My grandmother was a product of the 1950s: obsessed with appearances, pleasing the men around her, and making sure every aspect of her home, children, and personal appearance was “just so.” When her dementia began, she would often misplace her wedding ring, storming through the house in a frenzy searching for it. That ring, diamond-encrusted and modest by today’s standards, was among her most treasured possessions.
These thoughts were wending their way through my mind as I drove to the (glorified pawn shop) jewelry buyer, prepared to see what price the ring would fetch.
Certain items from your childhood are larger than life, seemingly priceless, based on the way the adults value them. I pondered this again a few months later, when I visited a diamond dealer to see what sum I could get for my mother’s diamond stud earrings. In the end, both the diamond ring and the studs were worth a couple of hundred bucks—less than a week’s worth of groceries.
Driving home feeling numb and defeated, I wondered how I got here. I’m 44 years old, with two degrees, ten years in a traditional career followed by a brisk freelance business. My husband was the wunderkid – valedictorian, degree from an elite college, rising star employee in every job he’s held. We live in a nice home and have two cars to drive, and by all appearances, we’re doing well. We’re far from destitute. But we are stone cold broke.
I’m a pretty open book to those in my inner circle. And I’ve lived through some rough patches. My mother battled a neurodegenerative disease for almost a decade. I held her hand as she took her last breath. My marriage is solid, but we’ve had our fair share of relationship angst. We overcame miscarriage and a premature birth. We’re raising three kids, each with their own struggles. But nothing compares to the shame of being broke.
I’m unable to talk about it with all but my very closest friend who’s been in similar straits, for the sheer shame factor. There’s a stench of failure on us. And judgment. We could’ve made different decisions.
I’m a saver, but my husband is a spender. He landed a high-paying job that put us in a top tax bracket for five years. We were on the Money Train and he thought it would never end, buying fancy suits and expensive watches and leasing a luxury vehicle with a payment almost as high as our mortgage. I’ve had a lot of anger about his spending habits since our world came crashing down a couple of years ago. But I’m part of the problem: I spent money on the house, planned some costly vacations (family memories!), agreed to a luxury vehicle purchase for me. We saved, but the savings dwindled when his job ended unexpectedly and for the first time in his life, he couldn’t immediately find more work.
We’ve steadily depleted our retirement savings accounts, breaking the cardinal rule of personal finance. I make regular sweeps through the house for items that can be sold on Craigslist. We rarely eat out, aside from the occasional cheap taco or fast food. I delay home maintenance and defer buying new clothes until items are threadbare—and then I buy secondhand or dirt cheap.
It’s a special kind of hell when your credit card gets declined at a store. The shame. The attempt at a light-hearted comment about how the card keeps malfunctioning. Worse than a few times, it’s happened. The stress of dreading it is too real. My heart pounds every time my card is run, even when I know the card is fine. And I live in mortal fear of the day my older kids witness my card being declined.
We’ve tried to shield the kids from the financial stress. But kids are perceptive, and I know they can feel the tension in the air. I overheard one telling the other, “But we must be rich. Dad drives a BMW!”
My luxury car was sold and replaced with a much cheaper car. I’ve researched every possible way to terminate our costly car lease early. I apply for any and all relevant contract/freelance opportunities in an effort to bolster our income. And slowly, we’re getting closer to breaking even each month. But it will take years to dig out of the financial pit we’ve dug for ourselves.
Like most difficult chapters in life, I imagine we’ll come out of this stronger and humbler. We’re enlightened to the fleeting nature of all things. We’ve come to value simpler pleasures, like cheap pizza and a Netflix movie night.
But it’s been a lonely, stressful, shame-filled season. Like none other I’ve lived through.