Of Moms and Money

“Don’t we have any money?”

This plaintive question came out of the mouth of then three-year old grandson Edin, his face at once forlorn and beseeching. We had reached the wall of the Charlottesville Alakazam toy store where the heavy machinery lived: bulldozers and 20180919_210618excavators and dump trucks and backhoes. Edin had his eye on a cement mixer. It was so big that he had to hold it with both arms outstretched. It sported bold blue stripes on the drum (which turned!), a movable chute at the back, a hose and a detachable pail. I said, “It costs a lot of money, Edin.” That’s when he asked, “Don’t we have any money?” And that’s when Bill and I went, “Awww,” and bought it for him.

A jumble of thoughts and feelings stirred through my mind. This is a waste of money. This’ll make Edin happy, or just as importantly, he’ll not be unhappy. His parents won’t appreciate more junk in their house. What kind of example of impulse spending am I giving Edin? But then again, we can afford it, and I love to see Edin smile.

Parents and grandparents need help to sort out all those conflicting thoughts and feelings. A book by finance writer Beth Kobliner, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (even if you’re not), gives a game plan of what we need to do to teach our children to be smart and responsible about money, even three year olds!

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TALK TO YOUR KIDS ABOUT MONEY. It’s never easy, but it’s essential. In fact, I think that is where my parents failed me and where I, in turn, failed my son. My father came to America from China with no money, but he had his medical degree. He spent many financially lean years as a medical resident, working in hospitals for room and board and $10-$50 a month. (Mom, my sister and I were only able to join him seven years after his arrival in the US.) We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in South St. Louis and slept on furniture given us by nuns at Dad’s hospital.

Over time, Dad’s orthopedic practice prospered and he became well-to-do. He was incredibly generous with me, paying for college and for my medical education. In 1976, my tuition was $5000 a year, up $1500 from the year before. I thought it was outrageously high.

I was woefully unprepared when I started making my own money. It was a patient who told me that I could do better with a money market compared to a savings account. I felt completely cowed when “negotiating” for jobs and benefits. Benefits, what are they? I wish Dad had told me about work-place practices and bolstered my self-confidence when I had to talk with hospital administrators. Once, I asked him how I should go about investing my money. All he said was, “Buy mutual funds.”

My mom’s message throughout was, “Don’t spend.” And she was enough of a tiger-mom that by the time I came to America at age eight, spending money for anything I didn’t need was unthinkable. She was a savvy shopper in the Chinese way. She inspected each string bean for tenderness and snap.

My conversations about money with my son Alex, Edin’s dad, usually ran along the lines of “Those Air Jordans cost too much.” “You don’t need another Star Wars action figure, box of Legos or Ghost Rider comic book.” I did not openly share my values. I sent money to environmental and civil rights organizations, but didn’t tell Alex. I gave Alex $20 to slip into the Salvation Army kettle each Christmas, but didn’t suggest he donate his own money to causes he cared about. And now he’s grown up with a family. We never talk money. And truthfully, I don’t want to because I still feel pretty incompetent.

Kobliner assures parents that they are up to the task, even if they feel that they themselves don’t know enough or if they have made a mess of their own finances. She states that there are only a few important concepts in the world of personal finance, despite advertising by financial advice firms to the contrary. She explains what these are and how to implement them.

The “Save More” chapter says that your kid needs to get in the habit of saving. For preschoolers, she suggests a family savings pot where everyone chips in and saves for a pizza night or a trip to the waterpark. Let the child help count out the money when it’s time to spend it and figure out if there’s enough for the extra topping. This will also teach your little one about numbers and coins.

In middle school, kids can have a definite percentage of money go into savings, like a IMG_5286quarter for every dollar. It’s best to have this rule before he is “rolling around on his bedroom floor covered in twenties like a lottery player who’s hit the jackpot” from birthday cash or, in my family’s case, Chinese New Year’s red envelopes.

For older kids, she talks about saving for college, interest rates, CDs, even down payment for a house. Kobliner insists that “It’s never good to have no money.” The idea is that, if it wipes out all your savings to pay for something you want, it’s better to do without because everyone needs a cushion.

Each of Kobliner’s topics is full of good, practical, do-able ideas for different age groups.  She shows how to do a job search and suggests investing summer job earnings and grandma’s cash gift in a tax-free Roth IRA. Her comment to elementary schoolers that “Getting rich is not a career goal,” reminds me of my son at that age telling me, “I’d make a good Lucky Lotto winner, Mom.”

Kobliner suggests kids through high school should pay in cash and buy only what they can afford to pay for now. She has a chart showing just how onerous credit card interest is and harps on how important credit ratings are, both yours and your kid’s.

She also suggests parents play the “want versus need” game with preschoolers. “We need milk and apples; we want chocolate milk and Oreos.” Or as Edin said at Charlottesville’s Atlas Coffee Shop, “I neeeeed carrot cake.”  Advice to older children includes “Always buy a used car” and “Don’t shop just to feel better.”

Kobliner stresses the need for health insurance and discusses what other kinds of insurance a young adult needs and doesn’t need. She talks about ways to pay for college, including a step-by-step plan that starts with specific things to do in 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades. If paying for college is a concern of yours, this section is worth the price of the book.

Kobliner also has a chapter called “Give Back.” Kids need to see their parents donating time and money to causes we feel are important and to people who are worse off than we are. She cites studies that giving is also psychologically rewarding.

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH. This is Kobliner’s main point to parents. Save, invest, insure, stay out of debt, give back –yes, you have to do that. But take heart, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (even if you’re not) will help you. On this part, I think my folks and I deserve passing grades. I think that Alex learned some good habits by watching my actions. As for my grandkids, I plan to give Alex and Bill’s kids a copy of this book so they’ll actually talk to their children about money!

Tell me: What parental message about money did you get?

Author: cathyluh

I am a retired internal medicine physician and a working writer. I live with my husband in St. Louis.

12 thoughts on “Of Moms and Money”

  1. Love the story, being a new grandparent, myself. I will consider getting this book for both of me kids, new parents. We were poor, but never felt poor. Dad was a pushover for door to door encyclopedia salesmen. College was more affordable back then with scholarships and grants. All four of us siblings graduated with bachelors or higher. The gift they gave us was the importance of education. I was and am financially naive which is why I married an accountant.

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  2. My parents were young adults during the depression, and accordingly very frugal. We imbibed with the air in our house the idea of always having some savings and only buying needs. If we had money left from those 2 items, we could spend a little of it on a want. We wore hand-me-downs (even me, the oldest) except for shoes and socks and undies. But my grandfather had noticed in the 1920’s that that the only people who had money had invested in the stock market, so he taught himself about investing. When my father was only 13, he and his father bought some stock together. Long story short…my dad taught all of us everything he knew about investing in stocks. He also taught us about careful shopping, taking us with him to the grocery store and teaching us to estimate the cost of our carts full before we got to the checkstand. While my parents never talked specific dollars to us, we had a good grounding by example of daily life, and I’ve passed that on to my own children. Of course, when I do splurge on something, my children are all surprised! I would have bought the cement mixer, too, but only if I could have found it at a thrift shop.

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  3. My financial plan was to do everything the opposite of my father: save; comparison shop; think of the future; moderation; live within your means. He bought boats and planes and always had a new car. But we didn’t have much of the other things that would make a middle-class life like decent furniture, clothes, vacations, savings, etc. We were always living on the edge financially. Calls from bill collectors; bankruptcy; foreclosure. Made for an insecure childhood (more in retrospect) and plenty of conflict.

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  4. I grew up in a blue collar family. Dad worked in a warehouse and mom stayed home with the kids until I got to be 11. Then she went to Opportunity School and learned secretarial skills and went to work as a school secretary. My dad felt that money was something you could talk about in the family, though it was felt to be private and not for discussion outside of the family. He belonged to the Teamster’s Union and when they went out on strike, we all knew what was happening. It was scarey wondering if we’d have enough money for food. We did not get allowances, but could earn money by doing chores. We were expected to save it so we could buy Christmas and birthday presents, as well as buying things we wanted for ourselves. So there was no begging for candy at stores. We could have it if we could buy it. And my parents helped us figure out how to save. They had no idea about investing, so that was something I learned later by going to a financial advisor. But otherwise, they did a pretty good job of trying to teach us how to manage money.

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  5. Both my parents were Depression babies, raised in big families ruled by squeeze-a-nickle-till-it-screams moms. They were both so tight with money I grew up thinking our family was the poorest one on the block. My dad worked on his car every weekend in the driveway, which led friends and neighbors to think he did it as a hobby. The truth was, the car was a piece of crap, and he had to tinker with it constantly to keep it running. We had a toaster that my dad repaired about seven times in twenty years, absolutely refusing to buy a new one. They saved money fanatically, though they were very conservative, and invested only in the safest entities like treasury bonds and CDs. They avoided stocks, with one major exception—my dad spent part of every paycheck buying stock in the company he worked for, an oil & gas major, reinvesting all dividends. This ended up being highly significant. One beef I had with my parents is they kept all financial information to themselves, like we kids would go on a wild spending spree if we ever found out the truth. When my dad passed away, I took over my mom’s finances, and was stunned to learn how much money there was in the estate. They both could have lived much more comfortably, and traveled, if they had wanted, without putting much of a dent in the principal. It was a mental disorder, of sorts, saving compulsively for some sort of imagined future catastrophe. But, I don’t know, really. They always seemed pretty happy.

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  6. I heard only two money lessons during my childhood: “Save your money” and “Save your money to pay for college.” (I had to educate myself on how to invest all of that savings.) But I became an excellent saver. Even now, when I spend money on a small indulgence — like a lipstick or an Uber ride — I experience a rebellious thrill.

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  7. My mother used to encourage me to window shop when we would go downtown in Miami. The store window displays in the big department stores were very magical, especially at Christmas. Her message to me was interesting though: “Look but don’t want.” Our family budget was tight in those days. I think it was her way to encourage needs over wants. Interestingly I have always had trouble buying for myself, but find great pleasure in buying nice things for others!

    My paternal grandfather was a banker in Cuba for many years. He always had a modest check for each of us 16 grandchildren presented at our family Christmas Eve party. He encouraged each of us to put it in our saving accounts. Unfortunately I thought his handwriting on the check was so elegant and he had written my full name on the pay to the order of line, that I just kept my check in my jewelry box and admired it every so often! He had to call me each year to tell me to deposit it! It was keeping his checkbook out of sync every year!

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