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I'm 36, and I still lie to my parents about money
"I'm a grown woman who still refers to her mother as Mommy. I'm also a grown woman who goes to great lengths to conceal how much of a financial mess she is."
Better not tell mom.
Better not tell mom. Shutterstock

I have this bad habit. Well, it's not exclusively bad, but if you're the kind of person who gets annoyed by anyone who chats on a cell phone in public, then you'd likely find my tendency of calling my mother whenever I'm walking home from the subway or to a friend's house highly irksome.

The fact that I talk to my mother so frequently might make you think that I'm that girl who's all, "My mom is totally my best friend. Exclamation point. Exclamation point." But our chats aren't unvarnished gabfests, with me divulging all of my secrets.

For example, just yesterday the first part of our conversation went like this:

Me: "Hey, Mommy. Whatcha doin'?"
Mommy: "Driving. What are you doing?"
Me: "Walking to my apartment."

Now, let me say something about this exchange: I kinda lied. Although it's true that I was on my way home, I was only stopping by my apartment to check the mail before heading to housing court — a detail that I'd conveniently left out of my reply.

You see, not only am I a grown woman who still refers to her mother as Mommy, but I'm also a grown woman who goes to great lengths to conceal from her parents just how much of a financial mess she is.

The problem with my financial picture

I'll be upfront about my bad money habits. I'm 36 years old, single, and childless. And despite the fact that my life is free of the kind of financial obligations that might beset other women my age — say, a working mother of three, like my friend, Chelise — I don't feel (or act like) a bona fide, financially solvent adult.

I owe nearly $2,000 in back taxes. I live paycheck to paycheck. And I pay most of my bills every two to three months, instead of monthly, and routinely call service providers to ask for extensions on everything from my cell phone service to the electric bill. To be honest, I often judge that it's time to pay a bill when my service has been disconnected. And, even then, I only pony up the minimum to turn it back on.

There's also the issue of credit card debt. Granted, it's the puny kind. Store cards and such. Kohl's and Walmart probably wish that they hadn't extended my lines of credit to $1,000 each a couple of years ago because I still haven't paid them.

Yet, when my father asks, "Penny D, do you need anything?" I always say, "Nope, Daddy. I'm good." (And, yes, I affix the "-y" suffix to my father's honorific too.)

I call it lying to my parents, who are divorced, but it's really "leaving things out" — and I've done it for years. I suppose it started as a form of self-protection: I've been bailed out by my parents before, and I'd rather not repeat such embarrassing occurrences. The most recent incident was about four years ago, when my cellphone was disconnected and I didn't have the money to turn it back on. My mother couldn't get through to me, so she called my father, who then called the phone company … and paid the balance.

Since then, what I tell my parents — or don't tell them — are mostly lies of omission. I liken it to the way some people lie about time, saying that they'll be somewhere in five minutes, when they're really 15 minutes away. So when I'm discussing with my parents how much I paid for something, I always shave off 20 or so bucks. Like when I told my mother that I paid $50 to get my hair done, when it really cost $70. That convenient fib allowed me to look more responsible — and less like the frivolous spender that I really am.

Truth be told, I believe that many of the lies that we tell our parents come down to simply not wanting to hear their reactions. Case in point: I don't want to listen to my father say one more time how foolish it is to live alone in New York City — paying four-figure rent — so I don't tell him about the third late-notice email that I received from my landlord.

Besides, do we really owe it to our loved ones to be upfront about our financial health? Do we need to share news of detrimental credit scores in the same way that we would a bad cancer diagnosis? And why are we so concerned with keeping up the "I'm good" appearance when we're adults?

The roots of my financial mess

My money problems boil down to irresponsible spending. I'm like the faltering dieter who doesn't want to deprive herself of that third piece of chocolate or handful of potato chips. I routinely treat myself to $30 dinners before paying the rent. And I'll go into H&M, intending to buy a $15 dress but end up purchasing nearly $150 worth of stuff — not including the dress.

So where does this kind of behavior come from, anyway? Well, I suspect that some of my faulty approach to finances took shape when I was a kid.

You might say that I was spoiled growing up. My mother and father divorced when I was four years old, and I was mostly raised by my mother, who often showed her approval and affection by buying me things. I'll never forget the day when I came home from school and found the living room couch covered in ten new outfits — a surprise reward for getting all A's on a report card. And, as soon as I turned 16, my mom bought me a car, a fuchsia Dodge Shadow that I nicknamed the Pink Panther.

The reality is that my mother never got too caught up in how much things cost, and I never worried where her money came from back then. I only knew that she worked hard, and that at every stage of my life, she always seemed to be able to afford to buy me something that I wanted, whether it was a $20 collectible Barbie or a $200 prom dress. To this day, she'll surprise me by depositing money into my account, even though she can't really afford to be so generous.

Do I feel guilty about this? Well, yes. Which is why I lie.

Our parents, our (lying) selves

Figuring that I couldn't be the only adult who keeps money secrets from her parents, I emailed some friends to see what financial lies they've told their folks. My friend Lakisha admitted to be generally cagey about money matters with her parents. And Meghan confessed that her mother had literally begged her to know the full extent of Meghan's credit card debt, saying, "Just tell me, Meg! How much is it? $5,000? Six?" To which Meghan replied yes, although she really owed twice as much.

Yet another friend, Christina, devised an elaborate cover-up about the cost of her wedding dress. "I knew my mother really wanted to buy my gown, and I knew roughly what she thought was an 'appropriate' and 'responsible' amount for such a purchase, which wasn't really in my ballpark," she says. "So I lied to her about the actual cost of the dress, involved the saleswoman in the deceit, and ended up paying the balance myself. It seemed like a win for everyone, and I never had to listen to her complain about me being overextravagant. Ten years later, she still doesn't know, and I'm perfectly content taking it to the grave!"

Hearing that my friends told their parents tall tales, too, made me feel like I'd unearthed a secret stealth society. I was shocked by how many of my friends exhibited the same behavior. It was as if I'd hit a hot-button topic that everyone was dying to finally talk about out in the open.

I myself can't foresee a time when I won't keep my parents in the dark about my financial life. It saves me a lot of hassle from the embarrassment of admitting my debts, the guilt of accepting help to clean up my financial messes, the self-flagellation about still making the same mistakes after all these years — and the self-deprivation of actually attempting to live within my means.

But I also know that lying to my parents keeps me from having the kind of intimacy that I crave with them — my mom especially. After all, why else would I call her several times a day if I didn't want us to really have that "my mom is totally my best friend. exclamation point. exclamation point" kind of relationship?

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