Money was never discussed in my family when I was a young girl. I remember overhearing my parents talk in low, tense voices about not having enough of it.
We had a large family and money was always tight. We shopped sales and clipped coupons to stretch what we had, never splurging. But, I always remember still having a birthday cake and gifts. And we always had enough to put a dollar in the tiny envelope we took to church every Sunday.
“Giving” was part of “having” in our culture. We were taught that there was always someone with less who needed our help. My mom didn’t work when I was young; she was caring for a younger sibling with cognitive disabilities and serious health challenges. That added tremendous financial stress to an already struggling family.
We occasionally got silver dollars on my dad’s payday. That was a big deal, and we were to save them in a little box. Those weren’t for spending. At almost 50 years old, I still have the little silver and pink candy box filled with the coins today. A few may have disappeared as a loan to some tooth fairies, though.
I remember my grandma pressing a tightly-folded five dollar bill into my palm. She would fold my fingers over it, and squeeze the bill tightly into my hand so I could feel the sharp edges. Then, she would hold her finger up with a fierce “Shhhh!”, meaning it was our secret.
I suspect that she and my other grandma paid our bills a lot of the time. They were both from immigrant families and had been widows for decades. My two grandmas were survivors, lived frugally, worked hard, and were a symbol of strength and simple living. One didn’t finish high school because she had to work. College was never considered an option in their generation and social status.
Now, passing middle age in my own life, I reflect on how incredibly tough women in their generation were. They lived life as first-generation Americans, having to learn English, and work to support their large families after school. They lived through the Great Depression, their families had nothing to eat for days in a row. One grandma covered us during sleepovers with a duvet blanket she made out of flour sacks. She made them in the 1930s because they could not afford fabric for sheets.
Poverty made them resourceful, creative… and driven.
My grandmas made due by making clothes from old ones, the original “makers” and “recyclers.” They kept chickens for eggs in their city backyards. They did without heat during long, cold winters because they could not afford coal. My siblings, cousins, and I had great fun playing hide-n-seek in our grandma’s coal cellar as kids. We never realized then the hard-won struggle it represented.
Earning Money As A Child
I had always been a pretty industrious kid, mainly because I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to be an archeologist, an architect, and a doctor who did research on brains – all of these careers simultaneously, not in succession!
As a child, I had started earning money before I was ten by shoveling snow and washing cars. It was thrilling to have my own dollar bills to fold into little sharp squares. My friends and I tried making money from our lemonade stands. We never earned enough to pay for the lemon powder my mom bought us. I wish I had known then that selling products rather than my time and labor was a better business model. I babysat and nannied more than a few ill-behaved kids and lifeguarded throughout middle and high school, saving every penny for college… until all of my life savings went to paying my first semester! Didn’t see that coming.
I never spent money I made on anything frivolous or fun. As a child, I was painfully aware that having money made for an easier life and so I was always cautious about spending. Those folded grandma dollars were used for “hot dog day,” a coveted fun monthly lunch day in grade school. I also used them for roller skating tickets. I did not do without any necessities and lived the way most kids in my city did.
So, I did not realize how much (or how little) our family had. That’s until I went away to a small, private college. There I saw worldly students with their own Corvettes and money for sorority event dresses and lavish spring breaks. This, of course, was an era before the internet, social media, or cable TV. That would have showed us all, second-by-second, how everyone else’s life looks far more glamorous…
It was during my freshman year that I first recognized that learning, working, and earning money were key. They would help make a more stable, secure life. To me, security equated to happiness. That meant, then, that money equalled happiness.
At that age, having money and making more money represented freedom, happiness, and the power to choose my own future. I worked full time throughout college, which forced me to grow up and become responsible quickly.
It was also empowering to make my own way. It imbued me with power in an age when women were beginning to assert their worth in the professional world. That was the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Throughout college, I had various jobs. I worked for my landlord by renting apartments, taught 6:30AM exercise classes, sold antiques, and took buses to icky mall gigs. That’s in addition to working multiple jobs on campus. So, I got a ton of experience and confidence, even though the jobs weren’t too glam!
With a mountain of student debt and no dream job after graduating college during the dotcom economic boom of the early 1990s, I worked two jobs after graduating so that I could pay for student loans, an apartment, and eventually buy a car.
After getting a full-time job, I continued to teach evenings at a gym and for a few years worked part-time nights at a digital publisher from 2a.m. to 7a.m. before I started my day job so I could learn the burgeoning internet and digital publishing field and make extra money.
I was young, had no responsibilities like children yet. So, I could focus on learning, earning money, and “concentrating on my career.” I was able to make many valuable connections during my early twenties, one of whom invited me to join a woman’s investment club guided by Better Investing. It was the first time I learned about investing, and actually invested in stocks (one was an early-stage Apple!). Then, it was a safe, educational way to invest the little spare money I had with the wisdom of my partners, some in their late 70s and others who were mothers juggling families.
I encourage young women to explore joining investment clubs to learn about investing and support other women. During my 20s, I saved very little money, but I invested as much as I could.
A Working Mom
After I became a (working) mom at 30, I decided to start a business after trying to juggle three babies under the age of two and a career that demanded facetime from 9 to 5. So, I first I negotiated a flexible schedule, before that was in vogue, which alleviated paying for daycare.
After my third child was born, I decided to take the risk. The juggling of home and career was not the challenge for me. It was the lack of control over my schedule that prompted my business launch more than 15 years ago and I have never looked back. As a small business owner, there are highs and lows in revenue, but the ability to be the one to control that ebb and flow has been a smart decision for me.
Now my own daughters are teenagers making their way in the world. Throughout their entire lives, we have included them in family financial decisions. They had a say in decisions like whether we chose to take an expensive vacation or instead buy grown-up furniture for their rooms. When laptops and phones had accidental deaths by drowning, it was their responsibility to figure out how to fund repairs and replacements. Each time, they’ve forgone expensive new devices and made due with older replacement models. Our kids have been helping with food shopping and budgeting since they were young, so they understood the value of the food they choose and the cost of wasting it in a lunch box.
They are so busy as teens studying, working part-time jobs, and deciding about careers. My greatest piece of advice to them is to always be able to support yourself and your children on your own. Live within your means. For such young ladies, they are amazingly wise–my girls who won’t spend their extra money on clothes they don’t need or even eat out when their funds are low. They are careful to save and be thrifty, smart skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.
I have encouraged my children to choose careers that will be future proof and to learn the skills needed to succeed in a digital world, like programming. I always encourage young people to trust their guts, that innate feeling as to whether you should act or make a decision one way or the other. That is something I should have done more in my youth. I also encourage my girls to take risks like starting a business or trying something that is out of their comfort zone, like joining an investment club in college.
My other financial advice to our girls is not directly tied to earning, saving, or investing money: Some of the best financial successes come from networking and learning from mentors and peers. Continuing financial literacy is enhanced when you connect with people who can impact your life and whose lives you can impact in amazing ways.
Some of the best riches in life come from giving. I remember those little church envelopes intended to help someone I would never know. It’s a good thing to put in a spare dollar, even when you have few…