On Starting Out with Nothing

I absolutely hate being sick! And that’s just what I’ve been for the better part of the past week. Instead of enjoying watermelon and fireworks, I had chills and a fever for the 4th of July. I try to stay healthy by eating right, getting plenty of rest and a bit of exercise, but there’s one thing that throws my immune system into chaos every time I’m exposed to it…children. I’m fairly certain that I’m allergic to them.

Okay, I’m exaggerating (a bit) but seriously, I do tend to get sick every time I’m around a group of children for any length of time and I was around plenty of kids at my great-nieces’s first birthday party last Saturday. It’s not their fault though. Kids are just naturally more hands-on social than adults are and how do you say no when a little one with a runny nose wants to hug you? You don’t.

Aside from coming home with a cold, we had a really nice time at the party. This was the first time we’d seen my niece and the baby since just before Easter and it was great that my mom felt like coming along for the ride. As we were helping pack up the decorations, my niece’s boyfriend (DC) pulled Angie and I aside and asked if he could ask us a question. I love this guy but sometimes his questions are way out in left field so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

As it turns out, he and my niece are contemplating the big step of moving in together next month. She is 18 and he is 21. It is their daughter that just turned 1. His big question to us:

“How do you save money?”

As we stood there, arms resting on the back of his monster-sized pickup truck, so many thoughts flew thought my mind. I could tell him about bulk grocery shopping or automatic savings programs or thrifting or any one of the many ways that we save money but that wasn’t really what he was asking. Behind his eyes I saw the bigger question: “How on Earth do we make this work?”

DC is a decent kid from a middle class family. He still lives with his parents, where his only requirement is to keep his space picked up and check in if he’s not coming home. He’s a community college graduate with a good entry-level job in his family’s business. But like a lot of other young Americans, DC is starting his adult life at a huge disadvantage. He has debt, including an astronomical truck payment and miscellaneous medical bills. He also has expensive habits, like smoking, dining out for nearly every meal, and drinking 2-3 energy drinks per day.

We could tell him (and we have told him before) that his car payment, insurance, and the $100 per week that he spends in gas are killing his chances of ever saving any money. We could tell him (and we have) that smoking is a bad idea and that $16 spent at McDonald’s is $16 wasted. But that’s not what he wants to hear.

My friend, Juli, calls this generation the “microwave generation” because they want everything instantly. DC is no exception. We’ve had many chats with him over the past year, on topics ranging from marijuana to marriage. (When we talked about marriage, despite the fact that it was already after 4 PM and that TN requires mandatory counseling in order to apply for a license, he was insistent that we help him find a way to do it that day.) Sometimes I feel like we’re this boy’s substitute parents and we’re not doing such a great job raising him.

The advice we gave him that day – be patient. We encouraged him to work on changing his financial circumstances before adding to them. Since he didn’t want to sell his truck, we suggested that he work extra to pay it off quickly and then think about moving out, perhaps on his own first (somewhere closer to his daughter) while his girlfriend finishes her own education.

My mom, who’s not quite so empathetic or subtle, had this to say instead:

“Living off love is only going to last until you realize you’re hungry and can’t buy food, or a pot to cook it in, or pay the electric bill to even turn on the stove. There’s no magic closet full of sheets or towels waiting when you move out. It’s all on you to provide these things and more. And I don’t see how you’re going to do that when you’re already down to your last $2 and yesterday was pay day!”

I told you my mom doesn’t mince words.

She’s right though. Starting out with nothing isn’t what it once was. When my parents got married (at 18 and 21), they had nothing. But nothing for them meant no debt, no car payment, no student loans. What nothing didn’t mean was the absence of a plan. They had aspirations and goals and a drive to get there. My dad was just out of the Army with dreams of being a police officer. My mom knew from the age of 5 that she wanted to be a nurse. For 6 months they lived with my grandparents while my mom finished high school and got a job as a nurse’s aide and my dad went to the police academy. Two years and two tiny apartments later, my mom graduated from nursing school. It wasn’t an overnight process, it was a struggle…a struggle that took patience and persistence, along with love for one another.

Sadly, I don’t see those same driving qualities in DC or my niece for that matter and it worries me. When DC asks for advice, he’s really asking for a solution. He wants us to tell him that everything is going to work out fine and that we’re here to help (with baby-sitting, dinner invitations, and rent money, if need be). But we can’t offer him that solution. We’ve all walked a long road to get to where we are today and now it’s their turn to walk that road for themselves. We can try to help them avoid the pitfalls but we can’t take the journey for them.

If I had just one piece of advice to offer DC, it might sound a lot like a quote from Dave Ramsey. “Live like no one else today, so later you can live like no one else.” Don’t be in a hurry. Bank your love for each other and whatever money you can save for the day when you’re ready and able to be a family. And when the time is right, you won’t have to ask anyone else how to make it work…you’ll already know.

2 thoughts on “On Starting Out with Nothing

  1. Really great post. Even if your niece’s boyfriend is searching for an instant fix, at least he’s asking the right question. Like you said, there’s only so much you can do — not everyone is ready to give up their prized possessions and habits, however expensive they are. Tactically, there are probably a few good starting points for them, like building a small emergency fund and staying out of debt. He might not be ready for those, either, but you can at least continue to set a positive example.

    Liked by 1 person

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