What A Financially Painful Childhood Can Teach You about Money

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boyondock.pngI recently read a reader comment posted on Money, Matter and More Musings that sparked some controversy – it seemed to imply that most personal finance bloggers were rich and didn’t have any major financial obstacles in their life. I read this and thought the reader was describing me.

My wife and I have gone from a negative net worth 15 years ago to substantial savings today. Although none of what we have was inherited or handed to us, a good salary has allowed us to max out our 401(k) and save a little extra. Add in real estate appreciation and no major financial setbacks, and you have a couple on their way to financial freedom.

But if life were only that simple. While many experience financial hardship as adults, I traveled through the winter of my financial discontent as a child. It was painful, but it taught me a lot about money, business and people, and shaped my attitudes about personal finance. Here’s what happened and what I learned from the experience.

Money is a Terrible Thing to Waste

My parents divorced and both remarried before I can remember. I lived with my mom and stepfather, visiting my dad and stepmother on the weekends. When I was about 10, my stepfather opened a store that sold fishing and hunting gear. Was the store near where people fish or hunt? Nope–it was smack dap in the middle of the city and 40 minutes from our home. Go figure. Because my stepfather had to keep his day job to make ends meet, I ran the store by myself during the summers. To make a long story short, the business was a financial disaster.

As the bills mounted, my parents paid them with a second mortgage on our home. I can remember our family literally having no money. My stepfather got paid once a month, and on payday (the happiest day of the month) my mom and I would put two or three dollars of gas in the car. Then we would head over to the grocery store to buy food because by the end of the month there was virtually no food in the house.

As finances worsened, my parents told me that they would be filing for bankruptcy and that we would need to move out of the house. The stress on our family was immeasurable. The bitter irony of the situation is that what ultimately saved us was a tragic loss. My father (not my stepfather) died in a car accident.

His death resulted in my receiving social security benefits until I graduated from high school. Those benefits went to pay my stepfather’s bills from his failing business. Was this fair? Maybe not, but it kept my parents from bankruptcy and from losing our home. Money was still extremely scarce and my stepfather continued making bad financial decisions–like the time he canceled the car insurance to save a few bucks just weeks before a massive hail storm. There is nothing like driving a car around that resembles a golf ball with 120,000 miles on it, but at least we had a car.

Childhood Lessons about Money and Life

Here is what these childhood experiences taught me about money and life:

  • Living paycheck to paycheck is miserable. Saving money isn’t easy, and some situations may make it impossible. My childhood experiences motivated me to do everything I possibly could to save money.
  • Turning a hobby into a business can be a really bad idea. There is something to be said about doing what you love. But running a successful business requires a lot more than just passion.
  • My choices about money affect those I love. We don’t live in a vacuum. Our choices about how we make, spend, save and give money can have a major impact on our families.
  • Life can be really painful sometimes. As my mom would tell me, life isn’t fair. Indeed, we all have our joys and our tragedies. I was blessed by having a loving mom, yet experienced the tragedy of having a Dad leave so soon.
  • We are the sum of our circumstances multiplied by our choices. Each of our circumstances differs but they almost always involve struggles. From those struggles, we can learn and we can choose. Indeed, the financial hardships I experienced as a child have resulted, I believe, in the financial freedoms I enjoy today.

I have tried to draw on the difficulties in my life to make good choices, such as in my education and in financial planning. When I write, I try to share what I learned (and continue learning) in the hopes of benefiting a reader facing their own challenges, financial or otherwise. For example, I recently shared My Best and Worst Financial Decisions.

So now it’s your turn. How did your childhood experiences shape your attitudes about money?

NOTE: This article is adapted from a guest post I wrote recently for Money, Matter and More Musings.

Published or Updated: April 21, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. I think sometimes having a financially painful childhood can cause you to make bad financial decisions.

    My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up. My parents filed for bankruptcy twice, and I remember more than one occasion where my dad would bring home food from the food pantry. My brothers and I all had 3 school outfits. We wore an outfit on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. On Wed, while we were at school, my mom would do the laundry, and we’d wear Mon & Tues’s outfits on Thurs & Fri.

    Now that I have kids of my own, I really have to fight the urge to overbuy for them, especially in the clothing department.

    On the other hand, I know that seeing my parents survive through financially hard times has given me the resolve to make it through some of my own financially hard times.

  2. Luke says:

    I’ve been thinking of this topic for a while now, because of huge differences between my wife and I regarding money.

    I grew up “middle-class” (parents both teachers), neither rich nor poor. I tend to be relaxed about money which is both good and bad: good in that I don’t feel much stress around it even if there’s not much available; it was usually easy for me to save and I didn’t need to buy very much. But on the other hand I didn’t *care* much about it, and didn’t make good career or school choices. Only lately have I become almost rabid in wanting to turn that situation around, I think because my “golden years” are getting closer and closer and I do NOT like what I see.

    My wife, on the other hand, grew up very poor. Her mother would skip meals so she could have enough to eat. She worries a LOT about money and issues like success, appearance, and is constantly afraid of some disaster “throwing us into the streets”. You’d think that would result in great attention to sound fiscal decisions, right? WRONG. While she’s compelled to work very hard, she makes horrible financial decisions. Refinancing the house multiple times to pay of credit card debt, paying for a house cleaner we can’t sensibly afford, buying clothes and things that often lay around in bags unopened for years, new “special” (expensive) clothes for our daughter that might be worn once, dinners out, and so on. She is tormented by bills yet rarely pays them on time – instead carrying around big bundles of unopened bills that often as not get stashed some place out of sight and forgotten.

    Why don’t I handle the finances? She makes the most money by far (I ended up doing most – all the childcare), and refuses to share finances. She’s afraid, for instance, that if I write a mortgage check, the bank will “find out” that she’s not the sole payer and then I’ll be able to “take” her house from her some day. Since California law is very clear about community property this is a ridiculous attitude.

    My point is that hardships left her the *fear* of not having money, but not the ability to make rational decisions about it. Instead she is blinded by what she thinks she *deserves* as a result of her past suffering, and because of that could easily create the future she most fears.

  3. FourPillars says:

    Great post! I was born with a middle-class spoon in my mouth so I don’t have any background with being poor. Once I started working however I didn’t have a lot of money but I knew that if things got really bad I could probably get help from my parents.

    Mike

  4. DR says:

    Luke, thanks for sharing your story. It does seem to me that hardships impact people in different ways. I have a brother and sister and our childhood difficulties affected each of us in different ways. It’s also difficult when a couple doesn’t see eye to eye on money. My wife went through what your experiencing when I wasn’t very good with money.

  5. shawnchong says:

    I think that a financially painful, neutral or blissful childhood can only teach one what it’s like to live those lifestyles. It definitely doesn’t automatically teach one what the right way to handle money is. You probably all know people who have come from poor backgrounds and turned that around. You also probably know people who come from rich backgrounds and whose riches can’t stop coming in! It’s all a matter of what one’s parents taught you (not necessarily what they gave you), but also your own decision later on in life regarding whether you would become educated about finances or not.

    I myself came from a middle-class background, whose parents are the ideal of frugal and never spent beyond what they earned. Because of their good habits (and my paternal grandparents’ good habits), our family home has been mortgage free ever since I was a little child. My dad was also able to take a three-year sabbatical!

    In regards to myself, however, I am $55,000 CAD in debt. A breakdown is as follows: $11,000 small business loss; $7,000 stock loss; and the rest due to not working for several years while in school and racking up credit card debt. Not one dollar is due to school tuition fees… although maybe $2,000 can be attributed to textbooks.

    I’m 25 now, but am starting off in a very bad financial hole.

  6. Pinyo says:

    You really left me speechless with this post. It was truly touching.

  7. DR says:

    Shawnchong, I think you’re spot on. It’s what we do with our experiences that shapes our lives. I can appreciate your current financial situation. When I was 25 I was exactly $55,000 in debt. All of my debt was school loans, but I climbed out of that hole, and if I can do it, anybody can. Best of luck!

  8. Jenn says:

    My mother was pregnant with me when my father died, and she had no real job experience or savings (they were very young). We lived on social security and had a very small old house that was paid for. I think owning a home is the only reason we were able to make it at all.

    I have so many memories of the power and phone being cut off and driving around in a series of $500 automobiles that were mortifying…no health insurance so we didn’t go to the hospital unless we were close to death..blah blah blah….you know the drill.

    It has made me very frugal and although my husband and I make a comfortable six figure income, we live in a house that is WAY below our means and drive cheap cars. If I get into debt at all or don’t have at least a few thousand dollars in the bank I can’t breathe. Even if I had a million dollars in the bank I would still feel like a disaster was going to strike and we would lose everything.

  9. DR says:

    Jenn, I’m the same way. I worry about financial disasters, even though we could live without earned income for quite a long time. In fact, my wife at times has had to tell me to lighten up, which is a big change from when I was in college!

  10. Bill Anderson says:

    I hear ya, Luke. My wife and I were exactly the same way. I always believed one should spend no more than one makes, while my wife wanted to “enjoy life” and not worry about the details. Since she made the same or more money than I did most of our marriage, I had little power to convince her I was right. After 20 yrs, I had to decide between a retirement filled with debt or cutting loose and salvaging something on my own. When the kids were old enough, I bailed out and now am nearly debt free. It’s sad because I still love her — I just couldn’t live beyond my means any longer. You may come to the same conclusion someday.

  11. Peter says:

    DR, thanks for sharing this. One of you life lessons which you mentioned and I’ve strived to pass onto my children, is that we all have choices. Every day we make good, bad, careless, or planned choices in what we do. The trick is to make more good choices than bad ones, and don’t get dumb enough to make a really bad one (though we’ve all done it anyway).

  12. Rich says:

    Great story and great comments. This issue shows the complexity of the human mind and the human spirit. My family immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1978. We went from having a relatively great life in Vietnam to being penniless in America. I’m the youngest of seven children and I can recall making the most of what we had. Leftovers were eatened daily until they were completely finished. Hand-me-down clothes were happily accepted for non-family members including strangers. Extra clothes were normally worn for warmth to avoid high heat bills. I rarely had the toys my friends had. To compound the matter, my father died of cancer when I was 8. Today, I’m 30 years old and a successful, college educated, professional making over six figures. I have two retirement accounts (Roth IRA and 401K) and a year’s worth of expenses in a savings account. I also have a rental home in an upcoming area. At the end of every month, I find myself saving $4000. Despite my success, I find myself fearing poverty. I am constantly obsessing over my budget. Although I dress quite nicely and fashionably, I still buy clothes from the clearance rack. I tend to generally buy groceries that are on sale. My car is practical and reliable and relatively gas efficient. I take great vacation but find myself thinking about my spending. I am very generous with friends and family but always stay within my means. I am very blessed to have the life that I have and to be surrounded with wonderful people in my life. Unfortunately, I’m unable to let go of the demons of my childhood.

  13. DR says:

    Rich, thank you for sharing your story with us. It’s very inspirational to hear of people like you who have started with so little and accomplished so much. As odd as this may sound, I wonder if the demons of our childhood later turn to angels. Much of the financial success I’ve achieved as an adult resulted from the financial pain I went through as a child.

  14. -Jobbik- says:

    i just wanted to say that alot of this makes sense to me.

    I grew up in rural Michigan during the 80′s and 90′s, which as i am sure you all know was pretty much the meat of the decline of the auto industry for most of the US manufacturers. And of course, Michigan’s industry was almost wholly dependant on it for many years.

    Point being, while most people in the country were living quite well and carefree. My childhood was forged in a localized depression that still exists today in that area. I have long since left and venture out to life on my own. But I am quite certain that my environment has been a crucial element in making me the man i am today.

    -Jobbik-

  15. Scott says:

    I can relate to your story as I grew up with two parents that could never agree about money, only that we did not have enough and my father would often say, “you can’t get blood from a stone”. My parents divorced when I was thirteen, my mom never worked although I worked for my day and to this day I am amazed how my mother kept us living in an apartment in a middle calss neighborhood (she died from alcoholism when I was married and 27). Through all the ups and down of learning how to manage my finances, I have taken a valuable lesson from my father (hard working and fiercely independent) whose words have driven me to success “nobody owes you anything and if you are going to make it you will have to do it on your own”. Although I think he may have gone a little bit to the extreme is saying that you can never trust anyone, his sage advice forced me to grow up sooner that I have ever planned (living on my own at 20 and taking the seven year plan to graduate college as a Special Education Teacher..I work in government now). What does this story have to do with this post? As the author clearly point out that one of our first responsibilities is to find out what it is that we do not know, not accepting my parents points about money and finding my own way is a continuing journey…still going at 46 years.

    In adulthood we have choices to make, no matter our circumstances I believe all of us can improve our circusmtances with education, support from other and perseverance. I look at the emotional and familiar challenges of financial maturity from childhood wiht no regrest. It was my mother who always reminded me to put some money into your sock. She might be surprised to find I am listening.

  16. MoneyBlogga says:

    My childhood was the catalyst for everything that went wrong in my life. It sounds as if I’m playing the “Blame Game” but I really do blame my father’s violence for the fractured attitudes I have regarding money in particular.

    My family never had much money while I was growing up. We would drive around in broken down vehicles, the sort that I would have to push down the street in the mornings while my father steered because we were too poor to replace the starter.

    The problem was that I was surrounded by people who lived hand to mouth. No one had any money and, it seems to me now, no plans for getting any. My father worked a piddly job for 40 years with absolutely nothing to show for it at the end. He was always complaining that he never had any money and then would start lashing out at us kids. It just seemed logical to me to run up debt as fast as I could because that’s just what we did. Running up credit debt was the only way, I had been taught, to get what you wanted. Once you had run up the debts, you would then start getting Demand letters because you had no money to pay the bill.

    There was never any discussion about savings, finances in general, or money management. One memory I have is of my mother announcing to us all in general that she was going to be “economizing”. Even as a child, that stopped me cold in my tracks. How could we economize when we had nothing to start with? When I left home, I didn’t even know how to write a check. Such incredible ignorance put me in the recurring situation that I’m in today. For the third time, I’m about to lose everything. It just seemed to me, as a child, that life was extremely difficult for everyone and that money had no real value aside from buying food and clothes.

    Investing money was out of my realm – it seemed too complicated to even bother. I had no clue what investing was.

    Another childhood memory I have is of my father ridiculing my uncle behind my uncle’s back. My uncle had taken out a mortgage on a house in town and he was the ONLY member of the family to ever do so. I remember my father scorning my uncle, saying, “bloody mortgage! I’d never have a bloody mortgage!” Well, that uncle today is more than financially secure and retired early, while my dad is falling out of oak trees at 70. He cuts trees down for a living. To this day, my father continues to be unteachable about money. This, for the first 20 years of my life, was my influence.

  17. Debbie says:

    Hi Guys,

    Thanks for the posts. Id love to join in.
    Im 23 . Im Irish & made silly decisions in school. I have a good permanent job now but Im crap with handling money. Growing up in a council house, sick father & my mother working (not supposed to be) to try earn enough to keep us going. I can remember at around 7 or 8 years old I stole pepper from the supermarket to save her having to buy it in the shopping.
    I have a fear of having nothing, I cant relax thn when Im around people who are rich, Maybe its my dad who kind of thought us to believe that rich people were bad in a way even though I understand they worked hard for it the majority of the time.

    Well my main concern is I am like a broken record. I am in the same cycle as I have been last year & cant seem to get out of it & because I do not knowwhat I want to do in the future or whats gona happen then I get stressed out & basically I feel its after leading to a mild form of anxiety.

    Its seems to me like a loosing battle so I wrote dow a list last week of my goals ect & a budget . After paying my bils this week, I should have been left with 100 at least but checking my account this morning, The bank charged me over 100 in interest charges & loans so Im totally broke again this morning, It seems like aloosing battle all the time or is it just me ? ?

  18. DR says:

    Debbie, sometimes it does seem like we are losing the battle (and sometimes we are!). I wish I could solve your situation by something I say in this comment, but we both know that’s not realistic. All I can say is never give up, keep making the best financial decisions you can, keep learning, and things almost always will improve as a result. Best of luck.

  19. T.K says:

    Every day we make good, bad, careless, or planned choices in what we do. The trick is to make more good choices than bad ones, and don’t get dumb enough to make a really bad one (though we’ve all done it anyway).

  20. debtbuster says:

    Wow. What a story I say. But I get what you mean by childhood shaping your attitude towards money. My mum grew up in a rich family and so when I was young I never wore the same clothes twice. All bought brand new, regardless of the price tag. All I can say about that now is. It really wasn’t worth it. I don’t even remember what I wore.

  21. Before I started to improve my financial situation my thoughts on money were:

    Living paycheck to paycheck is inevitable. I saw my parents do that every month.

    Money slips quickly, so spend/enjoy it while you can.

    Saving for retirment and paying the bills is next to impossible.

  22. I tend to disagree with you slightly on the idea that turning a hobby into a business is not good. It is more satisfying to be able to work and do something that you love and if you are passionate about something then it has more chance of succeeding.

    However, you are right in outlining that the hobby which you choose must have a solid financial and business model first before you start to enter into it. Some hobbies are never going to be a financial success because the dollars just aren’t there.

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