Keeping up with the Joneses…..

I have always prided myself on being frugal. I was raised in a modest home in a farming community in eastern North Carolina where money was necessary but not as important as the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your physical labor.  Mine was a community of neighbors who took pride in hard work, made sure that there was enough food on the table and everyone went to church on Sunday.  I’ve never been afraid of hard work and I am always the first one to push up my sleeves and dive right in.

My husband and I joke that we are “professionally poor” because he is a high school teacher and I work for a non profit organization as an advocate for people with disabilities. Needless to say, our jobs require a great deal of expertise, which is certainly not reflected in our current salaries. These are the professions we chose and we feel fortunate to be able to make a difference in the lives of other people each and every day. For Mark and I, making a difference in someone’s life makes up for the fact that we live pay check to pay check.

To make ends meet we cut coupons and buy our clothes in consignment. We have been living in the same modest 1500 square foot home for the past 16 years.  Our children wear hand me downs from our friends and I cut my own hair (and my daughter’s hair).  We don’t take fancy vacations, don’t place emphasis on material things and we try very hard to instill these values in our children. The responsibility to stay within a budget is something that we share with our children.

Leah gets so excited when she sees me bring home an old crumbled recycled bag filled with used dresses, skirts and tops. She will jump up and down, clap her hands and ask which friend gave her the bag of goodies.

“This dress is so pretty. Did this come from your friend Ca-fren (Catherine)?”

OR

“I love the kitty cat on this shirt. Is it from the store with other kid’s clothes?” Her genuine gratitude over these gently used clothes makes me so proud. She frequently mentions that when she gets “big” she wants to give her clothes to a younger child. My kids understand that Goodwill is not just a place to donate the things we no longer need but, the mission is to employ adults with disabilities (mommy’s work) and give back to the community.

We spent four months saving enough money to spend ONE night at Great Wolf Lodge, in the middle of the week, off season, basic room, no fancy log cabin loft for the kids, with a Groupon, booyah!  Thomas volunteered to throw in some of his allowance to contribute to the fund. He only makes $2.00 a week (WAAAAY less than his buddies from school) so you can imagine how much his generosity touched me.

Some days I worry that there is a downside to being so honest with my children about the importance of saving money.  My sweet, sensitive son often takes on the burden of worrying about the family finances and this makes my heart ache. He overhears the whispered conversations that Mark and I have about unexpected bills, day care expenses, medical co-payments and groceries. He sees his dad wear the same khaki slacks every week, with fraying hems and a small stain made from a black ink pen. He notices when I sigh after the cashier tells me the grand total at the grocery store.

A few months ago, I was struggling with some health issues and we decided that it was time to have my gall bladder removed. Mark and I took the time to explain to Thomas that my surgery would be fairly routine and that lots of people live without gall bladders. I assumed he would worry about how my recovery time would impact our household so we were proactive, open and even took the time to tell his teacher in case he was showing anxiety at school. A few days before my surgery, I took Thomas to the dentist for a routine check-up. Dental visits are routine for most kids but my boy has a propensity for cavities, LOTS of cavities. Over the years, when our dentist would break the news to me, I would try my damnedest to hide my angst over the money, that we would have to fork over, to fill a tooth, that would be inevitably lost and passed on to the tooth fairy.  Despite my best efforts, Thomas would end up crying and apologizing for being so irresponsible with his tooth brushing which would only make me feel like the worse mom EVER!!  But I digress. As I sat next to Thomas during his dental check up, I noticed he was anxious and fidgety throughout the exam.

I shifted in my seat as the dentist finished his exam, smiled at Thomas, patted him on the shoulder and said, “Great job, Thomas. No cavities.”

To which my sweet sensitive boy said, “Yeeeeaaahhh! Now my mom can get her bladder removed”

I felt my face grow warm and I quickly explained, “He meant Gall Bladder. I am having my Gall Bladder removed. My Bladder is just fine.”

Our Dentist turned to Thomas and said, “Buddy, you don’t need to worry because Gall Bladder surgery is really easy and your mom will be fine.”

To which Thomas replied, “I know that. I’m just happy that we can afford her surgery so she can feel better.”

My heart split wide open. What in the hell are you supposed to say to that? This sensitive boy of mine fidgeted with sweaty palms during a 15 minute dental exam, worried to death that cavities would mean that his mother would not be able to have surgery.  You know what? If the dentist had told me there were cavities, I would have put off my surgery for another five years in order to pay for Thomas’s sweet little baby teeth to be saved for another year or two, and that is exactly what I said to him. It shook me to my core.

A few weeks after my surgery, I took Thomas shopping for sneakers at a local sporting goods store. We found several pairs of sneakers and I asked him which pair he liked the best. He paused for a second, took a closer look at the price tags and said, “Let’s get these blue and black ones because they are cheaper. I don’t need those expensive shoes.”

So I, kissed him on the head, ruffled his hair and told him he made a wise choice. The next day, I went out and bought him two more pairs of shoes, some really cool Converse All star high tops and a pair of hiking shoes, Booyah!

Some days, I feel really guilty about the sacrifices my children have to make. Some days I secretly covet the moms in the PTA that are wearing expensive leather Frye boots and designer jeans. Some days I snap at my husband when the issue of money comes up.  Some days Mark rolls his eyes at his high school students who drive to school in their BMWs and expensive SUVs while he parks his 10 year old Saturn sedan. Some days I hate my tiny little house and want to scream because we are busting at the seams and need more space. And some days, like the day Thomas chose the cheaper sneakers, I realize that I am doing just fine.

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