This is for all the single moms out there so they will know they’re not alone, and for anyone who knows a single mom so they may understand better.
People say bad things come in threes, and when Baby Girl was fourteen in 2008, our trifecta of misfortune struck: My dad died, the economy tanked and my newspaper started forcing its employees to take a month off each year without pay to cut costs. Suddenly, I was bringing home just enough money to pay the bills – mortgage on our small house, car, phone – if you didn’t take into consideration things like groceries, gas, medical expenses and school activities. What that meant was, I was always behind, and, three days before payday, the bank account usually hovered at about $2.12, if it wasn’t negative.
On the surface, we looked like a perfectly respectable family. I’d even written a couple of books of regional history by that point, but royalty checks for those types of books often amounted to little more than change. We found ourselves on the lower rungs of lower middle class. But I was clinging to that rung by a fingernail and sometimes life wasn’t pretty.
See, when you have a household with two girls, there are some things that aren’t considered luxuries. You don’t know stress until you write a check you know will bounce so you can buy (whisper) female products. It’s not like it was a new blouse, a pack of off-brand cookies or even a frozen pizza for dinner. It was female products.
Then I’d scramble to try to cover the check until payday. I knew every grocery store in town that would let customers get cash back on a check. For instance, if I bought a $3 Lean Cuisine, I could write the check for $28 and get $25 in cash. Then I’d rush to the bank and deposit the $25.
I learned exactly how long it took each of those stores to cash my checks. There was one store where my checks didn’t clear my bank for three days so I would start writing checks there three days before payday. I’d get enough groceries to last a couple of days and start praying. And if I knew the check from one store would hit the bank before payday, I would write a check at another store and get $25 in cash and deposit it in the bank. Then, when payday finally came, I’d be as much as $100 in the hole when all those checks cleared.
I did this so often that Baby Girl knew the routine. It wasn’t until she was working and had her own checking account that she asked: “Isn’t that illegal?”
You betcha. I realized after years of doing it that it’s known as “kiting checks,” which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. It was the most stress I’d ever experienced. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we were destitute or didn’t have enough to eat. I’m just saying that for five or six years, it felt as if we were living on a wire without a net. I expected every single day to be the one I’d fall off.
And here’s where we get to the point I mentioned earlier (spoiler alert: moral ahead): Before things got to their worst, every now and then, when I’d get a tax refund or a little extra money from Nanna as a birthday or Christmas gift, Baby Girl and I would splurge. Maybe on a new pair of shoes or earrings, maybe dinner and a movie, maybe on an overnight trip to the mountains. On anything but paying one more bill. One thing I knew about life, the bills would always be there, waiting. When we did splurge, there were people who made judgments, like “If she’s struggling so much, how could she afford new shoes?” The answer was, I couldn’t. The answer was, they were right in their assumption I was making a poor financial decision.
But there’s always more to the story than others might realize. So if you find yourself judging someone who is using food stamps for milk and eggs at the grocery store, but paying cash for some ice cream (Or a lobster. Or six-pack of beer), remember someone may have treated that family for the night. And maybe they could really use a treat.
Epilogue: Eventually things got better. I got a great job. I no longer write checks. Baby Girl became an adult who, thankfully, doesn’t even know how to fill out a check. And then I found Sweetums. I still won’t be able to retire until I’m 87 but I consider myself lucky. And pretty dang rich.