Personal Finance

What A Financially Painful Childhood Can Teach You about Money

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I recently read a reader comment posted on the now-defunct 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 hardship I experienced as a child has 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 12 Keys to Making Smart 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 for Money, Matter and More Musings.


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