There are a lot of things my parents did right when raising me, but teaching me to save money was not one of them. I don’t fault them for this because the truth is I have a great deal more for which to thank them and, well, nobody’s perfect. I think they tried, I remember having a little combination safe into which I was meant to deposit a good portion of my weekly allowance. But the weekly allowance ebbed after a few weeks and so did my interest in the safe. It’s not that we were poor, we actually were quite comfortable and I had more toys than I needed. It’s just that for some reason it didn’t seem to be a priority to instill in us kids the importance of saving money. As I think about it, I believe the fact that my parents were (and are) both self-employed had a lot to do with it. Saving money is easier to do when you have a steady, predictable income.
I lived a very austere college life, having a full class schedule and an assortment of menial, on-campus jobs. One summer I toured Europe playing bass with the school’s jazz band. I set out to conquer Germany, Belgium, Holland and England with a little bit of cash and a debit card. I was well aware of how little money I had in the bank and I figured at some point the ATMs would deny my withdrawals, but they didn’t. In my willing suspension of disbelief I chalked up the unexpected surplus to the exchange rate. I came back to a mailbox full of overdrawn notices from the bank. On top of owing the money I had withdrawn, I owed $20 for every overdrawn transaction. I owed a lot of money and I couldn’t find a job that would hire me for the remainder of the summer. The only reason I made it through those last four or six weeks of summer was that Emily’s aunt and uncle had given me a case of Ramen noodles left over from their Y2K preparations. And because I sold plasma three times a week. It was, as Emily and I have come to refer to it, the summer from hell. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I discovered credit cards. I was determined to get out of this hole on my own and in my vulnerable state, credit cards seemed like a life saver. But of course, I ended up digging myself into a deeper hole.
The truth is that on a personal level, this is still a big struggle for me. As a parent, however, I have decided to do everything I can to instill in my children the importance of money management. I don’t want them to be obsessed with or attached to money. And I certainly want them to be generous and charitable with others. But I also want them to understand that we can’t give what we don’t have and that we are happier when we live within our means. So, to this end, I have implemented a weekly savings challenge. Every Sunday night, as part of their bedtime routine, we gather our dollar bills and ritually put them into their piggy bank. We are using the incremental savings challenge in which the first week you put away one dollar, the second week you put away two, and so on. At two and four years old, they’re too young to fully grasp what we’re trying to do by cultivating this habit. But that’s sort of the point. I want them to associate the end or beginning of a week with putting money away. I want them to understand at some primal level that we have to save money before we can use it. Tonight was our third week and they seem interested enough to fold their dollar bills and tuck them through the piggy bank’s slot. I try to remind them each week that we are putting this money away for the rest of the year and I don’t think they get that yet, but perhaps in time they will.
Having married someone who has a much better grasp on money management has been my salvation. I remember the day that, thanks to Emily, we made the last payment on my pre-marital credit card debt. It was a feeling of great relief, to feel that I was no longer shackled to these credit card companies to whom I had sold my soul when I was so desperate and vulnerable. I had felt so ashamed of this for so long, and then, after a year of tight budgeting and hefty payments, I was free. Immediately after that, we started saving money to buy a car. It took us several years, but we accumulated enough to go to the dealership one day and pretty much say, “this is how much cash we have and we’re ready to buy that car with not a penny more.” I never imagined I would ever buy a brand new car and pay for it in cash. For the most part, talking about money makes me feel tacky. But the world we live in is uncertain and expensive, and if I want to raise smart, independent daughters, I’m going to have to be a bit more intentional about this. So that’s what I have to say about savings, for the time being.