I’m not the poorest guy in the world, not by a long shot — I never have been and I never will be. My family isn’t missing any meals, we’ve got two vehicles, we live in a nice house, and we can afford fun experiences from time to time. By American standards, we’re living a healthy middle class lifestyle.
But for many dark nights over the course of many months, I tossed and turned, consumed with anxiety by the state of our financial situation.
A huge part of my stress was due to the fact that I had just begun working with a non-profit start-up; my monthly salary was dependent on fundraising. Back then we were raising money for a really good, albeit untested and unproven initiative, and my salary wasn’t exactly predictable or bountiful. Plus, my wife is a stay-at-home mom with our four kids. So, no question, our situation was the product of our choices. At the same time we both felt — and still feel — quite strongly about these choices, and that we were doing exactly what we needed to do.
But that didn’t make the stress go away.
Within a matter of months, we had drained our savings and had started to rely heavily on credit. I remember one day when I fully grasped the gravity of the situation. I added up all our debts (outside our mortgages) and realized we owed over $70,000! It was like a bucket of cold water in the face.
We had crossed a line that was not OK.
I became obsessed with crunching numbers. I put together a balance sheet showing all our income and expenses, and I would analyze it constantly. I was fixated with the bottom line, trying to figure out how to make it all work. What would everything cost this month? Would it be a little bit less next month? If, by some miracle, we did have extra money, which credit card or loan should we deal with first?
I hate depending on other people financially. I’m independent, I’m American, and I’m going to provide for my family and be proud about it. During that year, I wasn’t able to provide to the degree that I would’ve liked, and I continually felt the pressure of it. It was a humbling and difficult time for me.
I became obsessed with crunching numbers. I put together a balance sheet showing all our income and expenses, and I would analyze it constantly. I was fixated with the bottom line, trying to figure out how to make it all work.
And it came out in how I dealt with my kids. I’m typically pretty laid back — I like to have fun and joke around and take it easy with our kids. But the littlest things would set me off. I was impatient with them. I yelled at them when they didn’t deserve it. Sometimes I would overhear my wife say something to them in the other room like, “You may want to steer clear of Dad today. He’s not in a very good mood.”
That’s not cool, to let financial stress affect me and my family like that. I mean, I thought I was always someone who wouldn’t let money affect me the way it was affecting me. Money doesn’t master me or own me, I own it, right? And I was excited to pass that important life lesson along to my kids. Except here I was, being mastered ― at least my thoughts and my mood and my stress level — by money. And I wasn’t giving my kids a very good model to follow as a result.
I hid from my wife some of the degree to which we were in the hole, financially, not wanting it to overwhelm her like it was overwhelming me. I was already freaking out and I figured there wasn’t need for both of us to be freaking out.
But she knew what was causing me to be irritated and prickly.
She began to ask whether I should continue with my non-profit job. Surely I could make better, more consistent money doing something else. Yet she knew I was convinced I was supposed to be doing this job, despite our financial challenges. So I felt like I had to try to hide my stress from her, because it only validated her point, which stressed me out even more!
I tried to act like everything was fine. But eventually, it was obvious that it wasn’t fine. I wasn’t fine: sooner or later, I’d shout at one of the kids for something insignificant or I’d just be in a pissy mood.
Things have been a bit better financially since then. The non-profit start-up is going well and has become financially viable. There’s light at the end of the tunnel for us, but we’re definitely not out of the woods yet. We still have bills and debts to pay off, and sometimes I still worry about whether we’ll be able to keep making ends meet each month.
That year was one of the hardest years of my life. But it also shaped my character. I’ve become more conscious and responsible with my spending habits. I’ve realized the unhealthy ways in which I handle stress. And as I’ve experienced first-hand the generosity of other people, I’ve become a more generous person.
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