The Greatest Gift My Father Ever Gave Me

He helped me see money as a tool, not something to be feared.

When I was 15 years old, shortly after I started my first job as a lifeguard, my dad took me to the bank to open my first checking account. Growing up, I had often watched my dad open bills at our kitchen counter, cracking jokes over how many times my mother, a math teacher who was ironically laissez-faire about money, went out to eat that month.

He ran a tight financial ship, right down to classic dad moves like trying to trick us into believing the thermostat was set higher in order to save money on heating bills, doing his own taxes, and managing his own retirement portfolio.

My father had faced such poverty as a child he actually ate mayonnaise on more than one occasion as a meal, and he had watched family members struggle with many entrepreneurial ventures. But as he grew up, he developed a love-hate relationship with money. I watched him with fascination, learning that money was both something to loathe and something to keep firmly under your thumb.

The bank he took me to was located within our local grocery store, the rope dividers stretching into the pharmacy. I remember waiting in line, feeling very important and grown up as the pimple-faced attendant stamped my papers and handed over a shiny, faux-alligator, blue checkbook register.

“I will be on your account until you’re 18,” my dad explained to me. “But this is all you. You will have to balance your own checkbook and manage your money, OK?”

I nodded seriously, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the tiny boxes in the register and the small fact that I had no idea how to write a check. But I also felt a slight thrill every time we walked into that grocery store, knowing that I was a part of it, that my money lay safely and securely hidden away somewhere in the mysterious area behind the counter.

I dutifully deposited my paycheck every two weeks and balanced my checkbook regularly, marveling at the fact that whenever I needed it, the money always seemed to be there.

At age 18, my dad opened a credit card for me, again overseeing the process, but leaving all of the management to me. He was adamant that I start building a line of credit early. He rolled his eyes while telling me that some people think that having a credit card means you don’t have to pay it off every month.

A credit card is a tool, he told me, and you can control it. I absorbed his mentality instantly, panicking three years later when I accidentally missed paying a bill by two days and calling the company to explain that sir, I am not the type of person who misses a payment and could they please remove the late charge? (For the record, they did, and I have never missed a payment since.)

When my husband and I got married, me with a swollen belly carrying our first daughter, there was no discussion of who would handle our finances. We stood in the bank lobby shortly after opening our joint account together. As he wordlessly handed everything over to me, the irony that he was a math teacher was not entirely lost on me.

I started my first “real” job as a nurse at age 22, leaving my 6-week-old daughter at home during the night so I could support our family while my husband finished school. In a few months, I had paid off my husband’s largest school loan, the one with the interest rate so staggering it felt like a noose around my neck, stifling the air out of our tiny farmhouse apartment.

Just a year later, I successfully got my husband on board with my plan to buy the house that I saw while driving home from work one morning, and we became homeowners. The same year, I opened our first retirement accounts, blushing in shame at the $50 a month I could afford to put away. But I took to heart what my advisor assured me of: At our age, 50 bucks would go a long way.

By 28, I had given birth to our fourth baby, padded our emergency fund, sent our children to private schools, and completely paid off our vehicles and school loans (our undergraduate degrees and my husband’s master’s degree), as well as the graduate credits I had accumulated but never finished.

Refinancing our home to a 15-year mortgage meant I was well on my way to living completely debt-free. For the first time since I was that teenager with a checkbook shoved into my desk drawer, I realized that I had become a woman who is not afraid of money. I had become a female version of my father, scouring my expenditures every month and casting a wary eyebrow at my husband for the fast food lunches he tried to sneak in.

But whereas my father managed money as a response to fear, having grown up where there was never enough money to feel safe, I was given the privilege of learning to approach money as a friend, a cushion to fall back on.

I have never feared money – or more specifically, the lack of it – and as such, have learned to approach it as one might a friendly stray cat: warily, but with delight as I come closer and discover that it’s not actually going to bite me.

Money, I have learned, is nothing to be afraid of.