Op-Ed: 10 Early Lessons that Shaped My Money Philosophy

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We all learned things about money growing up, whether intentionally or not. Does what we learned in childhood matter to our financial lives once we come of age? Raised by an ultra-frugal dad and a joyful spender of a mom, I appreciate what I’ve learned from each approach. Here are ten early money lessons that have shaped my money philosophy.

1. Hustle and Save

My dad came to the US as a young immigrant after fleeing communism in Czechoslovakia. He made his way to New York, and put himself through Queens College, driving a taxi and an ice cream truck to make money. Through the 80’s and 90’s, he made a solid living as a ceramics engineer, around sixty thousand per year. He saved most of his earnings, spending the smallest amount possible.

He’d patch his own muffler instead of replacing it. His twenty year old Civic’s axles made metallic clacking sounds for over a decade. Without knowing exact numbers, it was clear Dad had a high savings rate. He kept me in the dark about the particulars so I didn’t ask for more stuff growing up. The first super-saver I knew, Dad’s origin story likely helps to explain his ultra-frugal ways.

2. Divorce Kicks Your Finances in the Gut

Divorce rates surged in the 80’s, and my family became part of that trend when my parents split. From a young age, even I could see that divorce took us down a peg. Now there were two households to pay for instead of one, and the gas money in between. Mom and I even moved to my grandparents’ place for a year, to get back on our feet. In our temporary location, I attended a new school with frightening, upper middle class children. Attending a high quality school with all of its enrichment programs, my academic skills advanced.

When we returned to our small town the following year, I was a step ahead of the other kids. I saw first hand what more resources meant for kids in a well-to-do area. By age seven, I resolved to find financial stability, so I’d never be forced to move for monetary reasons again.

3. Don’t be Duped

Meanwhile, Dad taught me to find the least expensive version of anything. When he picked me up from mom’s for the weekend, our first stop was the market. We needed milk and food, since Dad spent most of the week eating lentils. He taught me to compare prices on everything from sardines to toilet paper. He crooned about the ways in which companies tricked consumers, from shrinking the product over time, to using a different unit than a competitor. But we were not fooled!

4. Spend According to Your Values

Dad taught me to spend according to a values system: his value system. These were fitness and education. “We” chose free sports, like running. To feed our brains, we ran a couple miles to the local library, perusing books and magazines for hours, sometimes for an entire weekend.

I learned to play tennis at the local park, first hitting against a concrete wall, and later, playing with Dad. We had matching neon orange and purple rackets from K-mart, since they were the cheapest. We carried old tennis balls in a paper shopping bag. I stared at the branded tennis bags carried by others. I wondered if people would notice our humble equipment and make assumptions. Comforted by my growing skill in lobbing the ball over the net, though, I reminded myself: we weren’t poor, we were just acting like it.

5. An Introduction to Stealth Wealth

For vacations with Dad, we traveled by bicycle, first circling the state of New Jersey, and later, riding to Canada and back, over 1000 miles for each trip. It was Dad’s version of road schooling I guess. Sometimes we camped, others we stayed at an inexpensive motel along the way. While other families relaxed on vacation, I chugged up and down hills in the Catskills, taking an occasional dip in a lake or a roadside pool. Like a tween-age hobo, I rinsed sweat and dust off my face in convenience store bathrooms. By the time we took a break from pedaling, Fig Newtons and a bottle of tea tasted divine.

We propelled ourselves over hills and valleys, through humid and drizzly days. From a bicycle, we could see each yard of the countryside that passed, and I learned to appreciate traveling this way. Dad and I had shoestring adventures.

6. Restriction Can be a Blessing

Having an ultra-frugal parent helped me have a lower than average threshold for material satisfaction. Since Dad often ate rice and beans, I came to realize how good they smelled and tasted when I was hungry. Plain boiled chicken was pretty delicious, and I loved to soak up the schmalz with a piece of rye. We ate in front of the TV, sharing stories from the week. Our simple routine cost very little, and it made any deviation, like eating out, feel special.

7. Single Mom Bootstrapping

I lived with Mom during the week. After shacking up with my grandparents for a year, we moved to an apartment complex on a two-lane highway, across from a mobile home park. In the morning, Mom left for work, and I spent the final hour waiting for the bus with a fellow rider and her family. They had so many animals in their space, that I still remember the smell, which lingered on my companion long after we left her house.

Our bus route circled town for 30-40 minutes each way, to and from school, bumping over hills and around lakes. We passed single family homes, each neatly sitting on its own lot, with its own driveway. I dreamed of living in one of those homes: the bi-level, or the beautiful tudor…

Child support helped make ends meet. We had a pleasant existence, my mom intermittently dating, while I tried Girl Scouts and various sports. Friends and I scampered on the grassy common areas of our complex. We picked apples in the courtyard. I was a latch-key kid, and I enjoyed the responsibility and solitude of arriving home to an empty apartment. With the help of neighbors and friends, Mom and I did the single parent thing into my early teen years.

8. Vacation was Not Negotiable

Mom made twenty-five thousand dollars per year as a psychiatric counselor with a bachelor’s degree. We had an inexpensive mortgage, but lived paycheck to paycheck, carrying a credit card balance from month to month. Despite our debt, we faithfully took vacation by the shore each year, and shared the cost with friends. We went to a large complex in Delaware, where I had my choice to swim in the pool or ocean. I was in young girl heaven, cruising the beach for my future husband between sunburns and cones of cookies and cream.

9. My First (little) Budget!

My allowance covered the ice cream budget; I received a few bucks per week, with opportunities to make more, doing extra chores. Mom introduced me to budgeting through that small allowance. I never saved a significant sum, since savings were for spending. But I learned that resources were finite, and that I could make decisions accordingly. Delightfully, I had some control over how much I earned, and how much money I had at any given time.

10. Depend on Yourself

By high school, Mom remarried, and this improved our financial picture. My new stepdad let me practice driving his car. There was more money, but it wasn’t handed to me. I was eager to start my own financial life: I couldn’t wait to get a job. Following in the footsteps of my more sophisticated friend, I became a barista at the mall. From learning to use the espresso machine, to feigning interest about the origin of different coffee beans, I was an eager worker bee. I ground coffee into giant filters, stacking them for brewing, my clothes and pores retaining the scent. The experience and the paycheck were both great rewards: I was hooked.

Deciding to pursue a science degree, I headed to the state university, where the tuition was shaved according to class rank and SAT score. My in-state education was a deal. During college, I worked part time, and later traded up for a server position at a local steakhouse. I worked there through the first semester of medical school. In this period, I became more self-reliant, and set myself up for a bright financial future by minimizing my education costs.

What does it mean for us now?

Growing up on the humble side of middle class, I couldn’t fathom making six figures like I do now. Back then, living in a single family home was a fantasy. Now, I wake up in a lovely ranch with landscaping and solar panels. My daily surroundings still surprise and delight me because of my humble beginnings. Remembering this not-so-distant past makes me grateful. Now, I’m positioned to think about how much I’d like to work, rather than how much I need to work. These early money lessons have shaped my financial outlook and served me well so far.

Everyone has a money story. Yours could be affecting your daily thoughts and decisions about money. Consider writing down your own financial history to see what you find in there!

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