One of my favorite family pics of almost all of us a few years ago!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nappy Hair, Shredded Shoelaces and Financial Decisions: Learning to Be Happy With What We Have

Nappy Hair, Shredded Shoelaces and Financial Decisions:  
Learning to Be Happy With What We Have 
December 12, 2013

We were already supposed to be in the car on the way to church when my 7-year-old comes to me with nappy hair.  We took down her hair yesterday with the intent to wash and re-braid it. 

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, I spent last night in deep conversation with my daughter about some pretty tough subjects.  And today, her hair isn’t even brushed because even that would take 30 minutes and it really needs to be wet and reconditioned to do it well. 

To make matters worse, this same child shredded her shoelaces yesterday when she tried to get them untied after she played in the mud.  It wasn’t her fault.  They are designed to shred so we will have to buy more.  But I have only had $1.09 in my bank account since November 24, the day after my daughter’s beautiful wedding, and we try not to use credit unless it is absolutely necessary.  So buying new laces seems like a luxury.

So I make two quick decisions.  Let her go to church with nappy hair and hopefully find time to fix it before school tomorrow.  And meticulously braid the shoelace so that it can be re-tied. 

These were both choices. 

I could have chosen to skip church or buy new laces.  But I didn’t.

And life is all about choices.

Yesterday, I read that it costs $1.50 MORE per day per person to eat a healthy fresh diet.  That seems like such a small investment given the long-term benefits.  However, for our family, who already eats lots of fresh food, that translates to about $500 per month more than our current budget – the cost of pre-school for one of my young boys with some special needs.

Twenty years ago, when we were a 2-income professional family with three children, that was absolutely no big deal.  I could spend that much on clothes in one month. 

But our choices have led us down another path.

Quite frankly, I realize that we are so comparatively wealthy that the decisions I am going to write about look asinine to a divorced mother trying to raise 3 children alone, or to one of the poverty stricken families that our family engages with on a daily basis.  

We are not wanting for anything that we really need.  But in the social, financial, and neighborhood circles that are my life, we know that we are not the norm.

I guess my thoughts are really for those of us who have the capacity to make choices. I’m speaking to those of us (myself included) who recognize that sometimes we really aren’t making choices at all.  Rather, we have fallen into the trap of believing that we must or should have something to show for our hard work, our position of privilege, our education, or our training – even if that means going into debt to have it.

I dare to say that we aren’t actually choosing.  Rather, we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned by the world of marketing, fashion, privilege and planned obsolescence to believe that we actually need a fancy house, expensive clothes, a zillion extra-curricular activities, lots of toys, a new car every two years, and generally, the best of everything – or at the very least, the best we can afford or obtain on credit.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not criticizing those who make these choices.  I have made them myself more times that I care to admit.  I still do. But I’m trying to re-condition myself to understand the difference between want and need.  The difference between it would be nice and I can wait or forego it all together. 

I was raised with incredible opportunities.  My parents were not even remotely wealthy, but my parents modeled for me how to live frugally and without credit, while sharing everything we had and never asking for anything in return.  

Moreover, as far as I know, my parents never made a decision based on what other people had or thought about us.   We weren’t given the latest and greatest anything unless it was useful to our lives in some way.  I recall a blow dryer and a calculator as the really big gifts for the entire family one Christmas in the mid-70’s.  

We didn’t have a color television or the trendy toys.  We had baby dolls and erector sets and crafts and Lincoln logs and Legos and swings and sandboxes and trees.  (The fact that my father was an architect might have something to do with all the building sets.  I had never thought of that before!)

My mother cooked every night and we had visitors at our home almost all day every day.  Yet, she made one major monthly shopping trip (and smaller trips for fresh goods) and we rationed food.  She made the same amount of food every night – no matter who joined us for dinner.  And somehow, it was always enough.

With the help of my parents, I made a lot of good decisions when I was a young adult.  I was able to attend law school because my parents had the foresight to invest in my education throughout my life.  My first house (which my grandparents helped me buy) made a huge profit in a short time, which set the stage for our future homes. Even after I quit working to stay home, my husband’s career, his choice to quit renting space and move his office to the basement of our home, and the booming economy allowed my husband and me to invest in a much larger home that was custom built for our fast-growing family of birth, foster and adopted children. 

The story of our home is wonderful, miraculous and heart-warming in and of itself. Many people, including the builder and many of the sub-contractors, went above and beyond to give us exactly what we needed, as well as some of what we wanted, to raise our super-sized family. 

As a result, we live in a great family-oriented neighborhood with caring neighbors who look out for each other.  Our home is 6600 square feet designed to blend into our mixed income, but upscale neighborhood.  However, our home is furnished in what I like to call “Early American Thrift Store.”  I pinch pennies every day.  Yesterday, as I finished pre-cooking 40 pounds of potatoes that I got for $8.00 at Aldi and then washed 15 Ziploc bags to re-use, I ruminated about how time-consuming it is to save pennies.

Things are different than they were in the 80’s and 90’s.  The economy has tanked.  My husband has lost many of his clients, in part because his clients have lost their businesses.  We have chosen to care for 21 children and we financially support almost all of them in some way.

And instead of practicing law or teaching, I’m staying home always looking for ways to be thrifty and save money. (Now that I think about it, I would have to have an excellent job to justify the childcare expenses for our 8 children that would need childcare, so working isn’t really an option anyway – but it was when we had many fewer children.) 

Nonetheless, for us to have so many children and for me to stay home and forego my potential income, we have to make choices.  And we choose to make do.  We choose to scrimp and save. 

We choose to allow our nappy-headed girl with braided shoe strings go to church looking pretty raggedy. 

We choose to live in an upscale neighborhood where we are sure our children are safe and free to roam around. Yet, we choose to wear hand-me-downs,  clothes that are donated to us, and what we can find at thrift shops, consignment shops and garage sales.

We choose to drive older model cars until they literally can’t be driven again, and to leave the bumper hanging down on our ugly 15-passenger van, which was damaged by a hit and run driver in front of our house.

We choose to send homemade nutritious snacks (that the kids hate) to school instead of the more convenient, but expensive, junk food that they LOVE!

We choose to have 8 bedrooms filled with young children and many of our young adult children, who use the bedrooms when they need them.

We generally choose to give away everything when we finish using it, rather than selling it to make money.

We choose to have a family of 5 living in our basement with a make-shift kitchen and a half-bath with huge painter’s canvas stapled to the 2x4’s, because we spent our money on the toilet and sink and decided not to invest our resources in having it sheet rocked, finished and painted. (If we had more money, we would add a bathtub!)

We choose to allow our 5-year- old to wear pants that are 4 inches too short – not because he must – but because he insists on wearing the tan corduroy pants with pockets. 

We choose NOT to give our kids extra money in their lunch account for ice cream, and we rarely give them money for junk food except on very special occasions.

We rarely choose to eat out because it could easily cost $60-100 per meal to feed us – even at a fast food place,  although we hate that we miss multiple opportunities to socialize with our friends.

We choose not to give our kids money to spend every time they ask.  Ironically, as I type these words, my 6-year-old runs up to me from basketball practice begging me for money to get a drink from the vending machine.  With no qualms, I tell him to go get water from the fountain.  But my resolve doesn’t lesson his determination.  Even when he pleads that he is sooo thirsty and he doesn’t want water, and he’s hungry and he will find something "healthy" like chips, I stand my ground.  

Instead, we choose to give our children a very small allowance that forces our children to make choices too.

We choose to allow one particular kid, who shall remain nameless, to wear the same stupid shirt over and over again (washed daily) because it is his favorite.  Even though they have plenty of choices.  Even though it looks like he doesn’t have any choice.

I say these things not because I want anyone to feel sorry for us.  

There is absolutely no reason to feel that we are somehow missing something.  We have good credit.  We can borrow money.  If there is a real need – our parents or family or friends will help us – often without us asking.

Don’t get me wrong.  We feel grateful and honored and loved when people take the time to notice what we need (or want) and either ask us how they can help, or simply surprise us.

But we try not to live in expectation that this is how we will manage to keep up with society’s view of what we should have and what we should do. 

I don’t think it is an accident that we tend to surround ourselves with people who could care less that we don’t keep up with the Jones’.  There was a long period when I felt judged and guilty because it looked like my kids didn’t have equal opportunities – although I really think it was my insecurities rather than other’s actions that caused my feelings. 

The reality is that others know our situation and our choices and when our children are with them, some choose to pay for things that we can’t, or that we decide against.   I would never know about these acts of kindness, except that my children tell me.  These people know that we aren’t in a position to make the same choices or to reciprocate in kind, so when they choose to bless my child –  I have learned to feel grateful without feeling embarrassed.  I rest knowing that these friends are making their own choice and I don’t have to feel guilty because I don't provide everything for my children that they are providing for theirs.

I don’t worry that my kids are in need.  If there is a need that we can't meet alone, God will prompt someone to give us exactly what we need when we need it.  And if we are impatient and have a need, then we aren’t too proud to ask for help.

I don’t worry that my kids aren’t wearing the newest, most up-to-date clothing.  As an independent thinker and non-conformist, I love that they have each developed their own sense of style.  Well, I must admit I don’t always love the way they look and I would hesitate to call some of it a style– but it is a price I’m usually willing to pay --  unless they are going to a place where it is important to ME that they look a certain way.  Just so you know, I did have to draw the line at wearing underwear yesterday! One of my young boys decided that going commando was a good idea.  I had a strong opinion about that!

I don’t worry that my kids have already spent their allowance and don't have money to go to the movies, or the arcade, or out to eat, or whatever with their friends every time that they are asked. I’m training them to make choices and decisions for themselves.  I would love to have the money to freely allow them do more without worrying about taking money from the food budget, but like myself as a child, I think that our limitations force them to be more creative and resourceful and ultimately, more responsible. And I have witnessed the blessings of others as they give their time and money to us and to our children – not looking for anything in return.

I don’t worry because I know that I take into account my childrens’ emotional needs when making each financial decision.  There are times when one of my kids has an emotional NEED to feel special, or to experience something, or to try something out - and that is a priority.  So no matter how broke we are – I will make sure that we use our limited resources in a way that helps meet this child’s emotional and psychological well-being – to the extent that money makes a difference.

So, some days, hair and clothing gets missed, I forget to send in the 50th white t-shirt for an art project, the nap towel gets forgotten, or we don’t buy the professional photos of our child’s first day of kindergarten and a photo with Santa, because we have chosen to dedicate our limited resources, like time, money, emotional strength, etc., to something we think is more valuable.

In the end, I want to be okay with what we have.  I want to be satisfied.  I don’t want to be trying to look for the next best thing.  I’m not there yet.  But I don’t want to try to keep up with the Jones’.  And I want the same for my kids.  I want them to be happy and grateful for what they have – even when it isn’t what others have.

That requires choices.  And we make them every day.  Some good.  Some bad.  Some wise.  Some not so much.  But in the end, we want to be known as a family that trusts God to provide what we need, even when it isn’t what we think we want. 

And that’s my approach to Christmas this year.  I want to go into that day satisfied with what we have, and knowing that what we are given is exactly what we need. And that is good enough for me. 

1 comment:

  1. I would love to see a post on planning your weekly menu, cooking, and cleaning up:). We have just been assigned our first placement (foster-to-adopt) and so I now will have 5 kids from adoption and birth ages 0-9. (nowhere near your family, but new to me nonetheless:).