Everyone has their version of a financial monster that keeps them up at night, causes stress and even drives them to make bad money choices. I’m certain you are familiar with this monster and how it triggers your deepest anxieties and fears. Perhaps you agonize over the decision to foreclose on your house. Maybe you can’t keep up with your credit card debt, or fear you don’t have enough money saved.
For my dad, his biggest fear was having bad credit. The decisions he made were a result of his anxiety and fear — it ended up costing him a home and created unnecessary strain on his closest relationships, namely, me.
This is the story of my dad, a hardworking guy who, like many Americans, experienced some mishaps that were beyond his control, and allowed the financial boogeyman to terrorize him.
My dad’s boogeyman
My dad’s fears about money started early. His family was poor and I remember him telling me had to do chores around the neighborhood to pay for his own school supplies for grade school because his parents couldn’t afford them.
He dropped out before high school to support his mother and siblings full time after his father left. Having to be the sole breadwinner so young created an enormous sense of financial pressure that carried over into his adult life. My dad worked hard to create a steady financial environment for our family, which meant keeping up with bills and always being ever so watchful on his credit score. He was proud of the fact that he had good credit.
In the 1980s, my parents divorced, and unfortunately, my dad had to declare bankruptcy.
Life was good for my dad, and he was living the American Dream. He owned a home, remarried and had a steady job as the head of maintenance for a large department store chain.
Falling back on credit cards
One day at work, my dad took an accidental fall. He injured his knee and needed surgery, but worker’s compensation was dragging its feet on paying up. My dad hired a lawyer and after a lot of back and forth, finally agreed to a settlement… a year and a half later. By this time, he’d suffered so much nerve damage that he couldn’t work anymore, despite getting the surgery.
This is when things got sticky. The settlement money was running out and my dad applied for disability, but didn’t know it would take years before he would see any checks come his way. My stepmom was only working part time and they quickly spent what was saved in their meager emergency fund.
Like so many other Americans who find themselves in the same situation, he chose to rely on credit cards to fill the gap.
The never-ending cycle of fear
He used credit cards to pay the bills so the lights would stay on and the mortgage was paid, but dealing with enormous credit card payments were rough. Any cash they had coming in went to paying the credit card company. He refused to sell the house or default on the cards, which were steadily getting more expensive to maintain.
My stepmother, feeling frustrated with the downward spiral their finances were taking, left and moved to another state.
I repeatedly pleaded with him to consider declaring bankruptcy on the cards, but he made it clear that he wasn’t willing to destroy his credit score again.
Aside from hurting his credit, I knew he was also afraid of losing the home that he’d worked so hard for. Having to sell it or see it end up on the foreclosure auction block would have been a source of deep shame and embarrassment.
Eventually, he also started taking cash advances from his credit cards to deposit into his bank account. He told me that he had $18,000 in available credit on one of his cards, and planned to use the whole amount. The money was used to buy groceries and put gas in the car.
He resorted to using cash advances because he thought that once his disability was approved, he’d get a big check, plus with his regular monthly benefits he’d have no trouble wiping out the debt.
Well, that didn’t happen and the minimums on his credit cards had ballooned up to $500 a month. Ironically, he used the money from his cash advances to pay the cards, and kept up this pointless juggling dance for a year, in order to protect his credit. Then, he finally gave up.
He was bitter, but his credit score was still great
I don’t know what caused him to throw in the towel, but he decided to sell the house and reconciled with my stepmom. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he finally heard what I had been telling him all along. Maybe he was afraid of being alone.
I think he was more afraid of facing foreclosure and what that would mean to his credit. Selling the house was the only option that didn’t involve ruining his credit score.
Leaving that house behind was one of the most bitter moments of his life. Had he just declared bankruptcy on the cards and removed that monthly financial burden, he might have had a better shot at hanging on to the house.
I know that declaring bankruptcy shouldn’t be taken lightly, and believe me, I didn’t see it as the answer to his problems. What I did see, however, was the emotional and physical toll it was taking on my dad to keep up with the payments, and I felt it was the right move to make so that he would at least not have to sell the house.
About six months after he sold the house, he finally began receiving regular disability payments.
A good chunk of his benefits are used to pay down the thousands in credit card debt he still owes. Amazingly, though, his credit score is still just as good as it ever was, and I’m willing to bet that my dad probably feels it was all worth it, since his credit score is still in tact.
The financial boogeyman is generational
For years, I watched my dad make poor money decisions motivated by fear and to some extent, his stubbornness about credit. I didn’t want this for myself or my children, so I decided I needed to face my fears.
Because my dad didn’t have a lot saved, I knew I absolutely needed to save. I was in constant fear that something bad would happen and ruin me financially, and it was awful. I did not want to live in constant fear and anxiety, like my dad.
Facing my fears
I realized that fear often perpetuates fear, so I forced myself to think realistically about what I would do if something bad did happen.
I imagined fearful scenarios, like losing my job. If this happened, I had some options — I have a retirement fund and a CD I could tap in to… if I couldn’t afford to keep my apartment I could stay with my mom… if I was injured and in the hospital, I have health insurance and an HSA (health savings account). As I painted this picture, it helped lessen the fear.
I also started keeping track of my money habits, and why I make certain decisions. Tracking my spending helped me to separate my needs from wants, and choices I was making based on how I was feeling.
I’ve become more conscious of allowing my fear, sadness, shame, or happiness to provoke money decisions and to shape faulty money mantras, like my dad’s devotion to maintain his good credit. All of this takes time, but I think I’m slowly getting there.