By Jennifer Gonzales-Romero, 18, Senior writer, University of La Verne (2011 South Gate HS graduate)
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Jennifer is trying to help her dad out by paying one bill a month, which isn't much but she knows he appreciates it.

My mom, my brother and I used to go to the movies or eat out almost every weekend. We weren’t rich but I could tell my mom wasn’t struggling because she could always afford to take us out. Things changed in June 2009 when my mom was laid off from her job as an assistant property manager for a property management office. I never thought she’d lose her job because she’d been working there for eight years. But since she didn’t look worried, I didn’t worry either.

My mom had savings and the government gave her unemployment—money you get from the government every two weeks after you’ve been laid off. But she still made sure to budget her money. We didn’t eat out or go to the movies as often. Out of habit, I’d ask my mom to buy me clothes when we were at the store but she said she couldn’t. So I would mostly ask my dad whenever I went over to his house because he had a job.

Many times my junior year I’d come home after band practice and see my mom on her laptop looking for jobs, but she wasn’t having much luck. I didn’t think it would take two years for her to find a job and that she’d struggle to pay her bills.

The summer before senior year, I researched colleges. My dream school was the University of La Verne because I thought its small class sizes would be better for me. Tuition cost $31,300 a year but I thought financial aid would cover everything since my mom was unemployed.

By the end of the summer I knew that I couldn’t depend on my parents to buy me new clothes and pay for my senior year expenses so I kept my summer job at Little Caesars.

In late September my mom started dating an old classmate from New Orleans. He and his daughter moved here and my mom and them moved into a three-bedroom home. My brother and I stayed in our apartment and my dad moved in with us so we could continue going to school in South Gate. My mom and her boyfriend got married in December.

My mom started to worry 

At the beginning of 2011, I started to notice that my mom was struggling. Her mail was still sent to the apartment where I lived with my dad, so she would call almost every other day asking me whether her unemployment check had arrived. When I would say no she would say “OK” in a worried voice. She had been receiving unemployment for a year and a half and to keep getting it she had to prove she was still looking for a job. She told me she was worried that they wouldn’t believe she was having trouble finding one and that they would cut her off. Her husband wasn’t working either because he was having trouble finding a job in construction. I felt bad.

Illustration by Shirley Loi, 17, Sierra Vista HS (Baldwin Park)

One day in March, I was doing homework in my mom’s room. She was sitting on her bed going through papers when she told me she was behind with her car payments. She started crying and said that she didn’t know how she was going to pay for her car and for rent. It hurt me to see her cry and I started tearing up too. I wanted to help her but I didn’t know how. I knew that if she couldn’t pay her car loan that they would take her car away, but she needed it. How else would she go to job interviews or pick my brother and me up so we could stay at her house?

In April, my mom scored a temporary job as an assistant property manager. I was hoping that they would keep her permanently. But after five weeks they didn’t need her anymore, so she went back to looking for a job. Around the same time I noticed that my mom’s husband was borrowing her car more often. I asked my mom what happened and she said he sold his car and they used the money to pay for rent. Still, I didn’t think their situation was so bad because they still had their home and money to buy food. But now that I look back, my mom had been worrying about a lot of bills.

In May I decided that I wanted to get my prom dress made so that it would be unique. I asked my mom if she could help pay for it since my dad had offered to pay $100. I think she knew how much it meant to me so without any hesitation she said she could pay $100 too. I was so excited. I didn’t feel bad for asking because if she had said no, I would have understood. I wanted prom to be perfect and I was just thinking about that.

A couple of weeks later my mom picked up my brother and me from my dad’s house, and I gave her three letters from the unemployment office. When she read them, she looked worried. I asked her what was wrong and she said that they were no longer going to give her unemployment. When she started driving she remained quiet and looked like she was thinking. Then she started crying and said that she had a lot of bills to pay and she didn’t know what she was going to do. I thought about saying, “It will be OK, things will get better” but it didn’t seem right because I didn’t know whether things would get better. My brother and I kept quiet for the rest of the car ride. I wanted to offer her money but the only money I had I was going to use to buy my prom ticket. I didn’t want to be selfish but I didn’t want to miss out on one of my most memorable high school experiences. I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t find a job. She had a college degree, she was outgoing and hardworking, so why wouldn’t anyone hire her?

She couldn’t help pay for my prom dress

The next day she called and told me that she was having trouble paying rent and that they were going to move into a one-bedroom apartment. She told me she couldn’t give me the $100 anymore. I understood and told her it was OK. But now I didn’t have enough money either so I didn’t know what I was going to do. My next paycheck wasn’t until the day of prom. I didn’t want to ask my dad for money because he couldn’t afford it and I knew he would get mad that my mom couldn’t contribute since they always split the expenses for me and my brother. My mom suggested I use some of the money I had saved for college from selling pastelitos, a Central American meat pocket, at school. I didn’t want to but it was the only way I could get money fast. I promised myself I would pay back every cent after my next few paychecks.

Then my mom asked me if she could borrow $120 from my pastelito money. I was shocked she was asking me for money, but I said yeah. It showed how badly she needed it if she was asking me. Although it hurt to hear what my mom was going through, it felt nice to finally have a way to help her.

I had fun at prom because I was hanging out with my boyfriend and my best friend and her date. I was excited prom was finally happening and graduation was approaching.

Around the same time, I found out that the University of La Verne was going to give me about $24,000 in grants and scholarships, which left me with about $11,000 to pay myself or through loans for the rest of the tuition, books, food and personal expenses.

One of the loans had to be taken out by one of my parents, and it was the loan with the most money, $4,000. I asked my parents but they didn’t want to take out the loan because my dad had bad credit and my mom had no income. I understood but it meant that I would be able to take out only $7,000 in loans so I would have to work part-time while going to school. I hoped I would make enough money to pay for my phone, gas and other expenses.

In June my mom went for a second job interview as a payroll clerk. I knew how hard my mom was looking for a job and I was hoping that they would hire her. After the interview she picked me up so we could open a checking account. She said they would call her later in the day to tell her whether she got the job. When we were opening the account with a banker, they called her. She stepped outside the banker’s cubicle while I finished opening my account. When she was done she came in crying with a smile on her face. I knew it was good news. She said they gave her the job and she would start next week. I was happy so I gave her a hug. Afterward, we picked up my little brother and celebrated her new job by going to a restaurant to eat tacos.

Now that my mom has a job, things have gotten better for her. She and her husband moved into a three-bedroom apartment and she’s been paying her bills off. She also has extra money again so she and her husband go out to eat on weekends sometimes.

When my mom lost her job I was busy with my own life—just worrying about school, being in band and college applications. But as I watched my mom struggle, I realized how hard it is to make money and how the economy could affect even those who are good at budgeting their money or have a college degree. Seeing my mom struggle makes me worry about whether I will get a job after I graduate from college. I realize now that it’s hard for a lot of people to get jobs, especially young people because we’re inexperienced.

I now know how expensive life is when you’re an adult

I’m scared about one day living on my own because I will have to pay for rent, groceries, utilities, the Internet, cable and all this other stuff. My job at Little Caesars is minimum wage and I couldn’t support myself on that.

Looking back, I could have asked my mom if she had enough money to pay all her bills. If I knew that earlier, I could have understood that she was struggling. If I had saved my money from my job instead of spending it on clothes, I think I could have paid for my prom dress myself. Now, I’m more appreciative of what my parents are able to give me. My mom has agreed to pay for my car insurance. I appreciate her help because I know it’s hard for her since she is still trying to pay off her bills. To thank my dad, I’m helping around the house more and contributing to some house expenses since he is letting me live with him for free while I go to college.

I wish my mom didn’t have to go through that financial struggle, but I’m glad I’ve learned from it. Save money for emergencies. Make sure I don’t go into debt. This is the perfect time to realize that before I’m living on my own.

Other stories by this writer:

Working while in school was a balancing act. Jennifer, 18, liked earning extra money, but working a part‑time job didn’t leave her enough time to study. (September 2011)