Dear Prudence: I’m a single mother and my ex-husband has stopped paying child support (I’m working on that, but there’s no money now). I’ve got a new job in health care, which is secure but low-paying. I have $20 in my checking account and am about to file for bankruptcy.
My 11-year-old son and I are barely getting by, but I’m grateful for what we do have. He is not. I’ve shielded him as much as possible from our financial straits but that leaves him wondering why we don’t eat out all the time like his friends, go out for entertainment like his friends, or constantly upgrade to the latest-and-greatest-whatever like his friends.
What do I tell him when he asks for something and the real answer is, “I’m broke”? It’s not that he’s always asking for things that are extravagances. One week, we were out of milk and I couldn’t get more because I didn’t have the money. When this happens, what can I say?
Prudence says: “We can’t afford that” should be a standard part of the parental vocabulary; it’s not an example of child abuse. In trying to protect your son from the difficult realities of his circumstances, you have surely left him more anxious and confused.
His father’s gone and isn’t even helping raise him financially. You try to act as if everything is fine, but then tell him there’s not going to be milk for the cereal until the end of the week.
Your son deserves the truth, told carefully and sensitively. Explain to him that because you’re living on a single income, and you don’t get paid a lot, money is tight. Fortunately, you have a good job, a home and you’re both going to be OK.
But you two need to live on a strict budget. That means you can’t buy some of the things that his friends have, and restaurants are for very special treats.
Then tell him you two are going to work as a team. Have him grocery shop with you and keep track of what you’re spending — that will be good for his math skills. At home, make cheap, delicious meals together — learning to cook will be another excellent life skill.
Enroll him in free activities; for example, see if there’s a nearby Boys & Girls Club. Look into all the services available to you: food stamps, food banks, subsidized meals at school, etc.
Convey to him that living within your means does not mean deprivation, but the comfort in knowing that what you have, you can pay for.