Tax time. Those two words have been daunting to me over the past several years. With the exception of one exciting April many moons ago, I have owed money to our government every single year. I don't know how I scraped up the cash, honestly. Somehow, like everything else- they got paid, and miraculously, paid on time.
The irony of the poorest chick in the hen house having to pay Uncle Sam wasn't lost on me. It made me roll my eyes at all of the election-year hyperbole even more...people complaining about their precious tax dollars going to help the lazy freeloaders of society and all that. There I was, squatting at poverty level, contributing what little I had to all of those precious tax dollars being grabbed at by those "leeches" like game show contestants in the Wind Tunnel O'Money. please note the quotation marks around leeches...personally I believe corporate welfare is a far bigger shame than helping those who are in real need. Let's not get into that though.
This year held a glimmer of hope, however, due to the end of alimony in late 2014 and the addition of child support from then on. You see, my ex-husband is pretty smart when it comes to all things financial and long ago he and his lawyer went to great lengths to ensure that any money he sent my way was counted as spousal maintenance versus child support. Because, tax benefits. Back then I was overjoyed to be getting anything other than an ulcer from him, so of course I agreed. That is what ended up biting me in the arse over and over again at tax time. Maybe an ulcer would've been better?
It was with tentative optimism, then, that I sat down in front of the computer and loaded up the old Turbo Tax. I had all of my receipts, all of my records, all of the social security numbers organized and in order. I clickety-clacked, entered numbers and reconciled all of it. Dependents and educational expenses and rent paid, oh my. The dollar amount under the words "YOUR FEDERAL REFUND" increased as I went along. I tried to not look at it but couldn't stop, my eyes wide like they get when it's 1:30 on Friday and I see the word "martini".
When all was said and done I sat back and exhaled. Then, I ran the numbers again. And once more just to be sure.
I've heard stories of big huge fat tax refunds, but thought they were legends like Big Foot and low cost cable television. People always went on about what they were going to do with their refunds and I'd be crying in the corner, writing a check to the IRS and cursing the family court system.
This time, though. Boy howdy. It was big, by my standards.
Believe it or not, I didn't cry. I might have let out a big whoooop and I also may have texted my bestie.
And then, I got scared.
Here's the bizarre thing. Being poor effs with your head in many ways, and one of the weirdest is what it does to your relationship with money. Now, I'm saying poor as in "one mishap away from being homeless" poor and not "aughh we can't afford both a winter and a spring vacation this year" poor, okay? When you spend a bit of time worrying about feeding your kids and keeping a roof over your heads, money becomes like this big evil alien spacecraft, not unlike the one that hovered above the White House in the movie Independence Day. Fretting about it consumes every waking moment, and most of your sleeping ones, too.
So this little windfall was as terrifying as it was exciting. Maybe a little more the former than the latter.
I thought about it, during the days before it was deposited in my checking account. I considered the things that needed to be paid for, the things we really needed but could never afford, the fun stuff a broke ass mom and her kids could do for once, without the mom chewing her lower lip to bits trying to avoid thinking about the financial repercussions.
My god, I thought. I can get the stupid broken handle on my car door fixed! No more would I have to leave the window open only to haul ass out to the parking lot mid-rain to roll it up!
I could help my eldest with his car repair bill! I could get my poor dog's ear medicine! I could get new contacts and throw away the trial pair I've been wearing for way too many months! We could go out to dinner, all five of us and we could order whatever we wanted! Oh mah gah. I could maybe even afford to get a second car for the kids. A beater, of course, like my little silver tuna can Ford Focus, but just think...a second car!
Fantasies traipsed through my brain like fleet-footed nymphs: I imagined walking into a liquor store and saying in my best Gery Poupon accent "I say, good man, please point me in the direction of your finest wines within the 8-10 dollar range!" and then "Benson, I have procured several bottles. Please pull the car around so I may take leave of this fine establishment."
I even caught myself standing in front of a 40" Smart TV at Costco one night. It was marked way, way down and I stood there for a good five minutes, picturing myself in bed with a big shiny tv on my dresser and how nice it would be to watch my British shows on something besides the wee little chromebook. My days (actually nights) of falling asleep on the couch could be history! What could be better than dozing off in the comfort of my own bed, the dulcet tones of Netflix rocking me to sleep?
Luckily, I bitch-slapped myself right out of that one. I said out loud, "Who do you think you are, Beyonce??? Get real, Jenny." And then went on to get the milk and eggs and bulk pack of Hawaiian Sweet rolls I went there for in the first place.
What I did, and am doing with it, is this: I let us have some fun. Nothing crazy, of course, but there have been dinners and some new clothes and yes, a big linen-scented candle. I splurged on some gluten-free licorice from Amazon and am planning my 18 year old's graduation party without wincing and my daughter is finally going to get contacts (shh, that one's a surprise).
But that's it. The rest of it is remaining untouched. If I could find an old-timey Folgers coffee can and bury it somewhere, I would. Because being poor doesn't only make you afraid of money...it teaches you that you can't be trusted with it. That somehow, you are to blame for the financial mess you're in. You've made bad choices, dumb decisions and if only you'd somehow been just slightly smarter with your dollars, you wouldn't be in straits so dire.
I'm trying to get over that one. I think a fear of money is okay, to some extent, but I need to prove to myself that I am responsible, I am smart enough to handle this stupid chunk of change and I won't blow it. I was married, for a long time, to someone who had holes in his pockets and every bonus or gift horse was spent within days: new cars, new suits, new golf clubs, new kitchens. My first instinct then, when confronted with any excess money is HOW CAN I SPEND THIS AS QUICKLY AND FRIVOLOUSLY AS POSSIBLE? Girls? Learn how to handle money wisely. Parents? Teach all of your kids how to do it. Please.
I guess, in hindsight, dealing with financial stress for so long afterwards has been kind of a blessing/baptism by fire. It has taught me that new doesn't necessarily mean better. It has definitely hammered in the differences between wants and needs.
But perhaps the most important lesson learned is, sometimes it's okay to splurge. Even if your definition of splurge is much different than it used to be. Where there used to be fancy clothes and granite counter-tops, there are now Old Navy sale sprees, scented candles and Saturday movie dates with a kid or two.
I think this definition better. Better, but I'm still scared.