The Money Tree

Preparing to move a child into a college dorm is like driving down the road and throwing perfectly good money out the window. The bills just disappear in the wind, leaving nothing to show for it. One would assume that you have things—tangible items—to show for all that money, but realistically nearly everything either gets destroyed or rendered unsuitable for the next dorm or apartment.

It makes the outrageous tuition seem like a bargain really.

So it was with great dismay and a decent amount of dread that I stared at the envelope holding my September credit card bill. Leaning against the center island for support, I sliced it open and felt all the blood drain from my face. It was a moment reminiscent of classic movies (you know, when people used to write letters) where if someone got bad news, their hand went limp and the papers fluttered to the ground—cue the dramatic music.

Yeah, that was me.

The total due was even larger than I had anticipated. Seems that my college-bound son had visited a few websites where my credit card was saved on file for convenience (no longer, I might add) and had also conveniently forgotten to mention these additional purchases.

I turned to the two, long-suffering minor children still living under my roof and uttered the same words generations have spoken before me, “Do you guys think there is a money tree in the yard, ripe with money whenever we need it?”

Their blank stares told me that indeed they did. To my kids, the credit card was a money tree. They knew nothing of credit limits, interest rates, mounting debt or credit scores. That, I decided, was going to change immediately.

I began a two week crash course in finance and not one of my offspring was enthusiastic. Given my sketchy math skills, this whole exercise was a stretch but I relied on my brief experience with poor money management in my 20s as a guide.

After walking through the credit card bill and highlighting the charges they had incurred, my kids had a better understanding of how it all adds up over time. Thirty days to be specific. My eldest endured this lesson via emphatic texts, which is too bad because I had some awesome facial expressions and hand gestures that made it all really fabulous.

And then I threw down the gauntlet: We were living off cash for two weeks until the next credit card cycle began. Oh, and that cash was not coming from the ATM (the drive-thru money tree). Now I have to admit, I had no idea how to actually achieve this, but my kids needed to hear “no” and budget right alongside me.

Spoiler Alert: OK, I don’t really budget. Ever. I just kind of feel my way through the month with a vague idea of what I’m spending as compared to the limit my husband dreams of. So realistically, we were all learning together, but I wasn’t copping to that.

The first step was coming up with cold, hard cash. First, I rolled the container of quarters in my son’s room. Given that the stash was change from all the money I had given him throughout high school, technically, those coins were mine. And, besides, possession is nine-tenths of the law.

A cool $50 just like that!

I put aside $20 for my two youngest to go to social activities for the weekend. BAM! It was hard to get too cocky though, I only had $10 left.

So I cleaned out the closets. I took to online yard sales and Craig’s List. I sold purses, jewelry (at a gold dealer), boots, kids’ jackets and old toys. All in all I made about $120. I used that money for some groceries but said no to all requests for fast food or snack stops.

And the requests were constant. E-V-E-R-Y-D-A-Y. The more I said no, the more determined they were to make me revert to the ultimate consumer I had always been. I pleaded with them to just assume we had no reserves and employ a “need vs. want” approach.

Let me tell you, when we stopped at 7-11 for Slurpee BOGO day, they were thrilled. And grateful. So, so grateful.

My restrictions extended to food shopping as well. I never realized how much food we had just waiting to be cooked while I kept shopping for newer, more exciting groceries. In case you were alarmed by this harsh approach to parenting, I’m happy to report that no one died because they had to eat the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that were left from the assorted bag instead of Doritos.

But if the whining was any gauge, I was killing them slowly with my miserly ways.

The day before my credit card cycle was due to flip to a new month, I still had $15 in my wallet. I put in $10 worth of gas (which in my Yukon would probably last until the stroke of midnight when it was time to free the credit card from its grounding) and smiled as I tucked away the remaining $5.

I had gone two weeks and not spent a dime of plastic money. My kids now know that when I say “No,” I mean it and they know why. I am in awe of the millions of Americans who live this way all the time. They don’t have things to sell or spare change to roll and take to the bank. They simply learn to do without.

There really is no comparison, but I felt better that my kids learned to sacrifice and now are not as assumptive when it comes to extras. As for the spend-happy college kid? We gave him the option to return things or have us take money from his account to recoup the illicit purchases. I think his brothers are going to exact their own penalties for bringing their stream of commerce to an abrupt halt.

In the end, preparing to release your kids to live in the real world requires throwing caution to the wind and using any means necessary and as a result, we parents just might learn something along the way as well.