Money Talks

What messages did you, as a child, learn about money and how does that impact you today?

I was listening this morning to an interview with a financial therapist who talked about how the attitudes towards money that we learned as children can impact our anxieties and decisions about money as adults. This podcast resonated with me because I put a lot of strictures around myself when it comes to money. Part of the time, I deliberately ignore it entirely – if you asked me what my bank balances are or how much is in my 401K, I’d have to look it up – and, when I do think about money, it is with anxiety and a feeling of not having enough although my financial planner tells me the opposite.

My parents both came from relatively affluent families. They weren’t, by any means, wealthy. But both sides of the family had enough money to do things that middle class families did not have the money to do. My father’s parents lived in a big house in Coral Gables, at the time an affluent neighborhood. My mother’s parents lived on my grandfather’s orange grove and cattle farm just outside Fort Lauderdale. My father’s parents got a new Mercedes every year, trading in the old one for a new one. My mother’s parents drove the same cars for as long as I can remember; but they traveled a great deal, going on trips to Australia, Tibet – and always Lindblad, an expensive tour company.

My parents considered themselves rebels. They left South Florida – where they had extended family networks – and moved to the West Coast. When my father returned from Vietnam, they moved to the Pacific Northwest. They didn’t want to live in the traditional-style homes their parents lived in. They chose not to belong to the Junior League or Rotary. They weren’t hippies but, like many children of the 1960s, they rejected their parent’s values outwardly.

We lived in a series of houses that I would consider middle-class. Until I was in high school, none of the houses made me feel ashamed. Any of them would fit into a sitcom like That 70s Show or the original The Wonder Years. My family didn’t talk about money at all; and my perception now is that there wasn’t a lot of money. My father was going through his residency at the VA – not something that pays a lot – and our big treat was driving to the hospital, picking up McDonalds on the way (in those days you could feed a family of five at McDonalds for $5), and having dinner in the hospital cafeteria with my dad. Our vacations were either camping trips – squeezed into my dad’s rotation schedule – or trips to visit Mom’s parents who, I suspect now, paid for the trips. We didn’t have allowances but were paid for things like ironing dad’s shirts or washing the car. We didn’t have anyone who worked in our home. I didn’t think about money or deprivation much in those days.

Ironically, when Dad finished his residency and we moved to California, he joined a partnership with two other doctors who were clearly spending more than we were. They lived in nicer houses, owned a ranch, drove nicer cars. My dad started making good money, but we still lived in a middle-class house in a middle-class neighborhood. And this is when I started becoming aware of the messages my parents were sending about money. I remember that any time I asked my father to spend money – for example, when I needed a new swimsuit or when I was helping him pick out my mother’s Christmas present – there was a clear message of restriction: that whatever I wanted was too much; that I was trying to get more out of him that wasn’t there.

At the same time, my mother’s parents were slipping her money to do the things she wanted to do. They took her on international trips with them. They bought her pure-bred dogs. I suspect they were subsidizing her orchid-raising habit. Looking back, the only time I remember buying nice clothes, my grandmother was with me and I suspect she paid, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I do remember going shopping with her for shoes, picking out a pair that made me feel so good that I danced around the shoe department: I had new shoes that made me feel like a million bucks and I was going to wear them home. Then they totaled up the amount – $43.00 – and my grandmother pulled out her credit card and I took off the shoes and threw a temper-tantrum: I wouldn’t let her spend that money on me; that was too much money. My grandmother was confused and, I suspect, hurt. I was miserable. Looking back, now, I see how much I had already internalized the messages I was receiving about money: I didn’t deserve nice shoes; I wasn’t worth $43.00.

Then we moved again and the money truly became restricted, as my father’s practice failed due to his rejection of belonging. My parents owned land where they intended to build their dream home; they put a mobile home on the land and we lived in a trailer while they “decided what to build.” For three years of high school, I was trailer trash, in the view of my friends who lived in inexpensive apartments in town, middle-class bungalows near the college, or upper-class houses on the lake. I shopped at second hand stores, developing an eclectic form of dress as a rebellion against the expensive brands that the popular kids at school wore. We rarely ate out. My aunt told me once that she was appalled, when she visited, how empty the refrigerator was; she went grocery shopping right away. Until she told me that, years later, it hadn’t occurred to me how empty the fridge always was; but when she said it, I knew she was right.

At the same time, my mom was back in college, earning an accounting degree; and we still had the horses we had purchased in California. So clearly there was money coming from somewhere, I suspect from mom’s parents.

When my parents divorced, my mom told me that she hadn’t requested alimony, just child support: Dad had to pay for our college tuition and living expenses until we graduated college. And then the money games truly began. Dad always sent the money late. He was overseas at the time, and I explained to him how sending the money late put me in a bad position, caused me to feel shame in front of the people I needed to pay. Knowing money-trust was an issue for him, I asked if he could put the money into a local account and release it to me from that account at predetermined periods or send me post-dated checks ahead of time or something. But no: he waited to write the monthly check until a day or two before it was due and then snail-mailed it from Turkey or Panama. It didn’t show up until after it was due and then I had to wait for it to clear to write my rent check or whatever.

I think this influenced me, in college, to prioritize my “after-school” job over the extracurricular activities that would have promoted a career in the field I was studying. I just remember how, when I was finally able to squeeze in 40 hours/week in a job that seemed steady, I tore up the check Dad sent me, mailed the pieces back and told him just to pay my tuition and not to send me any more living expenses. Mom was furious with me – that was my money, I shouldn’t let the games he was playing with me deprive me of my money.

This is something I do even today – if I feel like something causes me shame, even if it provides financial recompense, I won’t do it. I don’t like returning bottles for the deposit. At one of my earlier jobs, I didn’t seek tuition reimbursement because they made the process feel so shameful. I have been known to put off submitting health insurance claims because I made a mistake filling out the claim form and they returned a claim to me – all I had to do was fill it out correctly and resubmit it, but the shame was too great.

Meanwhile, Mom was playing her own games with money. When I was in college, she declared bankruptcy. Her father gave her some money to live on, and she bought a copper-colored Porsche to match the color of her hair. When she gave me gifts, she often told me how wonderful something she had bought for herself was – a particular stereo brand or something – and offered to buy me one; and then sent me a cheaper version, a knock-off. Mind, this was often an item that I had no desire for myself – I needed something to play music on, not specifically a Bose, for example – but she made it sound like I needed the Bose or whatever it was, and then sent me the lesser version. As if to say, there are beautiful things in the world and you are not worthy of having them; you’re not good enough.

That was back when Mom was still giving gifts. When I got married, she stopped giving gifts. Oh, she would say that she was giving me something – just pick out what you like, dear, at some reasonable price and I’ll reimburse you – and then the reimbursement would never come. Neither of my parents offered to give us anything to help pay for the wedding – not that we needed it, having gotten married late. In contrast, my in-laws – who lived extremely frugal lives and still, to this day, split paper napkins in half and share them to save money – offered to take out a mortgage on their house to help us out if we needed it. For our wedding gift, my father gave me a week at his time-share, an offer I never took him up on.

So these are the lessons I learned about money growing up. And I look at how they impact me now: I feel guilty whenever I spend money, even if it is money I need to spend and can afford. I avoid arguing with my husband about money, deferring to him. At the same time, if he wants to buy a new iPhone or a new camera, I encourage him. I know the money is there. Yet it never feels like there is enough for me to spend on myself. And I feel shame about spending money on things that enhance me, considering my “nice” clothes only for work, not for wearing outside of work. I rarely pay full price for things for myself, buying clothes only on sale. When I bought this laptop, for instance, I really wanted a different one that was more money, although still within the range I could afford. I was afraid to buy it because it was more money; and my husband also discouraged me from spending the money because he has his own money hang-ups. The message we both gave me was that I didn’t deserve the laptop that I truly wanted.

I wonder how this impacts me outside of money: are there other things that I tell myself I don’t deserve because I truly want them?

How about you? What are the lessons you learned about money growing up and how is that influencing you today?

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