Writing your financial autobiography

I believe that each of us possesses a money blueprint, a mental map that defines our behaviors and attitudes toward money. Our basic blueprints come from our parents. They’re altered through our interactions with friends and co-workers. And, of course, our own experiences lead us to modify and add to our money blueprints.

A couple of months ago, I had lunch with my friend Michael. We talked a bit about my money blueprint, then we talked a bit about his. Because our backgrounds are similar, our money blueprints are similar.

“You know what would be interesting,” Michael suggested. “You should write your financial autobiography.”

“Nobody would want to read that,” I said, grimacing. Michael laughed.

“Well, they probably wouldn’t want to read it if you made it too long,” he said. “I don’t mean you should write a book about it. Just do a long blog post. Write your financial autobiography, then look to see how your past has affected your money blueprint.”

I liked the idea, but could’t understand how it would work in practice.

Then, last week, I read Alexander Chee’s 5000-word essay at Buzzfeed (yes, really — Buzzfeed) about how deeply money and pain are connected in his life. This is a financial autobiography. And this shows clearly how experience creates a money blueprint.

Alexander Chee’s Financial Autobiography

In 2000, Chee unexpectedly became the manager of his church’s outreach program for the homeless. To his surprise, he had no problem with the position. He managed its money effectively. Planning and budgeting were easy. This was vastly different to his financial life at home.

The calm with which I did this every week was not visible in the rest of my life. In the apartment I returned to after those volunteer shifts, my closet stacked full with boxes of files and receipts going back 15 years. Many were unpaid bills, missed payments, or collection notices. Letters from the IRS. A personal organizer I had hired a few years before had said, looking them over, “Oh, wow, you don’t need these,” then she laughed and told me to throw all the papers away. But I could not. When I eventually moved out in 2004, I moved with those boxes.

Chee gradually came to realize that while he was perfectly competent with his church’s money, something in his psychology was preventing him from behaving similarly with his own money. In his personal life, money and pain had become intertwined.

Chee family

Chee’s father died young — at the age of 43. He also died relatively wealthy and without a will. The state of Maine divided his estate, part of which became a trust for the 15-year-old Chee. When he turned 18, he gained access to that account.

“The first thing I did with my money was part rebellion, part panegyric,” Chee writes. “My father had loved fast cars and expensive ones, both, and so I bought what I thought he’d want for me, a black Alfa Romeo.”

Aside from this one expensive indulgence, Chee tried to make good use of his money. He used it to obtain a college degree, to turn himself into a writer. His trust fund lasted nine years. “For those nine years, I felt both invulnerable and doomed, under the protection of a spell that I knew to be dwindling in power.”

Throughout this long essay, Chee offers a variety of anecdotes to illustrate how he developed his money blueprint. Like my parents, his mother and father never really gave him overt lessons in personal finance. Instead, Chee learned about money from the way his parents acted.

Both of my parents had worked hard for what they had — my father, with his older brother, had scavenged for food from abandoned army supply trucks in Seoul during the Korean War. My mother had cleaned hotel rooms during the summer for the money she used to buy the car she drove away from Maine. My father believed money was for spending, and my mother believed it should never be spent. Her clothes were handmade also — for much of her life, she made them herself. She was as stylish as my father, but by her own hand.

This article is filled with financial lessons on everthing from the importance of estate planning to the power of thrift. More than that, it’s packed with examples of why smart money management isn’t simply about math. For most of us, it’s a complex subject loaded with psychological and emotional issues. And when relationships are involved, those issues are accentuated.

To the extent I have survived myself thus far, it began…when I realized I treated money emotionally and decided to treat myself as I would anyone else I was taking care of. Ordinary thrift and self-forgiveness were the payday only I could provide, no matter my professional or financial circumstances, and this realization was the gift of that time, as close to a Unitarian grace as I think I’ll ever get.

Chee’s article is a true financial autobiography. After reading it, I think I know what my friend Michael was asking me to do.

Writing Your Financial Autobiography

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I intend to set aside a few hours to write my own financial autobiography. I’ve shared bits and pieces of it over the years, but I’ve never tried to assemble these individual stories into a more coherent whole.

I suspect that many Get Rich Slowly readers could profit from writing their financial autobiographies, too.

When I do mine, I plan on free writing. I’ll do a massive stream of consciousness braindump. I’ve thought enough about this subject and my own history that this should yield an instructive story.

If you want to do this exercise but need some prompting to help you begin, consider exploring the following questions:

  • What are you earliest memories about money? When you were a child, what did you learn about money? Did your parents every give you money lessons? Or was the subject never discussed in your house? Did you get an allowance? If so, how much were you given and what were you allowed to do with it? What other experiences did you have with money when you were very young?
  • How did your relationship with money change during your teenage years? Were you expected to work when you were in high school? How was the subject of college handled? Was college an expectation in your family? If so, how was it going to be paid for? How did your perception of money change as you became more aware of the world and as you were exposed to friends with different financial backgrounds?
  • As you entered early adulthood and became more responsible for your own financial situation, how did your attitudes and behaviors change? Did they change? If you went to college, how did that experience affect your money blueprint? What did you learn as you entered the workforce, began to live on your own, and then entered into adult romantic relationships?
  • In more recent years, how have you handled money? Have your attitudes and habits changed since you were younger? How so? What is your current financial situation? How do you feel about that situation?
  • Where do you see yourself headed in the future? What changes would you like to make to your financial life? What goals would you like to accomplish? Are there parts of your money blueprint that seem faulty? How will you fix them?

If you want more help, the Faith and Money Network has a free thee-page PDF meant to help people prepare their own money autobiographies. (This guide comes from a religious perspective, but it’s still useful if like me you’re non-religious. Just ignore the churchy bits!)

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