Love money

The Quick & Easy Way to Screw Up Your Kid’s Financial Health

“My dad took away my first paycheck,” she said. “He deposited it into an account he created for me, and then gave me this.” She held up a small wooden frame. Inside was a faded dollar bill. “This is literally the first dollar I ever had.”

“Huh,” I said, and mentally added another mark to the list of ways I wished I had been a better Father. What a great symbol! To celebrate the first mark of independence, of the currency that our culture (unfortunately) uses as the primary measure of a person’s value. “That’s neat.”

“No!” she said. “It was awful! It was about control. He took it, and I never felt like I had any say in my own finances.”

I almost blurted out: But I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way… but thankfully I stopped myself. Because first, I don’t know her father that well; it’s entirely possible that it was simply a way for him to retain control over his daughter.

Second, of course, is that it doesn’t matter if someone means well. Intention is not magic. The effect had been a far-reaching internalization of helplessness in regards to finances, contributing to difficulties she still faces.

For Me, For the Lord, For my Mission

Those were the three labels on each section of the bank that my parents gave me when I was about 12 years old. They were very religious, and it was expected that 1/10th of everything I earned would be paid in “tithing” for the support of the church. They also expected another amount – I don’t remember if it was arbitrary or a percentage – to be put in a section of the bank towards saving for an evangelical mission I was expected to go on when I turned 18. The other section was money “for me”, and I would buy the occasional comic book or way too much ice cream at school lunch.

What I remember was how much I resented those other two sections of the bank; for me, the idea of the “mission” was far too vague (and, honestly, not terribly appealing). The 10% tithe wasn’t quite as egregious to me, but it did reinforce a strange particular work ethic: the money you earn is not yours. Decades later, I learned that this is part of what behavioral economists call “scarcity mindset”, and one of the symptoms is binge spending – basically, when I get money, I turn it into some other kind of “wealth” because I have no sense of it sticking around otherwise.

Money or Marshmallows

This is part of the problem with the way that fabled marshmallow experiment keeps getting brought up. “You can have the marshmallow now, but if you wait, I’ll give you two!” They did a follow up, where they came back to the kids who waited and said “Whups, sorry – turns out we don’t have any more.

Guess what happens when the authority system isn’t reliable? Kids – and grown-ups – grab whatever they can, while they can.

This is not meant to be a post about parenting. Nor is it a post about fiscal health.

This is a post about love

I’m pretty sure my parents – and her father – did what they did out of love. They did it because that’s what they thought loving parents do for their kids. It turns out, it wasn’t. And that’s the point of this post:

When our loving actions have unintended consequences, what are we prepared to do?

At the very least, be prepared to acknowledge that what you did didn’t work out the way you expected. And maybe try to do something to make things better.

That’s the loving thing to do.

Image used courtesy Rafael J M Souza, edited by the author. Want more Love Life Practice? You can get the podcast by signing up as a patron. You might also enjoy the Meditation Manual, a short and practical primer for getting some really effective “ME-time” in your life.

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