Learning Responsibility, Part 2: Finances

English: An origami flower made of multiple te...

It doesn’t grow on trees, folks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I went to college, people understood my study habits, but many of my new friends couldn’t relate to my budgeting habits.  I was often amused by a certain friend’s reaction when I said I didn’t want to buy something because I didn’t want to spend the money.  “Why not?!” he’d ask, slightly incredulous.  “I know you can afford it!”  Yeah, I had money in my checking account, but only because I didn’t constantly spend it on needless things!  I wasn’t a miser or a Scrooge.  I’d go out bowling with friends and to the occasional movie, but I was careful and rarely made frivolous purchases.  Later I watched that same friend bury himself in credit card debt far too early in life, and I’m so thankful for the responsibility my parents taught me in my childhood.

I learned how to manage a budget when I was either ten or eleven years old.  I’m not sure of the exact year, but it was the year my grandmother decided to stop buying us Christmas presents.  Instead, she sent me and my siblings (her only grandkids) each a check for $600.  That’s a lot of money for an eleven year old!  However, my parents dutifully took me to the bank to open an account and deposit the check.  Then my dad sat down with me at the computer and taught me how to use the budget program he’d created.  From that year on, my Christmas money and anything I made doing extra chores (not my regular chores) was all the money I received.  My parents never gave me an allowance or handed me cash to go out with my friends.  If I wanted something, I had to buy it with my own money.  That included paying for Christmas and birthday presents for other people, any toys I wanted, and paying my share for youth group trips (though sometimes my parents would split that cost with me).  If I wanted my money to last all year, I needed to keep an eye on my budget.

When I became a teenager and started driving, I became responsible for purchasing my own basic toiletries and any clothing that I wanted (hand-me-downs kept me from needing a lot of new clothes).  My parents provided a good home, put food on the table, and purchased my school uniforms and major supplies.  I never felt like I lacked anything, but I was financially responsible for many of my belongings as a teen.  It may seem strict, but I learned good habits and the value of a dollar.  Besides, I know my parents strictly stuck to their own budget, too, and so by nature and necessity, they passed those skills on to me.

But with high school also came many more frivolous expenses.  I appreciated those big checks I still received each Christmas, but I spent them faster as a teen – social outings, dances, class trips, and the like.  As soon as I reached legal working age, I took a job every summer to supplement my budget.  As I described in my last post, I learned a lot about professionalism and a strong work ethic from my first summer job as a life guard.  Along with those other life skills, I also truly grasped the idea of needing to earn money (instead of being entitled to it).

I learned to pick and choose how I spent my money.  I enjoyed going to movies with friends, but I had no problem turning down an invitation to a movie I didn’t actually want to see.  I wasn’t about to spend my hard-earned money just to sit in a theater.  My parents had one cell phone for the whole family that they sometimes let me use if I went out in the evenings.  If I’d wanted a phone of my own, I would have had to buy it with my money.  I decided that wasn’t a high priority for me (granted, this was the day when cell phones were still fairly new, so though some of my friends had them, it wasn’t weird or unusual that I didn’t).  The same principle applied to the iPod.  If I wanted one, I’d have to pay for it, and I decided I didn’t need one.  Honestly, I think left to my own devices, not much would have changed in that part of my life even now, ten years later.  I probably would have bought myself a cell phone by now just because I don’t have a land line, but I probably still wouldn’t own an iPod.  My husband was instrumental in acquiring both items for me.  And I still don’t have a smart phone.  I don’t see the need to pay the large monthly fee just to put the internet in my pocket.  Just like my teen years, I still pick where my money goes pretty carefully.

Clearly, my high school and college experiences weren’t the same as adulthood.  Buying my own clothes as a teenager wasn’t the same as the myriad expenses that come with the freedom of adulthood.  But I did learn.  I understood that money isn’t an inexhaustible resource, that I needed to prioritize my purchases (rent and groceries come before wardrobe updates these days), and that work done well without complaint is valuable to those who write the paychecks.  I learned to cope with each situation I’m in and do my part to improve it.

While I’m the subject of finances, there’s a rant I could go on about some people wanting the government to forgive student loans, but for now I’ll keep it to this: Education isn’t free.  Before my husband enrolled in optometry school, we discussed what the expense and those loans would mean for our future, and we chose to shoulder that financial responsibility in order to bring us to where we wanted to be.  It means our budget is really tight right now.  It means we don’t go out to eat often and make do with clothes that have been in our closets for years.  But that’s the choice we made when we decided to make his education a priority.

At my teaching job in Boston, I was in charge of an informal after-school debate club.  One of the topics that the kids wanted to debate was if students should get paid for good grades.  I decided to keep my mouth shut on my own opinions first and make them go through the whole process of logically thinking through their arguments.  At the end of the debate, we had a discussion about how everything went.  I couldn’t have been more proud when a 16-year-old boy spoke up and said, “You know, at the beginning of this, I was all about getting paid for my grades, but now I don’t think it’s a good idea.  It doesn’t make sense.”  He’s right.  We don’t pay people for the mere act of work – rather, we give money to others for the products or services they provide to us.  We buy clothes so we don’t have to make them ourselves.  We pay doctors for their knowledge and skills treating the human body so that we can go to them when we get sick and don’t have to learn all that information ourselves.  I watched my group of students begin to rethink their entitlement to money as they realized that their work as students didn’t fit that pattern.

Financial responsibility is about understanding that the world doesn’t owe you anything, that you need to work for the money in your bank account and plan carefully to keep it there.  It’s understanding that money spent on one item cannot be spent on another.  Sometimes that means passing up on things that you want because you must save the money for things that you need.  That means keeping a little money in savings in case the car breaks down or the dog gets sick and you need to be able to pay for those things.

If teens aren’t learning these habits at a young age, what does that mean for their futures?  How will they magically break the habit of impulse-buying and the mindset of entitlement when they reach their twenties?  If that’s how they manage their money, how can they help but boomerang back home, where the financial demands are significantly less burdensome, instead of launching themselves into independent living?

So thank you, Mom and Dad, for teaching me how to budget and take financial responsibility for myself.  I really appreciate it.  🙂

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3 thoughts on “Learning Responsibility, Part 2: Finances

  1. Mom and I both picked up our frugal ways from our parents. I learned at a young age that asking my mother for money to buy something I desperately wanted was fruitless. What I got instead was a list of jobs I could do to earn the money. It worked better when I went to her with my own list of jobs I wanted to do — I had learned through experience the cash value of each job. Teaching you the sweat value of a dollar was our motivation for not giving you a weekly allowance. Eventually your Christmas gift from grandparents served as your allowance, which you had to make last a full year.

    From our parents we also learned the benefits of maintaining a ledger of daily expenses, which keeps us accountable to each other and it makes us careful in our spending. Our first ledger was a 3-ring binder with pages designated for our various budget categories — something like a cash envelope system. We recorded every purchase, no matter how small. About the time the notebook fell apart, we got our first computer and the ledger went electronic. We still record every expenditure.

    Occasionally we find ourselves counseling adults who habitually spend more than they earn and they constantly have too much month left at the end of the money. Trying to train them to plan a budget and follow it with this sort of ledger doesn’t work — it’s just too overwhelming. What has worked, however, is starting with one small step. We give them a notebook and tell them that every time they spend any money on anything, just write it down in the notebook — the date, description, and amount. That’s all. I gave this simple assignment to an woman who was struggling financially. Two weeks later when I met with her again, she was ecstatic. “I get it! For years I have been complaining that I can’t save up enough money to buy a new pair of shoes. Now I know where my new shoes are: In the candy machine at work!” Indeed, she did get it.

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