My parents got married in the 1950s and bought a house for $18,000 – the same house I grew up in and the house they lived in for their entire lives. I remember the day they paid off the mortgage and my dad burned the paper in the backyard.
After my dad’s death, I wanted to have my mom live closer to me and my family. So when a house on our street was up for sale, we got to thinking. We could purchase the house, using the proceeds from the sale of her house, supplemented by funding from us and in our name, and let her live there for the rest of her life. We contacted a real estate agent (a close friend of mine), showed my mom the house and proceeded to move forward with preparing her house for sale.
Imagine my surprise when my real estate friend took me aside and whispered… “You know…there is a mortgage on her house?“
My jaw dropped. I had no words in the moment and I remember the physical shock-like response that lasted quite a while.
Now the back story.
Growing up, I had little money guidance, nor heard much money talk. Pretty typical, I think, for my parents’ generation of parenting patterns. My observations were that my Dad talked a lot about stocks and was proud of the stock options he got from his employer as part of retirement. My mom seemed to pay the bills, but I didn’t remember her as a watchdog.
We spent freely on fun things and activities. She really never shared much. After my dad retired (in his late 50s) with his pension and stocks, they seemed to be doing just fine. They rented a place in Florida for 2 or 3 months in the winter, paid cash for cars and donated to my dad’s favorite charities and weekly tithes at church. They had hearts for helping others and successfully passed on that value to me.
While they were living the retired life, I married my high school sweetheart and had two sons. Our youngest was born with a disability and we quickly became advocates for his well-being, both in terms of health care, education and thinking about his future. My minimal involvement with money continued. My husband paid the bills, I signed up for the annuities my school system employer suggested and we didn’t talk deeply about money – just some budget conversations and decisions about big spending. My husband was comfortable, solid and had lots of money training from his parents, which I found interesting at the least and intimidating at its worst (why didn’t I get that? I should have, I bet).. I was happy to let him have the majority of the financial responsibility.
While our family was growing, my parents were involved in all aspects of our life and shared in our joys. They surprised us with gifts. Little things, not cars, but toys and small things for the house and clothes and piles of Christmas presents. Life was great!
As the boys edged toward high school, we had the great blessing of being introduced to financial professionals (FPs) to help us make the most of the early heavy lifting my husband had done with saving and IRAs. They offered new knowledge about college future planning. I was grateful for this guidance for so many reasons, not the least of which was secret fears of the what ifs of having to face money on my own someday.
I continued to convince myself that I didn’t know anything beyond what a budget was.
Those feelings of inadequacy fueled the vow of silence I’d made with myself. I filled our early chats with our FPs with smiles and nods and a couple of carefully crafted questions so as not to tip my self-diagnosed ignorance and the shame that went with it.
I’m wondering if you’ve felt that way?
Smile and nod to take the pressure off all the while feeling disappointed in yourself because you think you should know more. A vicious cycle – I want to know more, but I don’t want to show I don’t think I know enough by asking a question!
At 77, my dad died suddenly. In an instant things changed. My Mom started to act strangely and I was worried and frustrated. She insisted someone take her to remove my dad’s name from the title of the house – ASAP! It was all a mystery. I knew enough to push back and insist we talk to an attorney. She had a secret so big she enlisted other people. That title change happened under a cloak of silence.
The secret unraveled pretty quickly thanks to my mom’s inability to talk about money. My Mom needed my dad’s name off the title to refinance the house to pay for “expenses” and was continuing to amass significant credit card debt. She was paying the minimum on the credit card bills and things continued to get worse as in catastrophic.
They were spending outside their means. She knew she was in over her head. She knew she needed help and that her situation was dire. My father had no idea and she couldn’t tell him. He died thinking they were financially fine. The title transfer gave her a chance to keep the secret intact and her hope of moving toward fixing the problem. The “dreamlike” life of my parents and my upbringing collapsed right before my eyes. For all the spending and debt, there was really nothing to show for it.
If she had told me, we wouldn’t have pursued buying a house. I wouldn’t have asked my realtor friend to start the process. But my mom’s money story wouldn’t allow her to talk. She didn’t see it as an option. The secret provided her with a better outcome in her mind.
As the only child, I was put in the position to be the heavy to get her out of debt and set her up for the rest of her life – on minimal social security benefits. Poverty level stuff. Thank God for my money confident hubby who propped me up with what I needed to do the work and start me on the journey of believing in my own money smarts. It took over two years to get things settled for her. It also took those two years to move from the money script that played in my head that I didn’t know a lot about money to something worse. “What if I am just like my mom?” What if my husband dies and I have nothing?” I zoomed from not feeling confident about money to feeling doomed.
My money story was written deeply on my heart and rock solid in my mind. My sweet mom who did everything for us had nothing. My dad’s death and the cost of the secret took its toll on her and led to the beginnings of dementia. We never were able to have closure about the hows or whys. All that was left for me was a fear that if it could happen to her, it could happen to me. I wasn’t confident that I had the money skills to prevent it. I couldn’t trust that my journey had taken me in a different way. My mom’s reality became roadblocks to my own growth, learning and confidence.
Talking about money has always been challenging for me and for us as a couple.
I’d start with my thoughts all together and pretty quickly they’d get blown apart because of my insecurities about having the most basics of conversations. One opposing viewpoint or a question about my way of thinking sent my brain into lockdown. It always ended in an ugly cry.
The good news is I’ve learned that my husband wasn’t a wicked-smart that I could never be. He had a money mindset that I could have, too. I’ve learned that even I, yep me, can learn and build confidence in myself and my skills by taking the steps to learn about the importance of talking and being real about money.
I’ve wondered what her life would have been like if she had understood money differently. If she’d realized how it could serve her and be fueled by her values. It makes my heart ache. That is the reason I am a Money Mentor.
I don’t want one woman to experience what my mom did or develop the intimidation and fears that I did.
I want young women to start out right and women of all ages to be confident and courageous to learn and make changes. I want women (and my sons, and everyone for that matter) to know the power they have and the true wicked smarts that lie within….really.
We each have our own money stories that have shaped our thoughts around money and finances. Some are obvious. Some are subliminal that scar our thinking and we don’t know it until we peel back the onion. Some are crises. I didn’t know what being in debt looked like or felt like.
One of the positive takeaways from my mom’s situation was that I learned a lot about what to do. Steps to take and how to talk about it. I learned more about the psychology of silence and choices and the whys behind what you think is something you’d never do and while not helpful, they are responses based on real feelings.
My mom’s situation gave me a new perspective not only on how people think, but how to put yourself and keep yourself in a position of knowledge and strength (not fear or worry) with your money – even, and especially if you feel that you don’t know enough.
Sharing the key that money is more about a relationship than a budget is critical to the women in our lives.
When I think about what my mom’s life could have been like, it makes me realize the importance of building confidence in our relationships with money for all women, the sooner the better! This is why I share my money story and why I decided to mentor other women on the topic of money.
There is power, strength, comfort and healing in sharing.