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The Money Diaries: The 25-year-old single mom who writes bad checks

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Today is another post in the Money Diaries series, which is based off New York Magazine’s Sex Diaries. We’ve collected stories from real people about their spending habits over seven days, anonymized them, and posted them here.


Today’s entry is by a 25-year-old single mother. This woman’s spending is definitely troubling — she spends 8% of her take-home pay on self-described “bad habits,” including cigarettes and writing bad checks. But be careful: It’s easy to say, “Why don’t people just SPEND LESS??!” without understanding the full context of why they do what they do.

* * *

Day 1
6:45 a.m.: I call my bank to make sure that nothing unexpected has been withdrawn from my checking account. I breathe a sigh of relief. The balance is right where I left it: $2.24. I rouse my three-year-old, special needs daughter from sleep and take her to the bus stop.
8:26 a.m.: Am displeased to find I fell back asleep after taking my daughter down to catch her bus — I’m supposed to be at work at 9:00! I contemplate calling a cab, but know I can’t afford it, period. I get ready and run to the bus stop.
8:43 a.m.: Arrive at bus stop. I see the college kids waiting. I envy them, but there’s no time for expanding my mind when it’s imperative that I expand my bank account.
10 a.m.: Slam my hands on my keyboard when I realize I have forgotten my lunch.
12:15 p.m.: Spend $5.18 for a hefty serving of garlic chicken and rice on top of shredded cabbage. Yummy!
12:45 p.m.: Go to the convenience store and get a Coke and a pack of cigarettes ($0.85 for the Coke, $6.35 for the cheapest pack of cigarettes). Feeling guilty about spending money on cigarettes and Coke, I make a vow to quit both by payday. Unfortunately, this is about the thirtieth time I’ve made this vow.
6 p.m.: Get home and make the kiddo chicken nuggets and canned vegetables. Use the last of the milk, and hope that she’ll be okay drinking water for the following two nights.

Day 2
12 p.m.: Use the loose change in my purse to buy a Coke ($0.85). Sit outside my office on a gorgeous Honolulu afternoon to drink my soda and eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m broke, but at least I’m broke in paradise.
12:30 p.m.: Call MOHELA and beg for another deferment on my student loans. They comply.
7 p.m.: Begin to panic at the fact that I only have one cigarette left. Go into the living room and beg mom to loan me a pack until I get paid on Thursday. She reluctantly agrees.

Day 3
9 a.m.: Use one of the dollars to buy a Coke ($0.85).
12:15 p.m.: Use another bill to buy a Coke ($0.85).
5:07 p.m.: Grumble at the high price of food in Hawaii ($6.99 for a gallon of milk!). Write a bad check to cover the cost of food ($109.97). Wish I could go back to Missouri, where everything is cheaper. Also realize if I didn’t live with Mom, I’d starve.
7:45 p.m.: Beg Mom for another pack of smokes.

Day 4
8:15 a.m.: PAYDAY! Thank God! It’s the first of the month, and it’s the “big” pay day because I also get my daughter’s social security and my childcare assistance. In total, I receive $1,381 on the first of each month.
8:45 a.m.: Get to the office and use the internet to pay bills and buy my daughter’s birthday presents from Amazon. Birthday presents: $71.50 Phone bill: $82.50 Student loan: $60 (this loan I couldn’t defer because I am delinquent in payments). Miss K: $25 (Post-dated check to a friend for babysitting for me last week). Old Navy online: $28.52 (two shirts for kiddo, three shirts for me).
12 p.m.: Go to used bookstore by my office and buy four books to read over the next two weeks ($21.43).
5:15 p.m.: Pay my daughter’s sitter $325 for partial month payment (total/month = $650).
5:30 p.m.: I shove my way through the clogged aisles of Wal-Mart to buy two jumbo packs of diapers and one value pack of baby wipes. At the checkout stand, daughter has screaming meltdown complete with hair pulling and punches to my face. Total for Wal-Mart: $37.53.
6:45 p.m.: Realize I forgot to buy smokes at Wal-Mart while waiting for the bus. Take one look at my screaming, crying child and decide to suck it up and buy them at the corner store were the cheapest brand is $8.96! Also buy monthly bus pass ($50).
7:30 p.m.: Pay Mom $350 for what remains of my portion of this month’s rent (total/month = $600). Am glad I contributed some of last pay period’s earnings to the rent.
8:30 p.m.: Count what remains of payday: $212.83, after subtracting the money to cover my bad check for groceries. Feel pretty proud until I realize that I have to buy the kid’s Halloween costume! Damn!
9:15 p.m.: Go down to corner store and buy six pack of Coke ($4.96).

Day 5
12 p.m.: Take off work early to take kiddo to her neurology appointment. The half day off comes out of my pay because I have used all my vacation days for taking time off for various doctors’ appointments and illnesses.
1 p.m.: Am not pleased to learn that I did not pay for the last visit’s co-pay. Must shell out $28 to cover today’s visit and the visit we had six months ago.
2 p.m.: Frustrated that I have to take off work and pay co-pays only to hear doctors tell me they have no idea what’s causing my daughter’s delays.
3 p.m.: Stop for Jamba Juice ($4.37).
5:30 p.m.: Mom reminds me that I owe her two packs of cigarettes. Walk to Wal-Mart for three packs of cigarettes for me, one for Mom ($31.75).
8:15 p.m.: Bored. To entertain myself, I spend an hour texting my ex-boyfriend who moved to Louisiana a few months ago. I splurge for unlimited text messaging because it’s a fairly cheap form of entertainment. Wish I had the money to go visit friends on the mainland, especially this friend.

Day 6
11 a.m.: It’s the last day of my daughter’s swimming lessons! They were worth the $96.
12 p.m.: Take kiddo to McDonald’s to celebrate her swimming achievements ($9.60 for her meal and mine). Wonder if it’s sad that I consider McDonald’s a luxury. Decide yes, that is very sad.
1:45 p.m.: Mom watches kiddo while I pick up her Halloween costume. She’s going to be a ladybug ($34.97).
10 p.m.: Talk Mom into babysitting my daughter while she sleeps so I can go out. Go to my favorite bar and talk some guys into buying me drinks. Even talk one guy into buying me a hot dog from the vendor outside the bar. Sweet.
1:15 a.m.: Buy cigarettes from the bar ($7) because I smoked the ones I brought.
2:30 a.m.: Take a cab home ($10.80). Worth the money to stay safe.

Day 7
12 p.m.: Make my weekly calls to mainland friends (free minutes on the weekends!). Get irritated when a friend grumbles about her financial situation because she’s better off than I am. Try to remember that her problems seem just as big to her as mine do to me, but it doesn’t help.
7:15 p.m.: Congratulate myself on not spending any money today!
9 p.m.: Run down to the corner store for a six pack of Coke and a candy bar ($5.87).
10 p.m.: Feel bummed because I won’t have any money to spend on myself on my upcoming birthday. Hope kindly relatives send me cash in the mail this week!

In Sum
Money spent on bills: $845.50
Money spent on kiddo: $183.00
Money spent on food: $130.03
Money spent on bad habits: $67.38
Money spent on transportation: $60.80
Money spent on me: $35.95
Money left over: $61.08 (this is what I must survive on until next pay day, eleven days away… think I can make it?).

* * *

How would you try to help this person? Note from 10 years of doing this and learning about people’s money behaviors: “Helping” usually starts with (1) them wanting help, (2) you listening and understanding before rushing in with “solutions,” and (3) some way of sustaining the behavioral change.

So what would you do?

[Update]: Please read comment #8 before you leave a comment.

* * *

Read other Money Diaries. Or to be featured anonymously in a future Money Diary, click here.

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  1. I would take quitting smoking seriously. Maybe have the mom join in on the quitting. (If i quit and someone in the house was still smoking it would not help at all). I would also quit drinking Coke, which is costing.

  2. The combination of heavy smoking + coke + a special needs child may indicate a high stress environment. Addressing the stress would be a starting point. Developing some healthy habits may help – she lives in Hawaii so a walk on the beach, swimming etc probably only cost transport (if any) and sunblock.

    The fact that she has taken the time to write this in a public forum without any sign of self pity indicates a desire to do something about her situation.

    Net cash flow = income – expenses and other outgoings

    The only obvious areas for cutting back is the smoking – she seems to be going through a pack a day which is a lot. I appreciate that quitting is not easy but even reducing consumption to one pack every second day will make a $30+ pw difference. Perhaps the writer and her mother could support each other in trying to either cut down or kick the habit? I suspect that quitting while living with a smoker would not be easy.

    The coke is relatively inexpensive but a few dollars a month saved by only buying in the supermarket would help,

    She purchased second hand books. Would a library be cheaper?

    Query: any room to supplement her income through part time work etc? Dog walking may be a good one as she could take the daughter with her in a stroller.

    She purchased second hand books – what about selling them after she has read them?

  3. Two things I noticed right away – bought books when library books are free, and bought a Halloween costume. For a 3-year-old a simple home made costume would have been fine.

    But she’s so close to the edge regardless, I hope she’s thinking of ways to increase her earning potential.

  4. I am so frightened for this woman. If something were to go awry with her or her daughters health or her job she would be in dire straights.

    Also, what I find disturbing is her reliance on others. She relies on the goodwill of others to help her get through and provide her with ‘enjoyment’ – talking guys into giving her drinks and buying her hotdogs.

    This was a very stressful story – I really feel her stress – what a terrible way to live. But the great thing is is that she can make her life stress free if she so desires and start feeling good about being responsible.

    A couple of great things were that she had put a little money away for rent and she had a spend free day – she should be proud of that.

    I think that the most important thing for this woman to focus on is planning.
    * Work out where you are spending money…make a list of all costs and emergencies which have financially needed your attention over the last 3 months
    * Write a budget to manage all of those costs
    * Plan out how many packs of cigarettes you need per week/fortnight/month and budget to put that money away.
    * Plan when the drs appts are and build the loss of income into her budget (as she has run out of sick leave).
    * Menu plan – and build your weekly shop around the menu (which includes lunches
    * Budget for entertainment – and that includes buying your own drinks, food and cab fare. She may only be able to do it once a month but it would be worth saving for just to keep her self-esteem and not have to ‘beg’
    * look at different ways to treat your child – It is cheaper to make a sandwich and eat it in the park where there is a playground rather than McDonalds and they enjoy it so much more. At that age there is so many more great free activities that you can do.
    * Every now and then buy your mom a small gift of appreciation – you are very lucky to have family around to help you out when needed.
    * Dont spend before you plan – that way you are simply working out what damage has been done already and then you are constantly playing catchup.
    * Ask mom to babysit while you do your shopping – not always possible but it helps you keep on track with your spending and stick to your shopping list.

    I hope that helps…

  5. Your kid needs milk. If you’re out of milk and feeding your child canned vegetables, you don’t buy coke or cigarettes.

    I’ve been addicted to both, but it’s VERY possible to quit one… just choose one to quit (coke might be easier). Just cut down – if you have one a day, cut to one every other day. If you smoke half a pack a day, just try to cut down. Going cold turkey NEVER works. Give yourself doable goals. It absolutely can be done.

  6. Smoking seems like the biggest unnecessary drain on her finances. I’m not sure if she’s already doing this, but she may want to check with her local Department of Human Services or Department of Health Services to see if there’s an agency or program that could provide guidance in this area. They may be able to refer her to another governmental agency or not-for-profit that’ll be able to provide her with financial assistance. But I have to add, none of this will be of any help if she doesn’t take the initiative to change her circumstances.

    It might also be helpful to focus on the positive. From what I’ve heard and as she mentioned, Honolulu is beautiful. It also doesn’t necessarily have to be sad that she considers McDonald’s a luxury. At least her and her daughter aren’t at a real risk of starvation. Many people are.

  7. To chime on mjd’s comments about the library and Halloween costume, a 3-year-old doesn’t need a $70+ birthday present. Most children that young don’t have any concept of how much has been spent on them – anything wrapped up pretty (even a homemade gift) will be a delight.

  8. You guys are talking tactics. I’m going to challenge you think more deeply about this and suggest that it’s not simply tactics she needs. It’s not like she’s never realized she’s wasting money on cigarettes. In fact, she herself called it a “bad habit,” and much of the other stuff is quite obvious.

    But the answer is not simply a list of tactics she “needs” to do. To cause behavioral change, ask yourself:

    What is going on in her life?

    What brought her to this point?

    What are her barriers?

    Why hasn’t she changed until now? I guarantee it’s not from a lack of ideas about things she “should” be doing.

  9. Very fair point, Ramit.

    The number one thing I notice about her post is her idea about “treats” or “gifts” or what she considers to be luxuries.

    Something I’ve learned from this blog is that luxuries do not necessarily have to be things that we spend money on. Spending does not equal luxury.

    That’s more or less what I meant about the expensive birthday present for a child too young to understand the connection between “spending” and “luxury.”

    The swimming lessons struck me as something that was a mindful, well-considered expense. It improves her daughter’s quality of life and contributes to her future, and didn’t cost that much more than the birthday present.

    I was also struck by Day 7, in which she “congratulates” herself on not spending, then runs out and spends on coke and candy.

    Again, getting trapped in the spending = reward cycle, I think, is dangerous.

  10. If she’s extremely lucky, the state of Hawaii has some job training programs for low-income people that also provide childcare (if her mother can’t) and a living stipend (to cover the cost of lost hours at work). A lot of these programs aren’t worth the bus fare — how to tie a tie, how to shake a hand, etc. — but some of them build real job skills, like CNA certification, that can lead to better and better-paying job opportunities.

    While she definitely seems aware of her needs and her options, states and cities often do a bad job of letting the public know that these programs are available, even to the people who are already on public assistance. Good intentions filtered through bureaucracy. So I think it’s possible there are programs like this available to her that she’d qualify for, but that she doesn’t know about. An afternoon on the phone or on the internet could turn up some doable options. College isn’t the only way to increase your job prospects, as her student loans can attest.

    But if she was able to get a better job — not just that paid better, but that offered health care coverage or childcare, and that had hours that would allow her to go back to school and get a degree — she’d be in a very different place.

    I’m less concerned about her smoking than I am that she’s not making use of a food pantry or foodstamps to keep milk in her fridge, but maybe she makes exactly too much to qualify, or maybe she’s used up her lifetime limits.

    She could also start selling weed. Not kidding. It’s a recession-proof industry, and it sounds like she’s ready to think outside the box.