Money is wrapped up in all kinds of unpleasant emotions. Shame, embarrassment, fear, regret. We all experience these feelings about our money at one time or another, but we’ll be damned if we actually talk about it. To help eliminate the stigma around making mistakes with our money, or feeling scared about our financial security, we’re introducing Financially Naked — a series where people have the space to bare all about their most vulnerable financial experiences, mistakes, and regrets. Because let's face it: we all have them.
I said yes to a lifetime with my husband, Daniel, in 2011 on a chilly day in May. After an afternoon spent shivering under an outdoor tent with our guests at a ritzy golf club, we arrived at our hotel suite by the airport, where we sipped champagne and fed each other chocolate-covered strawberries. Just then, my nearby cell phone rang.
“Brianna? It’s Mom. I just need to tell you one thing quickly,” she said, very much ruining the mood.
“What is it?” I replied.
“I counted the money like you asked... and there’s $16,000!”
I sat in stunned silence for a moment. That number sounded incomprehensible — especially to a young woman who’d been raised by a hard-working single mother. I squealed in excitement with my mother, then hung up the phone and shared the good news with Daniel. The next morning, we hopped on a plane to Mexico to enjoy a week in tropical paradise. When the concierge asked us if we wanted to upgrade to the VIP section of the resort I said why not? $800 seemed like nothing when we had $16,000.
When we returned back to our tiny apartment in Ancaster, Ont., a week later, we talked about what to do with the money. At that time in our lives, our fixed expenses were minimal. I was working as an administrative assistant at a private college, and Daniel was attending that same college for his final year of undergrad, which meant he received a discount on his tuition because I was employed at the school. Our apartment on campus cost us only $400 a month, and we paid most of our annual bills with the money Daniel earned as a truck driver delivering ice from May to August every year.
When I think about that $16,000 now, I shudder. We wasted so many opportunities to spend our money wisely
We also had zero debt, since I’d quickly paid off my student loans, and our parents had paid for most of our wedding. So, we decided to spend another $2,000 of our gifted money on furniture for our apartment, and save the rest for our future — a hazy reality we couldn’t quite piece together yet at the age of 21. We could buy a house in a cheaper location. We could travel. We could sock it all away and maintain a healthy savings account. But we didn’t do any of that. When I think about that $16,000 now, I shudder. We wasted so many opportunities to spend our money wisely.
A few weeks after we said “I do” I woke up one morning to a call from Daniel.
“My car died in the middle of the highway,” he said, his voice muffled by traffic passing him on the 401.
“What are we going to do?” I cried. The car was a 1990 Camry, a beater that we’d already poured thousands of dollars into for repairs. I was tired of sinking money into old cars that never seemed to last long before a new problem arose. I wanted something reliable, but we had to act fast. The Camry was our only vehicle, and Daniel had to drive from Ancaster to Mississauga every day for work. We didn’t want to waste cash on a rental while we decided what to do, so the next day we went car shopping and paid $10,000 cash for a used Pontiac G5. About $3,000 of our wedding money remained.
Three months later, we found out that we were expecting our first child, and a few weeks after that I was laid off from my job. Daniel now had to pay his full tuition because we lost my employee discount, and I was so sick from my pregnancy that I had to stay off work and rely on EI payments. Once our daughter arrived in 2012 and Daniel graduated, we had to move. We bounced around for a year, and eventually settled in Guelph, where we rented a three-bedroom apartment. For the next few years we had to continually dip into our savings to get by, and by 2014, when we welcomed our second daughter, all our remaining money was gone. We started charging unexpected expenses, like car maintenance and dental bills, to our line of credit, and only made the minimum payments — plunging ourselves into more than $10,000 in debt.
I often wonder what our finances would look like today if we’d made different choices
I often wonder what our finances would look like today if we’d made different choices. It took us nearly a decade to find financial security and save enough for a home. We bought one in Guelph in October 2019, right before the coronavirus pandemic hit, when the market was at an all-time high. We paid $330,000 for a condo, and an additional $490 in condo fees each month. If we’d have been able to purchase a detached home even three years earlier, we could have bought something much bigger, and saved on condo fees. If we’d bought another beater car for $3,000 cash instead of $10,000, we’d be in a much better financial position today.
It took us about a year-and-a-half to pay off all our debt. We had to cut back on discretionary expenses, like clothing and eating out. And we had to allocate our spring tax returns to our debt, as well as any extra money I earned as a freelance writer. The repayment wasn’t a linear move, either. We’d sometimes pay off a big chunk, and then discover that we needed to borrow again. We felt anxious and overwhelmed during the process, but we worked together and celebrated with relief when we made it to the other side.
We’re now debt-free with three daughters under the age of 10. I continue to work as a freelance journalist, while my husband works as a pastor at a nearby church. We have a few thousand dollars in savings, and are working to increase that amount. If we ever come into a financial windfall again, we’ll make our choices more carefully. Back then I thought I had all the answers. Now that I’m 30, with three kids and a nine-year marriage under my belt, I’m realizing the unlimited potential of $16,000.
Illustration by Jeannie Phan.