I’m a pretty resilient person. I’ve overcome a lot of odds and obstacles to be the functioning human being that is before you today. Because of this, there’s not a whole lot left in the world that gives me anxiety, outside of the occasional promising first date.
Money, however, will always have a stranglehold on me. Logging in to check my bank account balance has always been an exercise in mindfulness. Just breathe and click “login.”
Growing up relatively poor means I never was taught how to budget a checkbook because we were lucky if the bank account ever had enough to bother budgeting. My mother filed for bankruptcy more times than I can keep track of, and my abusive step-father’s untreated bipolar-fueled, manic spending sprees often left my mom with very little to budget anyway. Have you ever had coffee creamer mixed with water on corn flakes because your mom can’t afford milk? I have. I don’t recommend it. Really creative on her part though, so thanks mom!
In addition to inheriting my mother’s lack of financial prowess, I also inherited her taste in men.
I’ve had a few of those relationships that treaded the waters of “Is this an abusive relationship, really? He doesn’t (usually) get physical with me.” One of the most abusive relationships was one I fell into around the age of 17. I already left home at this point because my family literally could not afford me and was living on a friend’s porch in the middle of a Buffalo winter.
Shortly after moving to Buffalo, I met this guy who was nice at first, but didn’t stay that way. When I turned 18, I received a large sum of money (only $5,000… it seemed large at the time) from a car accident settlement.
When I received the check, I was having a hard time getting a bank account. At the time I was unofficially living with him because like I mentioned, my home was a porch. I had no proof of address, which is required to get a bank account. He refused to give me any proof that I was staying with him (a simple notarized letter would have sufficed). He told me we weren’t serious enough for that sort of thing and he wasn’t sure how he felt about me, but he’d happily let me sign the check over to him, and he’d make sure my money was safe.
Somehow, at the time, it seemed like a good option.
So I signed my check over to him. He spent all of it over the course of a summer. Some of it was eventually spent on some joint ventures; we got an apartment together that he choose in the neighborhood he wanted away from all of my friends. It was all I had to live on, but fortunately he decided what I ate and what I wore, so at the least those things were supplied, I guess.
When we moved in together, he decided we should put all of the utilities in my name. Electricity, gas, cable, Internet. He also decided we shouldn’t pay those bills. Those friends one has to convince you not to make such stupid decisions? He didn’t like any of mine, so I didn’t have any.
He was several years older than me, and I thought he was experienced. I trusted him to make the right decisions for me, and it didn’t hurt that he convinced me I was incapable of doing that for myself. So for the entire year and a half we lived together, we didn’t pay bills.
It wasn’t like we couldn’t afford it; he worked pretty regularly and I did too, when he let me. I never held a job longer than a few weeks because he would eventually convince me I needed to quit it. Then I would have a month or so completely dependent on him financially.
When I was working, checks were always deposited into his account that I had no debit card for, no pin numbers for. I spent a lot of my time avoiding calls from debt collectors and setting up payment plans to avoid having our utilities shut off. I thought about leaving a lot.
There were a number of reasons why leaving seemed like an impossible, the biggest of which was my financial dependence on him. I couldn’t ask my family for help. I no longer had any friends. And he had all of my money, and I had nowhere to go.
After two years, he broke things off. That’s the only good thing he’s ever done for me. I’ll always be grateful that I didn’t end up pregnant or somehow tied down to him, even though he tried. But even though we dated for only two years, his impact on my credit report has haunted me for the past 10 years.
A few days after we broke up, I tried to get a cell phone so I could start applying for jobs and start over -- but I couldn’t have one unless I offered up a $600 deposit, because of my completely wrecked credit.
Financial abuse isn’t always something we talk about, but it’s fairly common. Not only does it have a lasting effect on someone’s emotional life, but it has a very difficult to remove effect on their financial life. My ex managed to ruin my credit before I ever had any. Living in NYC with bad credit and no parents to act as a guarantor isn’t easy. Applying for loans has been impossible, and up until a year ago, I couldn’t even have my own cell phone plan without putting down a very expensive deposit.
One of the lowest points in my financial life happened when I was in college. I was about 22 years old, paying my own way through a SUNY school. I didn’t qualify for a lot of loans and fortunately financial aid and three part time jobs helped me get by okay.
Luckily, Buffalo rent was extremely cheap. I owed the electric company about $700 in back bills still leftover from the years before when I lived with my ex. I was on a payment plan, and it was going just fine until I forgot to pay one month.
While studying for my finals, a man showed up and threatened to turn off my electricity if I didn’t hand him a check for the entire balance. Not just some of it -- all of it. I knew there was maybe $20 in my account, but I wrote the check, hoping to buy myself some time, thinking the check would just bounce.
For some reason I will never understand, instead of bouncing the check, my bank cashed it. I am pretty sure I’ve never had $700 in my account ever before at that point, and they had bounced checks that were a lot less, so I don’t really get what algorithm let that one slide. Slowly my account drifted more and more into the red thanks to exorbitant overdraft fees, until I was well over 4 figures in debt and my measly salary of maybe $200 a week (that direct deposited straight to that financial sinkhole) wouldn’t get me out of it.
But I managed. I am totally fortunate that “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” mostly worked for me. I could easily serve as a poster child for upward social mobility at this point. I have a really good job, can afford my own studio apartment in Park Slope, and even brunch now and again. Traveling, for the first time in my life, doesn’t seem impossible.
I’d like to say I earned it all on my own, but I didn’t. I’ve had a lot of help to get myself to where I am. Not to imply I haven’t worked hard (believe me, I have), but I recognize not everyone will get as lucky as I have. Not everyone will have the same opportunities to get ahead.
It doesn't help that our system isn’t really designed for people to get ahead once they’ve been knocked down. While there are certainly people who are negligent with their finances, I feel like most people want to be good at working with their money. The credit system in particular is rather unforgiving. If you pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time, you can get things removed from your credit report. The average person, however, doesn’t really know how to do that, doesn’t have the financial means to pay someone to do that, and doesn’t have the time to do it themselves. I’ve tried to clean up my credit myself, and it’s really a time-consuming, exhausting and often emotional process.
Through both hard work and the 7-year statute of limitations on debt, I am now starting to have a financial life that matches the rest of my lifestyle: somewhat adult, still mostly precarious, and I am fearful everyday that something will come along and take it all away from me.
I recently qualified for my very first credit card with a $1,000 credit limit. I applied on a whim, not thinking I would qualify, and I almost cried when I was approved. I texted my closest friends, and my mood was instantly uplifted for days.
The credit limit is low, but the card symbolizes a lot for me. I don’t feel quite as much like I am living in the shadow of abuse anymore. Feels good, and it feels secure. Ridiculously expensive computer I need for work dies? I can replace it, and pay it off reasonably without scrambling to sell everything I own. Cats eat something weird? Yes, I no longer have to grovel at the vet so they will accept a postdated check! Emergency dental procedure my insurance doesn’t cover? A-ok! Rent a car? Well, I have to work on that learning to drive thing, but I at least have some of the requirements now!
A credit card doesn’t solve all of my financial woes. I still need to make sure I don’t max this thing out and go to crazytown on a ModCloth spree, which since receiving it has been tougher than I thought. But it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s a step I never thought I’d take in a million years. Here’s to being a reluctant adult!