When debt feels like home

After my parents died 16 months apart, I inherited a windfall that included my mortgage-free childhood home (valued at $328,000) and nearly six figures of their savings. That, combined with a six-figure salary and the fact that I have no children, meant that I would live quite comfortably, right? Not exactly.

Even though I earn more than my much older ex and many of my peers, I feel perpetually poor: In my mind (and some of my actions), I’m still that working-class girl I grew up scratching to get out of it. My father struggled with poverty early in his life and was proud to have saved enough money to become a homeowner. (During the hospital stay before his death, he asked to go home to die.)

So my parents’ money stays pretty much intact in my bank account, and I’m putting off paying off my $10,000 credit card debt and hesitating about putting down a down payment on a new house because I’m afraid to tap into my heritage. For now, I’m in my childhood home, paying only utilities and quarterly taxes, and living with memories.

My parents, although both Cuban exiles who fled the communist country in the 1960s, had contrasting and extreme views on money. My mother, Magaly, lived by the “you only live once” philosophy, but just in case, she had trinkets and clothes to last her two lives. But she also had clearer ideas about throwing away her treasures. A year before she died, my mother gave me two large bags of clothes to donate. “I know it’ll be hard for you to get rid of them when I die, so I’m giving them to you now to help you,” she said half-jokingly. Mom was right that throwing away or giving away her things after she died would be difficult. Even with his forethought, it took me nearly two years to decide what to keep after he died.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was my father, Armando. He hid money under mattresses and cushions and wore the same clothes for decades. Dad also refrained from going out to dinner unless it was for special events – and only after we harassed him several times. (He would choose the cheapest item on the menu and was shocked when we tipped 18-20% off the bill.) He would resist buying new appliances, even when old appliances were so worn that some, like the 25-year-old oven – completely stopped working.

More than

Dad and I once had a fight over a rusty 1970s lime green chair and the remains of my early 1980s crib, which remained entombed in the basement.

“You don’t understand value,” Dad told me in Spanish. “Do you know how hard your mother and I worked to get this crib? To get everything you have? He equated material things with love.

“Dad, this chair is at least ten years older than me, and it’s hideous. As for the crib, even if I were to have a baby, I wouldn’t put it in this death trap,” I retorted. I finally made a deal with some neighbors to put this old furniture on their curbs the next day, unbeknownst to my dad.

Immediately after my father died, I put the hundreds of dollars of mattress money in the bank. I used some of the money my parents left for me to do some home repairs. A significant portion of my inheritance, $40,000, went towards a new tub, new windows and floors, and removing asbestos from the basement. I justified these expenses as a good return on investment if I ever sold or rented my childhood home. But beyond that, I felt remorse the few times I dipped into that savings account, because I still view my inheritance as my parents’ money.

There is no separation between their money and intense emotions: the guilt of knowing that more than 75% of what is in my bank comes from them, the fear of feeling like I am doing badly manage what they’ve worked so hard to build (or worse, waste it all and end up with nothing).

Tired of feeling so helpless, I recently hired a financial advisor recommended by a trusted friend. We’ve had two meetings via Zoom so far, but I feel more confident. During our second virtual meeting, the counselor and I went over my assets and debts to determine my net worth. It was the first time I had discussed finances with anyone other than my parents or my ex-boyfriend. When the financial planner and I looked at my savings account, I burst into tears. “I wouldn’t have most of this money if my parents were still alive. I want to be a good steward of what they left me,” I told him, feeling more like confessing to a priest or talking to my therapist than talking to a financial expert. He mentioned that he would push me beyond my comfort zones, but ultimately how I eventually decide to spend my money (or not) would be up to me.

The first thing he suggested was to use my savings to pay off my credit card debt, reminding me that I pay more interest by leaving a balance on my cards each month. I may see my savings decrease temporarily, but I will have more money in the long run. The counselor will also take a forensic look at what I’m already spending – uh, wasting? – on my paychecks. I suspect he’ll advise me to cut down on eating out, and I don’t have to spend so much on my wardrobe since I already have closets (yes, plural) that rival my mom’s. .

The biggest investment I weigh, one I’m still ambivalent about, is whether to spend a substantial portion of my inheritance on IVF. All the things my parents left me, from spending habits to money in the bank, were given to me with the complicated, all-consuming love of parenthood. Although he couldn’t convince me to keep this pram, I understand that my father’s saving habit was his way of offering protection and love. Spending my parents’ money, even to prepare my own family, is terrifying, because now that my parents are gone, what they left behind seems more precious than ever. Maybe part of me is as reluctant to lose our common sense of struggle as I am the money they saved. Even though I know deep down that our bond goes deeper than debt, I continue to struggle to honor the two people who gave me everything.


Carmen Cusido is a writer based in northern New Jersey. She is working on a memoir about grief and loss titled Never talk about Castro and the other rules my parents taught me.

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