My Parents Gave Me Money, But They Also Gave Me Tools


My parents always described our family as being “comfortable.” I was friends with people who were way more than comfortable (private jets) and people who were way less than comfortable (constantly moving due to being evicted), so I perceived us as squarely in the upper middle class: We could afford riding lessons, but we couldn’t afford a horse.

I appreciate just how comfortable we were more and more each day. As a young child, both of my parents worked ridiculous hours at their respective law firms. My brother and I had a parade of nannies until we were old enough for school, and then we each had a variety of extracurriculars to keep us busy until they got out of work. I had expensive hobbies: ballet, piano, and riding lessons throughout my youth, travel and other costs for cheerleading one year, basketball, softball, and swimming, the occasional day or sleepaway camp.

If I put value in something, I trusted that my parents would provide for me. So when I decided to go to boarding school for high school, I didn’t consider whether or not we could afford it. It was something I wanted to do, and they made it happen. I now know that my parents paid probably around $20,000 a year for that school. I made it through two years of boarding school before they told me I could have my last two years there, or they could pay for college. I chose college.

We never had chores or an allowance—though here were a few things we were expected to do (keep messes contained to our rooms, tidy when the housekeepers came twice a month), and we were given money as needed. My mom and I went on shopping sprees twice a year to the big city (we still do!), and I didn’t really need to buy clothes in between those trips.

They gave us so much, but they also gave us a future.

My mom sat my brother and me down separately to walk us through paying the bills when we were around 16. I remember not paying attention. She constantly stressed the importance of staying out of debt, something both my brother and I have disregarded in varying degrees throughout our lives.

I was given a credit card when I went to boarding school, and I believe my brother was given one around the same time. I used mine for things like tampons and maybe once for a dress for a dance, and my brother probably used his for gas and pizza. We had to submit receipts for every purchase. My parents were obsessed with keeping things square between us; my mom grew up in a huge family with significant “fairness” disputes about what her parents had given each child. We each got a used car when we turned 16, insurance and gas was paid up until we were 18, and both of us had an IRA started for us when we were 18 with a $1,000 balance.

My mom even helped me get my first job. She drove me to Applebee’s and made me fill out the application while I was there, and then drove me there once a week until they finally gave me a job as a hostess. It took six weeks of visiting, and it was embarrassing at the time. But I learned how to get a job, and I’ve had a job ever since.

My parents also paid for our college education, which included tuition, rent, spending money. We had our cars already, but had to pay our own gas and insurance. I got a job at In-N-Out my freshman year and constantly overdrew my bank account. I didn’t understand the concept of a checkbook, or why the balance reflected in the ATM wasn’t the “actual” balance that was available. I got my first credit card that wasn’t with my parents my freshmen year—it was an Express card, which I used to get 10 percent off a jacket that I still have nearly a decade later. I paid off that $30 as soon as I got the statement and had no debt until a year after I dropped out of school. Which is when things got interesting.

My parents funded a move to Seattle, where I got a job at a bank and learned a ton about money management—including how to use a checkbook! Working at the bank is where I really learned the most about personal finance, and eventually I became a personal finance nerd and started reading personal finance blogs blogs obsessively. They also helped me move to San Francisco, where I worked a variety of jobs while I went to City College full-time (tuition and partial rent paid), and then they helped me move back to my original school, where they paid tuition and partial rent.

It was in San Francisco that I got into serious credit card debt: $10,000 at its highest. I got serious about paying it off after I broke up with the boyfriend who had helped me run it up. I worked four jobs and paid it off in 18 months.

My mom recently told me that there were a few years when we were growing up during which my parents had $80,000 in consumer debt. This put that time period into a whole different light, because it meant that they couldn’t always afford everything they were giving us. I had assumed that every “no” was a lesson in needs versus wants, that my parents could afford it but were choosing not to. Not so much, apparently. I think it took them a several years to pay down that debt, and I didn’t know about it at all. But it explains my mum’s obsession with keeping my brother and me out of debt. I’m sorry I didn’t listen.

Here’s where I am with my money. Debt: I have $415,000 for a mortgage (split with boyfriend); $22,000 for a home equity loan (mine, all mine, as the boyfriend paid back his share already); $13,000 for a car loan. (I cycle through credit cards based on rewards, which I pay off in full each month). Savings: $2,000 in checking, $1,000 in a liquid savings account, $15,000 in my 401(k), $5,000 in a Roth IRA, $4,000 in individually held stocks, $1,000 in Lending Club.

I would not be living in this house if it weren’t for my parents and my boyfriend. But my boyfriend and I split everything 50/50 when it comes to the house, and my parents aren’t contributing anything toward me on a regular basis.

My parents provided most of the down payment for my house. I constantly discuss things with them and ask for their advice. They know exactly how much I make and how I spend my money. My mom still buys me one or two things on our shopping trips, and both my parents treat whenever we go out to eat, but they don’t really make contributions to my budget.

I just asked my mom if she would consider funding a yoga teacher training (something she has funded in the past, as she promised to fund tuition for secondary education—I argued that it was secondary education in that would lead to a job, which it has).

She basically said, “Um, no, I think you can afford it now—you’re 29. I’m spending my money on me now.”

I was glad she said that, because she’s right. My parents have given me more than enough. They’ve given me money, and all the life lessons I’ve needed to become a responsible adult. I can figure out a way to afford it.

 

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