Working parents recovering from debt

5 December 2011
Last week I received an email from a reader who asked about working parents. She has three children, she and her husband both work (her husband has two jobs) and she wonders if that might be harming her children because she's still at work when they come home from school. Her cousin, who lives near by, picks them up when she collects her own children and they all play at the cousin's house until she picks them up. She said she wants to be a good role model for her children but she has to keep working for another two years - until they have some credit card debt paid off and have made some head way into paying off their mortgage.  I asked if it was okay to reply here and she was happy to share her story with you.

From the details I have it looks to me like "Emma" and her husband are doing a good job recovering from a spending spree. Emma was a full-time homemaker and they got themselves into debt when they moved into their new house. They bought appliances they couldn't afford, put it all on their credit cards and took on the shop finance offer for a house full of furniture. They got to the stage when one wage wasn't making any headway into their debt, they fell behind and it looked like they might lose the house. But they regrouped, he got a second job, Emma went back to her old job and slowly they're recovering. They're making laundry liquid, cooking from scratch, stockpiling and they've cut back a lot. It's taken seven years to get to this point.

Emma, I have always believed that the people who are the most inspiring role models are those who think about what is important to them and who live to those values everyday. You're both doing that. You've provided a home for your children, you've organised safe and secure care for them when you're not there, you're paying off your debts responsibly, and you're looking to the future when you can be the mother you said you want to be - at home with the children and able to help at their school occasionally. You said in your email you started reading my blog about a year ago and you had already regretted going into debt to furnish your home but didn't know how else you could have done it. Now you do, now you wish you'd used second-hand furniture and appliances until you could afford new.

We all know the perfect path to take in hindsight. The real tragedy is not learning from mistakes made. You've done that learning and it's a credit to you both that you recovered so well and will soon be back on your feet again. 

All the while you've been doing that, your children have been watching. You said you told them why you're working, and as they grow to understand the full implications of that they'll be better for it, not deprived. They will grow up knowing their parents worked hard to give them a good home. Me and my sister had that upbringing too, many children do. There are many close and loving families who have to have both parents out working but who come together in the evening and reconnect. These are the times when it's important to sit around the kitchen table, eat together, and ask about what happened to everyone during the day. If you can do that, if you can make that important connection every day, the children will be better for it; you and your husband will be too. It doesn't matter that you're not there when they finish school. What matters is that you've provided a safe place and a trusted person for them to be with and that you're there every day, exactly as you said you would be, to pick them up and take them home. Children need routine and stability and although you're not there when they finish school you've found a way around it and to provide that stability in a safe environment.

Despite what you see on TV, there are few "perfect" homes where mum is waiting with hot biscuits and milk when the children come home from school. We all do what we have to do to get by, which is exactly what you're doing. Don't feel guilty for that, it's a fine example and it's showing your children how to handle the complexities of life. Just know you're doing what you have to do by working, and when you're with the children, make the most of it. Not by giving them gifts or letting them run riot, but by listening, talking, reading and playing with them. Let them help you around the house. Give them tasks that will lighten your load and help build in them a helping attitude. Small tasks like keeping their rooms tidy, setting the table, taking out the rubbish, putting their clean laundry away, feeding the pets - these kind of things will help all of you. Suggest to them they ask dad if there is anything they can do for him too. He's working two jobs and he might have some small tasks for them.

You said in your email you feel you've let your children down and that you should be at home with them. Well I think you've reacted to life. You've been realistic, you've stood up and owned your problems and you've worked out a plan to do something about it. You've taken control of your lives instead of being flattened by the debt. In the process, you've shown your children how to live when things don't go according to plan. I doubt your children have been harmed by you working. I think you should be very proud of yourselves and I hope that when you leave work again you continue to live true to your simple values, even when you don't "have" to.


  1. I love the way you discuss such important issues with younger folks. You are so gentle, and wise with the been there, done that part of life, which we all have been through. I just wished that you were around about 20 yrs when I did unwise things also. But back then, we didn't have internet.
    Have a wonderful, productive week.

  2. With Frogdancer I say: 'Hear hear', but I'd like to add 'Read read'!
    Thank you Rhonda and "Emma".


  3. Such a lovely and inspiring post..i hope emma can see she is an inspiration to her children and hasn't let them down at all... are doing what is right for you at this moment in your one is perfect and you have knuckled down and dealt with the situation..good for you.
    Keep your chin up and it will be totally worth it.


  4. I wholeheartedly agree with all the good advice and encouragement you have given these young folk.
    This lady has nothing to be ashamed of. Her children will admire her for her hard work and commitment to their wellbeing, in years to come!!

  5. Hi Emma, you and your husband are taking responsibility for your mistakes - this is a fantastic example for your kids. You are so lucky that they have family to play with. I'm a single Mum and my kids do their homework and play while I give music lessons after school. I don't like it but it has to be done. I walk them home from school and catch up on their day before I start work - it's the best I can do in our situation so I just have to accept it!
    Rhonda is so right when she says there aren't many 'perfect' homes out there.
    I think you are doing wonderfully ;)

  6. It's so nice to hear "common sense" being spoken (or in this case read) when it comes to debt management and caring for families. Well done Rhonda and best of luck "Emma". It will all work out in the end and by keeping to the path you are on there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  7. a beautiful, supporting post, Rhonda x

  8. What great advice to Emma Rhonda;.....i really second everything you have said and it has been said so well.
    Emma...i had the same upbringing and was often responsible for my younger brother which i did resent at times but you know what...i also enjoyed the chance to start tea for mum most afternoons and i learnt to do so many things for myself that i was able to take away and now share in my own family life as a Mum and homemaker.
    I think Mum not being there after school was in no way detrimental to us...we knew she worked hard (as did Dad) to provide a stable life for us even though mum would have preferred to work part time. I'm sure your children are doing just fine....i had to work as a single parent and often had much guilt about after school care for my daughter but you know what....she is 15 now and has grown into a very self assured and capable young are doing what you need to for your family...please don't feel they are missing out on anything, i know the feeling but you have to let it go and live in the moment...sounds to me like you are on the right path now and that is all that matters!
    Sorry for the long post Rhonda but i feel strongly about this as i have often felt the same way...thank you for your wise words and thoughts and to Emma for sharing her journey with us.
    Jode x

  9. That was a wonderful post and I too have been there, but am now blessed to be home with my boys.

    I would even suggest that if the budget works fine with mum staying at home while the debt is being paid off, there may be no need to stay working until the debt is completely gone (though it will be easier). I did pay off $21K of debt over 2 years on one wage, with a lot of dedication.

    My heart aches for mums in this position. I truly think 'easy credit/credit cards' were one of the worst financial products ever released. I know dozens of women that want to be home with their kids, but can't. Unlike Emily, they don't see a way out and continue to spend to numb the pain.


  10. Rhonda what a thoughtful and inspiring reply.
    "Emma" should give herself, and hubby, a pat on the back. I think they are setting a good example to the children by their solutions though, as you mentioned, the children may not realise it until they are older.

  11. I am 48 and when I was a child my parents both worked as they lost all their saving to a dodgy builder. I remember times that I resented the fact that my mum wasn't at home like other mums and that we had to go without so many things, however I was always sure that my parents loved me. As am adult my husband and I have done the oppostite to our friends, we live in an old house - that we have restored beautifully - and added a new extension. I stay at home with the kids, baking etc. If there is one thing I hope my children get from me it is that you don't have to keep up with everyone else and that debt is bad. We have more than we need, have taken the kids overseas and live a good life, there have been times is has been a struggle, not enough money to buy food even, but we are in a good place and proud of our accomplishments. xxBrenda

  12. I firmly believe that one should feel satisfied when they make the best decision they can at the time, and not feel guilty. Kids are smart and know when their parents are sacrificing for them. We can't go back in time and undo things, so we start from the point we can, and paying off debt is the start here. Having a cousin to pick up the children and help is a God-send. The responsible example of the parents will teach their children good values.

    I will suggest one thing in an example from a young couple I knew, as a possible alternative solution. This couple bought a beautiful new house. Very soon after, and with three small children, they realized they could not afford this house. So, they humbled themselves and sold it (luckily it was at a time you could sell your house easily) and bought a cheaper home.

  13. The particular moment I took from this post was " Small tasks like keeping their rooms tidy, setting the table, taking out the rubbish, putting their clean laundry away, feeding the pets - these kind of things will help all of you ".
    It feels reassuring to hear that others believe asking kids to help with daily home tasks such as this, is actually a good thing. I have a wonderful mother who basically did everything for me, and probably as a result I can tend to feel a bit lazy! I'm glad that I can ask my kids to help out and its helping to teach them responsibility, and doesn't mean I'm being neglectful by not attending to their every need. I'm not working out of the home though, but I am a single parent, just thought I'd say thanks for that little piece of advice passed on, as its made me feel a bit better about asking my own kids to help out a little! :)

  14. A well answered post! I know several families in the very same situation. It so easily happens now with the rising cost of living and housing. Well done to Emma and her husband for taking responsibility and working hard to pay off their debts.

  15. Great posting the only thing I would add “there no perfected home” families is to be enjoyed.

    Coffee is on.

  16. Rhonda,

    Thank you for a great post. My partner and I find it a continuous struggle to get ahead with money, bills and debt. Fortunately, our debt is small (a $10,000 personal loan we have paid down to $3,000), but there never seems to be enough money, the bills are constant and we have trouble saving money. Every time we start socking some away we need to use it - something will go wrong, something will crop up - we feel defeated and useless.

    It is disheartening when you cannot take the kids here or treat them to something special (and our kids are definitely not ones that get everything that they want at the drop of a hat.) I do not know how families afford the nice week away or the major purchases that are made - obviously, credit helps, but we don't want to go down that path unless it is going to be for a home or to get a new vehicle (something so foreign to us, we have always had second hand.)

    One thing that troubles us is discipline. The ability to make a plan and stick to it. We cannot even make it through the week without needing to use "saved" small change. Would you be able to give advice on how to be disciplined and get around the hurdles?

    Thank you for your blog - it is wonderful and everything you write about is truly inspiring.

  17. Rhonda, you response to Emma was very wise and, in my opinion, true and honest.
    I agree with Andrea above - don't feel guilty about the decisions that are best for you and your family just now. You've "seen the error of your ways" (not meant to be patronising) and you're working your butts off to sort that out - your kids will never get a better example of a good work ethic and that will stand them well throughout their whole lives.
    If it's any comfort, I AM a SAHM to 4 small kids and, although I love being home with them, some days I wonder if I'm cut out for it and whether my sociable little girls would be happier with a good childminder and a group of kids than they are with me at home.
    We all do our best and it's all we can do.
    You are a good role model - never worry about that.
    Karen (Scotland)

  18. Great post Rhonda.

    Michelle--I can identify completely with your frustrations as my family often feels the same way. Very hard as we live in South Africa with an extremely high tax economy, 14% VAT, polarised societies ('rich' vs 'poor'). We find ourselves with many friends who have inherited money and/or houses or holiday homes from family members which we've not done and both my husband & I are in our 50s. Also, salaries differ, of course, according to one's profession and country's economy.

    We are thankful that friends & family have generously shared their "time-share" holiday homes or we have house-sat near a beach while they went away and so have had nearly-free holidays for years.

    We have always bought second-hand cars eg 1-2 yr used and I think even if we could afford to buy new, we wouldn't on principle.

    One thing we've chosen to do is pay for private school education for our 2 children. Next year is the last yr to do so......and we will breathe a sigh of relief to "only" pay university fees after that. But, some families are in the reverse situation. And, some are not able to afford tertiary education fees at all and secure student loans and/or work study situations for their univ/college age children.

    Of course, even if parents can afford to pay for tertiary educ, their children can have part-time work or like I did, work as a Resident Assistant in the college dorms, to gain free housing.

    But, discipline is tricky and requires creativity and, well, discipline!

  19. I can vouch for Rhonda's words. My parents both worked and far from being deprived, I have a very strong relationship with my parents, especially my mother. Because she worked, she didn't have time to sweat the small stuff, so time was spent on school work and discussing values. I also knew if I forgot my sports uniform, it would be me that got in trouble, because she couldn't drop it off. Little things like that seem small, but it's helped in later life to have that sense of responsibility.

    I am also a feminist, and seeing Mum work made me proud of her in so many ways.

    The other wonderful thing is that she and Dad never had new anything, and I am a great budgeter! I bought my own place when I was in my mid 20s, and can put my mind to saving for those things I really want. Yes, I get jealous when I see friends getting their nails done and I can't afford it, but I love my home and the extras that I treat myself to along the way.

    Good luck Emma and thanks Rhonda.

  20. What a wonderful response. It is truly filled with love & grace. We have all been there and some of us are still there...slowly working our way out of our mire.

    My husband and I are trying to work down some debt but it has not been easy in this economy (I'm in the USA). Trying to whittle down debt while the cost of living continues to rise, is difficult at best. You have to be okay to work at it little by anyway you can.

    I am a SAHM and homeschooler. It is our conviction and commitment to homeschool so I have taken an odd job once a week for grocery money, I am hoping to secure a volunteer job at a hospital so that I can have a better chance at securing a part-time night time job until our debt is paid off. Did I mention that jobs are hard to come by these days.

    I have also identified a number of things to sell in my house that I don't use anymore. A book I am reading suggests 1) get rid of your junk! I had a friend who just tried to get rid of an appliance on (it was free) no one bit. She got tired of holding it, so on a whim she put it on and sold it for $50!

    2) stop buying food if you already have some. For example, why buy cold cereal when you have two Costco size boxes of hot cereal. I am slowly stockpiling food (not hoarding). But we have come to a place(usually at winter) when we need to use it before I buy cold cereal.

    Also, if you don't know about, this is a place where many DIY-ers post how they have successfully turned someone else's junk into furniture and useful home decor...and much, much more. One of my favorite blogs is Her story is very, very inspirational.


  21. Great post Rhonda. Good luck to Emma and her family.

  22. I remember someone telling me when credit cards first became available that I should always remember that "instant credit is instant debt."

    Your advice is so good for Emma. They are doing the right thing and moving in the right direction and their children will learn a lot from watching this, or hearing about it when they are a little older. Everyone makes mistakes. It's wonderful to recognize that and do what one can to correct it.

  23. I like the post from "Anonymous" above - the bit about her working mom being too busy to "sweat the small stuff." I think that is a great point! I am lucky enough to work part time while also raising my 4 kids. So I meet many full-time SAHM's who are definitely "sweating the small stuff." To be honest, some of them have TOO much time on their hands - time to fret, coddle, worry about the teacher who made a slightly insensitive remark, or the schoolmate who is being mean in the schoolyard, etc. I also see SAHM's who are bored or depressed, and who actually focus far LESS on their kids than some full-time working moms I know. THis is by no means true of all SAHM's, of course - - - but I do believe kids are very resilient and thrive in all kinds of situations, especially when their home lives are loving and stable.

    Kate in NY

  24. Never regret anything that has happened to you in your life, whether it is making a bad choice, deciding to do something you shouldn't have, saying the wrong thing or not doing something you should have done... because all of these things have given you the knowledge you have today and helped make you who you are today... and that is one thing you must never regret.

  25. Hi Rhonda,

    Great post Rhonda! I was thinking about this post for a good part of yesterday. Emma is doing a wise thing and though I don't have much time to write here, I think that it is important that she helps her children learn through her mistakes. She should not conceal from them that the reason she and her husband work so long and hard is because they spent too much money and now have to pay it back.

  26. I admire Emma for even caring about this issue. I don't think any mother should feel guilty if they are doing the very best they can.

    However, it appears that it has been 7 years that Emma has been working to pay off this furniture. Either that was very expensive furniture or her paycheck is going to things other than the original debt. I would just hope that the sacrifices the family is making with her being at work are not being squandered with continuous bad money management.

    I hope that doesn't sound harsh, if it does then please forgive me. I want to point out something that may be important for Emma to thoughtfully and carefully consider, I don't want her to feel harshly judged.

  27. Shanny, they're paying off the furniture and appliances as well as a big chunk of the mortgage. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear.

  28. Ha! That makes more sense, I was wondering what kind of furniture they could have possibly bought to end up paying it off for 7+ years!


  29. This is just the post I needed to hear today. I'm a single mom working nights in the hospital so I can see my kids. Its overwhelming the guilt of wishing you could do it better and be there more. But having the days to play in the garden and having the kids help in the kitchen are priceless. I just needed some reassurance that I'm not harming them. Hopefully they are learning lesson of security and love even if we have second hand things its so I can stay home more to be with them. Thanks Rhonda and Emma for driving home the point that its the example being set thats important. britt

  30. Could you please do a post on elderflower cordial. How do you grow it and make the cordial. Thank you.

  31. it's so sad that we live in a world where we are encouraged to spend so much beyond our means... my husband and i are at a crossroads in our life right now where we are deciding where we will live with our children and i am hoping we make the right one (that doesn't send us into a lifetime of debt)...

    we are working very hard to establish our lives outside of sydney- as i'm not sure how anyone except millionaires can ever get ahead with real estate costing what it does there... we quite simply cannnot afford to live in sydney and my husband makes a pretty good wage... to stay there we would be signing our lives away to the bank (i would also have to return to work- i currently care for our children) and that is before we even start on schooling costs etc...

    we are trying to simplify our lives... buy a much cheaper home in the bush (literally half of what we would pay in sydney) that we can pay off quickly and hopefully give our children a better quality of life (and give us more time to spend with them as we won't have to work so hard or for so long)...

    to me it makes sense to do that... i grew up in the bush and had the richest childhood imaginable... the whole keeping up the jones' mentality that goes on has us convinced we are failing if we don't give our children everything...

    well we often went without as children (although never really realised it) and didn't go to posh expensive private schools, like many people we knew... yet my parents did such a good job raising us that we all had great childhoods and went onto succeed in life... we achieved some of the highest TER's (what they were called at the time) in the state... all my siblings and i have tertiary educations... i have 2 degrees and one of my siblings is a doctor and the other a vet!

  32. Nice. I like looking back in gratitude, not in regret - for the lessons of our behavior, without negative judgement - wise or unaware.

  33. I believe this is the most popular topic of discussion amongst mums in all countries- stay home or not. Funny enough, it was never an issue for me- I love my job and would never consider staying home fulltime with my girl, even though we could afford it. I work 4 days a week now and spend wednesdays with my girl. My daughter loves listening to account of my working day and we discuss things together. It makes me a happier person, i feel i contribute to society, it gives me financial independence which is very empowering, and it teaches my daughter that she could do anything she wants. Both my parents worked full time and did not feel deprived in any way. We made most of our family holidays together and i have mostly wonderfull memories of my childhood. To all the mums out there- do not worry about what other people might think or whatever, just do what feels right for you and your family ! We are too harsh on ourselves. Daria, Adelaide, Australia.



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