Handwritten letters more meaningful than emails

When our son Leif turned 10 earlier this month, we hosted a birthday party. After he and his friends played laser tag and ate cake, Leif opened a pile of presents. I sat nearby writing down who gave him what. By the time he’d finished, four of his friends had asked me why I was making a list.

“So he’ll remember who gave him what when he writes his thank-yous,” I told them.

In my office closet, two bankers boxes contain important letters I’ve received throughout my life. But it’s in a desk drawer where I store the letters I value most: those from my grandma, most written in the decade before I graduated high school. Due to a hand tremor she’d had since her 20s, Grandma typed her letters before adding her quavering signature.

The difference between my childhood and my children’s seems less like a generational change than an epochal one. Nobody I knew had home computers. And, until I was in high school, there were no VCRs and few homes had cable TV. You saw movies and shows when they aired and were out of luck if you missed something.

Also, there were no cellphones and most homes had only one or two landlines — big phones with rotary dials attached to walls. Long distance calls, generally those made to any phone number with a different area code than your own, were prohibitively expensive. And so, we wrote letters.

Layers of emotion imbued the writing, anticipating and receiving letters. How can younger generations — who’ve grown up continuously connected through devices — comprehend the giddy feeling that accompanied the arrival of a long and eagerly awaited missive?

I value the ease with which we can now stay in touch and share images, even videos, with friends and family online. But something is lost when every thought, cute moment or (God help us) pithy meme can be instantly transmitted.

Handwritten letters, on the other hand, are composed. Corrections cannot be vaporized with a backspace button. Before ink appears upon paper, thoughts require reflection, like a wort that, once heated, separates alcohol from water to distill into a fine Scotch.

In prior columns, I introduced readers to my friend Jen Marvelous, who circumnavigated the globe with her husband and four daughters in 2016. We first became friends our senior year at Ohio State University.

After graduation in 1992, Jen moved to the Land Institute in Kansas and sent me letters filled with descriptions of heirloom prairie plants and her co-workers. While she was there, I sent her word that I was trying to conceive my first child.

After Kansas, Jen joined the Peace Corps. Soon her letters told me about the beauty and struggles of living in a remote mountain village in Honduras where she taught sustainable agricultural practices to farmers.

But, as with all my former correspondents, eventually our communication moved to email and, later, text messages. Then, three years ago, an envelope arrived. I knew the handwriting immediately, though I’d not seen it in 15 years — a letter from Jen.

She told me how much our long friendship meant to her, what I meant to her. She and another friend had parted ways and she never wanted that to happen to us. Holding her letter in my hands as I read it, I was touched in a way no email could have moved me.

Even though I immediately responded with a letter of my own, it was a week after Jen mailed her letter to me that she received my response. She was so relieved when it finally arrived, telling her how I equally value our relationship.

One of my readers, a woman in her 90s named Barbara, became my first pen pal of this century. For three years, she has regularly written me the most encouraging letters about my columns. Over time, she and I have shared much with one another.

Barbara often encloses clippings of stories from magazines with notes in her delicate handwriting along the margins. I sent her a photo of Max and me with our own nonagenerian, Uncle Bascom, whom I regularly write about in my letters.

In January, Barbara wrote that she was moving from Akron to New Hampshire to be near her son and daughter-in-law. Sadly, we were unable to meet before she moved. On Valentine’s Day, I received a letter from Barbara. She’s settling in at her new apartment and ready to resume our correspondence. I couldn’t be more delighted.

Holding my long-departed grandma’s letters, which her hands touched as she filled them with thoughts about many things, including me, are the closest I can now get to being with her.

This is why from time to time, say an important birthday or a graduation, I write long letters to my children. I tell them what a joy it has been watching them go from chubby peanuts to tall, talented men. “Make sure you keep this letter,” I tell them, “You’ll want it after I’m dead.” They roll their eyes and laugh before hugging me.

But they get it. And they, too, have begun reciprocating. Not every birthday, Christmas or Mother’s Day, but here and there, they write me tender letters. After I’ve savored them with multiple readings, I place my sons’ letters in the same desk drawer as Grandma’s.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 23, 2020.


Beyond budgeting: Teach kids to save and donate

Teaching children how to live within a budget is essential. And it is the necessary first step in teaching them, perhaps just as importantly, how to save and donate money.

In my last column, I described some of the ways I teach my kids how to manage money: I give them an allowance and require them to purchase any incidental or impulse items they want. When they are in middle school, I show my kids my bank account statements so they can see how money comes in and goes out, and how that guides my spending.

Finally, I set up each with a checking account and debit card to complement their long-standing savings account at age 16. Having to use their own money gives children the opportunity to learn how to manage finances while the stakes are still low.

Each of my children has, usually in the first year of receiving an allowance, spent their money foolishly at least once. Within days, if not hours, after the purchase, they experience their first case of buyer’s remorse. It’s an invaluable lesson.

Sometimes my boys found themselves without their wallets when wanting to make a purchase. On such occasions, I fronted the money with the understanding that they must pay me back when we return home. This worked well with two of my older boys and does today with Leif, who just turned 10.

But repeatedly, my most impulsive child, Hugo, became angry when I attempted to collect his loan. This raises an important point about parenting: It is not unfair to have different rules for different children. The Bank of Mom quickly rejected all loan applications from Hugo for the better part of 10 years. Thereafter, he became a model borrower.

Another concept I’ve loosely taught my children is the “three 10s,” that is, put 10% of your income into retirement accounts, 10% into savings accounts and give 10% to charities.

I say loosely because few 10-year-olds are interested in retirement savings. But remember, information is power. Nobody can do something they don’t know about. Talking with children about retirement savings long before they need it makes the subject less abstract and, hopefully, lays the foundation for them to begin saving that 10% as adults.

Claude and Jules have both worked for employers that automatically deducted and directed a portion of their income into retirement accounts. Hugo, who will graduate from college this spring, opened a Roth IRA last year. His contributions to his IRA are very small, but he makes one each month.

All my children receive their first savings accounts soon after birth. Thereafter, I deposit all birthday and holiday money they receive into these accounts. By the time they begin earning allowance, each child already has a few hundred dollars in the bank.

After Jules lost his wallet containing more than $50 when he was 8, I stopped paying the boys’ allowances in cash. Instead, I transferred the money online from my checking account to their savings accounts. While protecting the boys from carrying too much money, this also made it simple for me to verify how much I owed them. For it’s easy to forget to pay allowance and hard to remember the last time you did.

I give slightly more than 10% of my income each year to charities, most through recurring monthly donations taken from a dedicated credit card. Occasionally I make one-time gifts to other charities, particularly if asked by someone I know.

Charitable giving is best done as an act of self-determination. Forcing kids to donate their money can create resentment, which makes the lesson of giving backfire. At the end of most years, when the bounty of our lives is readily apparent, I share with my children radio programs or articles on philanthropy (which are easy to find in December).

I do, however, make my children donate their time. They never resist and I suspect it’s because we volunteer together and I don’t pose it as optional. “Today we are going to work at Crown Point farm,” I’ll say, or, “This Saturday, we are working on a project at the school.” Volunteering for something you care about can be fulfilling, with no downside to starting young.

Have the lessons you’ve tried to teach your children taken root in their behavior? It’s impossible to tell when they are with you. The answer lies in what kids do when away from their parents. Nothing makes me happier than having another adult tell me my young children were polite or helpful while in that person’s care.

As adults, my big boys continue to work for groups and causes on their own. Claude spent months organizing for the 2018 election and helps coach middle school distance runners. Jules has been canvassing for a candidate in Columbus where he’s attending Ohio State University. And then there’s Hugo. He has been a mega volunteer for multiple programs in college.

All the big boys are now headed into helping careers in public policy, nonprofit management, education and the environment. They’ve each told me that making a difference is not just important — for them it’s essential to finding career satisfaction. It’s not likely they’ll make as much money as their friends in finance or engineering, but they’ll make enough. More importantly, they’ll enjoy the riches of lives well spent.


Teach kids to be good money managers

Managing money is one of those topics some parents neglect to discuss with their children, abandoning them to figure it out for themselves, often with mixed results.

Like most of my Gen-X cohorts, neither of the households in which I was raised taught, in practical terms, how money works. And I doubt my grandparents explained money to their boomer children either.

In my mother’s house, the refrain on an endless playback loop was “There’s never enough money!” The smallest miscalculation seemed able to pull the family further down an insurmountable pit of debt.

One Saturday morning, a notice arrived stating that the electric company had not received the prior month’s payment. Like a picador hitting its bovine mark, my mother cornered my stepfather and me in the kitchen, her sudden fury causing us to freeze.

She’d paid the bill! How dare they threaten to turn off the power! They’d cashed her check! Spittle whitened the corners of her mouth. I surreptitiously glanced at the opened notice, which had been flung onto the counter. In small print was the sentence, “If this bill has already been paid, please disregard,” but I didn’t dare point it out.

My father and stepmom were the only hippies in a swank resort town where most locals try to keep up with the uber rich tourists. My father’s chronic unemployment was punctuated by a string of odd jobs including seasonal work packaging live Christmas trees. For a time, he cashiered at a hardware store where they let him bring his parrot, Bailey, to work (and where Bailey learned to say, “Does he bite?”).

The job Dad held the longest was at a newspaper 50 miles south in the area’s largest city. Back then, photos were still taken with film and my dad operated the machine that converted photographs into clusters of dots — basic pixelation — making them printable on newsprint.

The only time I heard my dad and stepmom fight was after he walked away from the newspaper job. The boss had been rude to him for the last time. Sitting on my bed, my sister and I easily heard my stepmom barking at our father in the kitchen: “Just how are we going to pay the mortgage or anything else? Did you think of that before you walked away with your pride?”

I wanted a different relationship with money for myself and my children.

While the basics of a budget seem straightforward, it is important to teach kids how it works. I’ve known more than one person raised in a family of means — where the parents paid for everything from clothes to cars to college — who never learned fiscal responsibility.

And I know kids who’ve been trained by their parents to expect to be given whatever they fancy in stores. When my children ask if they can have something, I reply, “Did you bring your money?” For once they are 5 years old, I give my kids an allowance equal in dollars to their age. Like most people, children will spend someone else’s money frivolously, but more reluctantly part with their own cash.

When my children are 12, I show them my bank accounts online. They see for themselves that balances increase with each deposit and decrease with each payment. Scroll through two or three months of activity, and patterns are recognizable. Some deposits and some payments are the same every month. Others, such as credit card balances (which I pay in full), vary.

At age 16, my kids open a checking account, on which I’m a signatory, and receive an associated debit card. Because I started this before services such as PayPal and Venmo existed, I gave each of the boys access to my online banking. Requiring absolute trust, which I’ve never been given reason to doubt, we can transfer funds to each other as needed.

Also at 16, I give each of my boys a credit card for which I’m the primary cardholder. This has the practical benefit of letting them pick things up for me at stores. And when they go to college, they can use it when necessary, so long as they check with me first.

Rather than believing there is never enough money, I tell my children to think back and ask the following questions: Was there ever a time we were not able to afford our needs? Was there ever a time we were not able to fund our desires? The answer to both is no, regardless of how much or little money we had.

This isn’t because we’ve actually ever been flush, but because we live in our means, which sometimes means scaling back, and are unafraid of work of any kind (I cleaned houses the first two years after I left my ex-husband). We are also fortunate to live in a beautiful region where the cost of living is relatively low.

Raising children to become successful adults really boils down to three simple things: Show up, openly discuss anything important and model the behavior you wish to see. And when you fail, as all parents do from time to time, remember that your kids will always give you another chance to get it right.

Contact Holly Christensen at whoopsiepiggle@gmail.com.

This column was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 26, 2020.