My Sick and Twisted History With Money, Part I

I had my first checkbook when I was 12 years old. My dad believed himself to be money smart and he wanted to teach me, starting as a kid, how to manage money, make a budget, and spend wisely. He helped me set up my checkbook and taught me how to reconcile it against the bank statements. At age 12, I had a job with a paycheck to deposit into my checking account. I worked at my uncle’s construction company office after school – emptying the trash cans and washing the coffee cups. So many coffee cups! I remember shopping with my mom around that time and writing a check at a store to buy some clothes or something and the cashier looked at my mom and said, “Can she do that?” and my mom said, “Well, I guess so, she has money in her account.”

This vintage 1928 checkbook is available on Etsy.  My first checkbook in 1978 looked a lot like this one.
This vintage 1928 checkbook is available on Etsy. My first checkbook in 1978 looked a lot like this one.

At Christmas time, my dad would give me $50 to do my Christmas shopping and then help me budget how to spend it – who I needed to buy gifts for and how much I would spend for each one. I give my dad credit for doing these things. I’m sure he did more directly to help me understand how to spend money than most parents do, especially for the income bracket we were in. We were no Trump family.

We were poor. My dad, despite his self-image as a man who understands financial matters, was not financially successful until much later in life. As a young man, he started off well, with a solid corporate job where he had a “future”. In those days, people kept their good jobs forever and retired with pensions. Not my dad. He quit that job, years later bragging to me that he told his former boss he would need to hire two people to replace him. Ostensibly, he quit to start his own business, but remarks like that make me wonder what really happened… Maybe he just wasn’t cut out for the corporate life. But, my mom, whenever she talks about my dad and their divorce, usually points to this decision as the beginning of the end of their marriage.

My dad’s business struggled. He tried a second business. It failed. My dad eventually declared bankruptcy. We moved from the city to a small town, where he started yet another business, a restaurant. He worked hard, seven days a week. He tried to become a real estate mogul on the side, but with a trailer park. Being a trailer park landlord is every bit as cringe inducing as you might expect. Eventually he and my mom divorced. He married again, and divorced again. He closed his restaurant, sold the trailers, and worked construction with my uncle for a while. By the time my dad was in his mid-forties, and I was a college student, he was living off his credit cards with his third wife while he started up yet another career.

So, I grew up poor, ok? Really poor. Post-divorce, my mom got food stamps for a while. My dad’s financial management lessons were no match for the reality I lived. How do you manage money if you have no money? Aside from the $50 allotment at Christmas time, I never got an allowance. I worked. I washed coffee cups, like I described above. At 15, I waited tables at the local diner, until it closed and I was unemployed. I was desperate for a job, because without one, I had NO money. None. By the time I was a high school student, I bought my own clothes and paid for my own school supplies, school enrollment, and textbook fees. I even bought my own shampoo and toiletries. I needed money.

Money is such an emotional subject.
Money is a profoundly emotional subject.

Living in a small town, jobs were scarce. I needed a car to get to the next town over to find a job. I bought one, taking out my first bank loan, $400 for a POS car with bald tires and no radio. The car was actually only $200, but on advice from the adults around me, I borrowed another $200 because the car needed some work. The idea was that I would use the extra $200 to make necessary repairs. I don’t recall that ever actually happened, since I had no clue what work it needed or how to go about getting it fixed, and, even in those days, $200 wouldn’t have gone very far toward fixing a car without the help of a shade-tree mechanic. And I didn’t know any of those. I don’t know why my parents didn’t help me with it. I got a job at McDonald’s and drove that crappy car 30-35 miles round-trip for every shift. That extra $200 went into my checking account and probably eroded away on car insurance, gas money and employee discount Big Macs until I got my first paycheck. I have probably been in debt ever since.

And so ends ends Part I of a series in which I plan to explore my relationship with money, debt, and spending. Through my self-examination, I hope to establish better money management habits and strategies.

Is there any part of my story that you can relate to? Tell me about it in the comments.

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