Five Money Lessons From My Childhood

I am lucky. I grew up in a household where we talked about money. I was raised in a middle-class, Midwestern suburb, and I credit Momma and Papa Financier for so, so much, particularly when it comes to my relationship with money. 

In the 80’s, we faced times where my father’s work (tied to the Detroit auto industry) slowed down, and that often meant my parents worked more while the entire family tightened our belts. We’d look for creative ways to find money - which included me taking on babysitting jobs and my siblings and me biking to local construction sites and picking up pop cans. (Cans could be returned for a ten cent deposit in Michigan, famously exploited by Kramer in a Seinfeld episode.)

When we wanted to buy the Nintendo Entertainment System, the money generated from our pop can-foraging expeditions contributed greatly. Transparency around costs and wants (like the NES) and needs, helped me understand how money worked as a little tyke. Here are five money lessons that stemmed from my early childhood.

1. All money is not created equal. My parents had a large glass jar on our wet bar that was full of spare change. At four years old, I would gaze at it in awe, thinking it contained the riches of the world. One day, my babysitter and I counted the money - we started with the copper coins and had over 100 of them. I’ll never forget the heartbreak I felt when she said, “One hundred pennies means we have one whole dollar!”

I remember thinking, “ALL of those pennies equal ONE lousy dollar?!” My shock must have shown on my little money-minded face. Next, my sitter explained that I only needed four of the large silver coins to make one dollar (much more palatable). Even better, we had a few Kennedy half dollars which added up quite quickly.

This lesson taught that all currency is not created equal. Today, I can apply today to other categories of finance, like mutual funds and ETFs. Simply because they are in the same category does not mean they have the same value, risk, or cost.

2. Doing the things no one wants to do can get you paid. We had an apple tree in our backyard, which was a superb climbing apparatus. However, every fall it also dropped loads of apples that my dad had to gather in order to cut the grass.

Papa Financier hated picking the apples up, and I offered to do it for a penny an apple. Any apples that deemed “very gross” were worth five cents, though I had to be ready to show them to my dad for inspection (they had to be rotten, or crawling with bugs and worms).

I'd tear around the yard with my apple bucket, excited because we didn't ever get paid for chores like these. Dad must really hate this task to pay me for it (or, I was very, very cheap labor)!  

Taking this approach as an adult can help generate extra income or create opportunities. One of the things I encourage new employees to do is find something that you can get good at, ideally that no one else wants to do. Take it, own it, kill it and make more income from it than I did with my buckets of apples.

3. Your money can make you money. I referenced this briefly in my introduction; one of my very early financial memories. I was five years old and my dad explained that the bank would pay me interest in exchange for my savings. This blew my mind - money without having to work for it!

At the time, U.S. savings bonds were earning 7.5%; as a comparison, the current rate through October 2017 is 0.10% (yes, only ten basis points.) The idea that I could put one dollar in the bank and earn more than a nickel by the end of the year was miraculous. This concept made saving money both compelling and tangible. I could see that free nickel from the bank with every dollar I got my hands on.

This concept is at the heart of financial freedom, which is the point at which our assets (investments and income from real estate, for example) produce enough regular income to cover our expenses. It’s also at the heart of the most powerful element of investing - compound interest.

4. Save at least half of any unexpected income. Starting as early as I can recall, my parents suggested I save at least some of the gifts I would receive for birthdays or other celebrations. They didn’t require it, or take it from me, but they’d remind me of the power of saving...versus spending it all.

Nearly 30 years later, I still remember a girlfriend who got three beautifully crisp $20 bills in her Easter Basket when we were 8 years old. The Financier household had fun, sugar-fueled Easters but our bunny hid candy, not cash. My friend showed me those three Jacksons and immediately started rattling off what she was going to buy. My heart hurt that not one dollar was going to the bank!

When we receive a windfall - an unanticipated bonus, or a generous birthday check - we’re more tempted to frivolously, quickly spend it. Our brains tend to compartmentalize and we view the extra money as distinct from our paycheck (which we spend more responsibly). One study on the psychology of unexpected, windfall gains concluded, “...the unanticipated nature of windfall gains is responsible for their heightened proclivity to be spent.” Emily Guy Birken also writes about this concept in her book, End Financial Stress Now

Don't let windfall gains slip through your fingers! I see this today. In management consulting, I'd see folks at bonus time rattle off the vacations, cars, treats they'd be buying with their bonus...and rarely hear folks talk about how excited they were to invest or save some of it. Today, I usually treat myself with at least one splurge when bonus season comes around. But most of it goes to longer-term financial goals, like saving for travel, debt payoff, or my Vanguard Financial Freedom account.

5. Anything worth buying is worth saving for. In the 80s and 90s, many retailers offered something called “layaway” where you could pick an item out and the store would set it aside for you; you could pay the store over a period of time, and receive the item once you’d submitted enough money to pay for the item. Importantly to me, Toys ‘R Us had this service.

When I outgrew my first bicycle, I started saving (along with my parents) for a pink and purple Huffy bike. This bike was absolutely outstanding. It even had a matching bag that attached to the handlebars, so I could carry my He-Man and She-Ra characters around the neighborhood with me. Sweet, right?!

To pay for this bike, I'd save up money and go with my parents to the customer service counter, present our funds, and get a ticket showing me exactly how much we had left to submit before the bike was mine to take home. What an amazing illustration of how to save up for a specific item!

This taught me to save first, spend next. When credit cards came into my life, I forgot this lesson and paid for it dearly. Now that I finally have my credit card debt under control (more on that later), I use a “layaway” approach for big purchases, from new Charlotte Olympias to appliance replacements, home improvement projects, and vacations.

I'm so grateful that I grew up with these five lessons. And while they didn't prevent me from making money mistakes they've certainly given me a strong financial foundation.

What about you? Are there money lessons you learned when you were little? I’d love to hear from you.

xoxo, Ms. Financier