I’m a trailer park girl. I was born in Flint Michigan where we lived in a Section 8 housing apartment complex called Rollingwood Manor. When I was a teenager we moved to a small town in Northern Michigan called West Branch. The only thing my mother could afford was a small 2 bedroom mobile home that was probably 30 years old when we moved in. I considered it to be an upgrade from our life in Flint. We had a small yard. At the time we moved in most of our neighbors were senior citizens and no one was selling heroin out of their kitchen, which was a nice change of pace for me. It was so quiet at night. Positively peaceful. It didn’t occur to me that I was a ‘trailer park girl’ or what that even meant.
Trailer parks have a well-earned bad reputation. Mobile homes are lopped in close together and left to slowly decay as one tennant to another moves in. As assisted living facilities and senior apartment complexes became more affordable my retiree neighbors began moving out. The thing about a mobile home is that their resale value is shit. No one with money and a decent credit score wants to invest in a mobile home because mobile homes are not investments. Besides, most banks and mortgage companies will not finance a mobile home. This limits the pool of potential buyers for mobile homes. Its a recipe for a sterotype of all mobile home residents being poor white trash.
I lived in the mobile home park for 15 years, and to tell the truth I was always happy. I really liked my neighbors. One of my neighbors was a deputy for the local sherrif’s department. Several of my neighbors worked at the local hospital. Unlike other mobile home parks the one I lived in had well-spaced lots so we were all given a yard to enjoy. There was a pond in the middle of the park and it was home to ducks, turtles, and a regular stop for geese every fall as they traveled south. What we all had in common was poverty. My mother never had much money. She worked as a waitress and relied on tips. My mom never had money in the bank. She never had emergency savings to fall back on. She was always one step ahead of disaster. She paid the utilities just enough each month to keep them from being shut off. Most of the time. My mom had no idea how to manage her money. She frittered her money away as fast as she earned it. When your poor you live paycheck to paycheck, moment to moment. You can’t think about next month or next year or retirement because you’re too busy worrying about right now. Will the car be repossessed? Will the heat be turned off? Do we have enough groceries? This drives compulsive spending.
My mom was a compulsive spender. If she had money in her wallet she had to spend it as quickly as possible. My mom was so used to long periods with no money that when she had money she spent it as soon as she earned it. That’s the thing about poverty. Its a vicious cycle. It fucks with you mentally. You are constantly chasing your tail. You are broke because you spend what little you have because you are tired of being broke. Someone once said to me that people on food stamps should not be allowed to buy steak. Well, let me tell you. I grew up on food stamps and we rarely ate steak. Steak was a treat. My mom spent her hard earned cash to buy us steaks to cook on the grill when she should have used that cash to pay a bill. Why didn’t she pay the bill? Because when you spend day after day, week after week, month after month, depressed because you can’t pay your bills and you’re only eating ground beef because its cheap, well once in awhile you say fuck it! and you buy the damn steak. And I”ll tell you, those steaks on the grill that my mom made for my siblings and I are some of the best I’ve had in my life. Not becasue they were cut by a great butcher. In fact a lot of times they were the cheapest steaks in the counter. They were wonderful because of the memories made eating those dinners with my family. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I’m not ashamed to be a trailer park girl. I’m rather proud of her. She and I have been through a lot and I’ll share those experiences with you on future blogs. But today I want to focus on the topic of money management.
When you live paycheck to paycheck you are living moment to moment. You can’t think about the future because its taking all you’ve got to figure out today. And, if you’re not thinking about the future then you can’t learn how to manage money. And, if you don’t know how to manage money then you are doomed to stay in the cycle of poverty forever. Why am I telling you all of this? Because this summer I realized that like my mother, I do not know how to manage my money. I’ve spent my entire life living paycheck to paycheck, and to be honest, I don’t know how to live better. I have a well-paying job with a 401K, paid vacation, paid sick days, and weekends and holidays off. I should be alright now, right? Well, I should be. The thing is, I’m not. I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. I have direct deposit. I get paid twice a month and I’m usually broke within 3 days after I get paid. Yes, the cost of living in Southeast Michigan is very high. Average rent for a 2 bedroom apartment is between $1200 to $1500 a month. Groceries are expensive. Gas and electricity are high. But I’ll tell you, in spite of all that I should not be broke 2 days after payday. I’ve had a lot of financial disasters of my own making these past six years. Fortunately, my family has been there to bail me out. I’ve created budgets. I’ve promised myself I would stick to them. I’ve cut costs and reduced monthly expenses. This spring I was well on my way to financial comfort. Not wealth. By comfort I mean knowing that all my bills were paid on time, my groceries were bought, I had gas in my car, and $200 to last until the next payday. I thought I knew what I was doing. I created a budget with the 50/30/20 principle and consulted my Aunt who is smart with money for help. I finally felt like a grownup. And it was going really well, until the Lavender Festival.
The Michigan Lavender Festival is an art and craft fair held at Blake’s Farm every summer. I love art and craft fairs. I’m usually broke when I attend them. This year the fair fell the day after payday. Yahtzee! Being the much wiser woman that I thought I was I paid the monthly bills on Friday and headed out to the craft fair with my sister and daughter on Saturday. And that’s where it all fell apart. I told myself that I wasn’t going to spend any money. I had a rough idea of how much money I could spend. The thing is all the bills I paid had not posted yet so my account balance was deceptive. When I got to the fair something in my brain clicked, and unfortunately, the rest of my brain turned off and my inner trailer park girl was unleashed! I treated myself to bundles of dried lavender, spices, handmade jewerly, and lavender chocolate. I bought lavender plants for my yard. I bought packets of culinary lavender to bake yummy lavender treats. As long as the debit card was accepted, I shopped. Trouble is, all those swipes were credit charges. Not debit charges. The following Monday I checked my balance expecting to see a low number, probably less than a $100. I knew I lost my mind at that festival and I was feeling guilty and stupid. When I saw the three digit negative number that popped up my stomach hit the floor. I had overdrawn my checking account by $400.
Yes, you read that right. By the time all the bills I’d paid and all the shopping I had done had posted I was $400 in the hole. I felt numb staring at that number realizing that payday was a solid 2-1/2 weeks away, and I hadn’t grocery shopped yet. Now what? My daughter asked me if I was going to call my Aunt and ask for money. How could I? I knew better! I felt utterly stupid. I was mad at myself. How could I have done this? I took a quick mental note of the stock of food in my freezer and cupboards and realizing we were not in danger of starving until my next payday I decided that no, I was not going to ask for help. We would suffer through. Perhaps a reminder of what it felt like to be poor was exactly what I needed! I figured a couple of weeks reliving the struggles of trailer park years was exactly what I needed to straighten my head out and get back on track. My daughter wasn’t excited about this plan, but I figured it was a good lesson for her too. Learn from my mistakes and all that. So, did I learn? Well, no and…yes.
During that 2-1/2 weeks we went without daily comforts. Again, I’m not talking about steak and eating out. I’m talking about TV. The payment for all the streaming services we watch couldn’t process because my account was negative. So, we didn’t have TV. I subscribe to meditation and fitness apps that I use daily and those montly subscriptions couldn’t be renewed, so they ran out. Toiletries began to run out and my daughter and I began rationing a bottle of shampoo and bar of soap. I dug through my spare change and got a bottle of laundry soap at the dollar store so we could wash our clothes. Every day I scolded myself. I had to be careful with the food in the cupboards and freezer so I went without lunch and breakfast. I couldn’t wait for payday! I promised myself I would never do this again. This would be the last time I lived like this. So, what do you think happened?
Payday was last Wednesday. I paid my utility bills that were late. I restored all of my streaming services and app subscriptions. I steered clear of Amazon. I told myself there would be no luxuries or fun stuff. This was all about getting back on track! On Thursday I went to the pet store and picked up cat food, flea medicine, and a new scratching box for Blue so he would stop trying to shred my sofa. I paid my gym membership which was late and tacked on another set of swim lessons. That night I treated Alexa and I to dinner at the new Italian resturant downtown because after all, I deserved it didn’t I? Hadn’t I been so much more responsible (hint, not really)? After dinner we went to Target and stocked up on toiletries for me and Alexa and household items. I was too tired to grocery shop so I decided I would do that on Friday. Friday morning I woke up and as per usual checked my bank balance. I stared numbly at the screen which read back to me -$36.00. How? I asked myself. How could I have done this AGAIN? I scrolled through the items posted. Yes, I could see all the items I had spent. I also realized that in doing my math I had not accounted for the fact that when my direct deposit hit it would first cover the -$400. See, when I open up my account on the mobile app it shows me my account at the present moment. But that balance doesn’t account for all the transactions still pending. I hadn’t accounted for that on Thursday. I’ve been ruminating on this all weekend and yesterday I came to this conclusion. I simply do not know how to manage my money. I am overwhelmed by the whole process. And, like my mother, when I have money in my account I spend it before I think about it. I live in the moment rather than thinking about next week, the next two weeks. What makes this really infuriating to me is that I do not have to live like this. My income is not unpredictable. I know exactly how much money will be deposited into my checking account each payday. I’ve budgeted my monthly expenses. I know what I need to pay out and when. There should be no reason for me to miss a bill, or be without a few dollars in my account. So, what the hell am I doing?
Last night, I had a long talk with my inner trailer park girl. I reminded her how hard we worked to get to where we are. I reminded her of all the nights we dreamed of this life now, of earning a salary all my own that would be enough to support me and Alexa. This morning I spent 2 hours doing an online course on money management provided free of charge by PNC Bank. The course is called Foundations of Money Management. I highly recommend it. The course is well-written, easy to follow, and goes back to the very basics. It explains what a checking account is, how it works, and most importantly, how to manage one. I learned how to reconcile my bank statements. I learned that even though I use my debit card and have a mobile banking app, these tools do not replace an old fashioned check register. In fact, a check register is even more important in this age of swiping a card. I discovered a great tool offered by PNC called a paycheck planner. Its a simple form that allows you plan out your upcoming expenses from one paycheck to the next so you keep your future responsibilities in front of you. I got a refresher on budgeting although frankly, I like my 50/30/20 approach better.
I read a couple of online book summaries on money management. I want to share those tips with all of you. I will write a blog post about financial fitness in more detail later but I want to share with you the most important lesson I learned today.
Thinking back on all those years in the trailer park when we were so poor I realize its not things that make you happy, its experiences and the memories they create. Living in that trailer park I would shop on Amazon and create wishlists. I would put items in my cart and imagine hitting the button to complete the purchase. Yes, I longed for things but even if I could have hit the button to buy that would not be the memories I cherish today. I look back on all the times spent with neighbors and friends laughing, cooking hot dogs on the grill, and I remember family dinners with my mom, sister, and daughter and how happy we were around that little table in that little mobile home. Its the experiences that brought me joy, not the things. The memory of those experiences is what drives a lot of the joy I feel now every day. I feel very blessed to have had so much happiness despite so much hardship. And that is the lesson my inner trailer park girl wants to share with all of you this Sunday. The amount of money you have really only has a minimal influence on how much you smile, how much you laugh, and how much you enjoy yourself on a daily basis. During the poorest years of my life I experienced incredible joy, love, and laughter on a daily basis. Over the last two weeks when Alexa and I were rationing two boxes of graham crackers we laughed and smiled every day. It was difficult but not the worst thing that has ever happened to either one of us. So, if you are living paycheck to paycheck and feeling overwhelmed by your finanaces or lack thereof, I highly recommend the online course from PNC. You can find it by googling Foundations of Money Management by PNC. You do not have to have an account to take the course. The course is free. I will learn to manage my money so I control my finances without feeling overwhelmed or worse needing another rescue deposit on my PayPal account. But more importantly, I am going to try to gather more experiences than things because happy memories are worth far more than anything that you can buy at an art and craft fair.