At 14, I remember watching as my older brothers and their wives rifled through my father’s desk, stacking up bill after bill. They stood there shaking their heads as they totaled the rising stack of papers. A stack that would crush my mother under its weight. My father, the sole provider of the family, had just committed suicide, and as one of two children remaining under the care of our mother, it appeared we might be reduced to homelessness. Hot fear snaked up my spine, and I felt sweat prick my scalp, pooling at my temples. It was the first time I truly understood the stress that surrounded money.
This wasn’t my first introduction to the financial anxiety that crowded our household. There were six children in my family, and while we never starved, there was a constant undertone of fear about what we could afford. My father’s entire philosophy on money could be summed up by John Steinbeck’s quote from The Winter of Our Discontent: “There is no such thing as just enough money. Only two measures: No money and not enough money.” Every day, my father left before the sun rose and returned home long after it had disappeared. He often worked on weekends, and in his spare time, when he wasn’t drinking, he was tracking every cent. Trips to the grocery store required a receipt and complete inventory. There was an agreed -upon dollar amount for school supplies, and new clothes had to come from the Goodwill if we couldn’t find our sizes in the clearance section at KMart. Each week, as my father sat at our dining room table, reconciling the checkbook, I remember my heart fluttering when he called upstairs, shouting my mother’s first and middle names. She would slink down the stairs to halfheartedly defend her checkbook log, arguing the necessity of each purchase. Everything in our life was measured in dollars and cents.
The relationship my parents had with money made a deep impression upon my siblings and me. Now, as I understand how that relationship affected my views on money, I believe the relationship every parent has with money, whether it be good bad or otherwise, influences their children’s financial future. From eating habits to hobbies, parental behavior heavily impacts the kind of adults’ children become and the decisions they will make. The area of finance is no different. Remember when you muttered “shit” under your breath, and your four-year-old ran around the house yelling it for an hour? Or when you suddenly noticed your six-year-old imitating your frustrated eye-rolling? Kids pick up on your emotions about money, and it helps shape their beliefs on its role in their own lives.
For all of their fighting about money, my parents never offered any advice or guidance on the subject. In fact, when we asked about money we were usually met with a snide comment meant to insult the other parent.
If I asked my father for extra spending cash I was told my “selfish mother spent it all.” When I asked my mother if they were saving money for my college tuition, she told me my “bastard of a father thought beer and cigarettes was more important than saving for college.”
The only thing I learned was money made people hate one another. It was every man for himself, and I learned to be selfish with any money that might be handed to me.
Whether my parents found it unnecessary to teach us about money or they felt they had nothing to teach us, I cannot say. However, their neglect on the matter left me to surmise my own interpretations, which centered on fear and power. It seemed to me that my father held all the power because he made the money. My mother had to argue why every last box of cereal was needed to feed six kids, but my father bought beer and cigarettes whenever he pleased. I equated money with possessions and possessions with happiness. It created an endless insatiable cycle in which more money was the answer to everything.
Soon after my father’s death, we found out that we would receive a payout from a life insurance policy. It appeared we wouldn’t be homeless, after all. As my brothers helped my mother get the finances in order, I watched as the mountain of debt was swallowed by the flood of money we had suddenly received. I saw that climbing stack of bills knocked into the garbage as easily as if it had been blank paper. Panic sucked the air from my lungs as I wondered if our monumental debt had contributed to my father’s death. It felt too tragic, too ridiculous, but I caught other family members whispering the same conclusions. My idea of money was weighted by the notion that my father had sacrificed his life in order to release his family from crushing debt. I developed a sense of terror around the power of money, and when my mother took control of the finances, this terror only intensified.
My mother’s lack of basic math skills sent her into a buying frenzy when she cashed the check from the life insurance policy. After spending a lifetime reporting her spending to my father, she felt liberated by the substantial, but certainly not endless, balance in her bank account. I watched as that money was drained on everything from granite countertops to vacations. At 16, I once again asked if she was setting aside any of the money for my college. This time I was told that the money was hers to help raise me as she saw fit. Apparently, new carpet and cabinetry was important to child rearing. When my mother should have been investing the money and ensuring that she would have enough to support her children as well as herself, she was living in the moment and ignoring the dwindling checking account balance.
As I began looking at options to pay for college myself, I was overwhelmed by the fact that I didn’t know anything about money. My math skills had always been poor, but it had only been a problem as I struggled to pass my math classes. Now, I was embarrassed and scared by the fact that I had no idea how to handle my own finances or how I would pay for college. My parents had never placed an emphasis on schooling or the importance of its application to real life, and I felt trapped by every poor decision they had made, and subsequently my own. As my mother burned through the money my father had seemingly given his life for, I knew her juvenile grasp on finances was destroying her future and mine. I had to do something different if I wanted to avoid the mistakes both of them had made, but true to form, I went about it the wrong way.
The whirlwind that was my parents’ relationship with money was filled with negative feelings that destroyed everything in their path. Instead of learning about interest rates or the pitfalls of buying on credit, all of my decisions were based on emotions, including my approach to paying for college. I had been determined to be better than my parents, and while my decision to go to college was a step in the right direction, how I went about it was not. Much like my mother, I have a sense of impulsivity, and my eagerness to get away from her led me to hastily apply for a student loan that I will be paying off until 2030. My lack of understanding about loans led me to probably the worst choice I could have made. That impulsivity and emotional reaction costs me close to the same amount as my mortgage payment every month. Every time I send that payment, it is a reminder that my financial decisions affect my future, as well as my family’s.
As an adult, I have worked hard to educate myself and make better choices. Yet I still see myself making the same emotional decisions that have the potential to bury me in consequences…consequences that have been plainly expressed above the signature line and which I either fail to understand or I feel too strongly about the immediate effect to care. This ignorance on my part is something I see in peers and the arriving generations. When I read about the hordes of college graduates struggling with money in adulthood, I cringe at the thought that I am part of this equation. I am another number struggling to pay down debt. I am part of a percentage making bad choices because my own parents’ relationship with their finances left me unprepared for the reality of money.
As a parent, the relationship we have with our money is interpreted and internalized by our children, whether we realize it or not. They learn by example, and avoiding the issue or believing they will learn all necessary tools in school is not enough to prepare them for real world decisions. Every day is filled with opportunities to teach, explain, and guide our children to better financial futures. By discussing and appropriately involving our children in our financial decisions, we not only lead them, but are given the chance to review and even restructure our financial practices. My unfortunate upbringing made me think of money as an all-powerful force that could destroy families and take away lives. What I failed to see is that it is not money, but the misuse of the handler, that has the potential to destroy. I strive to better my own relationship with money, not only for the sake of my family’s security and future but to better my son’s eventual relationship with money. I never want him to feel the same terror I felt when my sense of stability was taken from me because of my parents’ poor decisions. I will do all I can to give him a better financial education so he may never know the debilitating helplessness of ignorance.