What I Learned from My Mother’s Overspending

by Hava Buchanan

I’ve never bought my own handbag. For years, I was afraid to buy my own clothes. For years, I didn’t need to buy my own clothes. Because my mother bought them all for me.

Growing up as an only child gave my mother a privileged existence. Unencumbered by siblings, her parents spent freely on her, so she did the same. Once she married my father, she transferred spending on herself to spending on me and my sister. I would come home to find a large stack of clothes piled high on my bed. She would smile, look both ways down the hall, and shoo me into my room. Then she’d lower her voice to a conspiratorial whisper and say what became her mantra: “Don’t tell your father!”

But these surprises never felt like the fun, spontaneous gifts they were supposed to be. I wasn’t excited because I knew what would follow — an all-out screaming match between her and my dad. Her secret shopping sprees would never stay secret for long, especially since they shared a checking account. We ran into debt every paycheck. She spent without looking back. Sometimes we had to “go easy” on grocery shopping that week because there wasn’t enough money for food. Not that I ever starved — but there was definitely penny-pinching going on.

For her it was an addiction, no less real than alcoholism, or drug use. More like The Lost Weekend and less like Confessions of a Shopaholic. But with clothes.

It wasn’t like she was trying to buy my affections. She was always affectionate with me and my sister, and we never lacked for attention. Rather, it felt like something that I didn’t earn. It felt empty, like she was doing it because she wanted those clothes for herself, and was using me as her clothing model for things she couldn’t wear anymore. I wore the clothes she bought because she made me feel guilty if I didn’t. “But I bought that for you! Everyone is wearing them now!” Many of them I didn’t even like, but wore to please her. My closet was stuffed to the point of claustrophobia. I couldn’t move hangers because there was simply no more room to put them.

Mainly, I felt guilty because these presents didn’t feel earned. Despite the privilege of having a mom who wanted her daughters to have “everything” it didn’t mean much because I didn’t feel I had done anything special to deserve it.

When I was 13, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She dealt with it the only way she could — by spending. As her cancer got worse, the bills piled up. It would continue this way for the next 13 years, until her death. And that’s how I started the first of my own many splurges.

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that in trying not to become my mother, I inadvertently did. I spent money on CDs and books to bury my grief, to find meaning in music and literature. At least that’s what I told myself. Retail therapy — how original. But it was an escape. I rationalized that I was a more careful spender because I spent it on books and CDs. I need that $25 deluxe edition of Elvis Costello’s “My Aim is True!” I bought 10, 20 books at a time that, five years later, I still haven’t gotten around to.

Because I wasn’t spending my money on clothing, I thought I was being more cautious with my finances. But I wasn’t. I was just spending it on other things.

I felt the anxious tug of buyer’s remorse looking at the bags from Amoeba Records and used bookstores piled up around me, but I felt I could justify it. At least I bought them myself!

Still, when I got my first out-of-college job, that’s when what I spent my money on felt like I earned. Whatever burden it was, it was my own burden, and not my parents’. I could spend whatever I wanted, and there were no consequences.

This false confidence in my spending habits wasn’t really felt until I got fired from my first job. I got okay benefits, but it wasn’t enough to get by. I had just enough left over to keep me afloat until the next check. Somehow, instead of seeing it as a cushion, my brain went “I’M RICH.” I spent the remaining $30 on my beloved vices — books and CDs.

I thought that I was preventing myself from becoming my mother. And then I realized: I’m not the opposite of her. I’m just like her.

I got laid off from my third job writing business plans. I was glad to be rid of it. But after three months, my checks stopped coming in. When I called the unemployment office, I found out that my boss did not fill out the required paperwork. And I couldn’t file for an extension until July 2010, which, at the time, was seven months away. I was out of money, indefinitely.

I hated borrowing money from my father while I looked for jobs. He already worried about me enough, and I didn’t want to give him another financial burden. But I was desperate for anything, so I accepted the occasional check for gas and the electric bill.

After a few months of this, my father called me and asked me to come over. Sitting across from me, he handed me a manila envelope.

“Open it,” he said.

I found a stack of savings bonds from a safety deposit box he’d found in my mother’s safe at the bank. They were savings bonds they’d collected for me since I was a baby, to use for college and emergencies.

“This is my way of helping you, by cutting you loose. I don’t want you to be dependent on me. Use these to pay your rent. Survive on it. If you can’t find a job when this is gone, you are more than welcome to move home. Until then, use this.”

I didn’t feel scary or like I was being cut off. I knew its purpose — he was trying to help me become independent. It freed me from asking him for money. After cashing in the bonds at the bank, it was almost $6,000, enough to last me for at least six months. I divided two-thirds of it into an online credit Union so that the interest would grow faster, and deposited the remainder into my checking account. For the next few months, I looked on Craigslist for jobs, my checking account steadily depleting. Knowing this was the last money I’d have for a while, I didn’t spend it on much besides the basic rent, utilities and food. I managed to avoid bookstores and record shops by not leaving the house, so I couldn’t be tempted. If you can’t see it, it’s not there.

In December of 2010, now $3,000 down, I was offered a job as a customer service representative at an online clothing company. And I was insanely bored. Not many calls came in, and we weren’t allowed to use the Internet outside of the company website. In desperation to find a way to fill in the mindless, vacuous hours, I turned to counting my receipts. This was the turning point that helped me get my finances back on track. I wrote down every transaction, cash and debit. It was alarming to see how much things added up.

But something happened once I starting recording my spending habits: I stopped overdrafting my checking account. Every other month since I started working, I’d overdraft my account and get hit by $100 overdraft protection fees from Bank of America. This method worked. I didn’t even have to log into my Bank of America account because I knew exactly how much I’d spent that month. There it was, scrawled in my checkbook. If I even had a thought of spending it on things I didn’t need, my leftover balance was there to remind me.

A year and a half later, it still works. I can treat myself to a concert or splurge on a new dress and still turn in an $850 rent check at the end of each month. Even after getting a new job that pays twice as much as my last one, I think I have a pretty good handle on my spending habits. And when I do spend on myself, it feels earned because I know it’s mine.

Hava is a writer and she likes to make lists. She also blogs about Pulitzer Prize-winning books. Follow her on Twitter. She lives in Torrance, Calif. Photo: Shutterstock/Novac Florin

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