As told to Meghan Rabbitt
In LearnVest's Money Mic series, they hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. Today, one 32-year-old woman -- who for obvious reasons, prefers not to publish her name -- tells us how she went into five-figure credit card debt by footing the bill for her parents' expenses and why she now lies to them about her $70,000-a-year salary so she doesn't have to continue to bail them out.
I love my parents dearly and will always be grateful for the love they've shown me. That's why lying to them about how much money I make -- and resisting the urge to bail them out of the financial messes they continually find themselves in -- is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.
When I was growing up, I wasn't really aware of the fact that my parents weren't very smart about their finances. My dad is a member of the clergy and my mom is an executive assistant. While they never made a ton of money, it always seemed like we were fairly comfortable. My parents could afford to send me to summer sleep-away camp and to sign me up for extra-curricular activities, and they always portrayed this image of us being a we-can-keep-up-with-the-Joneses kind of family. It wasn't until I got to high school that I realized there were some holes in the well-woven story that my parents had spun.
My Parents' Money Problems
When I was in 12th grade, my dad lost his job, so my mom, dad, brother, and I moved to Colorado. When we got there, my mom was suddenly out of work as well. Money-wise, things went downhill very fast after we moved. I sensed that my parents were in financial trouble; I could see that they weren't working, but they were still spending, and the numbers just didn't add up. I guess I just assumed things would work themselves out.
When I left home for college, I was grateful for the distance from my parents. Then, I began to get phone calls early in my freshman year -- from my parents asking me for money. They weren't requesting cash, but they wanted me to put a utility bill on a credit card. Plastic seemed like an easy way to fix our no-money problem, so I ended up opening a ton of credit cards. It was so easy to sign up; there were tables everywhere with simple application forms to fill out. Suddenly, I had a ton of credit cards and was charging everything -- both my own living expenses and my parents' bills that they couldn't afford to pay on their own.
In the spring of my sophomore year at college, my dad called with especially bad news: My parents had filed for bankruptcy. Neither of them were on track to find new careers; they were taking jobs here and there to help pay for stuff, but nothing was enough. They sold their house and started renting. I was afraid I was going to get another call, and that this time my dad was going to tell me they were homeless. I knew the situation wouldn't improve any time soon, so I started helping them even more, paying for whatever they needed by putting it on one of my credit cards.
The Never-Ending Debt Spiral
I continued bailing out my parents in this way for years, and it went on after I graduated from college in 2003 with a degree in theater performance. But my first job out of school (doing administrative work for a nonprofit) wasn't in my field and only paid $15,000 a year -- and I had $25,000 in student loan debt. My income was barely enough to support myself, let alone two other people, but I always used credit cards to make up the difference.
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, "OK, 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 OK to say "no" to my parents -- has made it so much easier.