Personal finance has always been a big interest of mine, and if I were ever to go back to school and get a degree in something totally unrelated to my first field (English/Education), I would totally go into finance. Over the years, I’ve included a lot of tips I’ve picked up about saving money and making wise financial decisions (I even did a whole Financial Friday series for quite awhile), and I’ve also shared a lot of my journey when it comes to simple living and minimizing consumerism.
I realized recently, however, that I’ve never shared my personal upbringing and history when it comes to the subject of money, so that’s what you’re getting today! (And, fair warning: this post is suuuuuper long, so I won’t be offended if you skim or skip it entirely!)
For much of my childhood, my dad was the main breadwinner, and my mom stayed at home. However, since my parents had six children and my dad was self-employed about half the time and therefore had a pretty variable income, my mom was always the ultimate example of what frugality looked like. We were a family that believed in hand-me-downs, home-cooked meals, and free entertainment, and I definitely can credit my natural inclination towards frugality to my mother.
In the LDS church, we are encouraged to hold weekly “Family Nights” on Monday, which simply means that parents are encouraged to gather together their families every Monday night to learn about the gospel or other more temporal subjects and then enjoy some kind of activity together. I distinctly remember that my parents were very consistent at holding Family Night with us, and many of those nights over the years included lessons on personal finance, such as specific lessons on how to correctly write a check, balance a budget, why it’s important to pay a full 10% tithing, etc. I’ve heard that many teens and young adults go into their independent, post high school years with little to no formal training in personal finance, but that was not the case for me.
When I was around 10, my maternal grandparents gave all of us grandkids money (for some reason I no longer remember). I don’t remember the exact amount (it was probably around $100-200 or so), but I remember my mom talking to me about the importance of saving money and how checking and savings accounts worked at a bank. She counseled me to not spend it all immediately but rather save some of it instead, and she took me down to the bank as soon as we got the check and walked me through the process of opening an account. Other than $20-25 or so that I took out to buy myself my own little stereo/c.d. player (which she showed me how to get by walking me through how to fill out a withdrawal form), I kept the rest of the money in savings for years.
As a teenager and even before, I seemed to have a natural gift for landing jobs (probably just because I was so reliable). I never received an allowance growing up, but it didn’t matter because I was making money plenty of other ways–babysitting, pet-sitting, washing windows, doing yardwork, cleaning people’s houses on a weekly basis (including my grandma’s house, which I cleaned every week for something like 6 or 7 years)…I was even paid for awhile to make sure one of my friends was doing his piano practice every day! When I was 12, my mom and sisters all worked at a local reception center, and some nights, they were so swamped that I was actually hired on (at 12) a few times a month on weekends to help with clearing, preparing dishes, etc. I remember I got paid $5.25/hour for that job, and I still remember the feeling of absolute pride when I got my first “real” grown-up paycheck in an envelope (with a tax stub and everything).
A lot of those random jobs I got were directly the result of a book I read as a teen that was all about how to make money, which included how to advertise, how to decide the skill sets you had that were marketable, etc. The other day, I came across several of the fliers I’d made as a teen, which there were 4 or 5 different ones (all specifying a different skill set) that included my qualifications, an attached “coupon” for a one-time use for first-time customers, and my rates. Each flier was distributed to the people in my neighborhood most likely to desire that service, and you know what?
I did quite well. I regularly had around $150 in cash at any given time just sitting on my dresser, and once a month or so, I’d bike over to the bank and deposit what I hadn’t spent on clothes or c.d.’s or fast food (after I’d taken out the 10% that I’ve paid my entire life as tithing to my church).
When I was 15 (almost 16) and the reception center job was no longer, I was offered a job doing some bookkeeping and online listing for my next door neighbor. It was a job I held on and off (on during all of high school and the summers when I was home from college, off when I was away at school) for something like 6 years, and it was one that taught me bookkeeping, office work, and online selling skills that I would use again and again later in life. Thanks to my savings from that and other odd jobs (mostly mowing lawns on the side, at that point) I was able to pay my portion (my parents and grandma helped with the rest) of a trip to Europe after my senior year, in addition to the money I needed for my first year of college.
It was also around the time I was 15 that my parents got divorced, which changed our family’s financial situation. My mom had been working full-time out of necessity for a couple years by that point because due to layoffs at Microsoft, my dad was unemployed for awhile (though he took on a lot of temp work during that time and continued to pursue his own self-employment, as he’d done for years). Where we’d always lived frugally before, there was now more of a need to than ever before, and I learned to work hard to buy my own things rather than relying on my parents to get them for me. Because I wanted to help take away some of the financial stress of my parents, I used the money I was earning from that office job to cover the cost of all of my own educational and extracurricular costs my senior year, including my AP tests, college application fees, choir dress, senior choir trip, voice lessons, etc. Though I know my mom hated that I felt like I had to do that, it was actually a marvelous gift for me—it gave me a taste of what “real life” cost while still under the shelter of my mom’s roof, and it made me appreciate MUCH more being able to do those things, period.
When I was 18, my mom once again took me to the bank to teach me about the responsible use of credit. She explained the importance of having a credit history when it came time down the road to buy a house or other large purchase, so she helped me to open up my first credit card account. However, she was VERY clear in warning me that it was unwise to ever carry a balance on my credit card from month to month and that I should only charge something if I knew I already had money in the bank to pay for it in full when the bill came due. I remember very plainly her teaching me the concept of how poor people PAY interest and rich people EARN interest, and when that concept was explained to me at that point in my life, it was honestly pretty life-changing, as it was something I just didn’t get or think about before. So, from the time I was 18, I’ve always had at least one credit card, but there has only ever been one month that I’ve ever carried over a balance on it in 13 years, and that was the month Raven’s hospital bills came due for her birth, and we literally had wiped out every single bit of savings to pay for them and were still a few hundred dollars short. Considering the original bill was around $4500, I thought that was pretty good still. (Note: Because of this lesson learned early on, when Matt and I applied for a mortgage loan last year, we had EXCELLENT credit scores, which allowed us to get a super low rate on our mortgage AND secured us a $7500 grant to use towards our closing costs and down payment.)
Going into college, I always knew I’d be responsible for paying my own way. My first couple years, my mom and dad both gave me some money monthly to help with utilities and groceries and such (around $150/month), but I was largely responsible for financing my own education, which motivated me to get excellent grades in high school and compete for scholarships. I was fortunate in that I got a full-ride scholarship to one of the state universities, which I held the entire time I was in school. I also worked hard in college to be able to compete for further scholarships, which I also received. All in all, I was able to graduate completely debt-free from college largely thanks to scholarships. (In fact, there was one year that I happened to get enough in scholarship money to pay for both my own AND Matt’s tuition/fees when we were engaged).
In my later teen years and early twenties, I’d long nursed a desire to serve a full-time mission for the LDS church. For anyone unfamiliar with how that works, the LDS church does NOT take on the cost of sending its missionaries out, but rather, each elder (young man) or sister (young woman) takes on his/her own costs and funds his/her own mission. I’d planned to go as soon as I turned 21, so I remember saving up a lot of money during the time leading up to that so a mission would be a possibility. Well, I received a distinct impression when I was about 20-1/2 (six months before when I planned to go) that I should NOT serve (which is a whole different story for another day). I was disappointed to say the least, but I went ahead and kept going with school and used the money for housing costs and such as needed. Well, a year later than planned, I got the impression that if I still desired to serve, THAT was the time to go. Unfortunately, I had very little money still saved for it–only about $1000 or so. After talking with my parents, I was told by them that if I would pay for all my own start-up costs (clothing, luggage, immunizations, etc.), they would cover the monthly cost of the mission itself (which I think was $400/month) between them (and my grandma and my aunt, who also wanted to contribute).
Although my mission was as much of a “free ride” as I would ever get as an adult, the experience of living in El Salvador for a year and a half taught me SO much about material wealth (or the lack thereof) and what was the most important in life. Seeing what true poverty was for perhaps the first time in my life, my philosophy towards money and consumerism was forever changed.
I got back from my mission pretty broke, but thanks to a loan for housing from my mom and stepdad and a scholarship my mom applied for on my behalf while I was gone (and which I received) PLUS a federal grant I received, I was able to continue my education without going into debt. (I should note here that I also always worked while I was in college, sometimes up to 3 part-time jobs at a time, largely in tutoring and food service).
I got engaged to Matt soon after I got home from my mission (4 months after), and we were married five months after that. While we were dating (and before we got engaged), I distinctly remember thinking that everything about this guy was perfect for me, but that I knew I still needed to ask a question that could literally make or break the relationship–
The Big Money Question.
I had dated guys before who were so careless with money that I knew we would be steering towards disaster if we tried to make it work, and I’d also dated guys who made money such a focus in their lives that I worried the family would always come second to the career. So when I broached the subject with Matt–this guy who was even more perfect for me than I realized at the time–I was a little nervous.
Much to my delight, he passed the money test with even more impressive answers than I did! He’d also been working hard from a young age, also had a talent for landing jobs easily and keeping them for as long as he wanted, he was a total saver by nature (though not a miser), and he even had been putting aside the max amount towards retirement to get the full match and then some for years at his job. Best of all? I knew that he had his priorities straight–that he understood that money wasn’t everything and that he would put our family first always, but that he also understood that money can be a constant stress if you don’t manage it well. Honestly, the conversation eliminated every last worry that I had about us ending up together forever, and we were engaged shortly after.
As we prepared for our marriage, we faced a bit of a dilemma–the pattern before had always been “study at school for 9 months out of the year and then come home to live with parents for the summer to save up enough money for the next school year.” Both of us talked about it at length, and we both decided that once we were married, we wanted to never need to live under our parents’ roofs again if we could it all help it, which meant that we would need to both find full-time employment once we were married (since we got married the week after spring term finals and only I been holding part-time jobs up until that point, as Matt had just started attending the university that same semester and hadn’t needed to find a job thanks to savings). All of my part-time jobs were through the school and ended with the semester (not to start again until the following fall semester, if I chose), so we came back from our honeymoon totally jobless, with a new monthly rent payment and utilities to worry about.
As soon as we got back from our honeymoon (which we kept costs low on), we treated finding a job like it WAS our full-time job and used the rest of the time to start unpacking and tidying our somewhat-ghetto apartment. Since both of us had never had a hard time finding employment before, it made us both SUPER nervous when neither of us had gotten so much as a bite after almost a month of applying to places. (It didn’t help that we also needed to find jobs that would be flexible with our schedules once the school year started up again.) Well, after a solid month of worrying and praying and continuing to send out applications, both of us landed the worst jobs we hope we ever have in our life—Matt working at a beef plant (which I’m surprised didn’t turn him into a vegetarian) and me working as the secretary in a very rough, male-dominated, super stressful industrial concrete manufacturing plant. We worked opposite schedules (me from 7-5, Matt the swing shift from around 4 or 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.), and we hardly saw each other.
We barely were able to make all our payments before we got our first paychecks from those jobs (and I had to sell a life insurance policy to do so), but we had managed to overcome our first financial hurtle of married life together. Thankfully, I was able to quit that job when I started student teaching about 8 months later, and we had saved enough by that point to pre-pay six months’ worth of rent so that Matt could cut back even more on his hours, too (since he was still in school, as well). Money was pretty tight that first year of marriage (and well into our second, too), but we had learned to appreciate what really mattered and discovered that we really didn’t need much to be happy (though we DID need to be able to pay our bills to be so!).
Since that point, we have always had the spouse take on more work who it made the most sense to do so—I got a full-time teaching job while Matt was still in school (although he worked a couple part-time jobs, too, as my teaching job paid pretty poorly, esp. at first), and when the time came that we had our daughter, we made the decision that after one final year of teaching (to ensure I got the maximum retirement benefit because your 401k match is only vested after 4 years of teaching), I would quit to stay at home with Raven.
The decision to stay at home was, though clear to us and something we knew we should do, not an easy one. I know it bothers some people to hear about how it’s such a sacrifice to stay at home, but for us, it is. We knew it would mean that things would be incredibly tight for the next while, especially once we bought a house. It means we don’t go out much, that we sometimes simply can’t afford to buy gifts for people, and that we have to decline a lot of play dates or invitations to do stuff with friends and family simply because we don’t have the money to do so. It means that sometimes at the grocery store if it’s the end of the month, I have to make tough calls, like deciding to get toilet paper (which we’re out of) instead of buying food with our last $10 (which we also need, though we always have enough in our pantry to put together something–we’ve never even come close to going truly hungry, so we’ve been richly blessed that way). It means that sometimes we don’t get new shoes when we need them, even if our old ones are starting to get holes. It means that we rarely get to go on vacations, and if we do, it’s pretty much always because our parents are funding the cost of wherever we’re staying (and often helping us with gas and food, too).
The fact is, on a lot of levels, it would make more sense for me to work, even if just part-time (and maybe sometime I will). And, having worked for much of my life, it is something that I MISS. But for whatever reason, I got the distinct feeling a year ago that I needed to not pursue any outside employment at this time, and so I’ve been sticking with that (though my blogging and photography incomes have started to increase in that time frame). I know my situation is not your situation, so don’t feel bad if you DO have to work (or even if you just choose to work). This is just where we’re currently at. (And note: this is also not a cry for help, ha ha—no, we don’t need you to start bringing us clothes or food; we have sufficient for our needs!)
Being in a situation where money has been tight(ish) for a decent portion of my adult life has made me realize a few things. I plan to do a totally separate post on what our personal philosophy is when it comes to money, but I will say this: I have realized very strongly over the past few years that owning and acquiring STUFF is not important to me. Sure, sometimes I think it’d be nice to shop for new clothes or new home decor or fresh flowers whenever I felt like it, but in the end, my attachment to owning stuff has dwindled a lot over the past several years, both thanks to my research on minimalism (and my subsequent 50 Weeks to Organized massive decluttering project) and our having to live frugally for several years. I’ve realized that I get much more pleasure spending money on experiences than I do on things, and that I also feel better if we have more money in our emergency fund than that we add to our book collection or that we buy Raven a ton of toys or ourselves the latest technology.
The fact is, we like to keep it pretty simple, where we can. And there’s definitely a freedom that comes from that!
What are some of the things in YOUR personal history that have influenced how you feel about/deal with money?