This is a guest post from Andrea at So Over Debt, a 29 year-old single mom working to overcome a ton of financial mistakes. Visit her site to read about her journey to get out of debt, make better choices, and help others do the same.
It’s no secret among my family and friends that I’m in recovery from a serious spending addiction. Just six years ago, I cut up around twenty-five credit cards and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy at the lowest point of my downward spiral. Two years ago, I was in debt again – to the tune of 5 credit cards and over $6000. And a year ago this month, I paid off my final credit card and haven’t carried a balance since. (Yay, me!)
The one thing people always ask is where in the world my habit of overspending came from. My parents don’t live beyond their means, and neither do my grandparents. I was probably in 8th grade before I even knew what a credit card was! Yet it’s exactly those circumstances that molded me into the shopaholic I was. While I’ve come a long way and take responsibility for my choices, my upbringing is the exactly reason I call myself “recovering” instead of “recovered.”
Humans generally form habits in one of two ways – imitation and reverse imitation. We all know what imitation means. It’s the baby who smears lipstick everywhere trying to be like Mommy. Almost every scene in Home Alone. People buying Ugg boots after seeing celebrities wear them. (At least that’s the only explanation I’ve managed to come up with for those atrocities – please don’t tell me otherwise!)
Reverse imitation, though, isn’t always as easy to pinpoint. Ever hear someone say they don’t drink because one of their parents is/was an alcoholic? How about the people who use time-out with their kids because they were spanked growing up? These “reverse imitation” habits are usually an absence of something rather than the presence of it, so they can be overlooked. However, as I’ve learned in my own life, that doesn’t make those habits or traits any less prominent – it just makes them more difficult to break.
My parents never explicitly taught me anything about money or how to manage it. That’s not an excuse or criticism; it’s just a fact. Obviously I saw them spend money, but I wasn’t involved when it came to budgeting and saving it. I didn’t grow up with an understanding of what was going on when it came to the family finances, which left me to form my own conclusions in my childhood head.
Here’s what I “knew” about money as a kid:
- I knew that paying bills was really stressful and my mom and dad usually fought about it.
- I knew that my sister and I had everything we needed and a lot of what we wanted.
- I knew that one could write a check and it was just like actual money.
- I knew that I was never ever allowed to look at my mom’s checkbook.
And here’s how that worked out for me in adulthood:
- I avoided paying bills until the last minute, viewing it as a horrible experience to be avoided.
- I spent on needs, but plenty of wants as well, with no thoughts about exactly how I would pay for everything.
- I wrote bad checks and paid overdraft fees constantly.
- I treated my checkbook ledger like a bomb that might go off at any second (which, in retrospect, it sort of was!)
In my case, a combination of imitation and reverse imitation led to my poor financial habits. I was so busy picking up the nuggets of “wisdom” above that I missed the bigger picture. Like the fact that my mom bought her own clothes at thrift stores to be able to dress my sister and me like our friends at school. Or the side jobs my dad always took in the fall to earn money for Christmas gifts.
Since I was left to interpret financial matters on my own, I managed to develop a set of behaviors that are the complete opposite of the example my parents tried to provide. This has influenced me to provide my son with overkill when it comes to information about money, all with the hope that he’ll understand and imitate the habits I demonstrate now, not the ones from the past.