Money Was Tight, But My Mom Worked It Out (Now I Do Too)

by Julie Buntin

During the great Beanie Baby boom of the nineties, my mom made a fortune sending me and my fleet of siblings into Hallmark stores around Michigan, each of us clutching a sweaty list of “rare” beanies, where we’d snag as many as possible under the store’s 2 or 3 per kid policy. Back in the car, she’d take them from us before we could bend their tags, and then sell them at flea markets all over the state at an astronomical mark-up.

I grew up in a household where money was very tight — single mom, lots of kids. But we somehow always had really good snacks and fun summer camping trips at KOAs. It worked out, always. It’s in her spirit, perhaps, that I’ve always been resourceful about finding money in my budget (or pockets) to do the things I want to do and in picking up extra jobs when the money isn’t there.

I sometimes have a kind of deranged stubbornness about not being able to afford things. I can be very self-indulgent. Going without is less appealing to me than going with–despite the consequences. If I want to go to a cheap dinner and a movie with a friend — $15 for the food, $15 for the ticket — but I only have $20, I’ll figure out a way to find that extra ten dollars. Maybe The Strand wants this hardcover book! (+$2) Maybe I left some singles in one of my 75 zillion tote bags! (+ $4.5) How about the change in my wallet? (+$2) In this way, I manage to make most of my spending dreams come true. It rarely occurs to me to spend only $20 instead.

My mom’s career was never one job — she did a million things to provide for our family. She’s a smart lady saddled with a bunch of kids and no higher education, so it was always something of a struggle for her to find a job with flexible hours and reasonable pay. When my siblings and I were toddlers, she ran a neighborhood daycare out of our house so she could be home with us. For a few years she was a part-time rural mail carrier. She’s worked in college gyms and managed an Anytime Fitness. Whenever the census comes around, she’s overjoyed because she always gets assigned to be a regional crew leader and can count on steady employment for a while.

Then there were the gigs/quick fixes; Beanie Baby trading, construction cleans, babysitting, selling her violin, epic garage sales.

Growing up, my family’s mantra was: We have no money, what will we do?! That stress was always there, but nothing ever happened — my mom always figured it out. We still went to Applebee’s. We still had Sam’s Club boxes of ice pops in the freezer. We had a car, heat, a house, new school clothes from the outlet mall. It’s funny–while I worry about money constantly, my mom’s example has given me a kind of naive belief that, no matter how bad things get, I’ll always be able to come up with something.

I started making my own money when I was 12, cleaning houses with my mom. She got something like $30 an hour to clean the summer lake homes of the very, very rich and gave me $5. Because I was 12, that money felt like a fortune. One of my mom’s longtime clients had two little boys, and I became their regular vacation babysitter — a lovely, well-paying job that lasted through high school and into my first post-college summer. From then on I stopped asking my mom for money for things; I’m sure I sometimes did, but I had enough of my own cash to pay for whatever teenagers need/want to buy.

I made enough cash in the summers and on holiday breaks (the family only lived in Michigan during vacation-time) to get me through the drier months. Freshman year of college, my mom and some other family members helped me with my dorm deposit. After that, I didn’t get any reliable outside help–I do remember once, after crying to my mom during winter break about not being able to afford my rent, she handed me a wad of hundreds. I have no idea where she came up with that money so quickly, or how she could spare it.

I was lucky and had a need-based scholarship and an academic scholarship in addition to the full Pell Grant, all four years. I took out the maximum amount of federal loans to help me pay for living expenses/books/computer and the remaining grand or so I owed in fees. Even with tuition covered and my loans as padding, I had to work throughout college. I was a hostess, a waitress, a babysitter, an after-school counselor, a real estate blogger, and yes, a house-cleaner–the list goes on and on. I probably worked between 25–35 hours a week on top of classes. When I think of my college education, I remember screaming drink orders over the din of a midtown bar as much as I remember long-winded conversations about Kantian philosophy. Maybe more.

When I started waitressing in college, my mom told me to take a bunch of little tip envelopes and write categories and amounts on them: RENT ($600), FOOD ($150), PHONE ($100), CREDIT CARD ($75), SUBWAY ($100), FUN. She told me to divvy up my tip money into the envelopes in order of priority, and then put the rest in the FUN envelope. For better or for worse, my mom taught me that money is just money. When you have it, it’s nice. When you don’t, you’ll figure it out.

Julie Buntin lives in New York.

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