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.