Money Blueprints: What Our Parents Taught Us About Money

I had dinner with two friends from high school last night. We shared good wine, good food, and, especially, good conversation. Much of our discussion focused on our shared history: the things we did twenty years ago (or 25!) that now seem as if they might have been done by a stranger. (Yet those strangers were us.) We talked about how we perceived money when we were younger.

Sparky and Stew grew up down the road from each other. I didn’t meet either of them until junior high school. Stew’s family was poor. They lived in a single-wide mobile home. His father built bar stools in the garage; his mother waited tables. “I remember your dad as an entrepreneur,” Sparky said last night. “I remember him building those stools. I admired that.”

“Yeah, he was a sort of entrepreneur,” Stew said. “He tried, but he could never really make a go of it. We couldn’t survive on the money he brought in making bar stools. In fact, he financed that operation on credit cards. We lived on the tips my mom brought home from waiting tables. It seemed like she was always working to get us money. She hoarded her money. She watched it. She had to make it last.”

“Huh,” said Sparky. “I never realized that. I mean, I knew you were poor, but I always thought of your family as wealthy. You lived in a trailer house, and you didn’t have much, but when I visited your house, it was an adventure. I remember sleeping outside in the tent —”

“That’s because we didn’t have room inside,” Stew said.

“I remember sleeping outside in the tent,” said Sparky. “I remember you seemed to live in a fantasy land. It was like your dad had a dream job. You had a basketball court in the woods. And a wiffle ball stadium. Plus you and your brother always did this wild, imaginative play. It was awesome.”

“But I didn’t learn much about money from my parents,” Stew said. “I learned more from yours. I remember going over to your house and marveling that you had opened a savings account. I remember that passbook you had, and how your parents would drive you into town to make deposits. I went home and told my mom that I wanted a savings account, but it never amounted to much.”

“I still have that savings account,” said Sparky. “The same account my parents opened for me when I was a kid is my savings account today. So, yeah, I guess my dad wasn’t an entrepreneur, but he did teach me a lot about money. He did some business on the side — raising produce, growing Christmas trees — but mostly what I learned from him was how to save. And how to invest. I watched how he invested his money and let it grow. He’s played a very active role in his investments, so in a way I think of him as an entrepreneur of the stock market.”

“I wish my parents had taught me some of that,” I said. “Whenever my dad had money, which wasn’t often, he spent it on toys. He didn’t save. He didn’t invest. I can’t remember that he ever invested a dime in anything. He bought computers and airplanes and sailboats. But then when he was broke, he turned around and sold them again. We were always poor because he couldn’t save his money.”

Sparky laughed. “I remember going over to your single-wide mobile home and being scared that I was going to fall through the floor!”

We all laughed. I said, “It’s still that way, you know. The box factory’s offices are in that old trailer house, and it hasn’t improved with age. We’re just too damn cheap to replace it. Our wives hate the place, and I can’t blame them. But it costs nothing for us to keep.”

Sparky nodded. “You know,” he said, “even though you were poor, and even though I was afraid of falling through that floor, I looked around at all the gadgets you had and thought of you as rich, too. Your family had a fancy stereo system. Your dad let you drive that Datsun around when nobody else in school had a car.”

We paused to order dessert, and Sparky continued. “It’s as if although your families were poor, you created a world of wealth out of nothing. Stew had this fantasy wonderland of imagination. J.D.’s family had gadgets that I envied.”

“And I envied you,” I said. “I remember going over to your house and thinking how amazing it was to have a nice normal home on a lot of property. I wanted that. I liked having gadgets, but I would have rather not lived in the trailer house.”


Our chocolate torts came. We began to pick at them. “One thing I’m glad of,” I said, “is that my father taught me about the entrepreneurial spirit. I’m glad to have had a chance to learn from him. I used to hate working at the box factory, but now I recognize that I would not be the person I am today without that experience.”

“Yeah,” said Sparky. “We look at ourselves now and wonder how did we get here? But it’s all a result of everything that we’ve seen and done. The girls I dated in high school. The decade I took off after college to travel around the U.S. and the world. Sometimes it’s frustrating that I’m 38 and only make $30,000 a year, but I look at the experiences I’ve had, and I look at who I am today, and I know that I would not be this person without everything that had come before.

I smiled. “I just wrote about this subject today,” I said. “I’ll post it on Sunday.”

In Secrets of the Millionaire Mind (my review), T. Harv Eker writes that each person possesses a “money blueprint“, an internal script for dealing with money that comprises the lessons we learned in childhood, especially from our parents. This conversation with my friends illustrates this concept. My problems with money as a young adult were a product of the blueprint I inherited from my parents. They were modeling a relationship to money — they never realized what sort of effect it would have on me and my brothers.

Yet this blog is a direct result of that modeling, too.

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