Money lessons from families can be bitter pills to swallow, but it's better than the alternative: no lessons at all.
As a person who writes a lot about her own debt and her experiences with money, I often get asked about those who raised me. “Did you grow up with parents who were rich?” “So, did your parents handle their money well?” “Did they teach you a ton of money lessons?”
The answer is – well, it’s complicated.
Intertwining Finances With Family
Growing up in a broken family, money was a constant issue between my father and my single mother. There were fights – often involving their children – regarding child support and splitting costs for big things like mortgages and healthcare. Money became something to be angry over, something to fight about, something to hold up over the other. Eventually, mental illness took over. My views on money began taking shape against that twisted and complicated backdrop.
Growing up, my mother never paid her bills. In a way, it was like the opposite of money lessons.
Yellow, blue, and red notices were strewn around in makeshift piles in her car, around her bedroom – everywhere.
And as each year passed, her mental state declined and it only got worse. She would never be able to teach me about money.
It’s not that she didn’t realize that she had a problem. As a family, we watched Suze Orman’s television show religiously. We listened to her in awe as she shot down “Can I afford it?” questions time and time again. There was Dave Ramsey on the radio, and books on money that were checked and re-checked out from the library.
Still, I thought these were normal money issues in most families – especially in rural Illinois, where poverty is high and financial literacy is low. But I knew that those ignored bills and unanswered calls from creditors were leading to something far more serious.
Learning the Wrong Money Lessons
I remember my first real money conversation with my mom. I was a sophomore in high school, and my mom was working as a jewelry salesperson.
Constantly pushed to make sales, she would purchase items in our name and remind us that we were only a few years away from getting our first credit cards.
When I turned 18, my mother applied for and received a credit card in my name so that I could use it on a study vacation to Europe. Once I got back from my trip, I paid off the entire bill with my savings (something I worked hard on for two years straight), but my mother told me that I was doing it wrong.
She explained that debt was good – that it would build my credit, and that the optimal balance to have on a card is 50 percent of the credit limit. Because the only expenses I had were gas and occasional trips to the mall with friends, she offered to take that same credit card and help me build up my credit history by using it herself.
I cringe reading that now. Her views were so rattled by a lack of financial confidence from her divorce and the debt that she had built up that she couldn’t see her own limits.
In one year, she managed to max it out at $5,000. She explained that, by only paying the minimum, she would pay it all off quickly. About two years later, she stopped making any payments when she was diagnosed with a severe form of depression, along with a hidden gambling addiction.
I should have known better – should have seen the signs early. I should have known how to protect myself, my financial future, and my money. But I didn’t.
With no financial education or mentor to teach me about interest rates and credit scores – and nobody to model my money decisions on – I was completely clueless. No one gave me any money lessons at all.
How My Mother's Financial Perspective Affected Mine
My mother’s mental health affected me profoundly, and it still does today. While I am hesitant to place blame, I see waves and ripples from my mom’s inactions to where I am now with my own debt. She didn't teach me any money lessons, so as a result I'm overly protective of my money. I guard my money like the goblins in Harry Potter. I get protective when I think about expenses I shouldn’t have to pay for. You can trace all of this to those difficult money moments with my mom.
Today, I am passionate about speaking out on financial abuse by parents with mental health issues – whether or not those issues have been diagnosed. If we fail to pass along sound money practices to our children, they will end up just like those of us who have struggled to learn these lessons on our own. So if you know someone in a similar situation, step up! Give someone the money lessons you wish you learned when you were young.