My Poor, Narcissistic Parents Passed Down Horrendous Money Habits

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Ever since I was a child, I have wanted to do two things to make my living: write and make art.

Some might look at this and think these desires sprang from aptitudes or lofty aspirations. But, for me, their source is more complicated than that.

I didn’t have role models for what working adults looked like during my formative years. My parents lived off of disability checks for my father and several of the kids in our household. My grandfather was a blue-collar worker-turned-business-owner, so he didn’t give me a good handle on what a typical employee looks like.

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I grew up watching my parents do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. I witnessed their horrible money management skills and seemingly magical ability to make money appear whenever they needed it.

My parents also projected their money management skills onto their children.

Whenever we received money for birthdays or other holidays, my parents collected it and explained that we were “prone to losing money” if anyone asked. They just saw a few bucks and got greedy. It’s pathetic to think about now, but it did make me feel as though I might not be good at managing my finances or life for a long time.

As a small child with a limited worldview, I didn’t realize that their ability to conjure funds was far from magical or mystical. Instead, they just signed up for credit cards, payday loans, and other predatory lending schemes while begging my older relatives for cash whenever those fell through.

Poverty and abuse went hand-in-hand in my household as a child

Unfortunately, my parents were heavily abusive and neglectful to my siblings (allegedly, as the kids these days would say) and me.

The proof of their mistreatment is in family photos where all the kids’ bones were jutting from their collars, the hollow look in our eyes, the shoulders tensed to the ears as our parents pulled us into a hug for the snapshot.

One could say they were abusive because they didn’t know any other way to parent or because raising children in extreme poverty is stressful, but these would be only part of the truth.

The truth is that my parents behaved cruelly towards their children for whatever reason. They put their needs over their children’s needs every time. These are difficult choices for parents who are poor, rich, middle-class, and everything in between.

It’s one thing for the whole family to struggle in poverty while the adults are doing their best to provide. It’s a whole other thing when the parents buy expensive dinners out while telling the kids they can split a single entree between themselves as a treat if they’re lucky.

Now that I am older, I see how messed up this dynamic was. I also see how my parents’ financial decisions and source of income impacted my attitudes toward money.

When I left home, I took their bad money habits with me

When I first moved away from home and struck out independently, I spent money as soon as I got my hands on it. Usually, I would blow my meager retail paychecks on art supplies or clothes.

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If I had to guess, my parents spent money quickly to avoid accumulating savings and stressing their poverty to welfare offices and other entities. I picked up this habit without the exact reasoning behind it. It simply seemed like the thing to do.

As my family members said, “don’t let money burn a hole in your pocket.”

Over time, I realized that this lifestyle was not sustainable. So while I still believe that there will always be income coming to me and that I shouldn’t worry about bills or other expenses getting paid every month, I don’t blow money until it’s gone anymore.

I learned quickly that living within one’s means does not equal spending one’s income to the penny.

While I realize that some people don’t have any choice other than living paycheck to paycheck with literal cents between themselves and missing bills, I’m thankful not to be in that position. However, when I was younger, I ended up in that position due to poor choices, and I own that now.

Without proper role models, I didn’t know what work-life balance meant

Beyond spending habits, my parents deeply affected my ability to work a traditional job and my attitude toward conventional employment. From my youth, my family always encouraged me to be a writer or an artist. This was the one positive thing they did during my upbringing. Still, it came with its downsides.

Since I grew up believing I could be a writer, that’s what I began to pursue once I turned 18. As an 18-year-old in the middle of nowhere, I had moderate success as a writer, all things considered. Straight out of high school with minimal writing experience, I landed a remote job writing music reviews. I also supplemented my income by pitching essays to popular websites at the time.

I wasn’t rolling in dough by any means but I was making enough money to pad my savings a little bit. My parents downplayed my success and told me that I’d never be able to scale it to a full-time income. Since I had already proved them wrong by making some money with writing, I knew I could make more money if I worked hard.

After a couple of years of trying to get on my feet and going nowhere, I left my toxic home for an independent transitional living program for youth.

This program was instrumental in removing me from my abusive childhood home and for that, I was incredibly grateful. However, since it was my first taste of the “real world” outside of a controlling, toxic environment, it was a tough adjustment. I didn’t know how the “real world” worked, so when they had me get a retail job and fulfill regular adult obligations, I crumbled.

A few months into being in the program, I left to live with a relative so that I could focus on my art, writing, and mental health. It wasn’t a healthy environment, but it did allow me to work on the things I enjoyed.

After a short stay with that relative, I went and moved into my own apartment. I landed three part-time jobs that averaged up to 80 hours a week. My philosophy surrounding money and work went in the opposite direction of my family’s values. I did nothing but work and I spent money only on the absolute necessities for the most part.

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While some might view this as better than my family’s lifestyle of hemorrhaging money they don’t have, it was slowly killing me. Eventually, I stopped eating and sleeping. I grew extremely sickly and depressed. I quit one job, then two, then three.

Finally, I moved to a new city with nothing but a single suitcase of clothes. I preferred homelessness over the overwhelming life I had been living. I climbed my way out of homelessness by writing and working two retail jobs.

By the time I was housed again, I was burnt out and exhausted again. Over the next few years, I would cycle between overworking, burning out, and underworking.

Where I am today

With a few years of working, living, and learning better spending habits under my belt, I can proudly say that I’m better at earning and managing money than I ever was.

Today, I don’t spend all my money till it’s gone and I don’t refuse myself little luxuries here and there. I also don’t work myself to the bone. I’ve found writing work that pays enough to cover all of my bills and then some. I feel incredibly lucky and blessed.

When I consider where I could have ended up financially and otherwise because of how I was raised, I shudder. My family wanted me to be stuck on welfare, unable to support myself, and incapable of managing my finances.

They wanted me to rely on them financially forever. I’m happy to say that their twisted dream hasn’t come true — and it never will.

Financial harm/abuse can be subtle

Sometimes financial abuse and neglect look like poverty. The difference between well-meaning poor parents and financially abusive poor parents lies in their aspirations for the next generation.

Taking my money as a child and young adult and expecting me to fund their lifestyle with my earnings was a financially abusive move for my parents. Not all poor parents are like this, though.

Parents who are poor with positive intentions for their children do their best to encourage their kids to do better than themselves. They do what they can to give their kids a leg up in life. Abusive or toxic parents bring their kids down financially and expect the kids to bail them out financially if they ever do manage to succeed.

Although it’s difficult and uncomfortable to talk about how I’ve managed money and how my family primed me to behave towards it, I’m happy to share this topic if it starts a conversation on narcissistic parents and finances.

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Maya Strong is a professional writer who blogs about relationships, LGBTQIA+, mental health, lifestyle, and cultural commentary online.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.