My parents taught me nothing about money management. My dad opened a checking account for me in high school and showed me how to use the checkbook register. Beyond that, I was on my own. I never had any clue how much money my parents made, and very little sense of how much most things cost. Taxes and loans and bills and credit were all vague mysteries. Mortgages and retirement accounts weren't even on my radar. My family simply never talked about money at all.
My parents might not have taught me anything, but I learned things from them all the same:
- I learned that when you moved into a new, larger, nicer house, you also bought a full suite of brand new furniture for every room in it.
- I learned that it was okay to shop for sale clothes at department stores, but that the idea of used clothes was disgusting.
- I learned that donating to Goodwill was fine, but buying from Goodwill was shameful.
- I learned that you purchase only new automobiles, one for every adult driver. (Women get cars, men get trucks. Yes, I did grow up in Texas, why do you ask?)
We all enter adulthood with a personal ‘financial culture', a sense of what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to money. If your family, like mine, never spoke about money directly, some of your deep-seated assumptions may be imperceptible.
Recalibrating financial values
As a fledgling adult, I had all kinds of unreasonable expectations, not the least of which was that I would coast along with the same high standard of living that my parents enjoyed during my teenage years. Even though I knew, if I had thought about it, that my parents had started out on a much lower rung — I can remember the Formica tables, vinyl chairs, and ancient matted carpets of my early childhood — no one had ever suggested that I would need to go through a similar sort of climb.
Like many kids of my generation, I got my first credit card at 19, and used it liberally without any sense of the damage I was doing to myself. When my near-minimum-wage income failed to support my expected lifestyle, Mastercard and Discover came to my rescue. It was many, many years before I understood enough to blanch at the expense of five rooms' worth of brand new department-store furniture, much less wonder whether they had been paid for with savings or debt.
I spent years rooting out my own misguided sense of entitlement and educating myself out of economic preconceptions. My college friends introduced me to trendy thrift and consignment clothing stores. I learned about depreciation and decided to buy only used cars, never new. Two years ago I paid off the last of our credit cards and foreswore consumer debt forever. If you'd asked me then, I would have said I had completed my transformation, fully recalibrated my financial values.
I was wrong.
Outside my comfort zone
I lost my job last winter just as the market dried up in the recession. My partner took a cut in both hours and wage. At Christmas last year we were running on only 25% of our former salaries. By March I had a little freelance work and he had regained some hours, which put us back at around 60%. Still, our mortgage alone eats more than half our current take-home pay.
This is hardly the first time I've seen my income suddenly fall through the floor. Before, I used credit cards to make up the difference. This time when our earnings plummeted, we slashed spending even farther. In some cases this meant returning to earlier habits that — pressed for time and with plenty of money — I'd fallen out of, like using the library instead of buying books.
But it also challenged me to step outside my comfort zone and try things I'd never dared before. This is how, in the last several months, I came to brave the Grocery Outlet and the Dollar Store and Goodwill. And if my use of the word ‘brave' in this context makes you scoff, you must not have the derisive little voice in your head that I do, whispering that you're a failure, contemptible, poor.
Not all the values I absorbed as a child were detrimental. I learned that homemade gifts and cards can be more appreciated than store-bought ones. I'd probably be in better financial shape than I am if I'd hung on to my parents' culture of always eating at home, never in restaurants. (Alas, I grew up and became a foodie.)
You may choose to accept the values you grew up with, or reject them, or some of both. But before you can make true decisions about what you want to value, you have to identify your preconceptions, the little voices in your head that are too familiar to question.
- First, discover your native financial culture by broadening your awareness of the alternatives. Ask older family or friends what they remember from times before you were born. Read about the economic attitudes of people in other countries. Seek out stories from people much richer and much poorer than yourself.
- Second, challenge your inherited values by trying something new, even when you don't have to. Walk into a store that you've always disdained. Make something that you've always bought. Visit a neighborhood that you've always ignored.
I have two kids, stepdaughters aged ten and sixteen, and I desperately want to send them out into the world with all the financial context that I lacked. Part of that means active teaching of skills and concepts, like how to plan meals around grocery loss leader sales, or why forty years of compounded interest is more than twice as good as twenty. Part of it means creating a culture in our home where money is not a taboo subject, where we talk openly about wages and savings and expenses and debt.
And part of it, I hope, means being a living example. I walk with our girls into Goodwill with my head held high, as proud as if we were in the toniest department store in town.
Homemade cards by Carrissa GoodNCrazy.