My last two blog posts have talked about how I have managed money over the years and I realize now that I have been a little too smug about it. I really shouldn’t be so self-satisfied because I have actually made some really dumb financial choices as well as some good ones.
The first dumb choice I made was to have a joint account with my first husband. It made sense at the time because as a woman, a student, and someone otherwise unemployed, I couldn’t get a bank account on my own. Ultimately, though, that decision haunted me for a long time after we split up. He took the cheque book, overdrew funds, and disappeared. I was left holding the debt and it took over a year to pay it off. The silver lining to that was that, in order to live and to pay back what was owed, I got a job in a factory welding garden furniture and metal rings for funeral wreaths. As a newbie, I mostly spot-welded metal rings by the hundreds. This may not sound like a good job to you, but the monotony of it gave me lots of time to think and re-evaluate my life. I also met lots of very friendly people who made me laugh.
Another dumb choice happened when I was expecting my second child. My husband (the reliable second husband, not the mercurial first one) and I had been living in the Northwest Territories, but I could not bear the thought of being isolated for another winter there with two children. The winters were long and snow-covered, and the house was painted white everywhere inside. We weren’t allowed to repaint it because it was a company house. Altogether, there was too much whiteness and coldness, and I determined that we should move back south to Trail, British Columbia.
That would have been an OK decision had it not been for the terrible economy in the winter of 1981. In those days, I didn’t pay much attention to politics or economics, so it didn’t dawn on me that a mortgage with an 18.75% interest rate was a really bad idea. My nesting instinct had taken over and I was determined not to go on living in the motel suite that Cominco had provided for our transition. My child was going to be born in our own house, dammit! Gah! I was so stupid. If I had been smarter, we would have found a place to rent until the economy looked brighter, but no. I was determined.
Ultimately, all the money that we had saved up north was lost in that house. My husband was transferred to Calgary, the bank refused to renegotiate the mortgage, we couldn’t sell the house, and Cominco bought us out for what we owed the bank. We had to start out again from scratch. The good news is that we loved living in Calgary, I went back to university, and eventually we were able to buy another house.
A third really bad financial choice I made was in sending money to a friend I made online. Looking back, all the signs were there that I was never going to see that money again, but I was both vulnerable and gullible. My husband became ill in November 1998 with what turned out to be a terminal illness. He went through lots of treatments and hospital stays before coming home to live out the remainder of his days. He died in September 2006. I spent most of those years exhausted and lonely. To cut a long story short, I would spend most evenings in our basement marking students’ papers and noodling about online. At some point, I joined a chat room where people were sharing their troubles and offering each other friendship and whatever solace we could. That’s where I started privately chatting with a man from Kenya. We corresponded for a long time and at some point he asked me for money. This was years before we all became aware of internet scams, so I plead ignorance, but mostly I was just too trusting.
It started out with just a small amount and I had to learn how to use Western Union in order to send it to him. The fact that I kept it secret from my husband should have been my first clue that I was not doing something good, but I told myself I didn’t want to bother him with it. He was sick, after all. Over a period of five years I ended up sending a great deal of money; so much that I still can’t bring myself to tell anyone how much. Some of it went to useful things like helping his brother establish a billboard sign business, getting the land rights to the family farm, and providing irrigation to the farm. And, yes, I did get verification of those things. But otherwise, most of the money just disappeared.
It all came to an end after I was in a traffic accident. I had been expecting my Kenyan friend to come to Canada that summer (I had sent the fare, after all!) and so, from my hospital bed, I told my son to call him and tell him not to come. I never heard from him again. I don’t know what my son said to him, but perhaps just the fact that he called was enough to end my penpal’s relationship with me. Remarkably, I continued to believe he was coming to Canada for a long time afterwards, but the silence from Kenya told its own story. It is really hard to come to terms with having been fooled, but eventually I had to face it.
All of these bad financial choices were made while I was carefully budgeting and keeping records. My mother always said I was penny wise and pound foolish, and she was right. I could be clipping coupons for groceries and be sending money to a stranger in a foreign land at the same time. I am thankful that my bad choices happened while I still had time to fix the problems they created and to go on to save and invest for retirement. I am now a good person to use as a bad example to others! If you want your children to learn what not to do, just send them my way. I’ll tell them where I went wrong. After all, bad choices can make really good stories.