My name is Achsha Jones, I’m a thirty-eight-year-old “Xennial” (Gen X/Millennial cusp), native and current Detroiter. This is #MyRenaFiStory. I have two daughters, twelve and six, and a fifteen-year-old stepson. In the last decade, I’ve filed for bankruptcy and divorce, remarried, had another child, changed careers twice, purchased a home and went broke. Telling the story of how my upbringing and experiences of almost four decades have brought me to my present state is complicated and lengthy so I’ll give you the Readers’ Digest version.
Growing up in 80s Detroit, I saw a lot; the city was heavily segregated and losing thousands of residents every year. There was an annual tradition of massive arson lasting up to a week that would begin on “Devil’s Night”, the night before Halloween where hundreds of buildings were set ablaze.
The house where I spent most of my childhood on Detroit’s West Side, had once belonged to my maternal grandparents who moved there in 1952; it was one of the few neighborhoods where Negroes were allowed to rent due to restrictive covenant contracts that were written into mortgages back then. Less than fifteen years later, after the infamous 1967 riots in Detroit, so-called “White Flight” became an epidemic that Detroit has yet to recover from, even with its current popularity, resurgence, and gentrification.
Our house had the misfortune of being located less than a mile from where the uprising happened. This neighborhood was known for being the hub of the Heroin crisis in the 70s and gang territory dating back to the 60s. The schools were bad, there were drugs, addicts, prostitutes and poverty everywhere you looked.
To paint you a picture, we went to the elementary school for just one year; a second grader pulled a knife on his classmate, my brother Juan. It was then that my mom moved us to a school in my aunt’s neighborhood, a twenty-minute drive away. Sadly, my family found ourselves in this situation all too often because of a lack of financial literacy and many unfortunate events later.
My father was a master electrician. After a stint in the Air Force, he got an apprenticeship and would eventually land with Michigan Bell (the great-great Grandfather of AT&T) as a lineman whose job was to climb the telephone poles, make repairs and the like. At his peak; he earned more than $73k in 1983; the equivalent of nearly $185k today. With that kind of income, how did my family end up suffering housing insecurity to the point of us moving in with my dying grandfather? The answer: smokable cocaine, now known as crack.
My father had the sad distinction of being one of the first people to try the smokable version of the popular 80s party drug. Fortunately for me, my mom never tried it and kept her wits about her as my dad lost his as our family began to spiral out of control. My grandfather would die from prostate cancer after a short but horrific battle that my entire family witnessed with my mom at the helm as his caretaker. She’d lost her mom to diabetes just four years and one day before her dad. As the youngest of eight, she was just twenty-seven years old and an orphan. She had a drug-addicted husband, four kids under the age of ten and living in poverty; it’s no wonder she was depressed.
For the better part of five years, my parents would separate and reconcile until they divorced while I was still in elementary school. Seeing your parents divorce isn’t typically something to celebrate but the drama that surrounded their relationship because of my dad’s drug addiction left us feeling jubilant at his absence; something my mother seemed to celebrate every payday.
Working for Rena-Fi, I have come to know and understand the term learned helplessness very well. It’s when generations of people repeat a particular behavior because it was what they witness, saw or were taught growing up. My mom was pregnant when she graduated high school and was unable to accept the offer that would have made her one of West Point’s first black female recruits. I think the fact that she never left Detroit is what compelled her to guilt me into staying here after high school.
She’d remarried the summer of my junior year as we abandoned our family home and moved to the polar opposite side of town to live with her new husband, his mother, three kids, and two grandkids. Less than six months in, he put us out and we moved into an unaffordable apartment in the suburbs. I was sixteen, Juan, the younger of my two older brothers was seventeen and a senior. My sister was twelve. My oldest brother moved in with his father when my mom remarried.
Juan would go on to make his home in Ann Arbor attending school at the University of Michigan once he graduated; to my mom, the hour drive was a million miles away. Needless to say, when I graduated a year later, she was not supportive of my college choices; all historically black colleges and universities in the south. She begged me to “stay here with mommy”, sadly, I agreed and was out of school for an entire year. The year between high school and college was awful. My mom had reconciled with her husband in the middle of my senior year and by November he’d put us out again.
Instead of leasing another apartment, we lived with my mom’s sister, the same sister whose address we’d used to go to better schools in her neighborhood. We were close to her and my uncle; she was the family matriarch and had a hand in helping to raise my mom whose oldest son was just four years younger than my mom. We showed up at their house unannounced the night he put us out. My stepsister and I almost got into a fistfight, clearly, everyone was tired of each other.
That “gap year” between high school and college showed me a lot. I saw my mother’s poor spending habits up front. My aunt and uncle were extremely generous and charged our family nothing to live there despite it tripling their expenses in some areas. My mom was still working two full-time jobs and had paid off her minivan which allowed her to lower her insurance premium after switching from full coverage. She had fewer expenses but was saving nothing. To the extent that when she moved out after nine months; my aunt and uncle had to loan her the money for the deposit and rental truck.
I lived in Alabama for two years to attend school at Alabama A&M University. Looking back, I was running away from home, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing but it wasn’t planned well; my tuition and student loan payments from the only year that I was enrolled there still follow me to this day. I spent my second year there working two low paying part-time restaurant jobs that barely paid the bills. I moved back to Detroit defeated with the hope of working hard, living at home and saving enough money to buy a car, I could move to Atlanta and get a place there as I had already been accepted to Georgia State University.
Moving home damned my goals from the start. Nothing had changed within my family despite my time away. Juan was still in Ann Arbor, happily pursuing his degree working three jobs in the summer while my brother and sister sucked the life out of my mom. Of the four adults in the house now, just three worked (mom, brother, and me) but only two contributed (mom and me). This went on for the six months that I stayed with them. I saved just $125 despite working over 2000 hours between my two full-time jobs in less than six months. We were evicted in November and moved back to our old neighborhood in Detroit the weekend of my twenty-first birthday. Apparently, my mom doubted my word when I told her that we shouldn’t be writing the rent checks and money orders to an individual. She’d later learn that of the twenty-six months that they’d lived in their Inkster, MI home, that the “landlord” was a tenant subletting the house to my mom and not paying the property owner. I lasted at the new house in the hood for about a week; the shooting and drug dealing, I could deal with; the scratching and scurrying mice were too much. I moved in with a companion for just over a year. Despite the tumult, I was able to buy a car and move into my own place in Detroit fourteen months later.
That same year, I would meet the man that was to become my first husband. A Ghanaian immigrant who I would eventually learn needed a green card which hastened our wedding day to just six weeks after the meeting. We were married for six years, having a daughter just after the three-year mark which was miraculous within itself. Not because we had fertility issues but because earlier in the day of the night that she was conceived, we’d agreed to separate. It seemed like the best decision. I was tired of his chronic unemployment and him sabotaging jobs while I worked and went to school full time. He controlled the money despite not contributing to the money and he sucked at it. When short on cash, he would intentionally overdraft the account and/or force me to get a payday advance loan.
He put me on an allowance that only covered household necessities and gas. It came to the point that I would sneak out of the house at 4 AM when the direct deposit would hit my card to go to the ATM to take forty bucks out, just so I could have some money to myself. Looking back, I’m ashamed to admit that I allowed this kind of behavior but it’s not something that happens overnight when you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship. When our daughter was born, I saw very quickly that nothing was going to change. When our daughter was eight months old, I moved out. We would reconcile briefly after he joined the Army National Guard and came home from training. It lasted just a few months but would usher in a number of hellish years.
It’s one thing to struggle on your own, but it’s not something that you’d ever want your children to endure. From 2007 to 2009, life was very, very difficult. Thanks to my ex-husband, I was kicked out of my apartment where he’d moved to after we reconciled and I ended up with a man that I now lovingly call my Godfather, he was my landlord and my dear friend, a seventy-something retired Polish teacher named Art. Because of my relationship with Art, I would meet the man who would give me an opportunity of a lifetime; a chance to interview for Cintas First Aid & Safety, a sales job that I felt 100% prepared for due to my years of process serving and working as a security guard. I knew that this company would be my chance at a career. A light that seemed to fizzle out once I became a single mom.
As the only black female and one of only two black people in the organization, I knew that I had to perform and I did really well there in terms of my performance and my compensation. However, the bad habits of learned helplessness and a lack of financial literacy led me to bankruptcy, losing two cars and poor credit. Despite earning more money than I ever had, the habits persisted. I wanted to reward myself for my hard work when I got paid. I didn’t budget, save or invest. money always burned a hole in my pocket.
I saw the roots of my learned helplessness when my mom got a $100k inheritance from a rich uncle. She burned through it in less than a year on restaurants, carryout, and clothes. Her husband died of stomach cancer in 2013. In 2016, she lost the house in a beautiful suburb that they’d bought together, just two months before my brother Juan would pass away from anal cancer and HIV complications in April of that same year.
Less than two years later, my mom died at fifty-eight years old. Just four months after turning in the car she could no longer afford to pay for and insure, she was basically a shut-in along with my unemployed, morbidly obese sister. She had no life insurance and $82 in her checking account. She spent her like taking care of my oldest brother and sister who, like me and Juan, never learned how to take care of their money. It was the subject of the last conversation I had with my dying brother; the effects of not being taught.
The first step is becoming aware. I’m learning how to deal with learned helplessness by leveraging the information that I am gleaning for Rena-Fi. I am finally optimistic for myself and my children. It’s been a long journey, but the story is not over yet.
Achsha Jones is the author of this article and is in charge of Public Relations for Rena-Fi, Inc. Learn more about her and the team at Rena-Fi.com.