I love being poor. I mean I hate it--most of the time. I feel little. And stupid. And like I'm doing something wrong most of the time. But sometimes, I adore poverty. It's a hidden gift from God-- a well-spring of riches.
Last week, we hit a rough patch in our finances. We got a generous bonus on New Years Day from my husband's employer. It felt great. This was his first substantial bonus in four years. I felt like his work was finally getting recognized. I stopped dreading the increase in our health insurance and the increase in Social Security taxes.
Almost always, anytime we get sudden "wealth" we quickly end up "poorer." It's like the careful balance goes out the window and its suddenly a scramble to get gas money for my husband's long commute.
When we had sudden wealth with the bonus, I had numerous plans on what was going to happen. We were going to pay off the violin and cello rental. I wanted to fix up our kitchen. We were going to pay off the credit card and have a cash "cushion."
Then we started spending the money and it felt horrible. It was hard to make decisions. Some things were cheaper than expected, but some repairs were more expensive. Every time we worked on the kitchen, we had to eat out. Even going to Wendy's or McDonald's as a family of seven is no longer a $10 deal. Then once we reestablished the habit of eating out--it became easier to eat out again. "Oh leading the Cub Scout meeting was hard tonight, lets go get McDonald frappes!"
Around January 15, when Jon got paid--we made up a new budget. We could pay the new higher health insurance premium. We were going to get leaner with grocery budget. Gas for the van was rationed to basically non-exisitant, and fast food runs were banned, and pay-out of the children's allowances were suspended for the rest of the month. The rest of the bonus money was going to pay down the credit card balance that got hyped up over Christmas.
Then our heat stopped working. Jon and I were in the midst of moving from an ancient oil heating system (the original 1950s unit that came with the house. It belongs in the Smithsonian!) that Jon said "felt like actually burning money" to these eco-friendly electrical heaters. We had three in the house. Jon wanted to buy more heaters with his bonus, but being the ever impractical one I said "oh, spend the money of buying another cord of firewood. The fire is so much more fun!"
The fireplace was great, until the cold snap happened. The new eco heaters worked great when the outside temperatures were 20 degrees. When it dipped down to 10 degrees and then 0 degrees, they couldn't keep up. It got to 59 degrees inside my house.
Now most of my kids were fine, because I live in a Cape Cod. This type of housing design was made by the Puritans to be efficient with heat. All the heat rises to the second floor. They have these little space heaters in their room and it was warm and toasty there.
Yet, the parents bedroom is on the first floor. I've got the 10 month old baby and toddler in my room. In my room that I might say is 8 by 10. Usually one of those little heaters you are supposed to bring to your cubicle an office keeps that room as hot as the tropics. When the living room dipped from 69 degrees to 59 degrees--our bedroom was no longer toasty. It got cold. Even under the down comforter, my little nose felt freezing. Jon started joking that he needed one of those old fashioned night caps to sleep.
We had two days of this coldness inside the house. It was this feeling of being stuck. We had removed all the water pipes to the original steam heaters, so we couldn't turn the oil furnace on again. Now that it was in the middle of January, we couldn't find any of the eco-heaters at our local hardware store. We called around and discovered we'd have to special order them. They would only arrive 9 days later. Nine days feels like a long time when you've got tiny babies in the house.
We tried stop-gap measures. Jon went to Lowes and got two conventional heaters. They did nothing. I returned them to the store, but the potential 48 hour delay in getting a refund on our debit card meant we had even less money.
Jon worked late one night. I broke down in fear and had a heart to heart chat with God. I told him "Okay, I need to get new heaters for the house and I'm really scared. This is going to put us in a pinch for the rest of the month. I'm really scared about even buying enough groceries to feed my family well until February 1. I need you to take care of me!"
I got all the kids in the car in the dark and in the cold at 6 PM. Just I was carrying the last load from the house, I saw the mail in the mailbox. I remembered that my husband always jokes "Lets check the mail, maybe there is a check from the lottery inside" whenever we got broke during his free-lancing days.
"I'll go check the mail," I thought. There was Alex's Boys Life Magazine. There was some bills and some advertisements. Then there was a card from my father. "Maybe this is the prayer answer" I thought as I tore open the card.
It's hard to describe supernatural feelings--but inside a greeting card there was an American Express card with my name on it. Readers, it felt like it burned my hand.
Last year, my husband kindly asked me to please stop using my father's credit card to pay our family's expenses. My father had added me as an authorized user to his credit card account. I had the card, he payed my bills. It was supposed to be used for emergencies--but it became one of those emeshed, vague situations with unexplained rules and unforeseen strings attached. I felt the temptation to use it often. My husband also explained that to him, it felt like a form of disrespect from me. My husband wants to be the one responsible to pay the bills for our family. It was like I was still attached to my Dad mentally instead of "leaving and cleaving" to attach with my husband.
(I also have to say, I really used my father's credit card badly. I have a tendency to over-spend when I'm stressed. I'd have a bad day, and go spend $40 for treats for myself and my kids on my Dad's credit card without guilt. I knew that he wouldn't mind paying that bill in a few weeks but if I put in on our debit card--we'd be eating less in two weeks. It was a way of me "gaming the system" and not being held accountable for my poor way of dealing with stress).
So when I got that credit card in my hand--I knew I couldn't use it. I knew it was wrong.
I'd worked really, really hard for four months to stop this habit. I'd told my father that I wasn't using his card anymore. He gave me a new one anyway in Thanksgiving. So I cut up that new card and through it in the trash. Then I called American Express directly and told them "I don't want to be added to this account at anytime" and I asked to put a freeze on my name.
My married name.
The new card I was holding, had my maiden name on it.
I thought at first it was a new card. I thought my Dad had gone to American Express, found that my married name was blocked, and so added it anyway with my maiden name---and listed me as living still inside his house. (It was an old card, Jon told me later. But I didn't know that at the time).
Inside there was a note about seeing our home repairs, thanking me for making a home to "anchor the kids" and encouragement to use his credit card--for whatever I needed.
Readers, it is freezing cold. I am wearing more layers than Heidi. Inside my minivan, there are five cold and hungry kids. I'm about to drive to a neighboring state to spend all of my "emergency money" and a bit of my grocery money to buy more heaters.
I knew that this timing was not accidental. I knew I was being tested. The only reason I was able to act so clearly this past winter with setting boundaries with my family of origin was because my parents did not have a financial stake in my family anymore. (Otherwise, I felt like I owed them something.)
Somehow getting that credit card in the mail--the one I knew I shouldn't use--made my situation clearer. I wasn't at all confident that I was making the right decision in buying new heaters. I wasn't confident that I hadn't "mismanaged" my budget this January and that God would apply some "tough love" to teach me how to do things better.
But I know that the old me would have taken that credit card without thinking and said "Oh, here's the answer to my prayer. Clearly this is an emergency. Our home has less than adequate heat. I'll use this to buy hamburgers for the kids tonight and save it in case I need to make a grocery run next week."
I didn't pocket the credit card in my wallet. I put it with the stack of bills in my house. Then I got in my mini-van, with my five kids and went to two different Lowe's stores in two different states. I bought $11 of McDonald's hamburgers with my own money to feed my hungry kids. I spent $190 buying new heaters. I even went to Hobby Lobby for the first time for a victory dance (gotta support the HHS Mandate marytrs!) Hobby Lobby was amazing. My daughter picked out a picture that said "Jesus Loves Me This I Know" in purple cursive letters. It was on clearance for $13.
I bought it impulsively, even with the tear on the corner. I told Jesus when I handed over my debit card--I know this is true. I know that you love me! I want to buy this sign for my daughter's room, even when I'm feeling worried about our poverty, because I want her to know inside the marrow of her bones that this is true too!"
I came home and my husband approved my extra impulsive purchases, hamburgers and Hobby Lobby's "Jesus Loves Me" signs. He was grateful I took five kids to a distant Lowes, so that he could easily make sure we had heat that night. Poverty looks hard, but it means an opportunity for more communication and greater team work inside a marriage. More risks equal more rewards.
We've got three more days until payday and things are working out. We've got food on the table and cheer in our hearts. I would never, ever grow this much in faith unless I had to constantly beg God for money. It gets me in the good habit of "begging" from Him for everything else in my life. Virtue comes from the Source. Love comes from the Source. He is the source of our living water--and he gives us his grace for free!