Two years ago, after eight years of marriage, my husband moved out and even though the change was good and long overdue, financially it was utterly devastating. I had two kids to take care of, a mortgage to pay and bills that never seemed to stop coming. While part of me was excited to tackle it all on my own, I had only worked part-time while caring for my kids. In that sense, I’d never done it all on my own. I was terrified.
I knew getting my finances under control wouldn’t happen without effort. Still, my two kids were finally both full-time in school. I saw an opportunity to push further in my career than I’d ever been able to do as a mom at home with the kids. I was excited to sink my teeth into new and exciting work, and I did. I scrimped and saved and cut back on expenses. I put just enough gas in the car to get the kids to school and get back home. But no matter what I did, I’d check my balance and my heart would pound in my chest. I’d pay one bill and five more would roll in with late fees attached.
I felt my financial struggles gaining on me, so I picked up extra jobs wherever I could, bargain-shopped and sold items that were sitting in my garage. I tried hard to get ahead of it. Still, I wondered if January 2020 would be the year that it all came crashing down. For a while, it was all I could think about. I wondered how anyone, especially single parents, was able to financially survive in modern times. Personally, I felt like I was constantly underwater.
“No matter what I did, I’d check my balance and my heart would pound in my chest. I’d pay one bill and five more would roll in with late fees attached.”
I used to love Christmas, but this past year, as soon as all the gifts were unwrapped and I’d polished off the last sugar cookie while standing over the sink, all I felt was relief. There had been arguing with my estranged husband about holiday plans, and a sad, toxic mediation session that took place just a few days before Christmas. I had burst out crying in the first five minutes. In an effort to stand up for myself and my kids, I yelled and raged, and I left feeling angry and broken, wondering why on earth we had decided to schedule mediation so close to the holidays. But mostly, what kept me up at night was a heavy, consuming financial stress that had been building for months.
I couldn’t sleep for weeks leading up to Dec. 25. I stayed awake refreshing my bank account on my phone to see if my paycheck had cleared. It finally did on the evening of the 23rd, and I frantically went out and did all of my shopping ― for my two kids and everyone else ― on Christmas Eve. Mostly, I crafted and made cookies and wrote heartfelt notes to teachers and people I wanted to do more for but couldn’t, financially.
Regardless of having slapped Christmas together, the whole vibe of the holidays was off, at least for me. I was so consumed by stress, I hadn’t felt like myself. I had been catching myself too overwhelmed to offer a smile to a stranger, or do the things I would normally do, like drop change in a bucket or make a donation to an important charity or take a hat out of my glove compartment and give it to someone on the street ― things I like to do but this year felt I couldn’t. Emotionally and financially, I was maxed out, and that meant I wasn’t in the spirit of helping others, even though I wanted to.
“I was about one late payment away from serious repercussions. I had to fill the income gap, and fast. Truthfully, I was starting to panic.”
Even though I’d recently gotten a more steady job as an editor and had been picking up other work as much as I could, a gap in my income still meant I couldn’t pay my January mortgage. Because I’d made late payments before, it wasn’t good. I was about one late payment away from serious repercussions. I had to fill the income gap, and fast.
Truthfully, I was starting to panic. I whispered affirmations to myself. I brainstormed ways to make up the money. I sold my engagement ring for $250, picked up freelance assignments and I reached out on a Facebook community where fellow writers and editors often discuss work opportunities. In a moment of panic, I wrote a quick note about my situation and let members know I was available for some quick jobs if anyone had anything to toss my way.
Almost immediately, a member responded. I was excited because I didn’t know if the message would get overlooked completely or if maybe someone had a quick writing or copyediting job to offer. The group member sent me a private message. She asked me what my Venmo name was. I responded immediately, assuming she wanted to connect for future payment, after I completed whatever work she had to offer, maybe transcribing something that wouldn’t take too much time. I had said I was open to anything. Instead, my phone dinged immediately ― it was the sound of a Venmo payment coming through. This complete stranger had sent me $350 ― the amount I had specified that I was needing to earn in the next few days to make up the gap.
Along with the payment she wrote a note. “Happy new year to a badass single mama” ― no strings attached. I was completely blown away. “Are you kidding me!?” I wrote her back, my fingers flying on keyboard. We chatted briefly. I thanked her profusely but I was stunned. I didn’t know what action to take.
“It was such a tremendous gift that it almost didn’t add up. I’d never been gifted money like this before for no good reason.”
Part of me felt like sending the money back. It was such a tremendous gift that it almost didn’t add up. I’d never been gifted money like this before for no good reason. But I realized, this woman really wanted to help, and clearly she was able to. She didn’t seem to need a lot of thanks or even acknowledgment ― she didn’t want anything at all. It was hard to find the right words to express my gratitude.
She had no idea how much it meant, though. With this gift, I’d finally be able to get out of the hole I had basically been in for two years since getting separated. I’d be starting 2020 with a clean slate, rather than yet another late mortgage payment. It was maybe the most meaningful gift I’d ever gotten and it came from someone I’d never met or even spoken to before online.
I wondered why she had done it. Had she once been a struggling single mother? Had she recently read something that made her want to pay it forward? Had the note I’d quickly jotted asking for an odd job, or any job, struck a nerve? Did she just go around doing things like this for others all of the time? I didn’t know the answer and I’d probably never get it. Still, regardless of the reason, her action filled me with gratitude.
“People are generally just so caught up in their own lives, their own stress, their own minor panics, that small acts of kindness get sidelined.”
While I had begun the year exhausted by stress and financial worry, I felt a shift in my mentality after the first week of January. I realized how unexpectedly kind people can be. It’s so hard to see sometimes because most people don’t have the means to help others, and I don’t just mean financially. People are generally just so caught up in their own lives, their own stress, their own minor panics, that small acts of kindness get sidelined. I certainly was caught up in mine.
Last week, my daughter and I gave a ride to a woman whose car had broken down. It took us five minutes out of our way ― it didn’t cost a thing. This gift that was given to me, even though it was financial, helped me remember the tons of ways we can help one another and that we should do them as often as we can, despite our income bracket. The truth is that most people genuinely want to help. When we do, it creates a space for us to keep paying it forward in whatever ways we can. Easing someone’s burden gives them the ability to help ease someone else’s.
I’m back to dropping change in buckets whenever I can because someone dropped change in mine.
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