I gave the waiter a ten-shilling note and he went to bring me change. There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away – the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. I open it and there they are … pieces of paper which were left to me by an aunt, for no other reason than I share her name. – Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”
* * *
As Barbara Potter and Mary Hillas and I compared the materials we were using in our Quaker workshops, I saw some basic differences between their approach and mine. While my emphasis had been on possibilities for attaining financial independence, something another Friend, Penny Yunuba, had actually achieved, Barbara and Mary were stressing comfort: not physical comfort solely, but emotional and spiritual comfort as well. Their goal was to have money used “as a channel for loving ourselves, others, and the planet – and to aim for balance among these three.” Their agenda had more of a “touchy-feely” nature than mine did. Curiously, with their stated goal of “bringing money into the Light,” they were including it in individual spiritual quests. They saw money as a way of furthering the causes and values we believe in.
The heart of their work essentially brought the tails side of money out of the shadows. They wanted us to see both sides of the coin simultaneously, so that our monetary actions would be more balanced.
One thing many of our exercises had in common was questions about our childhood experiences with money.
What are your earliest memories of money?
Did you have an allowance? Did it grow as you grew? Was it consistent? Did anyone “borrow” it back? What were you expected to do with it?
Did you have a savings account? Savings bonds?
Did you have a sense of how much money your parents earned?
When did you open your first checking account? Who taught you and what were you taught about check writing and managing the account?
What lessons came from books, magazines, movies, music, television, teachers, church, friends or their parents, or advertising?
* * *
When I first raised the topic with my sister, she observed, “Oh, you were always good with money,” and I promptly responded, “Oh, that’s easy when you don’t have any.”
The truth is, I didn’t have a lot to work with, so the answer’s on target factually. When I started working with these exercises, I thought I was good with money, I just didn’t have that much to deal with. Listen closely, though, and another voice comes through: I was impoverished. Emotionally, at least.
Shortly after my sister was born, my dad sold the car, presumably to cover the hospital bills. For the next four years we relied on public transportation and, on some weekends, a truck we borrowed from Grandpa’s plumbing company. We walked a lot. My earliest childhood memory of money itself involves being in the grocery and picking up a toy and carrying it to the checkout. “Put that back,” my mother ordered. “You can’t have it. We’re poor.” By itself, the comment might have bounced off harmlessly. But it was repeatedly reinforced. When I was five, for instance, I really wanted a pair of cowboy boots for Christmas. Instead, I got a pair of cloth spats that were supposed to look like cowboy boots. I hated them. Other kids I knew had real boots; why couldn’t I? Until I was out on my own, the only clothes that ever really fit were hand-me-downs. Take it or leave it.
From an objective point of view, we weren’t that poor. We never went without a meal, and we were never evicted. We always had a television, as far back as I can remember, although some of my friends didn’t. Again, emotionally, our money world was another matter. As the remembered flashes are collected, the larger picture finally appears.
I have no memory of how I first discovered money itself. Maybe it was the tooth fairy, though it must have been earlier. Milk money, for school? Bus fare, from the YMCA? I think I learned about balancing the books and writing checks largely through a Boy Scout merit badge pamphlet.
And there was always a savings account, though it was untouchable. Like the roach motel, money would go in, but never come out. The Gem City tower at Third and Main streets stood out as an image of our security. I think there were even some Savings Bonds, once again untouchable.
As I grew older, there were other money messages. In summer, I sold tomatoes from our garden door-to-door and found the best results in a nearby apartment complex. Here, selling was like a game, complete with strategies. On the other hand, my newspaper route was short-lived and disastrous. I felt pressured into it, and when it came to sales, I kept hearing something my mother had said about earlier school flower-seed fundraisers: “You don’t sell to people you know.” (Much, much later I would discover that sales was, indeed, about selling to people you know.)
I also remember staying at my grandparents’ house during the summer, with its office at the back and the bookkeeper who smoked endless cigars. If he was the guardian of money, it must have been a musty realm; no wonder they speak of the gnome of Zurich in financial circles. On the other hand, I remember Grandpa allowing me to open his mail one day and encountering a check for $600 – as far as I was concerned, it could have been a million. And then, naïvely, I asked about the postage cancellation, Stamp Out Syphilis. “Grandpa, what’s ‘syphilis’?” So the message I got at that point was that you don’t discuss mail that contains big checks. It must all be somehow dirty.
Other exercises asked about our parents’ attitudes toward money. After all, they’re the ones we learned the most from in these matters, intentionally or not.
My mother claimed she had no idea of Dad’s salary, and I believed her. I do remember when they announced they’d decided on a major paycheck deduction plan that would purchase company stock, and that it would crimp our income. Actually, the put their retirement ahead of their children’s college education, and in the end, automotive stocks were not the solid investment they seemed at the time.
Both of my parents were children of the Great Depression and emerged from it scarred.
Financial difficulties were certainly a factor in the divorce of my mother’s parents, and her father’s decision to move to Ohio in search of employment. When I look at her statement about not selling to people you know, I’m astonished; she lived for several years with her grandparents, and her grandfather was a salesman known throughout the state of Missouri, maybe wider. Still, she harbored deep resentments about her lot in life and how far short of her aspirations she had landed.
From her, I learned that my father had paid room and board to his parents from his junior high years (with an unspoken warning that I was lucky to not be forced into a similar situation) – even though his three younger sisters benefited from his labors, two of them even getting the college degrees he didn’t. (Or maybe didn’t want.) What I do remember is that Dad was a worrier who became a workaholic. He was a corporate accountant who was insecure about his job in the rounds of layoffs; his lack of a degree no doubt added to the anxiety.
As I look back, it begins to look like Money Gothic.
Yet there were other currents. Dad’s quiet support, for instance, in picking up free symphony tickets at the office and driving me to the concerts, or his volunteering as assistant scoutmaster on our wilderness adventures. We took vacations, usually tent camping in neighboring states and visiting historical sites. All of these provided rich memories and perspectives I’ve drawn on throughout my life.
Reflecting on your parents’ patterns of charitable giving also provides clues to your own financial emotions.
In our case, there was the annual pledge drive at church, and as a member of the finance committee and eventual treasurer, Dad was one who called upon families to get their commitment. At his office, he was told every year how much he should agree to have deducted from his every-other-week paychecks to support United Way. Just sign on the dotted line. In attempting to appear as a “good corporate citizen,” the executives were quite active in the fundraising and made it quite clear that failure to cough up for the cause would be remembered when the subject of promotions came up. The message I received was that donations are a strong-armed extortion to underwrite large institutions. It’s a dour duty, and you have little real choice in the matter.
You can turn it around and ask about the times you were on the receiving end of the giving: birthdays, Christmas or Chanukah, even Halloween trick or treating. Were there other occasions gifts were presented in your family?
Did you get many small gifts, so you could keep unwrapping presents? Did you get one large one? Did you receive things you needed, or things you wanted? What do you still remember getting?
How does this affect the way you give presents today? Would you say you are talented in finding the right gift? Or usually baffled?
Because we received many small packages, I came to prefer receiving one quality item. I remember getting mostly cheap junk, with the exception of my first bicycle, or things that I needed, such as school supplies. It also shapes my reaction to gifts, where I have difficulty expressing any reaction until I’ve had time to live with the present, to gain appreciation as I use it and weigh its qualities. When it comes to giving, however, I like the big splash – something artistic, if possible; of course, this comes into conflict with my inclination to be tight-fisted.
Other insights can be found in your memories of food. A skillful cook can transform even the simplest materials into a pleasant experience. Instead, ours were mostly canned (even spaghetti came in cans), most of the contents of the refrigerator were off-limits (“I have plans for that”), and our favorite breakfast was Frosted Flakes or Sugar Smacks. The garden wasn’t particularly memorable, and there were no herbs. We loved Grandma’s hand-cut noodles and Gran’s tapioca “float” dessert, but we most of all loved the rare opportunity for the fried-chicken basket at the Hasty-Tasty and Parkmoor drive-ins, where we usually ate in the car, rather than the dining room.
What do you remember about food as a child?
That’s right, food. Think about that connection to money issues, if you must.
Other sets of questions suggest taking the money perspectives back even further, to form a genealogy. Any information you have in this regard can be an instructive way of looking at your ancestry. Through it, I’ve uncovered quite a few different influences shaping my own interaction with money.
For instance, my Grandpa used to tell me that all he got at Christmas was three oranges, with the suggestion that they couldn’t afford anything more. Only later did I discover this was because his lineage did not celebrate Christmas, and the oranges were a reluctant acknowledgement of the surrounding society. At the time, oranges were much rarer than they are for us, and no doubt more expensive. The bright and tasty orbs must have appeared quite magical in a drab Ohio winter, especially on a farm before rural electrification.
In my money genealogy, my dad’s side comes from three major streams, though he grew up knowing none of this. One, largely Quaker, originates in America with a boy arriving as the sole survivor of the family after their ship was attacked by French privateers, or pirates, around 1710. Although this line later included a mill and s gold mine in North Carolina, it lost everything during the Civil War and came north to start over. Another line, largely German Baptist Brethren, or Dunker, went from subsistence farming on the frontier to successful commercial agriculture, with a few pump makers along the way, all while maintaining a separation from general society, much as the Amish try to do today. A third line, essentially a more worldly Pennsylvania Dutch, lost the store to a fire. It’s complex, of course, especially as Dad’s parents turned their backs on much of these traditions and moved to the city. Even so, after Grandma’s death, we found she had hoarded cash everywhere in the house – even in the heating vents.
My mother’s side was even more convoluted – Vermont “swamp Yankees” (the New England version of “hillbillies”), Kentucky slaveholders, German Lutherans, entrepreneurial orphans, recent Scottish arrivals, all coming together in Missouri. There was no clear message emerging from this clash, although Mom carried an impression that money was beneath civilized discussion, even when her theological stream was one step removed from Presbyterian. Somehow, she had a vague sense that those who have more wealth must be better in other ways, too – more cultured, refined, and interesting.
None of my ancestors, by the way, came through Ellis Island.
Through all of this, I can’t think of any positive feelings about money. It was a necessary evil that was always in short supply. I was – and to some degree remain – tightfisted, rather than frugal.
* * *
Discussing these influences helps us understand how we got to where we are and why we react to money issues the way we do. It also reveals ways other people apply much different backgrounds and operating assumptions. One woman, for instance, told of how her father would come home every Friday and give his entire paycheck to his wife, who would then give him an allowance; this was the exact opposition of the way things worked in my family. To hear children of wealthy families speak of never having had to worry about landing a job, much less keeping it, is a luxury almost beyond my comprehension. (If you’ve ever worked for somebody from that background, you may remember times the two sets of values clashed, too.) Some may speak of compulsive gamblers or alcoholics, and the financial strain it placed on the household. I’ve heard how generations of men in both African-American and Russian Jewish immigrant neighborhoods willingly lived with clumsy haircuts because their elders knew it was far more important to keep one of their own financially independent than it was to be fashionable. Today, these memories may stir up tears of laughter. Back then, they may have been a life-and-death matter.
Comparing your own answers with the impressions other family members recall can also be revealing.
How much of your recollection agrees?
How much differs?
Even when you come from the same household, your reactions to the influences can be dramatically contrasted.
Would you say your handling of money is more like your father’s or your mother’s? What about your siblings? Does this also apply to your possessions or your attitude toward work?
Do you hoard, put any excess automatically into savings, spend freely, borrow from or lend to friends and coworkers?
Have you ever been a showoff with your possessions? Or were you taught to be more reserved or even guarded?
The truly adventurous may try to assemble a Money Beliefs Chart that delineates important messages you received from your mother or your mother’s family, from your father or his family, and from your culture and environment.
From these, you can gain a sense of how many of your financial values were learned from your parents and other family members. Like most people, you probably received no systematic training in monetary affairs. Of course, neither did your parents, and when there were differences between the ways they handled their finances – one flashy, for instance, the other self-effacing – you absorbed both styles, without resolution. This clash can continue within you, long after they’re gone, and paralyze you in your adult dealings.
Similarly, when your own financial perceptions run up against those of a spouse, the marriage itself can be endangered – to say nothing of yet another round of children receiving conflicting impressions. (Who first insisted that opposites attract?) The fact remains that money issues, and not sexual discord, is the leading cause of divorce in America. It’s safe to say that each of us carries unresolved internal squabbles over money, some going back to early childhood, some to playground chatter, most of it picked up in bits here and there, and none of it systematic.
Where do yours arise? And how do they continue?
Curiously, although my wife comes from a more financially impoverished childhood, she seems to carry fewer emotional scars. She’s more hard-nosed in many of these matters and inherited a can-do attitude, most likely from her German mother. Savings, however, are less important to her than they are to me.