The Money Tree
Preparing to move a child into a college dorm is like driving down the highway and throwing perfectly good money out the window. The bills just disappear in the wind leaving nothing to show for it. One would assume that you would have things—tangible items—after spending all that money but realistically nearly everything either gets destroyed or rendered unsuitable for the next dorm or apartment.
It makes the outrageous tuition seem like a bargain, really.
So, it was with great dismay and a decent amount of dread that I stared at the envelope holding my September credit card bill. Leaning against the center island for support, I sliced it open and felt all the blood drain from my face. It was a moment reminiscent of classic movies (you know, when people used to actually write letters—by hand) where if someone got bad news, they got a little woozy and the papers fluttered to the ground—cue the dramatic music.
Yeah, that was me.
The total due was even larger than I had anticipated. Seems that my college-bound son had visited a few websites where my credit card was saved on file for convenience (no longer, I might add) and had also conveniently forgotten to mention these additional purchases.
I turned to the two, long-suffering minor children still living under my roof and uttered the same words generations have spoken before me, “Do you think there is a money tree in the yard, ripe with bills to be plucked whenever we need it?”
Their blank stares told me that indeed they did. To my kids, the credit card was a money tree. They knew nothing of credit limits, interest rates, mounting debt or credit scores. And how would they? That card was shiny, plastic magic. Once swiped, people handed you things to take home with you. No more smoke and mirrors, I decided, this misconception was going to change immediately.
I began a two week crash course in finance and not one of my off-spring was enthusiastic about it. Given my sketchy math skills, this whole exercise was a stretch but I relied on my brief experience with poor money management in my 20’s as a guide.
After walking through the credit card bill and highlighting the charges they had incurred, my kids had a better understanding of how it all adds up over time. Thirty days to be specific. My eldest endured this lesson via emphatic texts which is his loss because I had some awesome facial expressions and hand gestures that made it all really fabulous.
And then I threw down the gauntlet: We were living off cash for two weeks until the next credit card cycle began. Oh, and that cash was not coming from the ATM (the drive-thru money tree). Now I have to admit, I had no idea how to actually achieve this, but my kids needed to hear “no” and budget right alongside me.
Spoiler Alert: Ok, I don’t really budget. Ever. I just kind of feel my way through the month with a vague idea of what I’m spending as compared to the limit my husband dreams of. So, realistically we were all learning together but I wasn’t copping to that.
The initial step was coming up with cold, hard cash. First, I rolled the container of quarters in my son’s room. Given that the stash was change from all the money I had given him throughout 4 years of high school, technically, those coins were mine. Besides, he was three states away and possession is 9/10 of the law.
A cool $50 just like that!
I put aside $20 each for my two youngest to go to social activities for the weekend. BAM! It was hard to get too cocky though, I only had $10 left and the new billing cycle was not visible on the horizon.
So, I cleaned out the closets. I took to online yard sales and Craig’s List. I sold purses, jewelry (at a gold dealer), boots, kid’s jackets and old toys. All in all I made about $120. I used that money for some groceries but said no to all requests for fast food or snack stops.
And the requests were constant. E-V-E-R-Y-D-A-Y. The more I said no, the more determined they were to make me revert to the ultimate consumer I had always been. I pleaded with them to just assume we had no reserves and employ a “need vs. want” approach.
This was a hard sell even for me as I drove past Starbucks without stopping. And we hit a major bump in the road the afternoon I scraped together cash for a Hershey’s Bar on a long road trip and it melted. MELTED. My hard earned money dissolved into a squishy, non-edible serving of chocolate. I would have licked the wrapper, if I could have figured out a way to open it while driving.
But, let me tell you, when we stopped at 7-11 for Slurpee BOGO day, my kids were thrilled. And grateful. So, so grateful.
My restrictions extended to food shopping as well. I never realized how much food we had just waiting to be cooked while I kept shopping for newer, more exciting groceries. And yes, there are boring groceries and glamorous groceries according to my kids. In case you are alarmed by this harsh approach to parenting, I’m happy to report that no one died because they had to eat the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that remained from the assorted bag once the Doritos were gone.
But if the whining was any gauge, I was killing them slowly with my miserly ways.
The day before my credit card cycle was due to flip to a new month, I still had $15 in my wallet. I put in $10 worth of gas (which in my Yukon would probably last until the stroke of midnight when it was time to free the credit card from its grounding) and felt a little glimmer of pride as I tucked away the remaining $5.
I had gone two weeks and not spent one dime of plastic money. My kids now know that when I say “No,” I mean it and they know why. I am in awe of the millions of Americans who live this way all the time. They don’t have things to sell or spare change to roll and take to the bank. They simply learn to do without.
There really is no comparison, but I felt better that my kids learned to sacrifice and are not as assumptive as they used to be when it comes to extras. As for the spend-happy college kid? We gave him the option to return things or have us take money from his account to recoup the illicit purchases. However, I am predicting that his brothers will exact their own penalties on him for bringing their stream of commerce to an abrupt halt.
In the end, preparing to release your kids to live in the real world requires throwing caution to the wind and using any means necessary. And a lesson learned the hard way is a real, tangible thing that stays with you forever.