Saturday, November 14

When did you learn the value of money?

FruGal has a post up about learning the value of money. She remembers how hard it was when she, at age 19, scrimped and saved all by herself for a backpacking trip, no help from her parents. All the toil was worth it, she says, when she finally started out on her trip. And there was the exhilarating feeling that she had worked hard and earned the trip, all on her own.

Alas, I have no cool vacation story to relate here, but it did get me thinking about how much I owe my mom for teaching me the value of money.

One of the best lessons happened accidentally. When my mom set up my bank account in Alaska, she somehow walked away with an account in trust. The upshot of this was that I couldn't touch a single cent without one of my parents there to okay the transaction. I couldn't cash my paychecks, I couldn't even get money back from a deposit.

I never thought much about it, until I started working at the movie theater. Many of my coworkers routinely bought their meals, while I usually brown-bagged it. Their meals generally cost $5-7, which may not sound like a lot, but most of us made $5.50-6.50 an hour. It wasn't uncommon for some of them to buy a CD or two a week. Even at age 16, I thought it was weird that they treated their hard-earned money so casually.

I guess it's because I had been taught to save from early on. Half of all holiday and birthday money went in the bank. Later, when I began babysitting, the same rule applied. Maybe it sounds strange, but I have to say it worked for us. Of course, there were times -- lots of times -- when I would have loved to have the whole amount. But I understood there was a long-term goal of college, and that we'd have to save a lot for me to afford it.

There were two main reasons, I think, why this whole thing worked. First, I was a complete goody two shoes. It really never would have crossed my mind to demand something else. (I say if you're gonna indoctrinate them, do it young.) Second, I was always part of the process. My mom took me to the bank to deposit my funds. She had me fill out the deposit slip myself, and she often showed me the deposit slip and the ever-growing number.

So I didn't care much that I lived on $20 every two weeks. My parents saw to my needs, and that money was for whatever I wanted. Sometimes it was a slice of pizza or some fries from the school cafeteria. Sometimes it was a movie out with friends. A lot of the time, I was saving for something, like a dress I had my eye on.

I suppose I had a pretty unique situation. Plenty of my friends had bank accounts and were saving for college, too. But I probably had the strictest set-up. Even at the time, though, I appreciated it.

I didn't understand the parents who let their kids spend all the money they made. In Alaska, especially, that can mean some serious moolah. See, Alaska residents get the Permanent Fund Dividend, a share of oil revenues each year. The first ones I can remember were around $500. By the time I got my last one, it was up over $1,000 a year.

Some families used everyone's check to finance a vacation to Hawaii or Disneyland or some other exciting place. Car dealers offered to "double your dividend" as a down payment. And some families just let their kids run wild. What, I ask you, does an 10-year-old kid need with $500? Because I knew a kid whose parents routinely let him spend. I think that particular year, he got a synthesizer.

I, on the other hand, got to keep $40 and was thrilled by the extra funds. That sounds kind of pathetic in retrospect, I suppose. Then again I graduated high school with over $30,000 in the bank.

Of course, there was a lot of hard work that went into that money. Junior and senior year, I worked 20-25 hours a week at the movie theater. That was in addition to participating in 3 plays a year (about two months of work went into each) and doing a competitive form of drama/speaking that had meets throughout most of the school year. Oh, and I had 3 AP classes each year. (I still managed to graduate having received a B only twice. Remember, I was a goody two shoes.)

In my senior year, I got offered a temp job making $10 an hour -- nearly twice minimum wage -- and so I added that to my roster, two or three days a week for about three months. In hindsight, it was way too much. I actually began to show signs of the strain, between lack of sleep and basic exhaustion from homework, after-school participation, and regular work.

But my point is that I understood the value of saving, and I knew that I needed to be serious about making money in order to avoid too much college debt. I even turned down my dream school, Cornell, which I got into early acceptance. In that fun twist of fate, my bank account hurt my financial aid chances. While I loved that school, I simply couldn't face graduating $100,000+ in debt. (It also seemed likely I'd go to graduate school, so it made sense to go to a more affordable university now, and save the big expense for the last bit of education I'd do.)

I don't regret that decision one bit. I got a great education at the University of Washington, especially through its fabulous honors program. I spoke to someone at Cornell a couple of years later, and from what she told me, I probably made the best choice. The work and stress were hard on even the smartest students. Given how much adjustment college was, including being homesick, I think I would have really struggled there.

I also shudder to think how I would have coped with getting $100,000 into debt, only to be disabled. I probably could have gotten the debt canceled, but it took me years to accept that I had a severe disability. In the meantime, I would ruined my credit score with my inability to make the payments.

Perhaps most importantly, choosing not to go to Cornell probably saved my life.

When I got sick in Seattle, I had my aunt and uncle for support. I stayed at their house, which quickly let me realize how helpless and weakened I was getting. (At night, each time I thought I was going to be sick, I had to crawl the 10 feet to the bathroom. It got harder and harder to do even that.)

If I had been in a dorm, I would have put a trash can by the bed and tried not to move.

Really, I only begged to go back to the doctor because my uncle was leaving for work. I was hit with a realization that, if I could barely get to the toilet, I couldn't even make it to the fridge -- let alone open it -- if I needed food. And could I get up enough to reach the phone if I needed help?

In a dorm, though, there's always someone around. I probably would have just kept waiting to get better. Right up until I went into respiratory failure later that day.

I didn't even notice that my breathing was getting weaker. Probably, I compensated with more short breaths. All I know is that, suddenly, I understood what it was to be a fish out of water. I kept gasping and trying to draw in breath. But it wasn't enough. I was drowning without a single drop of water around.

If I had been in Ithaca, I would have panicked. The student medical center would have been closed -- it was evening at that point -- and so I'd have had to dial 911. If I were lucky, there would be someone there to communicate for me. Even so, how long do ambulances take? Maybe 10 minutes in a perfect world? There is no way I could have remained conscious for more than 5 minutes. I doubt even that long.

But no ambulance was necessary, because I was in a Seattle ER. They had been monitoring my vital signs since I came in. I was actually on my way to be entubated when my lungs finally gave out.

That all happened because I refused to get a bachelor's at the cost of $100,000 of debt. I made that decision because I understood money in a rational sense. I was taught to deal with money as something that can be made to stretch, something that shouldn't be spent as soon as it's in hand. My mom instilled in me an understanding of the value of money.

And that, if you'll pardon the pun, is priceless.

When or how did you learn the value of money? How does it compare with the rest of your family? Your friends?


Blogger Erin said...

Once I started working, money took on all new meaning. Suddenly it wasn't just Mom or Dad's money to throw around -- each meal eaten out meant an hour of work down the drain. That mindset stays with me today.

November 14, 2009 at 6:27 PM


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home