Flashbacks and Financial Lessons

This column originally ran in July 2003.

My family recently found thank-you notes my brother and I wrote to our grandparents nearly three decades ago.

His went something like this: "Thank you for your generosity. You really shouldn't have -- especially since you already gave us a set of encyclopedias. I don't need the money... but I promise to spend it responsibly."

Mine read: "Thank you for the 5 dolars [sic.]! I bought a doll!! Her name is Cinnamon!!!"

Translation:

Jordan: I will responsibly consider my options and vow to treat the money in the trusting spirit in which it was given.

Dayana: Cinnamon is mine!!!

Reading those notes that were sent in the same envelope so many years ago was not one of my prouder family history sojourns. (Granted, there's a three-year age difference between my brother and me as evidenced by our choice of stationery and reliance on exclamation points.) But viewed as an adult, it offered a telling clue to the financial path I would eventually tread.

Early in my fiscal dealings I determined that allowance and earned money was to be saved. But gifts of money were to be gobbled up with glee. Even now, unexpected windfalls (and even the expected ones, such as insurance reimbursements) inspire in me a free-spending giddiness, which thankfully I have learned to curb. Most of the time.

My money memories are not extraordinary. But viewed through the corrective lens of adulthood, they clearly reveal a straight line from my earliest money experiences to the way I handle adult financial affairs.

Lessons learned
Motley Fool member Storytelr1 raised the topic of money memories on the Consumer Credit/Credit Cards discussion board last summer. In eighth grade he was clocked with a soccer ball when his old cleats didn't give him the traction to get out of the way. In the car on the way home from practice, when his mother saw blood on his nose, he told her what happened and alluded to his need for a new pair of soccer shoes:

There, with my friends in the back seat and me in the front, Mom proceeded to absolutely unload on me -- we didn't have the money for new shoes; I'd just have to deal with it and stay out of the ball's way; if this was going to be a problem I could just stop playing soccer altogether... I can still feel the weight of the silence in the car when she finished.

I believe that this is what experts today refer to as "a teachable moment." Or it could have been. To Storytelr1, it was a stinging admonishment that made him feel greedy. It was also one early example of how money was not always logically and thoughtfully allotted in his family.

A few other Fools chimed in with their money memories. Wingenit's long-term money attitudes came from the Depression-era grandparents who raised her:

I guess I got really lucky... they taught me to be responsible, save, save, save, and spend my money on the people I love rather than frittering it away on silly things I didn't need. They may not have taught me good grammar (West Texans, dontcha know), but they did give me a good grounding in money sense.

Johnmoni's parents had three simple and straightforward money lessons that he heard so often he can still quote them verbatim:

My Mom: "You can have it all, you just can't have it all at once."

My Dad: "Don't wait for someone else's money, go out and earn your own."

Dad and Mom: "If you can't afford it for cash, you can't afford it."

Though it is never that black and white for sure, as I got older I understood that home mortgages were smart credit, but the real lesson was that buying things you really couldn't afford on credit didn't make any financial sense.

Leaving the financial nest
As an adult, I understand that my freewheeling attitude toward "found" money was a whiplash reaction to the freedom every child craves. For years there was a protective fence around the finances in our household. I was beholden to others for every single purchase. If I wanted to buy a friend a birthday present or even attend a movie, I had to ask my parents for money or save my allowance for an entire month. Yes, even at yesteryear's movie prices.

It's no surprise that I gorged on the spending freedom that the checks from Grandma and Grandpa afforded to me.

I certainly do not begrudge my parents for their tight financial reins. Their protective instincts were well-intentioned -- perhaps even cutting-edge given the temptations kids face these days.

But my money memories changed dramatically in eighth grade, thanks to one of my mother's best friends. Beverly suggested that my brother and I be given a clothing allowance. Handing over the responsibility, she said, would 1.) prevent ugly hormone-induced bickering at the shopping mall; and 2.) teach us real-world discipline that a budget requires.

"Dear Beverly, thank you for the $500 dolars!!!"

I should also mention that Beverly was a CFA who had three teenage daughters.

The generous clothing allowance changed my attitudes about saving and spending. Doled out on a quarterly basis, I learned that financial freedom came with the burden of accounting. I started to forecast my needs instead of getting grabby at the checkout counter when I used to be forced to prove my case. I even started to save the birthday checks from my grandparents to add to the clothing kitty so I could afford a spectacular winter coat and matching moon boots.

It wasn't long before my mother and I were having frank talks about money. She told me how much money my dad made as a professor. I learned about mortgages and which bills came due when. She explained that as a real estate agent, she didn't earn a flat salary but subsisted on commissions. When they had to replace the carpet, my parents didn't hesitate to let me know how much that cost. They shared how long it took for them to save up for their few indulgences and let my brother and me make our own money mistakes without a safety net.

To this day I still remember the first item of clothing I bought under the "Beverly Clothing Plan" and have the money memories from that time to serve me well into the future.

Want to talk to your teen about money? Here are some tips for preventing rolling eyes and slamming doors.

Dayana Yochim no longer owns any pastel argyle sweater vests like the ones she purchased with her clothing allowance in the 1980s. She is a proud member of Adult Survivors of Parents. And she's just kidding, Mom and Dad.


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