For my bat mitzvah, my dad gave me a check for a thousand dollars, a gigantic sum for a suburban teen in the ’80s. It was extravagant, and I was appropriately giddy, plotting exactly what I would use it for. Until it bounced.
That’s one of many examples of the ways my father, while offering me unconditional love, failed me as a financial role model.
Though extremely intelligent, my dad dropped out of college the first time around, and, for his working life, was stuck doing jobs that paid far less than he could have made if he’d gotten his diploma. Work was never something intellectually fulfilling; instead, it was eight hours of necessary drudgery in order to pay the bills. Those jobs did pay the bills, but that was it — there wasn’t room for retirement savings. His marriage to my mom ended when I was little in part because of his penchant for gambling.
There was a game show element to my dad’s approach to money. Money felt like a random prize I sometimes found behind door number one when I visited him, and sometimes didn’t. One day, I remember going to the mall with him and buying pretty much whatever we wanted. He was flush with cash, and I was the lucky beneficiary. Of course it was fun to have a shopping spree, but there was also something off-kilter about it.
Many other times, especially if he was between jobs, we had to be much more frugal. At one point, he was on food stamps. And while I wasn’t ashamed of that fact, it also didn’t feel right. Nor, later on, did knowing that I was making more than him at my job as a magazine editor. I’m sure he was happy that I was doing well, but I longed for him to live up to his potential too.
At home, with my mom, we certainly weren’t wealthy, but I always knew if I truly needed something there’d be money for it. She’s the one who talked to me about savings and CDs and wills. My dad and I didn’t discuss money in the abstract so much as what it could buy right then.
Far more than any financial low points during my childhood, it’s as an adult — intent on starting a family of my own — that I’m most struck by the ways his flawed financial instincts have hurt him. My dad managed to go back to school and graduate with honors at 61. While I’m proud of him, I’m sad that he never got to reap the benefits of his degree in the workplace. Rather than rising up any corporate ladder, he struggled to simply stay on the same low-paying rung.
Although I also had my mom’s positive example, I’m very much my father’s daughter. I could easily see myself following in my dad’s footsteps.
In fact, I already have.
So many times I’ve chosen the expedient route rather than thinking long-term, like when I closed my 401(k) in my mid-twenties because I thought I needed the immediate cash infusion, or when I arranged my tax deductions to get the maximum paycheck possible without thinking about how I’d pay those tax bills down the road. In my twenties, frustrated with my meager graduate school spending money while all my friends had real jobs, I wound up getting into so much credit card debt I had to declare bankruptcy.
I want to live differently from how my father has lived, but our personalities are so similar that I regularly have to fight my instincts to live in the moment rather than save for the proverbial rainy day.
Yes, my dad was able to retire, yet he’s far from the stereotype of the Northeasterner-moved-to-Florida retiree. Rather than relaxing by the pool, working on his tan, and generally enjoying a life of leisure, he’s facing the harsh reality of living on a fixed income. He has to weigh every expenditure carefully, making the free time he does have a little less valuable, at least in my mind. When I hear him assessing the cost of even the smallest item, I am all the more resolved to make smarter choices.
What’s ironic is that my dad could have been a whiz at investing; at various points, he’s managed to make good money off the stock market. But rather than playing a long game that would have allowed him to have a financial cushion, he went with riskier picks that ultimately backfired.
As I face my fortieth birthday, I’m all too aware that it’s now or never if I want to make wiser choices so I can enjoy at least a modicum of carefree living when I retire.
If I have kids, I want to shield them from worrying about money until they’re adults. I don’t want them to feel like I often did, that money is a random gift that’s sometimes there and sometimes not. I want them to see money as a constant, not a variable — but first, I have to make it one in my own life.