us since we have little to spare), one 20 year old at college who has to manage a monthly food budget that many of his friends at the pricey college consider a night out and a 7 year old who knows not to ask for things we can’t afford.

    The kids’ll be fine. Stop beating yourself up. And those “friends” you’ve lost? They were never friends to begin with or you wouldn’t lose over something as incredibly unimportant as money.

    Adjust your expectations and be strong. Good luck!

  • Kathryn

    I think you’re creating a lot of stress for yourself over things that aren’t essential. Your life sounds like the way my husband and I have been living for years–deliberately. There can be tremendous joy in it if you can realize how blessed you are and focus on that instead of on what you don’t have (which is not stuff you need anyway). Think about how most of the world lives and how luxurious your life must seem to them. And remember that, as long as your children have a roof over their heads, nourishing food to eat, clothes on their backs, and love from you, they have absolutely everything they need. I know it’s hard to tell your child she can’t go to the same dance class as everyone else (I do it all the time), and I know the uncertainty of self-employment can be discouraging. But you have SO MUCH. And until you can focus on that and be content where you are now, making more money and buying more stuff (or experiences) won’t make you (or your kids) feel better.

  • Annie

    I hope you have gotten a lot of information about what’s going on politically with education in your state. It’s a tough time to be a teacher. I realize SPED is usually an area of need, even in this time of cuts to educational funding. Unfortunately,teachers are being impacted in terms of plan time/responsibilities , salary, pension, and ability to be represented by a union. I would urge you to visit schools and spend some days observing. Teachers have been asked to do so much with so little for so long now they are drained and demoralized. The current lawmakers in my state demonize teachers and want to balance the state budget on the backs of teachers and other public employees. Please go into education if you are willing to accept an unsure future – we need more good teachers. I just wanted to make sure you had done your homework before choosing your new profession. Good Luck!

  • drbosslady

    I grew up way too aware of my parents financial situation and that has been both a good and a bad thing. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Trust that your daughters will grow up and appreciate that you did the best you could to make things work. In fifteen years, you’ll look back on this and laugh. Try your local libraries and rec centers for activities- home improvement and craft stores offer free weekend activities for kids. We were lower income when I was a child, but my mom’s creativity resulted in me having way more experiences than my friends that were much more financially stable.

  • Happy mom of 5

    Your daughter wants to walk down the street wearing a tutu? That’s what she wants, that’s what she gets! Stop by your neatest Hobby Lobby and buy a few yards of fabric (they havea 40% off coupon in their website) and make one TOGETHER! (There must be tutorials in Pinterest or YouTube). You guys will spend quality time together, practice your math and geometry skills and most importantly you’ll be teaching her s valuable lesson: there’s always a way.

  • sharon whipple

    great article. in the same boat. hang in there!

  • ubill

    I haven’t told my children we are
    broke. I have been busy trying to teach them to be responsible and money conscious,
    for instance.

    I went as far as buying my nine year old a book: for children how to become rich successful & do well in school and I bought my daughter the ebook: You are Worth
    Millions you just don’t know it.

    I even purchased a board game that teaches financial concepts, plus we love to play monopoly all the time ( a way of staying home, saving money and learning).
    But I find that it’s very difficult to try and teach my children how to avoid the many financial pitfalls out there when my partner ‘unknowingly’ or by foolishness works against me.

  • nora

    what the author has described, for me, was just my normal life growing up. money was always tight in my family and it was certainly stressful. however, it also made me an extremely hard worker who eventually received a very large scholarship to attend a great university. It also made me very appreciative of what I was able to have (music lessons), which I’ve turned into part of my career. I’ve always had direction and drive because I’ve always known I have no safety net to fall back onto. I know the exact kind of people the author is surrounded by, who are in a different economic bracket than she is (but I guess one she used to be in), who send their kids to every dance, karate, music, art, chess, etc class known to man. guess what happens to the majority of those kids? they never find a true passion in life and they lack real drive because they’ve never had to fight for anything. also, side note, thrift stores have amazing clothes and nordstroms is a waste of money.

  • Intelligent Bitch

    Not all broke people shop at Goodwill. It can be a way to come up!