The (sorta) poor relation.

th1 The (sorta) poor relation. Several times during this visit I’ve tried to pay for things but my daughter wouldn’t hear of it. At one point she noted that she now makes considerably more than I do, thanks to my recent economic downturn

She wasn’t snide or condescending, but rather expressing a “so glad I can help you for a change” vibe. When I thanked them today for buying me lunch out Abby’s response was, “Thank you for cooking and cleaning.”

Having my daughter pay for groceries or meals out while I’ve been here feels weird. Sure, it’s a cheap price for a maid and cook, and I know she really can afford it due to her own awesome budgeting and frugal-hacking skills.

Oh, and her salary, which is now larger than mine.

For years I’ve been the one who helped, even when I could barely afford to do so. Now I’m the one who gets helped.

Then again, that was my choice.

As noted in “Time is something we can’t do over,” not rushing to replace my previous income level was a deliberate decision:

“(After) years of frantic busy-ness, of being afraid to say ‘no’ because an opportunity might never come again, I’m calling a temporary halt.

“From now on I want to plan my days rather than merely react to them. … When it comes to time we are allowed no do-overs. But we can try to do better with such time as we’re given.”

Making that choice meant accepting a much lighter purse, at least for a while. Since this part was voluntary, I don’t get to whine about it. Not even a little bit.

Back on frugal lockdown

It’s not that I’m broke. Far from it: I have enough guaranteed freelance revenue to cover basics expenses and a little more. In fact, a new gig just popped up: one article a month at a very decent pay rate. (No longer will I undervalue my work.)

But that’s nowhere near what I was making at MSN Money, so I’m back on frugal lockdown.

These days I don’t routinely spring for a fun daily deal or social buying voucher that I think would be great for my daughter or my nephews. (Or for me.)

When a discount gift card website notifies me that cards on my wish list are available, I almost always delete the e-mail. In the past I’d regularly buy either for myself or for Abby and Tim.

While shopping, I keep reminding myself of what I don’t need, e.g., instead of buying treats for my nephews I should just stick with the usual Café Awesome menu.

A touch of shame

At no point have Abby and Tim been anything but gracious. And in my own overly panicky defense I’d like to note that I’ve contributed in several ways other than cleaning and cooking:

But I’m flashing back on a 1990s visit to my mother. She’d been unemployed for years and wasn’t old enough to draw Social Security. During one trip I proposed lunch and a movie – my treat.

Mom fussed about it, saying we could eat at home and then go to the movie, or maybe not even go to the movie at all. I insisted, gently, since she rarely got out of the house for anything except a trip to the store.

We had fun yet I could sense low-level stress the entire time. Looking back, I think it was not stress but shame. Mom was embarrassed that she couldn’t afford to treat me.

Now I get it. Boy, do I.

Picking my spots

That said, the need to cut costs has been a fine reality check. It wasn’t that I’d become a complete spendthrift, but I sure had become accustomed to the small luxuries noted above.

When I wrote “Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year” for MSN Money seven years ago, I was living a bare-bones lifestyle because I had to do so. Now I’m cutting back on spending because I choose to do so.

By no stretch of the imagination could my current situation be called bare-bones: I’ve got plenty to eat, no consumer debt, a loving partner with whom to share expenses and as much work as I want to take on.

I also have the option of picking my spots. Saving where I can lets me spend where I want – say, on a trip to Phoenix – and the decision to take on less work for a while has meant I could swing a trip that’s considerably longer (and sadder) than usual.

If the reduced income bothers me sufficiently then I’ll do something about it. Until then, I’ll see what I can learn from where I am right now. Think of it as a refresher course on frugal living — and no whining allowed.

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29 Comments

  1. Hmmmm….. I do have similiar situation…with my folks. They are getting up there and the pair have a host of medical and financial challenges. And I have become more and more involved in their daily lives making sure they are taken care of. My DM every once in a while will insist on paying for something…maybe a meal….maybe a $20 phone top up card. At first I fought them on this and explained though not wealthy I could afford these things. But they explained that it gave them great comfort to do this as I do a lot for them. So I accept these as “gifts”…tokens of their appreciation. It is hard to get used to…. but feel in the grand scheme if this makes them feel good and boost their self esteem…so be it…Though the roles are reversed…very similiar to you and DD. Perhaps Abby’s way of letting you know she appreciattes everything you have done/do for her and Tim…

    • Donna Freedman

      Re the last line of your comment: I think that’s it, exactly. Just as I wanted to get my mom out for a rare treat, Abby wants to offer up a little payback. As a parent, you know that the hope of payback is not why we do things for our kids. (Well, it’s not why some of us do it.) Although it feels a little odd, I’m pleased that (a) she’s no longer in dire straits and (b) she does feel that sense of caring obligation.

      • Donna, I think you are brave by choosing a life of frugality to have your time back. You have obviously given a lot to your daughter for your relationship to be so strong and her so generous. We all go through ups and downs with money. I think you and your daughter are both rich in what matters, which is what we write about at Diamond-Cut Life.

  2. Our first visit after our son started his career after graduation, he bought lunch one day. We let him and thanked him. He said we’d been providing for him for 23 years and it was time he treated us. Usually every visit, he picks up the check at least once and I know he was very proud, especially that first time, to be able to do that. More recently I have taken over my mom’s finances, making sure she always has plenty of cash for whatever she wants. I started buying our lunches out but somewhat frequently she pays. At first I felt bad using her money, but now realize that she doesn’t want to feel like she can’t do that anymore. And she can easily afford it. So now, any time she wants to pay, I let her.

    • Donna Freedman

      Good compromise — you’re not insulting your mom by denying her wishes. And it sounds like you raised your son right.

  3. This is a good article, thanks! I’m looking at it from the daughter’s point of view, because that is what I relate to.

    I am very fortunate to live closely to my parents. Whenever we go anywhere or do anything, they drive, they pay, no matter what I say.

    In December, I took my mom to a really fancy restaurant for a High Tea afternoon. It was lovely and we had a really good time until the bill came when she insisted on leaving the tip. I didn’t want to argue in the restaurant, but in the car I told her that I was very disapointed that she wouldn’t let the afternoon be my treat, which was my original intention.

    I think that parents are so used to taking care of their children that they forget that we might be adults now! I wish that I could figure out how to let my parents know that I want to take my turn now and again.

    Any tips you could provide from the parent’s point of view?

    (For the record, I’m 47, and not some young thing fresh out of college. I’m gainfully employed, in good control of my spending and savings and socking away money for my retirement on a regular basis. )

    Thank you for your column, as always. I always enjoy reading it and thinking about what you say afterwards and how I can apply it to my life.

    • Donna Freedman

      From this parent’s point of view, I always wanted to treat my daughter because her financial situation was dire; she was on disability for a while and living well below the poverty level.
      These days she’s doing much better because she found a job she can do at home. So yes, now I don’t have to treat her but I still want to do it. In part that’s because she’s playing catch-up with retirement planning and I figure any dollars I can help save them are dollars that can go toward future financial goals. (Or a massage, maybe.)
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  4. I enjoy an occasional treat from the kids that can afford it (not all can do it yet). It shows me, as a parent, that I have taught well and they take pleasure in treating us. Every now and then we go out as a family (10 or more) and my husband takes care of the event, including the tip.
    I enjoy you sharing your thoughts and the responses from other readers. Seems we are in good company!

  5. I’ve enjoyed your column for awhile; thank you so much for sharing. I had this issue with my parents, who NEVER let me pay. I finally gave up, but was shocked after my father died to realize how much credit card debt they had (over $50,000); fortunately my mother was extremely frugal & got the debts cleared with a superhuman effort in four years with a modest pension & Social Security.

    With my own children & step-children the situation is more fluid; we seem to be working it out as we go.

    Thanks again for working.

  6. ok I goofed. The last word in that last comment should be sharing! I thought I proofread, but obviously I missed something.

  7. Full circle. I love how life gives us different perceptions. That’s the gift in it.
    We could all use a refresher course. I’m working on it. DJ’s car still has the check engine light on after $500 spent. My van has been recalled and the check engine light is on. Den’s windshield is cracked. Sigh. I’m cutting corners but the cars aren’t with me on this one. But the good news is I have been frugal for so long that I have a cushion. I just don’t like parting with it.

    • Donna Freedman

      I’m with you on the cushion, and the not wanting to part with it. And thanks, friend, for the insight about perceptions and gifts.

  8. lake livin'

    How wonderful that your lifestyle choices have enabled you the freedom to now slow down and cherry pick your assignments. Enjoy this time of transition.

  9. Well done to Abby. It is very good to see her doing so well financially especially after some of the blows life has dealt her. I am sure it feels wonderful for her to be able to treat her mom.

    I would love to get to the stage you are at Donna, where I didn’t have to work so hard and I had more choice in the number of hours I worked(as a teacher). Your story is so inspiring and I hope to get to the place you are financially one day. I still have a son in college and a largish mortgage. I have though started to build some savings( though still quite modest) and articles such as yours give me great hope and encouragement.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks, Ash. But can teachers choose to work fewer hours? It would seem to me that your workdays would be pretty proscribed. Then again, I don’t know much about the educational system in your country.
      I hope you move closer to your goals in 2014. In fact, I wish that for everyone.

  10. When my mom would visit, she always put up a fuss at a restaurant over paying the whole bill. I understood it, even then. But when our oldest son got a job and she came to visit, he told her emphatically that HE was treating the whole family to the meal with no arguments allowed. She was (and still is) so proud of him for that. I’d told my sons, you see, that once I was working part time while going to school, I started getting “Santa” gifts to sneak under the tree for my mom. I imagine she was proud of me, too.

  11. It’s always nice when children are able to repay their parents in small ways. Whenever I go to visit my mom, I always take her out to this one restaurant and we sit and talk for an hour or two about life. It makes me happy to be able to pay for dinner and show her that I am all grown up and can do this for her for all she did for me throughout my life.

  12. I often think along about this when grumbling about my Dad not telling me when he needs a hand with something or when he balked me at every step of the way during wedding planning. It all finally came out at the end, that which I really knew instinctively: he was insisting on slavish adherence to family traditions to cover his shame of not being able to “give” me a wedding, failing to fulfill what is culturally considered the final responsibility of a parent. I understand his difficulty, particularly when it comes from the same sense of shame that I share for not having done better to take care of Mom, even as it complicated things but at the same time…

    As the daughter in the position of providing for a parent, I hope you remember that at a certain point, your presence and wisdom are priceless, and well worth the cost of a few meals. There’s nothing I wouldn’t have done to take care of my parents, no matter how little I was able to do at the time, and it would only have made my life easier if they cooperated. ;) and no matter how much I’ve paid, I would have considered myself well repaid for each day I got to spend with them.

    • Donna Freedman

      Unmet traditions — that’s one real mean monkey, and your dad just couldn’t get it of his back. Your parents were lucky to have a daughter who felt privileged to care for them even though they weren’t all that cooperative. Some kids would have just walked away.
      And I felt grateful to be here to do what I could. I sure miss my own mom, especially at times like this.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  13. Certainly I can relate. I’m now a widow on a small pension and social security with a still partially dependent twenty something college student. This Christmas I actually apologized to my adult children for not going as all out (which is not really all out) as I usually do. My daughter who is thirty something reminded me that she did not need “stuff”…..and that her salary in the restaurant giz is certainly more than mine.

    I understand your dilmena, but I would say that it has put us on a more equal footing in other areas. and thats a good thing.

    • Donna Freedman

      Agreed! It’s good that our adult offspring aren’t monsters of acquisition.
      As for the holidays, nearly all my presents were gift cards (AMC theaters, Cracker Barrel, Old Navy, Gamestop, Visa) that I obtained free from rewards programs. I did get my son-in-law a “365 of the Stupidest Things Ever Said” calendar (with a 60% off coupon at Jo-Ann Fabrics), and they’re getting a kick out of the daily giggle. My daughter got a couple of books (“The Archivist,” “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties” — one found in the library’s giveaway bin, the other given to me at an airport by a traveler who’d finished and didn’t want to carry it home) and a few items for her stocking that I got free after rebate at Walgreens or picked up at a conference I attended last year.
      Overall it was a nice collection of presents that didn’t wreck my budget and which won’t hang around as clutter. (Abby will donate the books once she’s read them.)

  14. Growing up I remember watching my mom with my grandmother (her mom). When my nana would visit, she would insist on paying for something – and my mom would say “no, mom!” – and then there would be this awkward shuffling as my grandmother waved money or a cheque at my mom, until my mom either gave in, or until my grandmother either tucked it into my mom’s purse, pocket, or gave it to a grandchild. She was sneaky, was my nana :)

    So I think when the time came that my brothers and I were able to pay for things – my mom remembered how *she* had felt with her mom, and decided to embrace it as a sign that she had done okay raising us, and that we were achieving success in life – and to take it as a good thing.

    For myself, I remember when I was able to come home and visit with my mom, and to take her out for lunch. It was an amazing feeling – to finally be able to do for her, what she had done for us kids for so long! And I remember my mom telling me a few years later, when my younger brother did the same thing – how proud she was of *him* that he was so happy to be able to do it for her.

  15. Ro in San Diego

    No matter when I read your articles, there’s always something that hits home with me.

    I am sandwiched between elderly mother and mother-in-law who are not in good financial shape, and my kiddo who will hardly allow us to help him financially at all. We pay his airfare home and his expenses while he stays with us.

    During the school year he has shouldered many of the expenses we used to pay for him as an undergraduate.

    As an undergrad, he worked himself nearly to the point of exhaustion to pass the tests that qualified him for his paid grad school “assistantship”. (A certain GRE score made him very attractive to the large number of schools which courted him). He has been living on his own with a roommate in a nice apartment near the school. He has a car. He pays his car, rental, and medical insurance and all related costs.

    It’s his way of thanking us for supporting him all these years.

  16. I understand how you feel! But I also think that not all help in the family economy has to be monetary. Or directly so. My daughter has cut my hair and her brother’s hair (dad has no hair) for many years. That’s probably saved the “family economy” hundreds of dollars, even though no money has changed hands. Your presence is, of course, priceless.

    • Donna Freedman

      I agree about the “family economy.” My dad and brother help various relatives with remodeling chores, knowing they can call on those relations for help with their own projects. Whenever I visit my father he has some chore or another that I can help do:
      http://donnafreedman.com/2011/09/04/the-value-of-work/
      I watch my niece’s kids sometimes (for free); she sometimes takes iPhone pictures for this site, and she and her boys labored mightily to help us split and stack firewood:
      http://donnafreedman.com/2013/07/29/i-fought-the-log-and-the-log-won/
      As for haircuts, DF does his own with a Flowbee; he cut his own kids’ hair until they were old enough to rebel. He’s also offered to cut mine but, um, no.

  17. Been thinking both about your blog post and the comments… all good thoughts! Just wondering if maybe it’d be a good idea (for us all) to remove any ranking system from our minds/attitudes. Grown up kids (if parents have done their jobs) can pop for an affordable splurge from time to time without wondering if mom/dad is going to feel weird. And vice versa. It really ought not to be about comparing annual salaries, ages, stages of life, etc. Maybe?

  18. Vicky Fox

    Well said Donna, well said.

    My best friend I’ve known since i was 17 is FINALLY learning not to have to walk on eggshells every time we do something for each other. I’m so glad that we are back seeing each other every week, or when we can.
    This time when I was sick, she made me a pot of soup, and then left quickly so she wouldn’t get the bug I had. Ha :)

    It’s ok to let others help, but more importantly to relationships to stop counting or keepin an ” I did this for you ” list. We all do what we can and are able. We just need to learn to appreciate more.

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