When I was twelve years old my parents sat me down and shared some big news: My grandmother, who had died a few years before, had left us some money, and my parents were going to give me $1,000 in a savings account. At that time we were poor and living in a cozy rental under the redwoods in Northern California, and I couldn’t begin to wrap my head around such a large amount of money. I was excited and had questions, but my folks were never patient when I went into investigative-reporter mode, so the money sat in the bank and I occasionally took out my little savings passbook to admire it.
Then It Was Gone
A few months later my family hit a financial pothole. I never found out what it was — maybe the gas was cut off or we fell behind on the water bill — but my dad told me he’d borrowed the money and would pay it back with interest when he could. This didn’t sit well with me.
By the time I was a teenager, I was pestering my parents about the money they’d said was mine, asking when I might get it back and how much interest I would receive. I wanted to buy clothes, music, books and all the coffee I could drink. They rebuffed me, but I asked again and again.
A new bank account was opened in my name and I finally got the money back. But something had gone sour between my folks and I: They were disappointed that I wanted the money back; I was upset that they expected fiscal maturity from a twelve year old! My mother repeated snarky things my dad said about me when he’d gone to the bank to make it right, and my feelings were deeply hurt. I also didn’t trust him not to pull the same thing again. We were never fully clear of financial trouble; why would this time be any different?
Spending > Saving
As soon as I got the money, I began to spend it. I cut my community college classes, walked downtown to buy albums, cassettes (this was many years ago) and magazines. I would withdraw cash and spend it on silly gourmet jelly beans, coffee drinks and other things that seemed exciting in the moment but had no lasting value whatsoever. I made do with out of date textbooks, but ate expensive Ben and Jerry’s ice cream while I studied. It took almost no time to blow the $1,000 and have nothing to show for it.
That recklessness was fun, but my shortsighted behavior was the same trap my parents kept falling into: Having fun now without a plan for long-term security. I needed a plan, and it took a few more stumbles before I actually began saving to ensure I’d never be in debt to a credit card or one paycheck away from disaster. But I got there, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I don’t blame my mom and dad for failing to teach me better money management (they didn’t know any better themselves), but I’m glad my grandma’s legacy led to some wisdom on my part.
Saving grew muscles where I hadn’t had them before and made me think about the future with care, and that gave me peace of mind where before there was nothing but constant worry. I still worry sometimes, but since I’ve started saving (it’s hard, I know — just try to put those dollars away) the path the becoming debt-free is clear.