nothing to feaR

By Kathryn Baxter
Woman Newspapers

Thank god for automatic bill payment. Without it, I’d still be missing utility payments. I now have a retirement plan. And I don’t have to confront the shame of balancing numbers inaccurately (being honest here.)

All the things one has to do to stay in a safe financial space, I’m doing. I just try to have them done automatically. So, I thank the universe for the technology that makes automatic bill payment possible.

There are plenty of people who don’t need automatic bill payment. Plenty of people who type out their account balances into Quickbooks and keep track of their accomplishments and debts penny by penny. That’s not how I work.

For most of my life, I actively ignored my finances. How does this happen? How do so many of us develop such painful relationships with money? I think a lot of this is learned behavior. 

When you go to a doctor, they ask for your family health history: Any cancer? Heart disease? But when you are taking out a mortgage, taking out student loans, choosing your retirement plan, going on a shopping spree... no one asks, “What is your family financial history?”

Growing up, I didn’t know whether my parents had a mortgage on our house or owned it outright. I didn’t know if they were financing the family cars or not. I didn’t know if either of my parents paid for their educations with loans, or whether our holidays and birthdays were a burden or a manageable treat.

I grew up thinking that if we couldn’t afford something, we just needed to get in the car and drive to the bank, where we could get more money. Because we lived comfortably, my brother and I never questioned much.

My mom, a self-described work-a-holic, worked her entire life. I look back and wonder: Was it as much about her business as it was about knowing that as long as she was working, she was in control of something?

When I was in graduate school and accruing my own first debt of any significance, I was aware my mother was having financial problems but I didn’t fully understand the extent. There had been a good deal of ups and downs over the previous few years and by the time she no longer had her business, a nonprofit that she had operated out of our family home, I learned she was also preparing to file for personal bankruptcy.

Because she no longer had an income and although she wanted to move somewhere smaller, her house wasn’t selling and she wasn’t able to pay the mortgage. The bank foreclosed on her house. At just shy of 60, my single mother was searching the country for job options and housing.

Turns out, there was also a lot more to it. I knew my grandfather had left an indelible impression on my mom, but I didn’t grow up understanding the history. What I really didn’t understand when I was very small was that my mother came from money. I didn’t learn until later that her father was a Lithuanian Jew who had escaped the violence in Europe to build a business and a life in Paris, then was run out of Paris and rebuilt himself in Spain, then left Spain for safety and opportunity in the United States. Three times he was exiled, and three times he rebuilt. Hard work. Perseverance. Loyalty. Success. Pride. The lessons he learned and the ones he wanted to teach his daughter, along with weighty expectations and oppressive emotional tethering, was about so much more than money. Some lessons are far more intangible.

My mother learned about hard work and rebuilding herself from her father. She also learned to tie personal value and dignity with financial success. It hasn’t been easy for my mom over the past decade. There were more employment hurdles, more housing struggles. She will never be in as strong a financial position as she was 15 years ago, let alone in the life she grew up in.

Most of all, I’ve seen her truly struggle emotionally over it all, most likely harboring feelings that she disappointed her father (who in reality didn’t live to witness her financial strife). I know that adjusting her standard of living is not something she does easily, happily, or without a strong feeling of failure. 

And there it is. The messiness of personal financial history intertwined with family history: The pride and comfort found in financial order. The panic and shame of a forgotten bill. The guilt of inherited money and the grief at its loss. The depression and anxiety of bankruptcy and foreclosure.

I didn’t write this column to embarrass my mom by airing her laundry. On the contrary, I am proud of her. Together, we learned a lot about how to build budgets, how to be honest about debt and how to plan for the future.

I have been given a gift. Because of my mother’s hardships, she is unintentionally teaching me how to watch out for myself. How to adapt to a current situation, and modify my standard of living accordingly. How to shed light on all things financial in my personal, collaborative relationships so that my wife and I are always on the same page, building and not sabotaging our plans.

And, of course, how to set up automatic bill payment wherever possible.