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The transition from struggling to thriving can be very jarring.

Ask the Bitches: I Know How to Struggle and Fight, but I Don’t Know How to Succeed

Oh, everyone, I have a great treat for you today. It’s a very interesting letter from one of our Patreon supporters!

If you don’t already know, anyone who makes a $5 donation to our Patreon account will get to ask us a question. Any question! And they may do so privately or publicly. This was a private question, but I asked our patron (whom I’ll call Hope) if I could share it with you. Because despite Hope’s rather specific situation, I think it speaks to a surprisingly universal experience.

I’m a single mom and have spent the last 7 out of my son’s 10 years of life struggling HARD. I’ve climbed my way up my professional ladder with no formal education or degree. I accrued $20K in debt during these hard years, but I have a plan to pay it off over the next two years, and overall my prospects are good.

My problem is this: I’ve always dreamed of putting away money for a down payment on a house my son can grow up in. But my son will be 12 by the time I’m ready to start saving. By the time I can afford a house, we’d have little time to enjoy it together. I can’t see myself being stuck with a house at 40 years old and my son gone off to school or whatever he ends up doing.

I know it sounds like this isn’t a problem, but I’m afraid that without a plan or goal, I’ll end up squandering anything I’m able to save once I get this paid off. I’m afraid of having money and not struggling and wasting money. I’m thinking of starting a college fund, a travel fund, I have no idea fund, but other than the small-scale budgeting I can do, I have no idea how money works. 

How can I “get riches” and be smart and not lose them for lack of a plan? is it too late to set my son up for success in other ways? Should I just be talking to an accountant? 

Any advice you could give would be great. I know how to struggle and fight, but I don’t know how to succeed.

A surface-level answer

First of all, Hope, you should be commended for many years of hard work and sacrifice. You’ve accomplished a lot, and should be extremely proud of yourself.

We totally agree with Hope on a few things. Paying off debts first and saving for a home second is a pretty great one-two punch of financial goals. We love home ownership and encourage a lot of people to shoot for it. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone at every stage of life.

Hope may be correct in thinking that the window to enjoy a home with her son is closing. If her son is already in high school by the time she’s ready to buy, it may not make financial sense to do so. We turn to our favorite buying versus renting calculator when evaluating options like this.

The simplest answer to this question would be to tell Hope to buy a home that’s small enough to enjoy with or without her son. Two-bedroom homes are rare, but they exist; a condo might be a great choice. You get the stability of ownership without the loneliness and overcommitment of a large house and a soon-to-be empty nest. You can enjoy it together, and when he moves on, you could use the extra space for anything: a roommate, a hobby, a home office, a guest room, whatever!

But I think the deeper issue isn’t really whether or not a home is the right financial goal for you. It sounds like it’s about motivation.

A deeper dive

Scarcity mindset

Let me pull a few phrases that jumped out at me.

“I’ve spent that last 7 years struggling HARD”

“I’m afraid of having money and not struggling”

“I know how to struggle and fight, but I don’t know how to succeed”

“Scarcity mindset” is a term that describes a longstanding tactical survival mentality. You’re used to not having enough time, enough money, enough energy. So you become incredibly strategic about how to use your limited resources. As your son is getting more autonomous, and you’re finding success in your career, those scarcities are slowly becoming abundances. And you’re not sure what to do with abundances because you’ve never had them before. You have no experiences to inform an abundance mindset.

A friend once told me that her mother (a Holocaust survivor) used to serve intolerably tiny portions at every meal. This continued for her entire life, even after her family found stability in the United States. This was a very common reaction, and an extreme example of how a scarcity mindset can persist. People who have known serious lack often respond to surplus with distrust and confusion. Your mind and your body still remember how shitty it felt to be unsafe, and you’re acutely aware of how easily safety could vanish. Enough so that you’re worried you might just passively self-sabotage!

“I’m afraid that without a plan or goal, I’ll end up squandering anything I’m able to save…”

Beware your inner saboteur!

Caregiving identity erosion

Another thing to consider is that you’ve been a caregiver for the last decade.

Many full-time caregivers—whether to children, ailing parents, or other dependents—struggle to maintain their individual identity. When all of your finite resources are invested in caring for someone else, it’s very easy to lose sight of your own goals, interests, and needs. In many ways, this letter is an echo of the same kind of sentiment we talked about with another reader who felt lost after years of caring for an ailing parent.

It’s another kind of scarcity mindset conflict: attention. You can finally pay attention to yourself and your needs. For long-term caregivers, it’s a tremendously confusing prospect that often leads to depression and restlessness.

It sounds like everything you’ve done has been to give your son a stable life. That’s beautiful. Now that he’s a little older, you can see a future where being his caregiver won’t be your primary focus. Of course you’re struggling to set goals for that future! It’s so unlike the past you have to draw upon. You’ll become the star of your own long-term plans once more. And that’s a lot of pressure.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

One last fun element to point out here.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that humans experience different levels of need—and generally, the basic needs supersede the lofty.

The first level is physiological needs. You need air more urgently than anything else in your life. Next is water. Then food and sleep.

The second level is safety needs. This need is both physiological and psychological. You need to be physically safe from harm, but you must also feel safe. This includes a sense of financial security.

You are moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You’ve already met your basic physical needs. By paying down your debt, you’re guaranteeing your safety. The steps after that are social belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Those can feel more ephemeral and mutable, and there’s a reason for that!

As we move up the pyramid, our needs diversify. We all have identical physical needs (‘errbody in the club need air). But no two people have the exact same definition of self-actualization. The higher you climb, the more often you will find yourself all alone, forging your own path. It can feel like you’re going in the wrong direction.

I really hear this in Hope’s list of alternatives to saving for a house.

“I’m thinking of starting a college fund, a travel fund, I have no idea fund…”

These are the things other people save money for—so should she start saving for them too? Those are the ways that other people seem to connect with their higher needs—is that how she’ll connect with hers?

The answer there is a resounding “nah.”

WHERE ARE MY ABUNDANCE CANDLES?!

My advice

Scarcity mindset. Caregiver identity erosion. Hierarchy of needs stalled at 20%. We need a financial plan that will address all of these at once.

For the next two years, pay off your $20K in debts. For year three, keep your savings rate steady to build a $10K emergency fund. Keep that in a high-interest savings account (I personally use Ally). With no debt and a good cushion to protect you from a sudden catastrophe (job loss, illness, car failure, etc), you will feel the financial safety you need to attend to your higher needs: belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

While you’re working on those three financial goals, you need some non-financial goals as well. I would start with reconnecting with what gives you joy outside of being a parent or an employee. Use these years to think about what you love to do, where you love to be, what activities give you a deep sense of inner peace, what kind of people you want to have in your life. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you the things that make you happy if you know what they are.

The transition from struggling to thriving can be very jarring. There’s no light switch in your brain to flip you into middle class mode. You need to give yourself lots of time to adjust, and permission to not have the answer right away. I am positive that if you give yourself those things, you’ll connect with a goal that’s all your own. Piggy and I are rooting for you from the comfort of the permanent ass-shaped dents in our respective couches.

Okay, Bitch Nation, how’d I do with this one? What would your advice to Hope be? Tell us in the comments below.

If you would like to have your question answered by the Bitches, please sign up to become our patron on Patreon. $5 is all you need to get your very own long-winded, overly-philosophical financial therapy dump. Doesn’t that sound, uh, “nice”? You can ask your questions privately or share them with the public to be turned into articles just like this one.

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13 thoughts to “Ask the Bitches: I Know How to Struggle and Fight, but I Don’t Know How to Succeed”

  1. I read a lot of scarcity mindset in her excerpt as well. It reflected a lot of my own. More importantly, this is AMAZING advice. If I was a brave betting woman, I would say home ownership isn’t the best move. As homeowners, I find our properties very annoying to maintain. I daydream being back at the apartment with no yard to maintain and next to all the hustle bustle action.

    1. I think I’m going to print out your comment and paste it to my fridge. So many people tell me to stop renting and to buy a place, but I don’t want the hassle, and it’s nice to know there are other people who view home ownership as a hassle!

  2. As one of your older readers, and one who is sending 2 kids to college, I think that after she has an emergency fund she should look into saving for college. She can use her caregiver mentality to research what her son needs to do to get scholarships and to get admission to college (even some of the more popular public state universities have become difficult to get admission to). His school may not give sufficient advice on getting into college (counselors are stretched pretty thin). What I have learned is that kids need to have volunteer, leadership, and extracurricular experience. She can get him started on that now. Colleges and scholarship providers love to see kids who have found a passion and followed through with it for several years.

    1. I thought about recommending something like this, but ultimately decided against it because I thought that Hope needed to connect with herself and her needs. I do like your advice, though I would modify it a little.

      I have many peers in my age group and younger who graduated from college like a bird hitting a window. Those kids often had well-meaning parents who guided them too strongly toward early successes. I would almost describe it as lifting a heavy table together. The parent has to gradually build the amount of weight the child can handle on their own. Otherwise, the moment they graduate, the child collapses. They had no idea how much work their parent was doing for them, and the sudden full weight is overwhelming. Not very fun for the parent to watch, either.

      I think you can save up a little money for college, but don’t make it your only financial goal. You can teach your kid the values behind the spirit of volunteering and leadership, but don’t do it because it’ll get them something. Nurture passions because passions are good to have, not because colleges like them. Not all kids should or will go to college, but everyone needs to find what motivates them to get up in the morning. This is why having a non-family, non-work-related goal for Hope is what I focused on. She’ll model healthy pursuit of interests to her son in a way that he can copy as he gets older.

      1. Well said. I thought there was probably a reason you didn’t focus on that part. I grew up lower-class but am college-educated (when college was much less expensive). My kids attended high schools where a large number of students were middle- to upper-class and I think the reason our schools’ counselors didn’t discuss the need to volunteer is because they thought all college-bound students were middle/upper-class and belonged to an evangelical church and went on mission trips and visited nursing homes and homeless shelters on a regular basis (we’re in the Bible Belt). College admissions officers seem to expect that too. My family does not belong to such a church and neither do my friends. None of us (who tend to be lower/middle-class) were prepared for the heavy emphasis on volunteering and extracurriculars. People like Hope (and us) who didn’t grow up in the middle/upper-class culture are at a disadvantage in preparing our kids for college and middle/upper-class life, culturally as much as financially. We should certainly not become “helicopter parents” like you described, that does no one any good. I was the complete opposite and let my kids do only the activities they wanted (which for my son was none at all, and my daughter it was only recreational dance classes). I wish I had encouraged them to try volunteering and let them then quit at the appropriate time if they chose. I volunteered extensively at their schools but they didn’t copy it themselves. I wish I had signed them up for activities (like middle/upper-class parents do) then let them decide if they wanted to continue, rather than letting them decide whether they would start all. That is what I meant to suggest for Hope. My advice to her was based on the fact that our kids will be competing for spots in college with wealthy kids who know all the right things to do and probably have paid college advisors. As for savings, all college financial advice tells us that we should save for retirement first and college second. I believe that in addition to retirement, Hope should save a little money for her son’s college to show him that she believes that he is capable of going to college if he chooses and that it is important enough to her to put some of her own money toward it.

      2. (As someone who works in college admissions, I second this SO HARD. Don’t do things in high school because you think it’ll get you into college; do them because they make you a better human. Also, obviously loans aren’t fun but it’s important to recognize that college might require them and that might be okay– no one should feel entitled to “merit” scholarships! This is a whole other tangent, though.)

  3. I had a single mom who finally bought a house when I was 19, after I was well moved out. I was thrilled for her! I never felt like I missed out, as she had made each rental as cozy and clean as I could possibly want. My childhood memories are no less awesome in knowing it was a rental! Watching her achieve home ownership (and graduate college) while I was an adult made her accomplishments sweeter for both of us because I could SEE how much she’d accomplished. Sometimes home ownership isn’t right. If you’ve got a good and affordable rental, hold onto it… I now own a home and spend most of my spare time fixing it and cleaning it, and I love it as MY hobby and lifestyle, but I doubt a kid would be super into it!

    Additionally, being raised in a financially insecure home is hard, and I’m the first generation in my family to have a retirement account, so now, as a 41 year old I’m absorbed in my 67 year old mom’s inability to retire. Please, just take care of your security first, your adult kid will be thrilled when you can confidently say “Don’t worry about me!”

    1. You know what, I’m gonna ditto this. I loved living in an apartment complex. There were so many kids my age! And younger, for those sweet sweet babysitting dollars.

      And at your last point, I nod my head so hard my neck breaks (please send help). I haven’t been able to write about it yet, but I recently had a parent call me in tears, begging for money. The experience was humiliating and distressing for all involved. Let your kids pay for their own damn college and their own damn weddings and their own damn houses! Get that retirement plan LOCKED the fuck DOWN!

      1. That was going to be my build, too – once the emergency fund is sitting pretty, start saving something for retirement. Hope’s son can access loans for school if he needs to; Hope will need to have something saved so that she can retire at some point.

  4. Seconded, great advice.

    One idea I’d heard about for recording progress on the debt payoff journey is to keep a record of how much debt has been paid off / rather than focusing on the outstanding amount too much. It can be a much more positive experience thinking ‘I’ve paid off 5k, 10k, 20k of debt instead of looking at the amount remaining’.

    After the emergency fund is ready to roll then think about a few big, scary or audacious goals and start saving / investing for those. Hope sounds like she’s doing a great job, moving in the right direction so far and I wish her the best of luck.

    As an aside, as this post was primarily about Hope rather than her son, maybe start imparting your knowledge to him about money now (if you haven’t done already). So that when he his college he’s ahead of the game when it comes to managing his finances on his own for the first time. Mum, provider, optimist, financial planner! From one project to the next – I believe she can achieve this.

    1. 1,000% agree. If you have kids, there is no reason not to include them in frequent discussions about money and the family’s financial goals.*

      *I did think of one reason. What if your finical goal is, like, “renovate the basement into a sex dungeon?” Maybe don’t tell your kids about that! But GOOD FOR YOU! Get it, mommy!

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