Guest Contributor: Christina Sin
“No one has ever become poor by giving.” – Anne Frank
I had a bucket list for 2013. The most important goal on that list was to “pay off the ACS education school loan.” I’ll be honest; when I wrote that down I didn’t have a plan of attack. Then in April after reading about Operation Do Better, I decided to write down my debts and create a financial road map. I felt pretty good about my situation.
When I saw all my debt as a concrete number, I was floored. I immediately began to reevaluate my budget. What were the things I needed to pay every month? How much could I set aside for “fun” things? I read about strategies to cut debt. I figured out how much I would need to earn if I wanted to pay off my student loan and have no credit card debt. I realized that my salary plus babysitting and pet sitting could not guarantee that I would be able to cover all my expenses. I was beyond frustrated and mostly disappointed in myself. I felt like a failure. I kept wondering what I was doing wrong.
Then I realized I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was paying back debt—a lot of it too—but it wasn’t my own.
Before I continue, I would like to provide some background. My self-employed parents worked incredibly hard to provide my younger brother and me with opportunities they never had. They instilled in us a strong work ethic and a desire to always better ourselves. I am eternally grateful for everything that my parents have sacrificed for me. We were not wealthy, but I had a comfortable and wonderful life.
During my junior year of college, my parents’ income was drastically reduced because of unforeseen medical and economic circumstances. I worked throughout college to pay my own tuition, and luckily, I found a job straight out of undergrad. It was during this first summer as a professional that I realized how bad things had been financially for my parents. Watching them struggle to stay afloat, I decided to help.
At this point, with the exception of rent and two small credit card bills, the majority of my income was going back home. I hustled to get babysitting jobs, and for over a year I worked as a nanny 5 days a week, in addition to my full time job and going to graduate school. I called credit card companies on my parents behalf and placed high interest credit cards on a hardship program, cutting their interest to 2-4%. I also setup a monthly payment plan designed to get my parents debt under control or eliminated in 5 years. I called banks to negotiate lower interest rates or to remove penalties. It was gratifying to take several bills off my parents’ plate and serve as a translator.
Despite the good feeling I had about straightening out my parents’ finances, after two years I was discouraged and aggravated. I was proud of myself for being financially independent and for giving to my parents, but I had not paid down a significant portion of my personal debt. In my quest to help my parents, I completely lost track of my own debt. Granted, I didn’t have a lot of money left over, but I felt I could have done more to change my personal financial circumstances.
My frustrations crept into my daily conversations with my mom. She could feel my growing resentment. During one phone call, I got angry with my mom for not saying “thank you” to me, and she said something I will never forget. With a wavering voice she said,
“How many times do I have to say thank you? You cannot understand how embarrassing it is for a parent to have to ask their child for help, or the intense failure that you feel as a parent.”
I had never been so ashamed in my life.
My mother and father never guilted me into paying off their credit cards or loans. They never demanded that my paycheck go to them. I made a conscious decision to help them. I volunteered to take on this role.
There are still days where I feel resentful and wish that my entire paycheck could be devoted to me. There are still days where I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything because I’m close to paying off someone else’s debt, but mine still stares at me. There are also days when I feel like I am not doing enough and that I will never get out of this financial rut. But here are some things that I’ve done to lift my spirits:
- Gain some perspective. Whether it is through volunteering, talking to a friend or reading, I find it helpful to truly do something delibrate to shift my focus and gain some perspective. Yes, things might get tough, but rather than focusing on all the things I cannot do, I sometimes need to focus on all the things I CAN do. Typically, a making a gratitude list or volunteering helps. I lead an incredibly privileged life and I want to be able to see everything as a learning experience that helps shape my character.
- Feel what you feel. I know that in the grand scheme of things my life isn’t horrible, but I also have learned to allow myself to feel angry or disappointed. All of my emotions are valid and I am allowed to feel them. I’ve let go of trying to control everything that I feel. It isn’t so important what I feel, but what I do with these emotions. I can allow them to consume me, or I can acknowledge them and think of a healthy way to deal with them. I am human and I am allowed to make mistakes, but I cannot let those mistakes define who I am.
- Follow your own path. A wise woman once told me to never compare yourself to others because you will always lose (thanks Reese!). This is a pitfall I face frequently. I see my friends saving, or buying homes or going to Europe and I think I’m doing something wrong because I am not doing those exact things. How crazy does that sound? It’s not easy, but I am getting comfortable with truly forging my own path and doing things that work for me. Yes, I could have paid off my student debt faster if I didn’t help my parents, but I know that the decision I made to help them was the right one.
- Give to yourself. I believe that in order to truly give, one cannot expect anything in return. I’m learning to give without wanting anything back. And I’m learning that it is okay to pay myself first through savings and that I shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to treat myself to a cupcake.
- Talk to someone. This experience has taught me how to let it all out. This blog post is probably the most public I have ever been about my financial situation, and it is very scary. But as I’ve written this post, I found it to be incredibly therapeutic. It isn’t healthy to keep everything bottled in. Talk to a friend, write in a journal, pray to God. Vent your frustrations and talk about your struggles, but once you’ve done that, have a plan. Venting is healthy, but constantly complaining is draining for everyone.
As clichéd as it is, life is too precious to constantly worry or have regrets. There is beauty in all things and the best part of life is finding that beauty and sharing it.