How do you stay happy when you're broke?
May 30, 2013 11:11 PM   Subscribe

I'm a student nearing graduation. I'm in debt, I work full time during the summer but I barely make any money. I'm totally broke and I don't see that changing in the near future because the job market for my degree sucks. I'm trying to save but I keep reaching barriers. And then everyone around me has it so much easier, and I'm just so tired and unhappy.

To be clear, my question isn't, "How do I find free activities?"

I'm at a point in my life where I'm starting to really worry about my finances. I come from a well-to-do area so all my friends have parents helping them out but my parents are divorced and both can't/refuse to help and often insist that I give them money. Every paycheck, they're taking about 40% which makes it difficult to save.

As a result, I'm feeling really depressed. I feel like I'm working so hard. I'm taking everyone's shifts, I'm working six days a week and I'm working two jobs and still looking for another. Yet, I don't see any rewards because I only have like 30 dollars in the bank after being paid. I'm really, really trying to save up and not be broke and I want to go to school and travel and do all these things, but I'm having a really hard time with my family taking a large chunk of my money and then bills taking the rest.

And then all my friends have no idea what it is like so I can't relate to them about this. In fact, I'm often bitter that their parents pay for their tuition and that all the money they make from their jobs is essentially spending money - not money for survival.

I'm poor and it sucks. I feel like I'm going to be poor forever which makes me even more miserable. I've tried the whole working hard thing, but I'm still poor. I don't want to barely scrape by in life - that isn't a life that I want to live. How do I keep my spirits up even though I have no money?

I know money isn't everything but all the things that I want will require money. I want to travel. I want to continue school. I want to live in a comfortable place. I want to eat well. These all require money and I don't have any.
posted by madsy to Work & Money (41 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Are you living with your parents/are they providing you with food/car insurance/etc? If not, stop giving them money.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:19 PM on May 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

You are giving 40% or they are taking 40%? Those are entirely two different things, but in both cases it's unclear why you are doing that. Are they unable to work? Or are they taking advantage of you? Your question is how do you stay happy, but it seems the real questions should be "how do I develop a career that enables me to make decent money" and "how do I deal with 40% of my meager income going to my parents in the meantime".
posted by Dansaman at 11:26 PM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You say that you're not looking to find free're right, though, in that ultimately, they can add up to just helping you cope with shitty situations instead of dealing with them, and you've a much larger problem on your hands here. It doesn't even seem like you've much time for enjoyment.

One question you NEED to ask yourself, RIGHT NOW: WHY, for heaven's sake, are you giving your parents money? It's not your job to help them financially -- and especially not to the point where they're taking nearly half your earnings -- even if they're not in a position to help you. You're working yourself to death trying to please everyone here.
posted by oogenesis at 11:26 PM on May 30, 2013

As others have mentioned, the real question here is why you're giving your parents money.
posted by heyjude at 11:29 PM on May 30, 2013

It's complicated. I live with my mother and my rent is paid for by my dad in the form of child support which is supposed to continue until I graduate university. He doesn't always pay and my mom doesn't think that she should use any of the child support on me anyway so I end up paying for the agreed upon amount. But often, my mom will ask for way more than what is agreed upon and I pay because she'll kick me out if I don't and I don't have anywhere else to go. Also, she guilts me into it and makes me feel really bad for not doing it. She'll point out that I had money to go watch a movie last week if I try to negotiate a lesser amount.

It's at the point where she'll figure out how much I make in a week, and then she'll declare an amount that I have to give her.

Still, even if I wasn't paying her, I'm still not making a lot of money and that makes me more miserable than paying her.
posted by madsy at 11:38 PM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is totally easier said than done, but the short answer is to avoid using the situations of other people to define your identify, your happiness, your entitlement, your obligations, etc.

Or in other words, you are certainly influenced by your upbringing and impacted by your family, but these things are not you. YOU get to decide what is "you."

Your mom sounds like she's not really prepared to think of you as an adult. If you were several years from graduating, I might advise that you work hard to change this perception, but if you've only got a few weeks or months to go, then it's probably not the battle to pick right now. But as soon as you graduate, be pre-prepared to cut the financial apron strings, completely, move out, no more paycheck docking, be poor or not on your own terms rather than those controlled by your parents.
posted by desuetude at 11:49 PM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Couldn't that 40% of your paycheck pay for a little place of your own somewere? Living at home the way you do now doesn't sound very healthy to me.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:50 PM on May 30, 2013 [11 favorites]

Honestly, it sounds like your mother's attitude is contributing to your misery. Child support is for you and not her. If your father doesn't pay it's not your responsibility to pay instead - that would be utterly ridiculous.

I think that keeping your spirits up in this situation means finding a way of ending it. Can you afford to finish your studies? If so, a degree will open more doors to better paid jobs, even if they're not related to your major. If you could finish, but would need to take out loans for your final semester or year then it's probably worth doing so.

As well, I think plotting how to leave home would help. Would the 40% you pay to your mother pay for you to rent a room in a shared place instead?

One of the most frustrating things is comparing yourself to others. Especially when they don't realise their own luck. You are young and have plenty of time on your side. Stop comparing yourself to your privileged friends.
posted by plonkee at 11:54 PM on May 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Does your dad know that your mother is taking rent money from you as well as him? Can you arrange to have him pay it directly to you instead? If that much money is nearly enough to pay for you to move out, then you should definitely be looking into doing so.
posted by jacalata at 12:14 AM on May 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mothers are supposed to help their children. Yours is actively doing harm. Do whatever you have to do to escape -- lie to her about your earnings, pawn her jewelry, live on the street, borrow money, whatever.

You could:
Change degree to something valuable, transfer to a far-away school, and take out some loans to get the funding to move out ASAP. Might need a different mailing address so your mother can't intercept. Don't stop working so you don't end up massively in debt, but you don't need more than 20 hours a week. Don't tell your mother you are moving -- just go one day. Get a school counselor to help you follow through on these decisions.

Drop out, take all of your next paycheck and buy a bus ticket. Go to some hipster place with street kids and do whatever it is they do. Or go to Alberta and work in the oil industry for a year. Or anything, anywhere. Yeah, it'll "screw up" the next few years of your life. But so will not leaving...
posted by flimflam at 12:29 AM on May 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would be actively looking at moving into a sharehouse. Really, I think your parents and their treatment of you is really the bigger issue here re: your mental health. Pack up, move out, move on with your life. If the job market for your degree is better in a different city, move there.
posted by heyjude at 1:01 AM on May 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think what your mother is doing is wrong, definitely ethically and morally. Please tell your father and or any other relative/family friend you may have. She's basically extorting money from you that is rightfully yours- child support is supposed to help you, not her. I agree with the above person, please ask your father to give it to you directly and look into any possible way you can move out. Once you graduate see if you can stay with friends etc. what your mother is doing is horrible and you need to get out of there ASAP...and don't look back or give her anymore money once you are gone. I'm sorry this is happening to ou but you will be independent soon enough.
posted by bquarters at 1:06 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

And then everyone around me has it so much easier

Boy, if I had a nickle for everytime I've heard (and even thought) this, I'd be able to wire you a pretty penny indeed.

It's really hard, but don't get caught up in this game of 'the grass is always greener'. I know from the outside sometimes things look rosy, but you never know what confident chap in a dapper suit is sobbing himself to sleep, or whatever.

Don't bet yourself up because you thing everyone is having a cheese and wine party for a life and you're not. You're life sounds bad, but who's life hasn't sounded bad at some stage?

Do whatever you can to get out of this situation. There's always something.
posted by oxford blue at 2:32 AM on May 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

The desiderata says something about not comparing yourself to others (I'd post it, but I'm on my phone), and it's right. Quite often our assessment of our position is not based on objective criteria but what other people around us appear to be experiencing. My advice firstly, avoid advertising as much as possible - it's designed to make sure we feel like we don't have enough. Likewise avoid contemporary shows (comedy or otherwise) which portrays middle class as having more cars/bedrooms than people. It's not realistic but feels like it is.

Next, assure yourself that you are getting an education in character and discipline - you are, even if you're not enjoying it. You will be able to tolerate many things with aplomb that your peers won't. You have a strong work ethic, patience and fortitude and this will serve you all your life.

Life can change quickly - in a year or three you may be in totally different circumstances, but you will appreciate it more for being in the position you are now.
posted by b33j at 3:05 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also think its worthwhile to ask your father to ask his lawye if the child support could come directly to you. Talk to him, do your sums and see if its enough to move out with.
posted by b33j at 3:08 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry this situation sucks. Are there mental health resources available to you through your school? You're in a difficult situation, but I think that the hopelessness you feel is exacerbated by some truly shitty family dynamics, and sorting that out would be useful.

"Poor college student" is a stereotype for a reason. It definitely hurts that most of your friends are being supported by their parents, but there are many, many students in your situation. They take out loans, get cheap housing with a ton of roommates, and accept the fact that scraping by is normal. I know that this is harder to do now than it was when I was a student, but it still can and does happen.

What kind of jobs are you working? I had two -- one a food service job (cheap food!) and another that was more strategic (help desk that launched my career.) Your degree is not your destiny; figure out a way to do work that makes you more marketable. If you post your degree people can give more focused answers.

I also agree that your mother is being abusive, and is possibly in violation of the divorce decree.
posted by snickerdoodle at 3:22 AM on May 31, 2013 [7 favorites]

Also, saving should not be your priority now. Finding a sustainable living arrangement should be. What is your mom going to do when your child support runs out? I can't imagine things will get better. You need to get out, and to do that, you need to scrimp as much as possible, push back on your mom's demands, and meet some people. Start asking around for housing leads now.
posted by snickerdoodle at 3:25 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your parents sound poisonous. Move out asap and stop giving them money.
posted by empath at 3:52 AM on May 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

My father did something very similar to me, and then extorted me out of inheritance later, meaning because it looked like I had money (but didn't because he took it) I then didn't qualify for financial aid and had to work multiple jobs and take out loans to get through university. Do what I did - move out ASAP.

Yes, you'll have to work, yes it will suck that your friends coast through easier but this is your situation. Sure, I was broke but I was so much happier not having to live with my parents. Twenty years later, my relationship with them has never recovered and in some ways is actually worse but I'm an adult and can choose the level of interaction I have. Free yourself. Future you will thank you.
posted by Jubey at 4:01 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Agreed that you absolutely must move out. Even if you have to live in a tiny place where you share a bedroom. Get out of there! Let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that you didn't have any parents. What would you need to do to get by? You would rent a room to have somewhere to live and apply for scholarships to pay for school, right? So do those things. You very obviously need your independence to survive this period.

In the short-term though, sleep well, eat right, go for long walks to clear your head, spend time with your friends (doesn't have to cost money-go hang out at a park or play cards or something).

Also, look into student services to see if they offer any counseling. You could benefit from some objective support.
posted by greta simone at 4:32 AM on May 31, 2013

Not to just jump on the bandwagon here, but you need to move out. This is an awful situation. It is not normal, what your mother is doing is wrong, and you do not need to live like this. It might mean living in a crummy shared house with other students, but your mother is sucking you dry financially and emotionally. Get out, get out.

Also, I know the job market is bad, but there's no reason to think that will always be true. Plus, I don't know what your current jobs are, but the fact that you have them at all is a good sign! Even if they're things that you don't want to do as a career, you might be surprised where some seemingly dead-end jobs can take you - I have a friend who worked at a mall clothing store during college and now manages it, which isn't her dream job or anything, but it's a real job that pays a totally solid middle-class wage.

You'll be okay. Get out of that house, though. I am sorry this is happening to you.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:50 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh man-- you really, really need to get out of that living situation. That sounds toxic on all levels, and I am sorry that your parents are taking out their frustrations and issues on you. Being able to afford a movie is a not a signifier of luxury. Is there really no way that you can afford a room of your own anywhere? Does your university have any kind of student counseling?

The good news is that you're say that you're close to graduation. A semester? A summer of classes? Six months? Look at that time frame and figure out how you're going to get out of where you are now. Go in for a cheap storage unit with a friend who also lives locally and transfer your stuff. Keep an eye out of cheap living situations; sometimes on Craigslist people will lower the cost of the rent in exchange for upkeep and other light chores. Figure out if you're willing to relocate for a position; you may have more job prospects if you're willing to try a new city or area. Talk to your career development services office now so that your resume/CV and cover letter basics are prepped for applying for jobs. Get a handle on the amount of student loans you have and look at those numbers in a realistic way. You had some good answers about ways to look at your degree in this thread; have you been able to think more about the direction you want to go in after graduation?

Most of all, good luck.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:03 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make finding a way to get out of that house your new reason to get up in the morning. You need agency right now. Feeling like you are in control of your circumstances and that you can change them will give you a boost of energy and lift your spirits.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 5:29 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreeing that you need to get yourself out of your living situation.

Nearly HALF of what you make is just going to your parents; you could DEFINITELY get some kind of roommate situation for less than that.

Also, if she doesn't think that child support should be used on your rent, then what IS she using it for?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:31 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a mom and I think your mother is emotionally abusive and you need to get out of there any way you can. Asking your child to pay her own child support is obscene. That 40% you give her could surely pay your share of an apartment with roommates. Ask your father if he'll front you the money you need to move out. He, presumably, knows that living with your mother can be difficult. Are you the only child at home? If so, then once you move out your mother will have to find somewhere new that she can afford on her own.

It sounds like you're under so much stress that it could be affecting your studies. How close are you to graduation? What are you studying? Would it be possible to go study somewhere else for a semester? Or do an internship? Or even to take a year off so that you can get out of your mother's house and have a life of your own. Yes, I understand that you want to graduate so that you can find better work, but the kind of work you're doing now wouldn't be so bad for another year or two if you weren't having to deal with your mother, and you weren't in school, right?
posted by mareli at 5:48 AM on May 31, 2013

I know this hurts to hear, but your mother is using you. And it's wrong. You need to move out, and away. Your frustration and depression is understandable, as you have no control over what happens with the money you earn.

If you move out, you will likely be playing close to 40% into your living costs, but it will be for YOU. You'll feel like that money is going somewhere useful, supporting you specifically. Supporting yourself will help immeasurably with your confidence and self-respect.

I know from personal experience that breaking out of an unhealthy and co-dependent situation (a situation your mother is actively facilitating, to your detriment) is not easy. Investigate the counselling resources you can access through your school.

I'm going to say this again for emphasis: what your mother is doing is wrong, and your unhappiness is a DIRECT result of her actions. You are under NO obligation to support her this way. The best thing you can do is get away from her. I'm not saying that the whole saving/making money thing will necessarily be easy once you get away from her, but it will be better. I promise.
posted by dry white toast at 5:52 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing to explore is to see if your Dad can pay you the child support directly. Some states allow it. Another thing is to consider yourself emancipated and to move out of your Mom's house. This will allow you to be independent and to have a different FAFSA status.

Rather than working two shitty jobs, see if you can get one good job. I got a job in customer service at the Phone Company. I made good wages, had full benefits and they had a Tuition Aid Program that paid my way for both my undergrad and my MBA. I worked the swing shift so it fit perfectly with my school schedule and after 5:00 PM, it slowed down and I could do my homework at work.

Also, my undergrad degree was in English. I never expected it to get me a job. I was in Telecom for 25 years. It was a great career.

Being independent is empowering. You already have a great work ethic.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:54 AM on May 31, 2013

A lot of people are focusing on the parenting situation, and I agree that's part of the problem, but I'll deal with the other part.

I spent a fair amount of time fighting jealousy of some of my friends who had it easier than I did. Parents helped pay their tuition, they could afford their own cars (albeit used), better social lives, whatever. Until one day, one of them opened up to me and said how jealous he was of me. The way I handled stress, the way I could talk in public, the skills that came easily to me. Your friends may have it financially better than you do, but money truly doesn't make people happy. It just eliminates a source of worry, and there are more than enough of those to go around. Everyone has multiple sources of worry, and just because you can't see it doesn't mean everything is fine. Some people are really good at hiding it. You may be fixated on the financial ones and completely overlooking the others - social, health, spiritual, political, whatever.

I have great, healthy kids, a wonderful job, and excellent friends, and I bet some people I know would love to trade places with me. But I also lost both my parents suddenly in the last three years, have ended any sort of relationship with half my siblings, and struggled to avoid bankruptcy & losing my house for three solid years. Concentrating on what's not working in our lives often blinds us to what's going well.

You're a student, and you're broke. You're not always going to be either of those things. You're at an awesome time in your life, no matter how badly it seems right now. You have a tremendous range of choices ahead of you, and opportunities will appear all around you. You're not going to view them that way, though. They'll appear as problems, or as roommates, or as jobs taken just to pay the bills before your "real" career begins. The more of them you encounter, the better.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:59 AM on May 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

Your mother is harming you. Move out.
posted by ewiar at 6:36 AM on May 31, 2013

Hi Madsy, I've walked through a few of your comments with one's own thoughts/experiences. Maybe they will be helpful.

I'm a student nearing graduation. I'm in debt, I work full time during the summer but I barely make any money. I'm totally broke and I don't see that changing in the near future because the job market for my degree sucks. I'm trying to save but I keep reaching barriers. And then everyone around me has it so much easier, and I'm just so tired and unhappy.

First of all, you need to focus on the short-term. A lot is going to change when you graduate, so it is probably not helpful to think too far ahead. If you do, you will be projecting a future based on the present, when the reality is that everything is going to change for you shortly. Thus, focus on making it through the next few months, rather than trying to figure everything out now.

Secondly, it is a tough job market out there for a lot of people. For whatever reason, we tend to internalise that, but at the same time, it's not unique to you. These problems can leave one feeling very alone and isolated – as if this is happening to you. Well it is. And a lot of other people as well. You may not see them – you see the people who have it easier. Rather than seeing that as a hardship, see that as an opportunity. They are your network, and if they are set up for an easier go, than you can go along with them. That's not fair, but life isn't fair. It will serve you greatly if you start flipping problems into opportunities. Chances are there are opportunities all around, you just have to learn how to take advantage of them. And there's no better time to do that then now.

I'm at a point in my life where I'm starting to really worry about my finances. I come from a well-to-do area so all my friends have parents helping them out but my parents are divorced and both can't/refuse to help and often insist that I give them money. Every paycheck, they're taking about 40% which makes it difficult to save.

As a result, I'm feeling really depressed. I feel like I'm working so hard. I'm taking everyone's shifts, I'm working six days a week and I'm working two jobs and still looking for another. Yet, I don't see any rewards because I only have like 30 dollars in the bank after being paid. I'm really, really trying to save up and not be broke and I want to go to school and travel and do all these things, but I'm having a really hard time with my family taking a large chunk of my money and then bills taking the rest.

Okay, this may be the most difficult move to make of all, but it sounds like it's time to go out on your own. Your parents have an old relationship with a lot of trappings it sounds like. That is not your life. You did not create that circumstance, nor are you compelled to accept it. You have accepted it, and you are accepting it, but that does not mean you can choose not to accept it. And this is not easy – I am not saying these things are easy – but at the same time, they are both adults and have responsibilities for themselves, as do you now. If this is pushing you to the point where it is imperilling your future at a critical time, then it may well be time for action.

This may not be pleasant, and you may feel terrible about making changes here, but in essence, it is ripping the band-aid off a chronic, throbbing wound. Whether you make the break now, or at some point in the future, a break will be have to be made. What your family is really doing is limiting your mobility and restricting your options. You already said the job market is going to be a challenge, and you need to devote yourself solely to pushing forward. As said, they made their own choices, and honestly, it doesn't sound as if they are in a position to take care of you any longer. You are the child, you are the one starting out your life, and it is up to you what you want to do with that life. They may respond poorly and hem and haw. But this is your life. And it's fucking important man.

Sit and have a moment of acceptance. This is okay. It is okay to make other choices than you have already made. Perhaps you have blurred boundaries or cultural norms where you think it is required to be in this place. It is not. And there is no glory in going down on someone else's ship... for decisions they made a long time ago, not even your parents. That does not mean you don't love them, or you won't take care of them in the future. It means that for right now, you need to focus on yourself and get to where you are going, before worrying about anyone else. It's not selfish, it's pragmatic. Because otherwise, you stand a high chance of getting burnt out and being would so tightly that you cannot take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.

And this is a very special time, where you need your momentum. Jobs are not hard to find out of university. You just need a tiny bit of momentum, and then cultivate that. If you are unemployed a year on, it's going to get a lot harder because the next set of grads will come out. So your only focus right now should be getting to your next step. Ignore everything else. Even your family. If they are not actively helping, then they are actively holding you back. There is no neutral influence right now.

And then all my friends have no idea what it is like so I can't relate to them about this. In fact, I'm often bitter that their parents pay for their tuition and that all the money they make from their jobs is essentially spending money - not money for survival.

That is okay. Those are their lives and you have a different life. It is okay to be envious and/or jealous. That is natural. Accept those feelings as your own. Understand them. And then appreciate your friends for who they are. Just because they have a bit easier time does not mean they are bad people. They are your friends, and you can love them even if your own circumstances are different. And in time it will chance, but realise that you are not bitter at them having more, you are bitter at yourself having less, which makes the points above all the more relevant. You are choosing to have less, and therefore you can choose to have more.

And the lessons you are learning now will serve you. Overcoming adversity is what builds character, so you are gaining a substantial benefit, which you will greatly appreciate later.

I'm poor and it sucks. I feel like I'm going to be poor forever which makes me even more miserable. I've tried the whole working hard thing, but I'm still poor. I don't want to barely scrape by in life - that isn't a life that I want to live. How do I keep my spirits up even though I have no money?

Stop identifying as poor. You live in a society driven by money, where it is pushed into your face everywhere. I know lots of people who have gotten high-flying jobs, made a boat of money, and then walked away from those jobs. Because they discovered that they weren't looking for money. Money is an important part of life, but it's not everything. There are lots of people who are very poor and who have very fulfilling lives. You can have money if you choose it, but you are going to have to pay the price for it.

And that is a decision you will make later. Now, enjoy the modest life, for the modest life is usually honest and simple. It may be stressful in some ways, but then again you cannot lose what you do not have. Fill your time with experiences and people, and it's easy to fill very wealthy very quickly.

I know money isn't everything but all the things that I want will require money. I want to travel. I want to continue school. I want to live in a comfortable place. I want to eat well. These all require money and I don't have any.

Leave the concerns of tomorrow for tomorrow. If you start with your two key focuses. Graduating school. Sorting out your living situation and parental oversteps. Getting a job. Do those three things, probably in an order similar to that. Once you have that job, start saving money. It should be easy without the overheads you have now. When you have enough savings and some of the debt in hand, you can make a plan for travel and next steps.

Overall, the key for you sounds like taking big overarching themes of life, work, poverty, and stress and breaking them down into little tiny pieces. Think in days and weeks, instead of years. Use your displeasure with your situation to power your movement into a different situation.

I think you're in a fine place. A lot of us have been in similar situations, it's part of being young and making your own path. The most important thing is not to give up. Your hard work will pay off. You can have the life you want. You just have to start being brutally honest about what is taking you there, and what is not – and then jettison what is not as quickly as possible.

Good luck.
posted by nickrussell at 6:46 AM on May 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

Others are giving really excellent advice about moving out asap and talking with your school about declaring yourself emancipated. I suspect that your goal is to stick around and finish your degree quickly, which is great! However, I think in situations like yours, where it seems like you have no options at all, it is important to consider that you have TONS of options -- especially since you need to extricate yourself from a dysfunctional situation and start living as an independent adult asap.

Specifically, there are loads of work programs worldwide that will pay your room and board and maybe even allow you to earn money for college -- and you can always return to finish the degree once you have time to formulate your plan and confidence about living independently.

Check out:
Backdoor Jobs (short term adventure jobs)
Americorps (VISTA programs hire year-round and you earn college credit)
WOOF (volunteer on organic farms -- lots of people do this to travel the world for months/years)

Once you have a college degree, you can also apply to teach english abroad or join the peace corps. Any of these options could be a great way to break out on your own, get job experience, see the world, and grow into yourself.

Whatever you do, please don't be embarrassed about asking for help from friends. I'm sure you know at least a few people that would let you crash on the couch while you figure out the next steps. When I was in a situation like yours I was very worried about doing this but please trust me, your friends want to help!
posted by susanvance at 6:48 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

madsy: And then everyone around me has it so much easier, and I'm just so tired and unhappy.

I used to work in emergency veterinary medicine in a region with a really wide gap between the upper class (wealthy retirees) and the lower class (laborers and service industry catering to said retirees). My coworkers would often judge a client's ability to pay by their appearance: their car, clothes, etc. I always cautioned them to avoid those stereotypes, because you have no idea what is behind the outward appearance. The woman in the BMW and designer handbag may have just lost her life savings to Bernie Madoff and be wondering where the next car payment is going to come from, while the guy in the worn-out jeans and messy hair might be a dot-com wunderkind with $1.5 million in his checking account.

Your friends might have it easier than you, or they might have no savings and $30,000 in credit card debt, or they might have an abusive parent who assuages their guilt by showering their kids in money.

Take care of yourself (primarily by cutting your mother out of your life as much as possible), work towards your own happiness, and try not to worry about the appearances of others.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:14 AM on May 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

How soon do you graduate? If it's more than about 3 months, and especially if it's a year, go to the Legal Aid office in your community or school. It might be that a judge would order your Dad to give the money to you, esp. if you can show that your Mom isn't supporting you, or apply it to school loans. It's not just the money; the emotional conflict is making you feel much worse.

These are your friends. It's better if they know you are short of cash and can't be spendy. Good friends will still go to concerts you can't afford, but they'll also make plans with you that are affordable, give you rides, etc. You know that the reality is that life isn't fair, but they can keep from being in your face about it, and they can be empathetic.

If you're nearing graduation, that means you're on the home stretch. 1. Well done, you've gotten this far in a tough situation. 2. Hang in there, focus on the goal, and keep going. Many, many people work in fields different than the one they got degrees in. If you have some freedom in your schedule, add a marketing course.

Some of my middle-aged pals still have that feeling of Dang, other people get financial help/ inheritances from their parents, or marry rich, or etc., and that rankles, so this doesn't end with college. My family was pretty good to me financially, but with some serious dysfunction, and, hey, I've been spendy on therapy. There are always plenty of people who have it better, maybe way better, but so, so many who have it worse. Here's an article on Radical Acceptance that may help you learn to make peace with this reality.
posted by theora55 at 7:58 AM on May 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mental health services - you're tired, catastrophizing ("it will be this way forever" is a tip off) and not enjoying anything. See what your school can do for you in terms of cheap/free. If you are depressed, generics are cheap. It will make a huge difference in your life if you have the energy to think about making changes.

Other free mood lifting activities are exercise (yes even if you are tired) and meditation. If you are at all inclined towards any spirituality, now is the time to try. If you have a religion a church community can help and support you. If you are not religious, meditation centres have a pay-what-you-can approach and offer a way for you to become an observer of your situation and help let go of the attachments. Yes it's work and yes it's hard - but a community can help support you as you make a transition in your life.

Find some way that can help strengthen you so that you can make a change. When you are down it is hard to get a way out. Ask for help to get back up. This thread is a good start. Somebody out there wants to help you and wants to see you feeling better and succeed. We're internet strangers and we want to help you. Keep asking and find the strength you need to make a change to make yourself manage your day-to-day existence. If you ask enough people somebody will help you in real life. I wish you the best.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:05 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't say this lightly, and I understand that this path is not for everyone, but after reading your story and updates, all I can say is: Move out. Now. Whatever you have to do to move out, do it. Taking the first step is the hardest part, but you will be amazed at the weight that will lift from your shoulders once you are out of that toxic environment.

Your mother is not caring for you; she does not deserve to profit by taking your hard-earned money on top of receiving child support that she is not using for its intended purpose. My mother did the same thing, right on down to asking for money for rent and bills as soon as I started working, even though I was still in high school and even though she was getting child support AND fully on the dole. So by the time I was old enough to legally move out, I had a choice: Either I could try to go to college, which no one had ever taught me about because people don't often bother teaching poor kids about college since we'll all just work in low-level service positions for the duration of our lives... or I could save my sanity and get the hell out of my mother's living space ASAP by any means necessary.

So I moved. Into a flophouse. It was a two-bedroom apartment shared by a rotating cast of six to eight people with only one permanent resident on the lease. One of the longer-term residents had a very young child, maybe 2 or 3 years old, and they both slept on the floor in the living room -- that's the level of "flop" I'm talking about. I think each of us paid ~$50-75/month in rent depending on the level of privacy we were afforded. We dumpster-dove in teams and shared our spoils. It was not easy or particularly pleasant, but for all of us, it was better than our respective alternatives.

There may or may not be places like this in your city; you may or may not have friends who are in the know about these sorts of situations, but they definitely exist. If your father's child support payments are meant to go toward your rent, couldn't that money be diverted to pay for your rent in a place where your mother does not live? Moreover, if 40% of your paycheck would be suddenly freed up, you could probably find a nicer place than I did, even if you still have to live with a small handful of people.

Happiness is not determined by wealth or even the fulfillment of your desires: It's all in your head. I grew up quite poor, living at the flophouse was the poorest I've ever been (ill-begotten credit cards, free meals at fast food jobs, and 35-cent Aldi lunch meat got me through), but the day I dragged my stuff into that apartment, I was suddenly happier than I've ever been in my life because I was free, free, free!
Yes, I had to work 40+ hours/week feeding burgers into the grill machine at BK and then slinging beer and lotto tickets at a gas station for $5.15 an hour. No, I did not have health insurance. No, I could not afford to travel or go to college. I could not really afford to do anything except go to work, eat, sleep, and go back to work for several years, until I was all but handed a career by a temp agency (after well over a dozen short-term assignments). Yes, I was painfully aware that most of my peers were having their college degrees and world travel funded by their parents.
But all of that felt perfectly OK, because after I moved out, even though my living situation was still pretty dire, I did not have to answer to anyone. None of my roommates were calculating and parceling out my paychecks for themselves with the intent of using my money as their extra spending cash on top of what they were already getting for doing absolutely nothing, like my mom did. Moving out was like jumping off of a cliff and finding out that I could fly.
I know money isn't everything but all the things that I want will require money. I want to travel. I want to continue school. I want to live in a comfortable place. I want to eat well. These all require money and I don't have any.
Sorry to say, but at least one of these things is going to have to give. I am as anti-bootstrap as you can get, but I have known since I was old enough to think that as long as you're the kind of poor where your bank account balance is always hovering in overdraft territory, you can't have it all. You have to hunt down and claw for every single little thing, and build the foundation of your life brick by tiny, hard-won brick. That's just... yeah, that's just how it's gonna be right now, unfortunately. So at this point, you need to prioritize.
Decide which of your desires is the most important/imperative to you -- is it continuing college while living with your mother, even at the expense of half of your wages; moving into the cheapest place you can find, even if it's crappy; traveling; finding a comfortable place to live?
Once you've made that decision, break everything down into quantifiable steps, measurable queries: "How much will rent be in a comfortable place to live? Which cities/neighborhoods am I shooting for? How much will I need to make to afford living there? How can I start networking in hopes of eventually finding a career in my field?" Asking yourself questions like these, and writing down the answers, will help you realize how much work will be required to fulfill each of your desires, and (most importantly) exactly how capable you are of doing that work. You have already been working so hard for so long, so you are obviously capable! Then, start grinding your way to success.

Over a decade later, I'm still paying off the debt I racked up when I was attempting to live on minimum wage, and I know now that I will never be able to afford to go to college, but I consider it all absolutely worthwhile because I am still -- at least as far as a cubicle drone is able to be -- FREE. And happy! In my experience, desires can often be set up and fall like dominoes. Maybe it will go something like: first you find a crappy place to live that your existing crappy job(s) can pay for, then you finish school, then you find a better job, then you find a better place to live, then you travel, then...

More than anything else, take it slow and go easy on yourself. Please ask for help (personal or professional) if you feel that you need it. This is a rough time but it is not impassable or impossible; the canyon between what you have and what you want is not permanently untraversable -- you will eventually get across, even if the path and the end result aren't what you dreamed they would be.

I'm sorry you're in this situation right now, but there are definitely variables that you can take action and make progress on, however small... and when you feel ready to do so, go out and get 'em. You can do this. Good luck!
posted by divined by radio at 10:41 AM on May 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'll add on to some of this advice and say that whatever you decide to do, you need to make a plan and then follow the steps of that plan. Each day, it makes it easier to bear the suffering if you can look at your plan and see that you are working on step 1 right now, and you will be progressing to step 2 as soon as you accomplish X (save X amount, graduate, move out, whatever). I always find it comforting to see my progress along a path, so I don't feel like I am lost and alone.
posted by CathyG at 11:04 AM on May 31, 2013

I think nickrussel put it nicely, there are overlapping issues in different areas of your life that contribute to your overall state. And you got plenty of opinions and advice on how to resolve some of those issues. Once you have graduated and different living arrangements you'll have a brighter outlook on life, I am sure. In the meantime it is smart to seek outside help, to analyze your (financial) situation and to break down all the changes that need to be made into smaller, more manageable parts and it won't seem all so grim and scary.

However, I want to encourage you to give some thought to your own relationship with money - even if you end up making tons and tons of money being less attached to it is a good state of mind.
Also don't dismiss the free activities that are available to you right now - having some fun (be it for $$$, cheap or free) can really help to balance the crappy parts of daily life.
Through some of those free activities you could end up meeting new people who are in a similar financial situation. And there are people who despite living from paycheck to paycheck lead full and active lives and are happy. Maybe expanding your social circle would help to put things into perspective in terms of how you keep comparing yourself to your peers? I mean you say yourself: "And then all my friends have no idea what it is like so I can't relate to them about this."

It sounds as if you go to classes, work two jobs and have a non-ideal living situation plus on top of that deny yourself to have fun because you only have 30 $ in the bank.
You ask: "How do I keep my spirits up even though I have no money?" You could use some fun, I think.

In terms of your long term future and your fears of being poor forever: as others have said, your degree is just a stepping stone - you can build on it and add skills or go into a different field altogether. Talking to the career center at your university might prove helpful. There are skills that are marketable and might improve employability: do you enjoy statistics, would you like to learn R, SPSS or some other computer program? But overall even if you don't find a job in your field right away, as a graduate you have better employment prospects than someone without a degree, even for jobs in unrelated fields.

For the last part: "all the things that I want will require money. I want to travel. I want to continue school. I want to live in a comfortable place. I want to eat well."
It is good to think about how you want your life to be and take steps into that direction, as you do. But it is also smart to prioritize. Many students travel on the cheap, many people eat well on a budget. Finishing school will give you way more options in life, so concentrate on that. After graduation you can still hitchhike, woof and couch surf your way to Florida and beyond.
Good luck!
posted by travelwithcats at 12:11 PM on May 31, 2013

There have been lots of good comments here already, so I'll try to elaborate rather than repeat.

If you feel you need to continue living with your mother for whatever reason, sign an actual month-to-month lease. That way there is a legally binding document that spells out your financial obligation. You should look on craigslist to see what the going rates are for renting rooms in shared houses.

Once you graduate, you should look into whether or not you qualify for food assistance. There's no shame in getting a little help to get you through tough times. Having that assistance will relieve you of some financial pressure.

Take advantage of your student health services for counseling now and look into sliding scale therapy options for post-graduation.
posted by brookeb at 2:38 PM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, your living situation sounds ridiculous but others have already addressed that.

I would say that finding some less privileged friends would probably help you out-- not that you should dump the old ones, I'm sure they're fine! Just expand that circle somewhat so you've got some people in a similar situation to you. This does two things: It gives you folks to relate to and vent with, and it gives you people who want to have cheap social time. It sucks to be surrounded by people who don't get your situation, and it really sucks to be priced out of social events because going out to a nice-ish restaurant isn't a huge financial deal for anyone but you. Also, you don't have upper-middle class consumer goods waved in your face all the time.

Obviously, "find other poor people and be friends with them" is odd advice, and not exactly what I mean. I just mean expanding your social circle a bit might help you feel better about your situation.
posted by geegollygosh at 2:44 PM on May 31, 2013

I agree with everyone else that it is time to move out.

Certainly you are never going to get ahead financially if you give pretty much all the money you make to your mom. Unless your mom is disabled or in some other extreme situation, what's she's doing is ridiculous and shameful.

From what you have described, your mom is not likely to let moving out be easy or pleasant. She may make it truly horrible.

You might get manipulated into sticking around, or moving back in later. I hope not, but if it happens, don't give up. Keep trying. Eventually you'll get out for good.

You should try to find some personal support--a best friend, maybe a sympathetic relative--during the transition. You're trying to exit a distorted environment and it's not going to be easy. You're going to want someone to lean on.

Good luck.
posted by mattu at 4:20 PM on May 31, 2013

There are a lot of amazing answers in here, so I will try not to repeat them:

Firstly, your mother is no longer being a parent to you, for whatever reason, and is now actively impeding your progress at all levels. Being around a person who sucks the lifeforce (and money) out of you in that way is definitely going to impact your ability to perform academically. For this reason, your new job is not finding a third job, but doing everything you can to remain a candidate for graduation. Do not make the mistake of getting wrapped up in the drama going on between your parents, nor your mother's manipulations; they will distract you and keep you where you are, which is right in the middle of misery.

So, what does "Project Graduation" look like? From my part of the room, it seems like the first step is to talk to your dad. Depending on how much rapport you have with him, tell him what your mother's been up to. If your mother refuses to use CHILD SUPPORT money to actually support her child, then she needs to be cut off and she needs to be cut off now. Follow the upthread advice about maybe siphoning that money into your bank account. Hit Craigslist until you find a new place to live, and then get out of there as soon as you can. Living with your mother will make breaking into new habits of self-care more difficult than you think.

Besides, having roommates who are not your mother will benefit you tenfold. Especially because being around people often helps alleviate some of the nasty symptoms on the depression spectrum. If you find college students for roommates, having other people in the same space who also have academic goals to be met may help you stay focused. Try to build and maintain your network of people who care about you, at least once every couple of days: contact a friend you haven't heard from in a while, just to connect with someone who isn't so toxic to you. If your well-off friends are tried and true, they will actively look for low-cost ways to hang out with you. And while I'm mentioning them, allow me to add that if it makes you feel any better, you have a (very unfortunate but otherwise critical) head start to self-sufficient, adult living. I wouldn't say that they're living better; they're actually livinglate. At least, that's the line I used: I also am someone who compares myself to others constantly, and it softened my compulsion to measure myself against members of my graduating class who pretty much got everything, including their new $39k jobs, handed to them. I told myself that while they had more money, I was stronger and more resourceful, and it made me feel better. Say whatever you need to in order to silence that very loud, very painful voice in your head.

During the summer, find an excuse to be outside for at least one hour a week. While transitioning out of your mother's place, find excuses to be outside for even longer. The less time you spend around her, the better you will begin to feel. Find activities that temporarily drag you out of your thoughts and into the task at hand: exercise, playing Tetris, anything that captures your attention enough to hold it for long periods of time.

Your next step (if this all unfolds before Fall Semester starts up) is to try and consolidate your income. Being torn in too many directions is going to drain you of energy faster, especially if you have symptoms of depression. Do you work on campus? Can you find work on campus? Are there any side-hustles you can develop so that you'll have a steady stream of income while you're at school?

Once school starts, you've got a new place or are on your way into a new place, and you've consolidated your income: turn off your phone once in a while, schedule an appointment with the CAPS office, and find new ways to fall in love with your coursework. Genuine fascination with your topics of study will make your time fly faster, and you will work much harder than you would if motivated by fear of post-graduate poverty. You will probably have a lot on your plate between classes and your job, but - and this will keep you grounded - give yourself several hours a week that involves something unrelated to work or academics.

Oh! And find cheap ways to eat well. Fruits and veggies are a lot more expensive than, say, ramen, but budget them in if you can. I used to buy loaves of whole-grain bread that were on sale and freeze them, so that they would be usable even during periods where I couldn't afford to buy fresh loaves. Invest in a water filter so that you don't have to buy lots of bottled water. Lightly sweetened herbal tea in a used gallon bottle will be more sustainable than juice, and probably healthier.

With all this said, I guess there's only one "true" step in "Project Graduation:"

1. Fight like hell to put those blinders on so that you can avoid comparing yourself to your well-off friends and just take care of yourself.

And I'm not promising that it will be an easy step. Your question was about finding happiness: you may not get that right away, but you will get peace, which is often a prerequisite to happiness. But you will still want to compare yourself to the relative ease with which your friends live. You'll eventually stop: you'll feel confident in your ability to hold your own, a self-made and amazing human being.You will still feel absolutely exhausted sometimes, and become irritable because of how hard you've worked with so few immediate results. In fact, you may get so frustrated that you'll wonder if it's all worth it. But you have a strong-ass survivor instinct, and that's why it's worth it, because you have mettle and that matters in the long run.

But you'll push through; you'll dream of acceptance letters from your favorite institutions until you swear that's one sitting on your desk. You'll look at your bank account once in a while and think "some day," instead of "never," and you won't be filled with dread that your balance is not as high as it should be. You may look at your well-off friends, but then you'll look back at you, feel better, and then go meet them at Starbucks to catch up. Or you'll get a text invitation from one of your new (and similarly broke) friends to go to that random festival in the city that sounds unusual but is free, just because.

And sometimes, your mother will call. She'll complain about recent developments in the drama between her and your father, and make you feel like crap for "taking your father's side" and daring to take what she thinks is hers. She'll demand that you give her your money, because "you owe her." And in that moment, you're going to think of all the answers in this post - or, I hope, all of the shit you've been through and how far you've come - and you will say:

"I'm sorry, but that won't be possible."
posted by Ashen at 8:54 PM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

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