Growing Up In A Single-Parent Household Taught Me More About Money Than Any Book Could

By Alicia B. Gettys
Courtesy of Alicia B. Gettys

There are a lot of things I owe my mom; she gave me the determination to get my degree, the strength to endure anything that was thrown at me, and the love that she instilled in me from my childhood. However, one thing that wasn’t part of my childhood was discussing money and budgeting.

Coming from a single parent household with two sisters, I knew in my teen years that money, or the lack thereof, was an issue. It wasn’t abnormal for lights to get cut off for days at a time, or to go without hot water until we could afford to pay the gas bill. Me getting a job at 16 years old to help my mom with bills wasn’t something that we sat down to talk about — I just knew I wanted to help in any way that I could. I also knew that when I decided to go off to college, I would be on my own financially. Once again, that fact wasn’t openly discussed between me and my mom, but I knew it would be impossible for her to support two different households. So when my first fall semester rolled around at age 17, I was officially financially independent — whether or not I was ready.

Some people say college is where you go to find yourself, and I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, while finding myself, I also had to worry about small things that most college students take for granted; gas for my car, car insurance, my cell phone bill, and health insurance were all bills that I knew I was solely responsible for. A typical semester for me included 15 to 17 credit hours of classes, 10 to 15 hours per week of my work study program, and 20 to 30 hours per week at my part-time job, plus waitressing during home football games during the fall semesters. Because I had classes during the day, I worked at night which meant that as a result, things like going to parties and dinners with friends were things I’d have to miss out on.

Courtesy of Alicia B. Gettys

Then in the midst of my new financial independence, I started receiving credit card offers. I began to apply for these cards, but I’d never had a conversation about my personal finances, and I had no clue about how to be wise when it comes to credit cards and my credit score. In the span of 48 months, I’d opened over 10 credit cards and by the time I graduated college, I’d amassed over $10,000 in credit card debt. It was around that time that I realized no one was going to help teach me about money and budgeting, so it was time I learned for myself.

After years of studying to earn my degree, I began to read and study financial books for my own personal education. I read any article I could find on finances and financial literacy. I found a spreadsheet template for creating a budget and customized it to fit my financial situation. I adopted a program that helped me save $1,000, and then I became aggressive with paying down my massive credit card debt.

A couple years after graduation, I got engaged to my now-husband and I knew I didn’t want to bring that debt into my marriage. While planning for our wedding, we had the conversation of money and joining our accounts. During that conversation, we also discussed our debt – him having little to none with the exception of typical student loan debt and me having to admit the amount of credit card debt in my name. He knew I’d been on my own financially, and he understood but still wanted me to be aggressive in paying down that debt. We knew we wanted to buy a house before or shortly after getting married and I knew this credit card debt could be one of the major reasons why we could possibly get declined for a mortgage. After he and I moved in together (an apartment where he was paying the bulk of the rent for us), I was able to rework my budget to devote a bigger chunk of money to paying down credit cards since we were splitting the rent and bills in our new place. Any bonus I got at work went straight to debt. I wasn’t living like a hermit crab and not enjoying life or traveling, but I was treating my budget like my bible. If my entertainment fund for the month was gone, there was no going out for me for the rest of the month. I didn’t borrow funds from my travel, entertainment, or emergency accounts to help another, and if something needed to be paid, it was paid in cash. Six months before our wedding, I was officially debt free and I began to shift my focus from getting out of debt to setting my family up for financial success.

Courtesy of Alicia B Gettys

That was five years ago and I can truly say that I’m more comfortable with money and finances than I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve realized that being financially independent isn’t about bringing in a seven-figure salary, but is more about being knowledgeable with the money and resources you currently have. Though there are some areas where I feel I could do better (I’ll admit it: I still shop impulsively.), I know that it’s always going to be a learning process and I’m OK with that.

I have a career in the finance and accounting industry, and that plays a big role in my money knowledge. I’m in charge of the finances in my household. My husband and I list our travel goals each year, and I create a budget for us to be able to afford and pay for those travel trips. Because I’ve worked to get myself into a better financial situation, I’m also able to help my mom financially and that’s one of the biggest things I wanted to accomplish: to be able to show my mom gratitude for all the things she gave to me and sacrificed for me.

One of the best takeaways I’ve learned over the past 10 years is that open conversations about money are important. I have a group of girlfriends who I can be honest with, and we talk about everything from salary negotiations to investment ideas. We’re all from different walks of life and have different financial situations, but creating this open dialogue helps us create a new kind of normal, and that’s something we can pass on to our children — and it’s also something my 17-year-old self would thank me for.

This post is sponsored by Visa.