07/25/2011 07:26 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2011

My Family Is Broke, But Not Broken

By Jennifer Mattern

My daughters and I make our way down the Walmart frozen food and cereal aisle. I cast furtive glances around me, hoping not to see anyone we know from the girls' school. I am ashamed that I feel ashamed. Organic greens, gluten-free rice bread, locally grown heirloom turnips -- that's the usual fare for their classmates and their families.

Here, the offerings are cheap, hormone-pumped, chemically laced, and processed. I figure I am also cheap, hormone-pumped and chemically laced. And my hair is processed. We will survive a week of bottom-rung food, I decide. I ate Twinkies for breakfast as a kid and lived to tell.

I do the best I can, as much as I can, in the nutrition department. It's a thankless task: I don't enjoy cooking, because I can't stop thinking about the dollar value of what I'm shoving around in the pot. Will they eat it? How many dollars will go to waste this time? I try to stick with tried and true. I'm the queen of lentil soup, made with discounted vegetables pushing their expiration dates. I can live on cabbage, oil and vinegar. Apples and bananas are staples, along with frozen berries for smoothies. Green beans and carrots make frequent appearances on our table.

This week, though, we are broke. Broke broke. This morning I had to borrow $400 cash from my mother to shock my DOA checking account into a still-flatlining $250. I can't remember the last time the account dipped below zero. But I screwed up. The real estate tax bill smacked me upside the head at the same time as the overdue oil bill. I paid both, not realizing how depleted the checking account had gotten. There's no income on the way for at least another week, if not longer.

As the girls try to find the most virtuous cereal, a petite elderly woman wearing a striped pink hat shuffles past with a cart. She pauses to grin at them.

"Are you helping your mother, girls?" she asks, with a lilt. There is something downright elfin about her.

The girls smile politely and say "Yes, yes we are." They know if you're going to talk to a stranger, a little old lady is usually a pretty safe bet.

The old woman turns her head to me. "Are they? A big help?" She studies my face carefully. There is something behind her questioning, something more than polite chit-chat.

I wonder for a moment if she's a fairy godmother, roaming the aisles of Walmart, scouting for the family most down on their luck, her wand carefully concealed in her purse.

I realize we are not that family, not even close. I smile, and place a hand on each daughter's head: a frozen-food aisle benediction.

"They are a huge help," I say. "I have the most wonderful girls. I'm about as lucky as you can get."

Fairy Godmother nods approvingly and continues on her way, humming.

When I look back at my daughters, they are smiling at me, their eyes clear, bright and unworried.

It's tough on the girls, having to switch homes every week. Homework goes missing. Clothing gets lost. They return to my home only to find that pants that fit two weeks ago are too short. Today at Walmart, we also need to find Daughter #1 new jeans, stat, and a long-sleeved T. Socks and underwear: also a must. Cat food, too, because Daughter #2's "birthday miracle kitten" eats like a Clydesdale.

My father never talked about money. "Money is no object," he liked to say, but my brother and I knew damn well it was an issue. I still feel pangs of guilt with every purchase I make, as if there is some free alternative to shoes and underwear that I am choosing to ignore.

I tell the girls to look for a few pairs of pants on clearance racks. I tell them money is tight this week, but I know we can't go another day without underwear and some new pants.

"How much money do we have?" asks Daughter #2. "Like, exactly how many dollars."

WWCID: What Would Caroline Ingalls Do?

I decide that Caroline would not beat around the bush.

"We've got $250, and it has to last us at least a week. Maybe more."

"That sounds like a lot, to a kid," comments Daughter #2.

"It's not," says Daughter #1. "Is that even ... normal?"

Normal. I don't know what's normal, for other families. "We just ... have to be really smart today. Wise with our resources."

Daughter #1 finds a $14 pair of jeans. They fit perfectly.

"Let's grab another pair in another color, since we know they fit," I say.

"Really?" One word. I realize I need to say something my father used to say. This phrase of his, I did believe.

"Don't panic," I say. "I'll tell you when it's time to panic. And I promise, it's not. We're going to be fine -- we just have to be smart."

"We can be smart," they say.

"I know. And being smart with money is a good lesson. You guys just have to learn it a little earlier than most kids."

We pay for our careful pile of items: about $120 of necessities.

"So that means we have ... $130 left?" Daughter #2 looks a little concerned.

"Yup," I say. I channel my inner Caroline. "We've got what we need, and a little money left over until I get paid again."

When we get home, we split the bags and their backpacks and haul our supplies up the hill to the house. Daughter #1 thanks me for her new clothes.

"You're a great mom," she says, simply.

"Yeah," says Daughter #2. "If I got mad, I might pretend I was going to run away, but I would never do it, because you're a good, strict, funny, GREAT mom, even if we're poor."

I think Caroline Ingalls would be pleased with that assessment. I'll take it.

Jennifer Mattern is the creator and author of the award-winning blog Breed 'Em and Weep. She writes the weekly column Single Mom at Work at Work It, Mom. A Pushcart Prize nominee for her work at Brain, Child Magazine, Mattern is a freelance writer, playwright and single mama of two daughters.