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