Category: Just A Frugal Mom

The other end of giving: How going to a food bank changed this widowed mom’s perspective

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I’ve got a bachelor’s degree. I’m smart and innovative. I’m frugal and budget for everything. And yet, there I was, waiting in line at the food bank to get food for myself and my three children. There was a lump in my throat that just wouldn’t go away from the time I finally gave in and realized I needed to go to the weekly food bank at a local church. Food banks were for poor people. I wasn’t a poor person…at least I didn’t want to admit it. I mean my children and I weren’t living in a shelter, we weren’t on the streets, and at least (the only thing to our name) we had a minivan, so we weren’t poor, right?

My 34-year-old husband died, leaving me with a newborn and toddler twins. He could never qualify for life insurance because of his cancer diagnosis in his early 20s, and he was sole proprietor of his very small window-cleaning business, which yielded very little in social security benefits for my children after his death. We moved in with my parents who are both still working full-time and could really only give us a place to stay. They weren’t financially able to afford supporting all of our basic day-to-day needs beyond a roof over our heads. Everything I had was given to us from the generosity of others—churches, strangers, fundraisers. All that was given with love was accepted with humility and brought us through the first two years after my husband’s death. But the heaviness of life events just kept happening: unplanned plane tickets for my twins and their Godparents who had to care for them while my baby was in PICU for almost two months; multiple illnesses and hospital stays for myself; and the extreme cost of childcare to just survive day to day ate up quickly what was given so generously. To be honest, I underestimated the impact of grief. I assumed all I had to do was “get through the first year” and after that, everything would be better. I would just get a job—I was smart and talented, I could do that. I’d get a house and I’d be super-mom. The one-year anniversary of my husband’s death came and went and I realized I was still reeling from the trauma of his slow and painful death, from losing him, from struggling with undiagnosed PTSD while raising three kids alone. Nothing got “better” after that first year. I could barely do laundry, let alone get a job. Even if I wanted to get a job, I couldn’t because the cost of childcare for three children under 5 is astronomical. My parents rode the storm with me and were just as tired. They were not able to be the “built-in-babysitters-whenever-I-want-them” as many people have assumed and so even a part-time job wasn’t an option for me. I tried, briefly, to work at a local coffee shop for one day a week, which proved unsuccessful in both my ability to handle anything else and my mom energy needed to take care of very very active children. Everywhere I looked for an out, a big door shut in my face and my stubbornness brought me to not share with others, my situation. We were scraping by, but kids keep getting hungry and eating all the food…imagine that! Sitting down and looking at the budget I knew I needed help. I didn’t feel poor, in fact, I felt rich beyond belief.  I was incredibly grateful for the home my parents had provided for my children and me, and the money that still trickled in from generous givers, but the stark reality was that the government wasn’t going to help me in this situation. Social security was (and still is) withholding a quarter of my benefits because of a mistake in their paper trail, and we were not on the good end of that mistake. I finally waved my white flag and put down my pride.

In line at the food bank I remembered all the times I’d cleaned out my pantry when I had a “normal” life. I dusted off expired cans of vegetables and fruits and threw unwanted boxes of pasta and crackers in bags to donate to food banks. My husband worked hard for what we had and I could go to the store every week to stock up on everything we needed (and then some, judging by all the food that was given to the food bank and not eaten by us). But as I entered the room with shelves lining the walls with bread, yogurts and some produce, juice and boxes and cans, I was on the receiving end. I still felt like I didn’t belong there and I felt shame as I took as little as I could to fill my bags, thinking, “this isn’t me. I’m smart, I should be able to be making money to provide for my family. I shouldn’t be here…” I didn’t want to look at everyone else who was there, filling their bags, while I only grabbed a few things. I quietly left and on the drive home I cried, feeling like a failure. I thought I’d seen so many moms do it all; work, school, and still be the supermom that volunteers and helps with school crafts. Why couldn’t I be that mom? Here I was, accepting pity food…


Emptying my one bag of food when I got home, I was hit with a new perspective and an incredible sense of gratitude; I was providing for my children because I put my pride aside and did what needed to be done. By accepting what others had given I was blessing the givers just as much as they were blessing me. They didn’t know my family when they were emptying out their pantry, just like I didn’t know who was benefiting from the food I’d given so many times in the past. But being on the other end of giving made me realize that’s what life’s all about. In the good times, we share our blessings with others. In the not-so-good times, we are given the blessings of others—as long as we are open to accepting it.

The other few times I went to the food bank, I filled our bags with gratitude, not greed, because I knew someone gave willingly to help families like mine. Accepting help gave me the confidence and eased one less stress to develop a game plan to start digging myself out of the mess I was left with.

I don’t have to go to the food bank anymore, but I know it’s there if we need it, and the mess is slowly being revealed as an opportunity to constantly change my perspective, even though I can’t always change our circumstance. I will never forget being on the receiving end at the food bank and I can’t wait to start giving again to the local food banks—but this time not dusty cans from the back of the pantry, but to set aside some new food every grocery trip to give to others.

In the Holiday season where giving is the star of the show, know that if you’re on the other end of giving, there’s no shame as receiving can be just as impacting.

Read more Holiday posts from Just A Mom:

A little bundle of Hope

The presence of your gift

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The higher reality: How getting out of debt WAS our life insurance

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A stark moment of reality hit me when I finished tallying up numbers for taxes this year. Staring at the numbers, or the lack thereof, made my stomach sink. Voices of doubt filled my head as I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t so bad; but in a culture of excess that tells you that you and your three children fall below poverty level, it’s hard not to feel panicked. And I did. But through my tears, there was a still small voice that hushed the loud, jarring screams and taunts that I am failing and will never make it. I know that is an absolute lie because, in that moment, I was reminded of all the times we shouldn’t have made it even this far in the past six years, but we did, and I can’t take an ounce of credit for any of it. In the blurry vision of my tears I felt prompted to open my Bible, and what verse did I open it to?:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?…

-Matthew 6:26-27 (ESV)

There it was, in bright red, the words of J.C. himself and here I was crying about a number. A number that took up occupancy in my mind so much that it was all I could think about or talk about, it brought fear and doubt into my mind so fast I lost sight of the truth and my experience of that truth over and over throughout this journey. I may not have a lot as far as income goes right now, that’s my reality, but Matthew 6:26-27 is my higher reality. This isn’t religion or flowery words that make people feel guilty for worrying, this is personal and real and I was so humbled at that moment I read that verse, I just had to share with you. To share with you my weaknesses (talking about money is a little scary) if that means it’s giving glory to the one who deserves it (2 Corinthians 12:9.) So this is where the Bible gets real with me, this is where its words make me a little uncomfortable in the midst of chaos and crisis. Is it possible—REALLY possible to feel perfectly blessed and content when it seems so much is going wrong? It is, I can’t not believe it, because I’m living it. The only catch is that I can choose to recognize it, embrace it and live it, or I can drown myself in self-pity and ignore all the goodness that surrounds me. So I choose to acknowledge my reality, while also acknowledging a higher reality. It’s not easy, I feel like I’ve been dragged along this journey kicking and screaming in impatience and fear, panic and urgency, but I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of allowing my reality to define me. I’m ready to stop the struggle and be held in the higher reality in my life. Here is how I got here, moment of surrender and peace.

My Reality:

I was widowed at age 28 and am a mother of three children under five. My late husband was the sole provider for our household and the sole proprietor of a small seasonal business (which means no company life insurance, no 401K, and very little paid into Social Security after only 10 years of running a seasonal, six-months-out-of-the-year business.) He was in his early 20s when he was diagnosed with cancer and the disease remained active from that point forward, so private life insurance was off the table. When he died, I finally had to move in with my parents for hands-on help with the children, as well as shelter and basic needs, but was faced with the behemoth task of trying to figure out how in the world to run a business (which ended up going under anyway), how to raise three little kids, and find and pay for childcare for the desperate alone-time I needed. Time to not only figure out what I was going to do next, but to seek trauma counseling and honestly, to just check-out and gather all the little pieces of my thoughts. The first few months after I moved into my parents’ home for help exploded into one crisis after another; my mother had emergency surgery and was out of commission for almost three months, I was so ill from exhaustion I ended up in the hospital and my newborn was in the hospital three times each accompanied with an ambulance ride, the last of which landed her in the hospital for a month and a half with respiratory syncytial  virus, or RSV. I was one weary mommy who needed some taking care of herself, but instead needed to take care of so many others whose needs were more urgent. I had to make the incredibly difficult decision to send my two-year-old twin boys to Florida with their Godparents during the month the baby was in the hospital. In between consistent hospital visits, I was left with the task of filing death certificates and fighting the billing companies as medical bills from my husband’s care poured in. I’ve been battling for almost two years now with Social Security because they’re withholding my survivor’s benefits for six years due to a processing error. I can’t afford to work since I can’t afford full-time childcare which means no steady income to buy a home of our own and a little extra to save. In my reality, getting out of this situation looks a little dismal and damn near impossible in the present moment. When I find myself wallowing in my reality, I fix my eyes on the higher reality. It’s there. It’s always been there and now I can see it.

The Higher Reality:

Three years ago a friend was talking about the book The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey*. A friend gave me the book and showed it to my husband and we were fired up. Our reality then was that we were more than $50,000 in debt–car loans, credit cards and student loans– with infant twins, a small business and a looming cancer diagnosis. Looking back now, we were blessed with the opportunity to stay in a home owned by family and without that blessing, the rest of this probably wouldn’t have been possible. From the time we started implementing the Total Money Makeover’s “Baby Steps,” we had paid off most of the debt by the time my husband was moved from palliative care to in-home hospice care. It was an absolute miracle that through all of his chemotherapy, he would get up every day and climb ladders to earn money to throw more at the debt and provide at least something for his family, “Better to feel miserable working than feel miserable lying in bed,” he had said. When he was bedridden and could no longer do the work himself, he found subcontractors and still scheduled work from his bed. In fact, his phone log shows his last business call was the day before he died. To fill in the gap from the lack of income that resulted from his sickness and my being pregnant with our third child, total strangers came to our door with food, help with household chores, financial gifts and grocery gift cards and clothing for my children. There was never a day that went by that there wasn’t food in the fridge, clothes on our backs and a warm, safe roof over our head. We didn’t do anything to deserve it, we didn’t even really know how to ask for help, but the help showed up anyway. The last week of his life, my husband devoted his hours to selling his work truck which paid off our last debt. On the day he died, we were debt-free. By the grace of God, the community held fundraisers for our family. The money from the fundraisers, with careful budgeting and hours of listening to Dave Ramsey’s show, has carried me through for the past two years. If we weren’t debt-free, all the fundraising money would have been eaten up by paying off debt, and I would probably be bankrupt. So now, all because of a book that bases its premise on simple Biblical and practical financial tips ignited a spark in us a few years ago to pay off our debt, a family of four can live on $1500 a month; no credit cards, no borrowing, and coming up with other ways to make or save money by selling stuff, thrifting, cutting unnecessary expenses, cooking at home, etc. Also knowing God always comes through whether it’s generously offered help from other people or humbling myself enough to ask for and seek help (which is really hard!)

I’m not living the American Dream in context of ‘more is better’, but the higher reality has taught me sacrifice, living below my means, giving up a lot of things that media tells us we can’t live without. But in all honesty, the higher reality has provided more than just basic necessities and material things, it provided me with the gift of time. Because we got out of debt, by the grace of God, I don’t need to work three jobs to make ends meet, I have been given the time to work on my heart and the grief I couldn’t address for far too long. Time to spend with my two little boys who need the presence of their mommy after their daddy, in their minds, just vanished one day. Time to see all my baby’s firsts and now she’s two and I haven’t missed a moment.

I know my story isn’t everyone’s. I know how hard people are working just to survive—good, honest, hardworking people. I know all too well that money, especially a life insurance policy, can make practical things a little easier in times of tragedy and crisis, and, yes, most days I wish my husband did have a policy, but the truth is that getting out of debt took the place of that life insurance; starting that process years prior was the answer to a future prayer we didn’t even know we’d need to pray.

I didn’t do anything to deserve this higher reality. It was a gift, and really an absolute miracle we’ve made it as far as we have on so little if I go by society’s standards of wealth. A precious gift I keep in my pocket on the days it feels like nothing is going right and the struggle just seems too hard. A steady gift that when opened and observed, time and time again, helps me to look up instead of down. And every time I look up I see how incredibly rich my family is.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

-Matthew 6:21

 

 

 

* Just A Mom has not been paid to endorse or advertise the Dave Ramsey brand or products.