The Money Conversation I Had With My Mom
“In the end, it’s all ok. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.”
The Misfit explores the existential questions facing our world. It brings together the diverse topics of humanity, economics, and bitcoin. Here’s an archive of my latest articles. If you’re new here, my aim is to get you thinking each week about money, the way the world works, and how we can make it a better place. Hope you enjoy!
Picture of my mom a few years ago
I like to call my mom at random times of the day. Whether she’s doing laundry, having a glass of wine, or heading to yoga class, it’s a nice way to get a glimpse into her everyday life. These “mundane” moments are what I treasure most since we live in different countries.
In one of our random calls, we talked about some money lessons her and her friend, Jahzel, learned the hard way.
This is their story.
Young, Married and Dependent
My mom was 32 years old when she moved to Syria with her three children: an 11-year old (me), a 10-year old (my sister) and a four-year old (my brother). Of course, with my dad too!
In Syria, she did not speak the language (Arabic), she was not part of the dominant religion (Islam) and she was a foreign woman (from Bolivia). Making friends was hard at first but luckily having children helps parents meet new people.
One day, a Bolivian friend invited a few mothers over for a baby shower she was hosting. She thought it’d be a great way for my mom, Irma, to make new friends; even though she did not have babies anymore.
Not knowing the other mothers, my mom agreed to go anyway. She admitted to being a little bored because she wasn’t at the baby stage anymore. She was at the “did you do your homework stage? Keep your room clean” stage.
But this is where she met Jahzel…
Jahzel was a 28-year old sweet, Panamanian woman married to an Italian man who worked for the Italian Embassy. Together they shared a little baby boy. It was at that party that my mom and Jahzel became instant, life-long friends.
Their connection was a no-brainer.
They were both humble, kind and full of compassion. They bonded over the tough dynamics of ex-wives and children (as both their husbands had previously been married to French women and had children with them).
They knew what it was like to be disliked by the husband’s family and for children to pay the price. They also bonded over wine, their fear of flights and what it was like to grow up in poverty. Now, they dreamt about their future in Syria.
In a deserted world, they were each other’s oasis. A gasp of fresh air.
Still Young, Alone and Broke
Four years later, in Egypt, my dad passed away unexpectedly.
My mom was frozen by sadness and weakened by grief. Every morning, she’d curl up in her bed, having not slept yet another night, wondering where the hell she’d summon the energy to move forward.
She wanted to die from heart-break but she knew she couldn’t afford to do this. She says the fact she had children is what kept her putting one foot in front of the other. I still can’t wrap my head around the gigantic bravery she showed minute by minute.
It’s one thing to live pain out loud. It’s another when it’s silent, eating you alive.
Up until the moment my dad passed away, my mom had never managed their bank accounts or known how much money the accounts had.
She only knew the expenses they had, which were a lot! Their children in Syria, my dad’s children, and both their families. My dad being better off than our families would share and stretch every dollar he earned… to the point he lived paycheque to paycheque.
Because my mom had married really young, not gone far with education (because she was poor) and never worked (because she married young), she did not know the financial basics let alone how to sort out financial affairs after a beloved departs her.
Fortunately, my dad had an Egyptian colleague that loved my dad as much as my dad loved him. We will call him Hassan.
Hassan knew it would be hard for my mom to sort out her affairs alone. He could imagine the brain fog she’d be in as she tried to survive: “I am here for you. Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked in Spanish, and he meant it.
“Yes, please. Can you help me tell the bank my husband passed away? Please.”
My mom had never dealt with a bank before so she was nervous to be in touch with them. Together, Hassan and my mom called the bank to inform them about my dad. The bank closed my parent’s joint account, opened a new, single account for my mom, and profusely apologized for her loss.
Hassan then went on to ensure my dad’s work was communicating with my mom, helping sort out my dad’s pension and life insurance so that it could be paid out to us.
Luckily, my parents got life insurance just before my dad passed away because he was thinking “should the worse ever happen.”
“Your dad wanted us to talk about what would happen if he died. But I always said to him ‘stop saying that. Don’t talk like that. I don’t want to talk about it.’ I wish I had listened because you never know if and when they might die.” — My mom (translated from Spanish)
History Repeats Itself
Seven years later, Jahzel’s husband passed away.
Seeing herself in Jahzel, my mom tried to help Jahzel find where their money was. Like my mom, Jahzel was never a part of the financial conversations, especially around bank accounts.
But unlike my mom, Jahzel didn’t even know which bank they used or how many accounts they had.
She was also afraid of calling the bank because they might “get mad at her and take her money.” It took A LOT of convincing from my mom to get her to contact the bank for the first time in her life.
Jahzel found out her husband had $30,000 euros saved in the accounts and no life insurance. She would now need to stretch the money as far as possible - for rent, for tuition, for food and for her two children.
Not only that, she now had to share the money with adult children from his previous marriage.
“Jahzel would tell me ‘I miss him so much but I also hate him!’ He didn’t tell me anything, didn’t keep our children financially safe. He didn’t take care of us! And now I must share the little money I have with his adult children when I have little ones. This isn’t fair!!’” — My mom on Jahzel
And that was the first time I learned you could love and hate the person who died.
We can be mad at them for their lack of transparency, for their secret habits and the fears they never shared with us.
We can also be mad at them because we never had the hard conversations that could’ve kept everyone a little safer had they been had.
We can be mad at their imperfections because we ache for them so bad. Because our only way to cope with the utter nightmare of their absence is to take our anger out on the one we love most, even if they’re gone.
We can be mad because we wish we’d done more when we had the time and our partner here with us.
Baptism by Fire
Jahzel remembered the few conversations her and her husband shared about Italian politics and international affairs. So, after her husband passed away she went to the Italian Embassy to ask for a job — and she got it! YAY!!
Today, she pays her own rent and her children’s tuition. She brings herself to tears thinking about how life turned out ok in the end — even though it’s still hard for her to save money every month.
By all measures, my mom has made it too.
As soon as my dad passed away, she signed up for English lessons so she could understand our teachers without needing translation. And so that one day she too could get a job.
She started a business with a friend who then defrauded her and stole money from my mom. This “friend” faked my mom’s signature to claim more ownership of the business and naturally the earnings.
This was another hit below the belt for my family.
My mom now speaks English and is willing to fight people to defend herself, including banks. Today, she’s starting a business and is happily remarried.
I am so proud of her and for who she has become. For walking through the fire when she wanted to turn around and die herself. It took unbelievable bravery for her to do that. I saw it then and I see it now.
I wouldn’t be the woman I am today if it wasn’t for the woman I came home to every day as a teenager.
Our conversation concluded with a lot of tears. She reminded me the importance of understanding every aspect of my finances. What comes in, what goes out, where it all lives and the obligation to plan ahead to worse-case scenarios.
But more importantly, how invaluable it is to own your own money because only then are we ever safe.
A few key lessons:
Manage your own life - that includes all your finances. Even if you’re married remember to never depend on anybody.
Get life insurance.
Talk to your partner about what should happen if one of you dies or is on life support. Talking about this will help alleviate the burden of decision-making should the worse ever happen.
Learn about bitcoin as a way to be self-sovereign.
We will all be baptized by fire one day. When your day comes, remember you will be ok… “In the end, it’s all ok. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.”