Spending on Sunny Days: What My Mother’s Diagnosis Taught Me About Money

Growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1970s, I learned a few things: jobs can go away quickly, chronic unemployment can cause entire towns to wither, and the Steelers, unlike the industry they were named for, were invincible.

During those years, steel mills closed one after another, but fortunately my family remained unaffected. My father worked for a nascent Allegheny Airlines, which became USAir, now US American Air (or whatever ultra-patriotic name they’ve now chosen to give it).

Still, I remember the beginning of each school year when we’d go around the room and state our names, neighborhoods and other fun facts (like where your father worked). Sadly, the question was never where your mother worked; and for a couple of years, there weren’t many fathers working at all.

Given that environment, I grew up with the understanding that money was a limited resource that should be saved, put away for retirement and rainy days. Like, Russell-Crowe-in-an-Ark rainy days.  My parents made it clear early on that my choices for college were to either get a scholarship or go local, and I worked hard to do the former. And when I got to college, there was no parental credit card in my pocket; I had to be wise with the money earned from summer jobs.

It wasn’t until I had my first real job that I got my first credit card. It was all mine, no one co-signed. Living in New York, I quickly reached the spending limit (in days, I believe), and then the debt, too, became all mine. Several returned garments and Ramen dinners later, I paid that debt off and learned a valuable lesson. Or so I thought.

It was only a few years later that my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and the progression was swift. She could still walk with the help of a cane, but as her feet grew more unsteady and her hands more shaky, my parents’ travel  became — and is still — restricted. At first, they feared she might fall; then it was the certainty that she would fall. My parents, who had saved their entire lives for a time when, retired and child-free, they would travel everywhere, were forced to let go of that dream.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been flying on planes since before I was born that I, too, have always loved to travel — as far and as frequently as possible.  And since my mother’s diagnosis, I’ve decided it’s not something I want to wait to do.

Even if it means blowing up a credit card balance or dipping low in the checking account, I will venture somewhere new at least once a year. Later this week, I’ll be in Ireland. Later this spring, Mexico and after that, who knows. I’ve already achieved my goal of visiting each inhabited continent before the age of 30; now, it’s just an ever-growing list of places. But it’s a to-do list, not a bucket list.

Of course, I’m not against planning for the future. I save, though maybe not as much as I should. (I’ve tried every online retirement calculator I’ve come across looking for a more optimistic answer, as if they are magic eight-balls that just need another shake.) I don’t look at it as frivolous spending, but simply as using my travel funds sooner rather than later. Sure, there may come a day when I’ll regret not putting more cash aside. But I don’t think I’ll ever regret seeing the Sahara or hiking the Great Wall or diving the Great Barrier Reef when I had the chance.

What my mother’s diagnosis taught me is that plans can and do change. Money may make you more comfortable when you’re older, but is that really an even exchange for experiences sacrificed when you are still young and agile?

So I still save for rainy days, but I also choose to enjoy a few sunny ones along the way.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

9 Responses

  1. Editor’s Note: I Need a Dollar; A Dollar Is What I Need. | Tue Night

    […] Courtney Colwell shares how her mom’s illness changed how she “saved” money. […]

  2. Suzanne

    Courtney – Great attitude! I started traveling in my late 20s. Sometimes with friends or family and sometimes alone. When the opportunities arose I took them. So glad because like your mother I was later diagnosed with MS. That was almost 20 years ago. Continued to travel, but MS has become a limiting factor on what I can do. Suspect that my trip to Europe last summer will be the last of those. But I look forward to exploring other places and types of trips, such as cruises, that will still be “doable” and fun despite my limitations. I can think of money spent on any number of things that I wish I hadn’t spent. Not a single one is related to any of my travel adventures:)

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  3. What No One Tells You About Planning for Retirement | Tue Night

    […] once wrote that my mother’s MS made me rethink saving for a retirement that may never happen. Don’t wait […]


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