At 16 years old, I never thought I would be thrilled to find a used mattress in a garbage can, but I was stoked.
My mom and I were walking by an apartment complex when we saw the mattress sticking out of a dumpster. We immediately tied the mattress haphazardly to the roof of our car and brought it home.
You might be wondering: Why would a disgusting, used mattress mean so much to us? Well, for those couple months, my five siblings and I slept in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. Our bed was the carpet, sandwiched between two blankets.
The sad reality is that—as a survivor of physical, emotional and financial abuse—my mom couldn’t afford the basic necessities. My siblings and I came together with our mom to try and better our lives.
Teenager that I was, I worked at a call center and a restaurant in addition to my normal high school schedule. I wanted to support myself and avoid being an additional financial burden on my mom.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but finding that mattress was a huge financial lesson, one I’d remember the rest of my life. I learned the true difference between a want and a need.
In fact, my entire upbringing taught me a great deal about money, family and myself.
For as long as I can remember, my parents worked hard building their own business. Neither of them had college degrees and my dad didn’t graduate from high school. The business was 24/7/365 and receiving calls at 2 AM was a normal part of the job. It was a lot of stress.
Unfortunately, the stress led my dad to poor coping mechanisms. He turned to drugs.
As a kid, I normalized the dysfunction. What started as bickering in my parents’ marriage progressed to physical altercations between my mom and dad. Around that time, the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship really started to show.
My siblings and I would quietly shut ourselves away in our rooms and continue playing with our toys while Mom and Dad fought. We’d try to pretend nothing was happening.
For years, my mom and my siblings would move in and out of the house every few months; meanwhile, the physical abuse escalated. My mom’s best friend sat her down and told her she had two options: stay in this situation and show her kids that abuse is all right, or leave the marriage and give her kids a safe home. That conversation gave her the courage to file for divorce, which can be difficult financially in addition to emotionally.
The night my mom left the relationship for good, she walked away with $110 in cash. She only had that much because she had been secretly stashing money away. Otherwise, her only other possession was a garbage bag stuffed with clothes for her, my 3-year-old sister and my 4-month-old brother.
She initially moved two hours away and lived in a women’s shelter with my two youngest siblings. That’s where she started getting counseling and emotional support. (During this time, I stayed at home with my dad.) The resources at the shelter helped my mom build up confidence and apply for jobs. A couple months later, she was hired by a hobby and craft store, with a starting wage of $7.25 per hour.
Years later, I’ve spoken with my mom at great length about what happened. I’ve asked, “If it was so bad, why did you stay married for 25 years?”
Basically, she felt stuck. It was an emotionally abusive relationship from the beginning and became physically abusive after about five years of marriage. After years of being called names, being told she was “worthless,” and my father having multiple affairs, she had no self-esteem. She was terrified and didn’t think she could manage on her own.
The other big reason she stayed in the marriage? She didn’t have access to money.
My parents had one bank account that was closely monitored by my father. My dad would grill my mom if there were any withdrawals. Most of the time she literally didn’t have access to money. As a stay-at-home mom, she didn’t have a job or a paycheck of her own. (As I learned later, stay-at-home moms need life insurance, too.)
If she had had money, she would have left the situation much earlier. But she didn’t. She felt trapped.
Understanding my mom’s plight—and living through financial extremes of my own—has changed the whole course of my life. It inspired me to build a financial coaching business to help people take control of their money and become financially independent.
How many of us are in situations we aren’t happy with because of money?
An abusive relationship may sound like an extreme scenario, but it’s not as uncommon as we would like to think. According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
(Important note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, here’s what you should know.)
Abuse aside, many of us find ourselves stuck in situations we aren’t happy about because of money. For example, many of us work jobs we don’t love and try to keep up with the Joneses. Or we end up carrying too much debt by buying cars, homes and material items in an effort to create a facade that we have our lives figured out.
Growing up in a dysfunctional home has taught me a lot, but these are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.
A college degree is by no means an assurance that you will be financially OK, but there are a lot of statistics that show how earning potential increases with higher levels of education. Maybe you learn about digital marketing and start consulting with businesses, or start that business you’ve always dreamed of.
When you educate yourself, you give yourself more choices. Part of me believes that if my parents had been educated and exposed to healthy relationships and new experiences, their lives could have been better. At the very least, my mom could’ve qualified for jobs that required a college degree. That would’ve enabled her to support herself on more than minimum wage.
I never would have thought that a mattress in the garbage would give me so much perspective! I humble myself with this memory anytime I catch myself saying I “need” something.
I recently went car shopping and found myself shopping from my wants list (leather heated seats, a sunroof and so on). By paring down my wants and focusing on my needs—a safe, reliable car that didn’t break the bank—I ended up saving several thousand dollars. Very few things I want to purchase are actually needs.
This is perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learn from my childhood. You make decisions differently when you aren’t stressed about money. You start to see that you have options.
When you have an emergency fund, you can survive if your company goes through layoffs. Most people feel an undeniable amount of security when they see money in the bank.
We all have difficult times that test our strength. The death of a loved one, growing up in a dysfunctional family or losing your job can feel like the end of the world. Life isn’t always fair. But those experiences can be used to help others as well.
I turned my dysfunctional childhood into a thriving business that’s helping educate women on why it’s so important to become financially independent. Your life experiences are what make you unique and relatable, and you can use them to help other people struggling through similar situations. Tough experiences can build you up and make you stronger, if you let them.
I truly hope these tips help you find the good in life, encourage you to take responsibility for your finances and use your own story to help others.
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Fabric by Gerber Life exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
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