An Adult Child’s Realization and Guilt Over Parent’s Bankruptcy Years Later

by Hank Coleman

Everyone says that you can never fully understand what your own parents went through raising you until you have children of your own.  That has become a very apparent reality to me as my oldest little boy enters kindergarten next year.  I am constantly bombarded by him to buy him toys that he has seen advertised on television, take him out to eat for dinner to his favorite restaurant Chuckie Cheese, or to take the family on a vacation to Disney World.  Like every parent in the world, we want our children to have a better life than the one we had growing up. The pressure to give into my children’s vast wants is huge, and like many parents, I do not often succeed. 

past-due-stampMy parents got divorced when I was 11, and my deadbeat dad left my public high school teacher mom and me to pick up the pieces of our lives by ourselves.  My mother is a great woman, and she made sure that I never wanted for anything as an only child.  Christmas was always a mountain of presents piled high, my room was filled with every video game and toy a kid could want, I had my own car at the age of 15 (a hand-me-down), we took vacations every summer, and I played every sport imaginable despite the cost.

Even though I always watched my mother buy me things with her credit cards, I never knew that she was in financial trouble until later in life when I was in college.  Looking back, I should have known.  The classic warning signs were all there.  My mother had taken out a second mortgage on the house I had lived in all my life, credit card companies and collection agencies were calling the house at all hours of the day, we spent more money together than any public school teacher in the South could ever have dream of making in a year.  My mother has no retirement savings except for her small state pension after twenty-eight years of teaching.  I think that the subjects of money and personal finances were never discussed in our home because they depressed my mother.  I can always remember her going into our living room once a month with a huge ledger book to the family’s pay bills. 

One day while I was home on a break from college, my mom told me that she was going to file for bankruptcy.  She was embarrassed and swore me to secrecy.  I think that still to this day that my step dad and I are the only people who know.  I did not really understand my role in all of this until I had kids of my own.  While I did not put the credit cards and a second mortgage in my mom’s hands, I did drive the family’s spending train and subsequently drive my mother straight into bankruptcy protection. 

Right after college, I saw myself headed down the same path as my mother.  I had never learned how to handle my own personal finances responsibly and was up to my eyeballs in $20,000 credit card debt before I even knew it.  My wife and my own children helped me realize the dangers of going down that same bankruptcy path that my mother had traveled.  I am very thankful that my wife and I have buckled down to pay off the mountain of debt and mistakes that I made early in my life.  Now that I am older, the guilt of what I have contributed to as a youth is almost unbearable.  Looking back, my actions as a spoiled brat make me ashamed. 

I decided to share this story in the hope of a bit of closure and also to serve as a reminder to myself that the money skills and our use of money that I show my own children directly and indirectly contribute to their personal finance knowledge and future success as people.  I am determined to change my family’s path from one of bankruptcy to one of financial knowledge and sound money practices and pass that knowledge on to my own children.  Today, my family and I are well on the road to becoming completely debt free.  The road has been a bumpy one full of mistakes, but we are on the right track now and teaching our children to spend, save, give, and invest responsibly so that they can live a guilt free life far better than we had growing up.

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Kate February 9, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Thank you for sharing what was obviously a painful realization. I lived through a similar situation. You did an excellent job of turning a negative into positive action for the future. You have changed my way of thinking about the whole experience. Thanks again.

outlaw February 11, 2009 at 1:49 am

Hank great story. Finances were not really talked about too much in my family as well. I know my parents struggled to provide for a family of six on one income but they dd succeed.

I too found myself on the wrong side of the credit card monster racking up more than 30 grand in unsecured debt. I have taken the steps to knock that down to more than half in the past year and a half and have a plan to be out from under it within the next 15 months.

Manshu February 17, 2009 at 8:49 pm

This is a very touching story. Thanks for sharing.

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