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Two years ago, after I’d recently started a new job doing administrative work for a home builder, my 14-year-old niece came to stay with me in Houston.
I had been laid off eight months earlier and accumulated a significant amount of debt while I was out of work. I only had a small amount in savings at the time (around $400), and while I was receiving unemployment checks, it wasn’t enough to keep up with my car payments, credit card bills, rent and all my other expenses. I also made a huge mistake: I cashed out my 401(k) from my previous job.
I was just starting to get back on track when Korin, my niece, came to visit from Pennsylvania, where she lived with my older sister. Korin and my sister had lived in Houston when Korin was younger, and we were very close: We all lived with my mother, and I helped out a lot with Korin. But a few years back, my sister moved Korin to be with a man … which quickly didn’t pan out.
They stayed in Pennsylvania, though. Talking to Korin on the phone was difficult -- my sister wouldn’t really let her speak to me on the phone alone. She was always there, telling Korin not to say this or not to talk about that. A few times, Korin said that they didn’t have enough money for food -- but my sister would always get on the phone immediately to brush off Korin’s comment and accuse her of exaggerating. As Korin was a child, it was easy for me not to take her comments too seriously and actually believe that she was stretching the truth.
Prior to the visit, though, Korin was texting me and emailing me all the time to say how excited she was to come to Houston. I had said she could stay for as long as she wanted. My sister was uncomfortable: She didn’t want her there for longer than two weeks or so, but Korin was insistent on a longer visit.
Korin’s Arrival in Houston
Soon after Korin arrived, I noticed her limping. She said she had a cut on her foot, so I took a look … and was shocked. Her foot was severely infected, due to a massive splinter.
Instead of taking her to the doctor, Korin told me, her mom had brushed it off -- she kept telling her to put a Band-Aid on it. As soon as I looked at her foot, I called my sister, furious. I asked if she had seen Korin’s foot, and she said yes. I asked how she could ignore a wound that big … She said she’d taken Korin to a doctor, and that it wasn’t a big deal. Meanwhile, Korin told me she had never seen the doctor. By this point, I was starting to really worry.
Immediately, my mother and I called the orthopedic surgeon who had performed foot surgery on my mother a few years back to take a look at Korin’s foot. There was a huge splinter caught in her foot that he had to surgically remove: The piece of wood was the size of his middle finger, and he said she could have lost her foot if the splinter had been ignored much longer. We were lucky that we were able to deal with it when we were … but the whole experience set off alarms that something was seriously off with my sister.
The Situation With Korin and Her Mother
More stories about Korin’s life in Pennsylvania started to come out. Apparently my sister had her new boyfriend move in with her about six months ago -- a boyfriend we had never even heard about! He was verbally abusive to Korin, frequently taunting her. One day, she came home after school with a friend -- and he had locked her out of the house. He wouldn’t let her in, so Korin called her mother. At this point, the boyfriend came out of the house, yelling at her and telling her friend to leave. Then, he pushed her off the porch … and Korin fell down the concrete stairs. Luckily, she was able to catch herself about five steps down, and there were no major injuries.
The most shocking thing about this whole scenario, to me, was how little I knew the woman my sister had become. She and I were raised by a single mother, and we used to do volunteer work at a women’s center in Houston, helping battered and abused women. I couldn’t believe that my sister would put herself -- and an innocent child -- in this situation.
I wanted to strangle her. “Who are you?” I wanted to scream. “Who does this to a child?” I was horrified … but now, my sister’s controlling behavior with Korin on the phone was starting to make more sense.
What Happened Next
One day after I got home from work, Korin told my mother and I that she needed to talk. We sat down, and she immediately started to cry. “I don’t want to go back,” she sobbed. After hearing everything I’d heard, I made a decision: My niece didn’t need to go back to a situation like that … she could stay with me indefinitely.
In the next few days, my mother and I talked over the details. I would move to a bigger home (I was currently renting a one-bedroom apartment), and Korin would move in with me. We planned to look at foreclosures that would be affordable given my budget. My mother also lives in Houston, so she would be nearby for support.
On the night we called my sister to discuss our plan, she was having a party. She took the phone to a quieter room, and the three of us sat around together to talk on speakerphone. When Korin said she wasn’t going to come back to Pennsylvania, my sister’s first response was “Why?” Korin started to cry: “You know why, Mom,” she said, and my sister lost her temper.
“How could you do this to me right now?” she yelled. Then said she couldn’t talk any longer, because of the party.
After that call, there were emails back and forth between me and my sister. She accused me of stealing Korin and trying to brainwash her. But for all her talk, there was no effort by her to come and get Korin and bring her back to Pennsylvania … so Korin stayed.
Getting Settled as a Family
I needed to find a new place to live -- and fast. Besides my current apartment being a one-bedroom rental, it was also in a not-so-hot school district. I wanted to find a new place to live in a better district before school started, so Korin wouldn’t have to transfer in the middle of the year, making her transition even more challenging.
As a 33-year-old woman, I felt like it was time for me to buy a home, rather than sinking more money into rentals. Plus, the market was so bad that there were tons of foreclosures available in my price range (I couldn’t pay more than $700 each month for my mortgage).
Finally, I found a three-bedroom home in an older neighborhood with a much better school district. My mother supplied the money for the down payment, which was about $10,000. Plus, my mom lives 15 minutes away, which is great. All of this happened in such a rush, I didn’t even have time to process all of it. I had to take Korin in and give her a better life, so I just started acting accordingly.
My Mother’s Help
The day after we moved in, Korin started 10th grade at her new school. Because she had only come to Texas with a single suitcase, we needed to buy her all new things. After she told her mom she wouldn’t be going back to Pennsylvania, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend destroyed all her stuff, including trophies and sentimental jewelry, out of anger.
To help us settle in and buy the things Korin needed, my mother gave me a credit card to use, along with about $600 a month to help care for Korin.
I would use the card for my bills, or if I needed to buy new clothes or other things for Korin. One day, we were going over bills, and we started to map out all of the expenses that were going to come up for Korin: a car for transportation (once she got her license in a couple of years), insurance, senior pictures, after-school activities, etc.
All of a sudden, I could just see the stress on my mom’s face, and I could tell she was thinking, “I’m not going to get to retire …” It suddenly hit me that I wanted to be the one taking care of her, not relying on her for money. And I knew that I needed to start shouldering these bills myself.
My mother works as a tax comptroller for GE (often working up to 16 hours a day during tax season); she raised my sister and me by herself and attended night school for 10 years to finish her degree. She’s always supported us and never been able to just relax and enjoy herself. I want her to be able to save money to afford a peaceful retirement, without worrying about taking care of me and Korin.
So I resolved to get my finances in order -- fast.
My NEW Financial Picture
The first step was to get my credit card debt under control. During my unemployment, I had racked up a little over $11,000 on around seven cards. I started paying off the credit card with the highest interest rate first, and worked to consolidate my debts on 0% interest cards.
Pre-Korin, I never budgeted or saved much money. Now, to start paying off my debts faster, I brought my cable and Internet bills down, and compared electric companies to make sure I was getting the best price possible. I stopped going out with friends and doing things that cost money, like going to the movies. I also gave up luxuries like new clothes and getting my hair and nails done. With Korin in the picture, those things just don’t seem as important to me anymore.
I cut down my expenses by about $300 a month and am now able to put around $200 each month toward my credit card debt. All in all, I’ve paid off $5,000 in two years.
Where We Are, Two Years Later
Korin’s amazing. She’s the strongest and most resilient teenager I’ve ever met. When she was living with her mother, she was getting D’s and F’s at school, and now she’s getting A’s and B’s. Oh my God … The first day of school in Houston, I was so nervous for her! But she just held her head high, smiled and walked right into a brand-new school. I’ll never forget: She came home that first day and said, “I had the best day ever!” And I was just so, so, so relieved …
Now, she’s heavily involved in FFA, or the Future Farmers of America, through which she raises rabbits and chickens and does horticulture. She also works at a nearby garden center as a cashier.
Recently, she and my mother bought a used truck to get Korin to and from school, activities and her job; Korin is paying for half of it. Each time she receives a paycheck from her job or makes a sale of her animals, she uses a portion of the money to pay back my mom. One of the most important things to me is to teach her to be smart about her finances and to save money. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes I did, like charging too much on credit cards that she can’t pay off.
My Mother and I Are Now Closer Than Ever
Even though my mom and I were close before Korin came, I’ve learned so much more about her since then. She’s so wise and has taught me so much about raising a teenager. Her best lesson has been “Give support, no matter what.” She always says that the end goal is for your child to be happy, so you need to support them in whatever is going to make them happy.
Aside from the emotional stuff, she’s taught me so much about managing my money -- she’s an incredible role model. My mom’s always been a saver, and now that’s important to me as well. She also taught me how to keep a budget so I can see exactly where my money is going, and work toward paying off my debt.
Me … a Mom
A few months after Korin started school, she was hanging out with her friends, and she just turned to me, called me “Mom” and kept on talking. It was so natural … I was just floored! But then I realized, “Yup! That’s what I am!”
While I never had kids of my own, I now -- suddenly -- feel like a mom. I could never have imagined the immense feeling of pride I get when I see her walk in the door and or hear about her schoolwork or her animals. The amount of responsibility is incredible -- but it’s all worth it.
That said, it’s definitely been a major adjustment! My personal life has obviously changed in such significant ways in a very short period of time. I’ve dated one man since Korin came to live with me, and he started talking about his son, who’s right around Korin’s age. When I started talking about Korin, I realized how difficult a situation it was to explain to a stranger! Obviously, you don’t want to tell someone your whole family history on a first date …
But as time has gone by, I’ve really embraced my new role. Now, all that matters to me is Korin’s well-being. Little things like what I wear or how I look doesn’t seem as important anymore. Growing up financially is just one benefit to having her in my life. The first time I received a “Mother’s Day” card -- now, that’s what makes all of this worth it.
As told to Gabrielle Karol.
Reprinted with permission from LearnVest. LearnVest is the leading personal finance site for women. Need help managing your money? Our free Money Center will help you create a budget. Our free bootcamps will help you take control of your money, cut your costs or get out of debt. And our premium financial plans -- managed by LearnVest Certified Financial Planners--can help you chart a course for the future you want.
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