In 1961, I was born in a government housing project to two teenaged parents. There’s me standing in front of the building we lived in. My grandmother lived around on the other side of the building.

My parents met in this very courtyard when they were children. My mother’s family had to move to the project when she was 10, after her father deserted her and her three brothers to chase the ponies.  The story of how my father ended up there is more circuitous, and much darker, but eventually, at age 12, he moved in, too.

Why Do We Need Government?

I know politicians–during campaign speeches about how we don’t need all of these government programs–like to hark back to the good ole days when families took care of their own. I don’t know when exactly those days were, but they have must predated the 1940’s. If it weren’t for government housing projects in the 1940s’s I’m not sure what story I’d have to tell you.

Being Poor in America

I don’t remember being poor. What I remember most about the project is catching butterflies with my grandmother and putting them in big mason jars with holes she’d carefully hammered into the metal lids with a nail. I also remember her teaching me the alphabet.

For the record, she’s also the person who told me how you could tell if a woman was really a blonde or not. Why I needed to know something like that as a little girl, I have no idea, but I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve since learned as a labor and delivery nurse that you can also tell a true redhead the same way.

My grandma watched me every day while my mother worked for Bell Telephone and my father attended University of Louisville as a pre-med student. When I was four—sometime after learning how to tell does she or doesn’t she?–we moved to Bloomington, Indiana so my father could attend graduate school, thus ending our lives on the government dole.

Poor No More

But leaving the projects did not remove the stain of poverty from my parents’ psyche. I think shame forever shadowed my parents, never letting them—or me–forget where they came from, and what they really were: Two, poor, fatherless kids from the projects.

Growing up, my parents never talked to me about money.  I never knew how much money they made, and I was strongly discouraged from asking. I was told that polite people didn’t discuss money. My mother, who would happily debate either politics or religion with anyone, never talked about money. When I got my first job, my mother taught me how to write a check and balance a checkbook. That is the sum-total of the financial education I received from either of my parents; the rest I learned on the streets.

Facing Aging Parents Finances

In 2008, my mother was diagnosed with advanced metastatic colorectal cancer. I rushed across the country to her bedside only to discover her secret that, despite working full time nearly all of her life, she had no health insurance, and her only savings was $1,000 hidden in a sock in her dresser drawer.  She didn’t even have a bank account.

As she lay comatose in the ICU, I went to her house where I discovered a box taped shut with my name scrawled across the top sitting on her desk. Inside the box was 8 YEARS worth of unopened letters from the IRS totaling nearly $100K in unpaid taxes.

What is particularly sad is that this was all probably unnecessary. My mother worked for an attorney. He cared very much about her and would have helped her had she asked. But my mother never asked anyone for help with money. She never talked to anyone about money.

My mother recovered from her coma, and when I asked her why she’d lied to me she told me she was very ashamed. She’d never wanted to be a burden to her children with her financial problems; she kept hoping that somehow she’d pull herself out before anyone found out. Cancer got there first.

It was very stressful dealing with my mother’s financial fiasco, and I think much of it was avoidable if she’d only asked for help when her problems first surfaced.

How to Help Your Parents

In the last three years of my mother’s life she was too ill to cope with her massive money problems and so I took all of it on myself.  It was extremely stressful, and even now, almost two years after her death, the issues with the IRS are not entirely resolved. It takes a lot before the IRS will believe you are not just merely dead, but truly most sincerely dead.  And now, like my mother, I worry about becoming a burden to my children.

How about you? Are you prepared? Do you talk to your kids about your money? Have you talked to your parents about their financial situation?

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Theresa Wagar June 27, 2013 at 10:47 am

I can relate, Chloe. I was raised by a single mom who was divorced from my rich dad. My mom did her best to make ends meet, but I swore I would never be dependent on a man or be stuck in poverty because of it. So I became an engineer . . .LOL (and married one). Today, I’ve nearly finished homeschooling my youngest, but often wonder how those years of lack impacted my view.

I believe God is God of provision. And money should never be a limiting factor. My parent’s are both well taken care of and so were my grandparents (still have one grandmother). My husband was not in the same boat and we had to deal with a lot of issue with his family and his mom (who lived off Social Security) before his mom passed away too young a few years ago.

We talk to our kids about money. I’m not sure how much has gotten through as they are starting out in life. My oldest (after his 1st year of college) said most of his colleagues though he was a little weird not to have many terrible life stories to tell yet. But we’ve talked about how that is a blessing so he can listen to other’s tell their stories with a kind ear.

Now if I could just get my dad to clarify that he does have a will that will take care of his current wife 🙂

Theresa 😎
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Barbara September 15, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Chloe – wow – so sorry to hear what you went through with your mother. You had to grow up quick and remind me that I never want to put my kids through that. I tend to harp a lot about parents not putting themselves in debt to finance their grown children’s problems,college education, etc. – especially not to dip into their retirement – exactly for these reasons. I think we’re doing well and have a will, an revokeable trust, and are military retired, but like Big Little Wolf said, and I agree, we’re all one divorce, one medical catastrophe, etc. away from facing down financial demons. My parents are both still living and financially set – so I’ve had a good example and much coaching from them (having gone through a divorce at 48). Great, thoughtful post and comments.
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Brenda September 13, 2012 at 9:08 am

I am very open with my children about all those life lessons are attached to survival. I am the daughter of strong working class Latins, which means much is not discussed with the children. Their answers for me were “go to college, you’ll learn what you need to know.” Of course, that’s not entirely true, the rest I learned as you said, on the streets. Only recently, and I mean in the last month, my sister and I finally got my mom to prepare a living will, POA, etc., Phew!! Such a relief.
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Chloe September 13, 2012 at 9:42 am

I remember it was like pulling teeth to get Jeff’s dad to do that stuff. I can see that facing one’s death sucks. I don’t want to die, either. But as it gets closer to inevitable it really does become necessary. I’m glad you were able to get her to do it. I’m sure that is a relief. I fully expected my mother to live much, much longer. Her own mother lived to 93.

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Magnolia September 10, 2012 at 5:55 pm

I’m a projects born and bred kid myself. Waaaaaay down there in Louisiana during the 1950s & 1960s.

We weren’t poor. We were ‘po.’ A decidedly different grade of poverty. Poor people were high class.

All of that and I’m DEFINITELY not a fan of government housing, but that’s another story.

You speak well when you talk about the imprint poverty makes on one’s psyche. It calcifies unless you face it and chisel it away. It is not an easy task, but it can be done. Courage is just the beginning.

I will not put my children through what I was put through. *That* is the lasting legacy.

I feel ya, sister.
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Chloe September 11, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Are we the same person, Magnolia? Honestly. Maybe that’s why we never really could connect at BlogHer. The universe would like implode if you and I spent too much time together. I can’t believe how much you and I have in common.

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Magnolia September 12, 2012 at 3:58 am

We never walk in this world alone. It’s easy to feel like no one else could possibly get what your pain – been there (way too often, actually).

But, yeah, we have similar stories. After you tell all of yours I will determine who won by a neck or a nose. So far, we’re pretty even.
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Chloe September 12, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Nobody gets out alive.

We both overcame the projects, and drugs, and children. We both win!!

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magpie September 10, 2012 at 5:07 pm

heartrending. really. gah.

three plus years after my mother’s death, we’re still cleaning out her house. it’s been on the market, and just maybe just sold, for abou 2/3 of what it should have gone for, but still…
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Anne (@notasupermom) September 10, 2012 at 3:02 pm

My parents are a bit of a mess, money wise. I worry. Also, I worry I’ll wind up taking care of my sister.

Security is very important to me. That’s why I stopped studying literature and got an accounting degree.
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Magnolia September 11, 2012 at 6:47 am

Same here……about the accounting degree part 🙂

Now, with all of that accounting degree smarts encoded in my gray matter, I am constantly looking for ways to “monetize” my love for writing and literature.

You can take the girl out of accounting, but you can’t take accounting out of the girl. 🙂
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Chloe September 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Smart girl.

Jeff and I are out of parents’ financial futures to worry over. Now we only have to worry about our kids taking care of us.

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Shannon Bradley-Colleary September 10, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Hi honey — I’m so sorry you’ve had to bear the brunt of your mom’s dysfunction with money. We all seem to inherit some kind of legacy from our parents both positively and negatively. We recently had our estate handled so things are in excellent order. Now one of us needs to give up writing and become a dentist. There will always be teeth with cavities after all!
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Chloe September 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Dentist is good! That’s much smarter than writer. Except who am I going to read when I’m waiting to see the dentist if you stop writing? Besides, at the end of my life I bet I remember how funny and smart you are while I’ll still think my dentist is a sadist.

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BigLittleWolf September 10, 2012 at 12:29 pm

One of the reasons I continue to write about the “unmentionable” – money – and in particular, women and money – is because it remains one of those areas of shaming, a bit like sex.

Frankly, I think it’s more problematic than the shaming that we retain in the sexual arena.

We’re afraid to admit (to ourselves) that most of us are one illness, one pink slip, or one divorce away from the poor house. We act as though if we do everything right, everything we’re “supposed to,” we’ll be fine. And if we wind up with money problems, it’s somehow our fault.

That’s not the case. You can do everything you’re “supposed to” and still end up penniless or deeply in debt, and unable to dig out. Ever. All the more reason to understand that there are reasonable services that governments should provide – and that no one, but no one, “does it all alone.”
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Chloe September 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Keep writing. I think one of the ways we try to make ourselves feel better is to imagine that somehow we’re immune to the bad shit that happens to other people. Of course, we want to think we’re smarter than everyone else. But you are right. We’re all just one thing away from catastrophe. My mother could have made better choices–I wish she had–but the truth is that she invested most of her life into a marriage that ended in disaster. And when it was over she was too old and too emotionally spent to rescue herself. Who you marry and how that marriage goes is so important. I don’t believe any other decision we make carries as much weight.

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AndreaBT September 10, 2012 at 10:40 am

All I got is that I never knew you lived in Indiana…you were maybe 45 minutes from where I live now (Columbus).

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Chloe September 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm

I’ve lived in Indiana twice. Once in Bloomington when I was a little girl, and again in Jeffersonville–across the river from Louisville–when I was 16.

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Sharon Greenthal September 10, 2012 at 7:22 am

My childhood was also affected by money – not to the extent that yours was, but it was the defining issue when I was growing up, as my father was always chasing the next big thing, and we moved frequently from home to home. It was not easy.

My father died penniless, and had it not been for my husband and me, I don’t know what he would have done when he got sick at the age of 65 – he had medicare but nothing to live on. We will never be that kind of burden to our children.
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Chloe September 12, 2012 at 1:32 pm

How hard. I’m sorry to hear about your dad. It was hard, but I feel like we did the honorable thing there. I wish it had gone down differently, but it was the way it was. It hurts me to think that my mother’s life was cut short by her inability to cope with money. She never intended things to get so out of control.

Her house was hit by a tornado and she was under-insured and lost her home in 1999. That was the first year she didn’t pay her taxes. And it all went downhill from there. It really is a tough story. I wish my mother had written about it.

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Ginger September 10, 2012 at 6:38 am

My entire childhood, my mom complained about how cheap my father was. He died in his early 60’s. I thank God he was so cheap! My mom has been living comfortably for the past 17 years on what he saved all those years she was complaining about him.

My children will inherit neither wealth nor debt.
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Brenda September 10, 2012 at 6:22 am

I have POA and am Trustee of Dad’s Trust, so I *think* I’m ok. But it will still be hell because his trust owns the house we live in and we can’t get a mortgage for it yet.

With our kids (7 & 12) we’ve only started teaching them a work ethic and that they aren’t entitled to anything.

We need to do a will and guardianship for them. And some life insurance if we can get some would be nice.

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Marci Rich September 10, 2012 at 6:17 am

Wow. Chloe, this is an amazingly powerful essay. You write with such honesty and forthrightness. And wisdom and wit. Thank you for sharing this story.
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Maddie Kertay September 10, 2012 at 6:14 am

Nodding head…… yep.. and my first step for was us as a couple to become debt free and talk about money with the kids. Teach them to budget, about investment , paying cash, delayed gratification.. it is all part of it.

And the IRS.. well after dad was cremated I thought I sending them a envelope full of ashes.. dad always did like to travel.
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Brenda September 10, 2012 at 6:19 am

I love the special envelope idea.

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Julia September 10, 2012 at 6:13 am

We’ve talked to our kids about money. They started saving when they were small. I have one saver and one spender, but the spender will save when he has a goal. So far their goals were to get thru college debt-free. Older will graduate this spring (God willing) debt free. Younger has a plan and should do the same.

My parents? I’m hoping they’re ok. I’ve suggested a few things (like nursing home insurance and a policy to cover in house care) but they haven’t taken me up on it. It’s amazing how fast money can go if you need longer term care. 🙁

I hadn’t realized that you were still dealing with the IRS. I’m so sorry.

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