Well, it's Christmas and I have been incredibly busy. I'm always pretty busy but this year Christmas has kicked my butt. Creating Christmas magic and keeping it alive for 4 kids is exhausting and I have failed more than once this season. My daughters wrote letters to Santa and he never answered them, even though our Elf on the Shelf told them that he would. My oldest wrote a very passive aggressive letter -- she asked for something that we can not afford and then said "...but since I know that it is really expensive, I guess I'll just take some books." My youngest daughter didn't ask for anything -- she sent Santa a picture of puppies, kitties, rainbows, and unicorns and she enclosed $1.06, presumably to help cover the cost of what she wants for Christmas.
We are not rich -- well, we are by many standards. We do not lack money for basic living expenses like food, shelter, medical care, etc. But we drive older cars, rarely splurge on frivolous things like eating out, and budget our money carefully because (as I have mentioned before) we do not do credit. See, years ago, before the 4 little Caballeros came along, we spent money like we were a couple of Rockafellers. We weren't. We did fine, able to make all of our payments every month without much difficulty, but we were still robbing Peter to pay Paul. When we accepted the job in Texas and moved from Georgia, we thought it was a wonderful opportunity to finally get ahead, but then we couldn't sell our house in Georgia. We were no longer treading water, we were beginning to sink. We cancelled all of our credit cards and I spent hours on the phone negotiating lower rates and payments. We wanted to pay our debts, but we also had to be able to pay for our living expenses. We were certain that the house in Georgia would sell or rent eventually, and we just needed to manage until we could remove that expense and begin to make real headway on our debts. It didn't sell or rent, and the end result, after more than 20 months of struggle was bankruptcy. I was so very ashamed. Our house in Georgia ultimately sold at auction for about $28K less than what we owed on it and nearly $95K less than the appraised value. We had whittled down our consumer debt from an all-time high of nearly $40K (the result of using credit cards for over a year to make ends meet on top of the accrued debt and interest from before moving), to less than $18K. All told, we had owed approximately $45K that the courts had "forgiven" and released us from liability for. After the bankruptcy was discharged and we got back on our feet, I made payments anyway until the debts were satisfied.
During all of this, my kids were watching.
They learned that being irresponsible with your money has consequences. They learned that credit is dangerous. They learned that fixing your mistakes takes hard work and dedication. And they learned that getting what you need always comes before getting what you want. There were many lean Christmases and birthdays during all of this -- where gifts were much needed clothes or shoes and not toys. One might think that after seven or so years of struggle, we might celebrate by going overboard. And I admit, it is tempting to do just that, but what lesson would that teach my kids? I want them to enjoy life and have nice things, but I also want them to place value on family, love, charity, and NOT on things.
We started the following tradition a few years ago, and we still try to do this every year:
It keeps us from going overboard and it impresses on our kids the importance of sharing, family, and charity, as well as covers some of their needs while still letting them have that magic of Christmas. (And I STILL get to give them awesome presents -- my favorite thing ever.)
The kids still say things like "I wish we were rich so that we could..." or "When we have the money, can we..." but so do I (even if it is only to myself). I know that they have learned the impact that money can have on your life. We all have because we have lived through the worst of it. Despite that, we have come out wiser, more thankful, and generally happier to be free of it. My oldest girl has learned the joy of giving and being frugal -- she made all of her Christmas gifts herself by spending a bit of her own money to buy the materials. My oldest son usually points out that the things he wants can be bought second hand and that he's okay with that. And my 2 youngest often offer me money of their own (even though it is usually loose change) to help pay for things. And they have also come to appreciate simpler things -- dinner together as a family (even when we are eating Ramen), the rare one on one time that we get to spend with them, and an evening sharing a DVRed television show or movie. They rarely ask for outlandish things, and even when they do they have learned to justify their requests with how it would benefit not just them, but the family.
The hard lessons that I did not learn until my thirties, my kids have learned before puberty.
It makes me both happy and sad that my kids are conscious about how much things cost. I want them to be realistic, but I want them to still hope and dream. I hope that when they rip open their presents this Christmas morning that they will have some dreams fulfilled, and that they appreciate what it took to make it all happen. And I will be grateful that their dad and I made their Christmas special without going into debt.