Apparently we were poor – and I’m so glad

18 Aug

We didn’t have much money when I was growing up. I found out much after the fact that we received food stamps into my elementary school years – explaining why we shopped at the grocery store across town. My mom was afraid we might run into someone we knew closer to home. And I thought we had milk coupons that only worked at that store. The ways people protect their kids.

The family vacations I remember involved us driving two or three hours and staying a couple of nights at a cabin, sometimes owned by a family friend, sometimes found on Craigslist. We hiked and did crafts and watched movies. We often visited the local library, and I read lots and lots of books.

In eighth grade, I wanted more than anything to go on the school-sponsored spring break trip to the east coast. It cost $2000, and my parents said no way. It broke my heart. I got to the east coast summer after my freshman year of college, and I paid my own way. For much, much less than the middle school trip.

From middle school on, if I wanted to do some expensive summer camp, I knew I had to help pay for it. I learned to write scholarship essays early, trading on my good grades to get discounted tuition. When I wanted to do a local theatre camp and there was no scholarship program, I worked with the director and worked out an agreement where I spent half the summer participating in the camp and the other half, once it was over, assisting with camps for younger kids.

I’ve been babysitting since I was 12, and got a job at 16. I’ve never asked my parents for money for a movie or a dinner out with friends. I had my own cash, and I could do with it as I wished.

We went to Disneyland when I was in high school. Our plane was overbooked, and we agreed to move: our reward was five round-trip tickets to Hawaii the next summer. Those are the two big trips I remember.

Since I’ve been in college, in the last three years, things have changed. My dad got a new job, with better pay. The family (without me, silly school schedules) goes to Maui and Mexico for vacation, not Mt. Baker and Walla Walla. My brother, not even in middle school, buys basketball shoes that cost more than any pair that I (a 21-year-old female) own. I’m honestly not jealous of this, I’ve turned down invitations on a couple of this trips and I think it’s great that my parents are finally able to stop worrying about every single dollar.

When I go home, my mom takes me shopping, at Nordstrom. She always has, but we buy more than one or two items now. My parents paid for my plane ticket to Europe last summer, which I am endlessly grateful for. And I know that if I ever needed to ask them for money, I could.

But I don’t. When I have $2 to my name and three days until my next paycheck, I suck it up and eat rice off the communal shelf for a few days.

I pay my own rent, my own utilties, my phone bill, entertainment, clothes, transportation (okay, good ol’ mom and dad paid my car insurance as a birthday present – yay!), groceries, most of my tuition … and sometimes it sucks. I pay for a lot more of my own stuff than most of friends do, and I have to watch my spending pretty carefully. But isn’t that the whole point of growing up?

I’ve had to say no to things. I’ve skipped dinners out and movies (especially movies. I just can’t justify $10 to sit in a dark room when I’m not even going to talk to my friends) plenty of times. Just this week I waited on buying laundry detergent until I got a paycheck.

Sometimes I look at my little brother and I wonder how he’s going to handle it. I already told my parents that I wouldn’t be angry if he got to go on that middle school trip that was oh-so-important back then. After all, I sent myself to Europe for three months.

But we are living such different childhoods. He goes on trips and buys things that I wouldn’t have even thought of asking for at his age, because they weren’t the way we lived. Only eight years younger than me, it’s like he’s growing up in a completely different family.

The thing is, he’s not used to working the system, doing whatever he has to do to get someone to waive a fee, or find some job that will pay him the $40-$60/week he’ll need in high school to go do fun things with his friends and still pay for gas. He doesn’t understand what fifteen dollars means, that that’s a full hour and a half of work, verging on two hours after taxes. I’m afraid he’ll be shell-shocked when he has to figure it out.

Sometimes, my mom will mail me twenty bucks. Or I’ll be at home and dad will hand me gas money as I leave the house. They’ve told me, “We’re proud of you, we know you don’t need our help, but we’re glad to give it to you every once in a while.” That’s a pretty cool place to be with your parents.

There are days, many of them, when I wish someone would cut me a rent check, or send me money to cover my heating bill, or say, “here, take this credit card to buy your groceries for the year.” Who wouldn’t love that?

But that’s not going to happen, and I’m going to continue stumbling towards adulthood one cereal-bowl-dinner at a time. And I am so grateful that I have learned that I can do it, and I know that even as I graduate and get thrown into the real world, I’ll continue to be just fine. Thanks, mom and dad.


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