When I was a kid, I had a little savings account.
Like most kids my age, whenever I got money for my birthday or Christmas, my parents took me to the bank to deposit the money. I was never allowed to touch it — not for any reason. Over the years, I managed to accumulate a few hundred bucks (remember, this was back in the day when, if you got a $5 for your birthday, it was a fortune!), so when I turned 16, I hoped to turn that small fortune into a first car.
The blunt answer was NO. The details were that I wasn’t allowed to get a car OR a license until I was 18. Ridiculous, but so it always went in my household. Any attempt I made at maturing was met with utter refusal. No hanging out with kids after school, no extracurricular activities, absolutely no boyfriends, no part-time or summer jobs, and NO CAR.
My father’s reasons made sense to him, but not to a 16-year old kid anxious to begin living like a grown-up. Mostly, Pop felt he’d learned “all the tricks” from my three siblings and would not make the same mistakes with me. He and Mom were attempting to protect me from virtually everything — good and bad.
He said if I got a car, he would have to purchase additional auto insurance, and at his age, this would become financially burdensome. Not that my Pop didn’t have the cash to cover it — he came from society people, after all, and had inherited a tidy sum on top of it after his sister died. But this didn’t matter — Pop’s number one dodge to any attempt on my part was “it’s too expensive and I’m not gonna pay for it.” Problem was, neither could I pay for it. Because of my parents’ ridiculously protective rules, I wasn’t allowed to get a summer or after-school job (“My taxes will go up!”) and aside from some under-the-table babysitting money, I was flat broke. This was convenient for them, however, as it kept me insulated from any trouble they imagined I could get into. I hated being broke and utterly dependent on their emotional whims.
The one thing I was allowed to do was attend school. I excelled in art and business classes. I learned all about keeping books, writing checks, and managing fiscally responsible households and businesses.
When I went to college, it was on my own dime. Pop once again refused to pay or co-sign the student loan (“I’m not paying for anything. Besides, I’m too old to cosign a loan.”). My brother was ultimately the one to cosign my student loan (and he was forced into it by his wife). To Pop’s credit, he did give me money for school supplies and snuck me the occasional $20 for spending money. But my year in community college was a miserable time of feeling extremely poor and highly dependent. I got a little part-time student job in the admissions office where I managed to lose a few files and mistype some address labels — that brought in a few bucks occasionally when I decided to show up for it. I was miserable.
I got lucky that summer and discovered an ad for a job in illustration and design at my father’s old company, which we refer to here as “Initech” (to protect my identity and theirs). Pop was so proud of me, he allowed me to empty my childhood savings account to purchase transportation for my job. Amusingly, the money was given back to my parents in order to buy my mother’s old Dodge Omni. It ran like a top, but it was bare bones — no air conditioning, no cruise, manual windows, and an AM-only radio. It wasn’t much, but it was freedom.
While things were looking up on the outside, I developed a bit of a drinking habit, and also developed a nasty spending habit. Each paycheck went to what I saw as “grown-up” things. I opened credit card accounts willy-nilly in order to obtain even more cash flow. It seemed so easy — $10 a month for however long it took to pay. Who reads fine print? Who cares? FREEDOOOOOM! Clothes, electronics, shoes, domestic items — feathering my proverbial nest in my first apartment. Feathering it MY way. MY style. MY life. Nobody else telling me what to do.
The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do with money. I did, but I didn’t care. Consequence for young people is a foreign concept anyway, but I had no practical lifetime experience to even begin to base my decisions on.
Pop said I had “no respect for money” — and he was probably right. But I told him he just didn’t understand.
As Pop’s health declined, his mood darkened dramatically. He was diabetic, had lost his leg, and was on heavy pain medication. He didn’t have many nice things to say to me, and, in fact, became downright mean. When he finally died, I was 21. Along with his will, he left a final letter with a section set aside as his last words to each of us.
To my EvilSis, he said how proud he was of her. How much he loved her. What a terrific life she’d made for herself. And that she was the greatest thing he’d ever done with his life.
To my brother, one year younger than EvilSis, he said he felt that my brother was finally turning around his life. He was a little skeptical, though, and worried for his ‘lazy’ and ‘spendthrift’ ways, but ultimately said he had hope that my brother would succeed.
To my other brother, the one who had been in the military, Pop glorified him. This brother, despite being a ‘difficult teenager’ had completely turned things around. His chosen bride and their family together were the light of my Dad’s life, and he felt confident that this pride in him would never be undermined.
Then there’s me. Okay, let me reiterate for the record, that Pop was on a ton of medication and his thinking had become deeply twisted. That said — here we go. Ready? I was a lazy, immature, good for nothing, spendthrift, irresponsible mess and he was deeply worried for my future. He felt I needed to be protected and cared for and, with sincere regrets for the burden, begged that my three siblings would take on the considerable challenge of caring for me in my incurable immaturity.
Uh, ye-e-e-aah. I sat at the reading in stunned silence. What? Seriously? That’s it? No love? No “hey kid, I know you’ll pull it out eventually”. Those nasty thoughts were, in essence, my father’s final words to me on this earth. I was a failure before I even got started.
I never learned from real-world experience what to do with my money in any responsible way. I indulged most of my whims as they came along because I could.
Of course, one could certainly argue in hindsight that Pop’s assessment and prediction came true. I eventually became that irresponsible, hopeless disaster that he prophesied.
But as my own advocate, I must say there were a lot of years in-between where I wasn’t a hot mess. I had a 20+ year award-winning career with Initech, I finished my degree, I had a hearty salary, had the occasional new car (that were paid for regularly and on-time), I became a semi-famous artist, I excelled as an opera singer, and I became a prized actor/singer/producer on the regional theater circuit. I made (and spent) a lot of money though. Hell, if I had a fraction of that back now, I wouldn’t be running around without a vehicle or living in an apartment with no heat.
My bank accounts, after a while, became a disaster zone. I think I just stopped caring. Not assisting matters was my expensive Vicodin habit, tapping the resources that weren’t already spoken for. There were so many overdraft charges and line-of-credit borrowing. Much of my paycheck went to pay the previous one’s overdrafts. I was forever behind. Eventually, I just gave up and walked away from my indebted accounts. And the Vicodin (mostly). That was five years ago.
It occurred to me that my financial life now is a lot like my life in and prior to college. Vastly dependent on other people, without a car, taking the bus everywhere (which I did as a teen all the time), and paying all things in cash because I’m without a bank account of my own. Certainly no money or credit cards for nest-feathering.
In essence, at this point, I’m completely starting over.
So when I decided to open a new checking/savings account two days ago, it was a big deal. I’ve been without one for so long, mostly out of shame, and partly because I didn’t want to create a further financial mess for myself with these banks and their massive overdraft charges, mandatory overdraft protection, and ridiculously long charts of fee structures that I’ll never remember.
This checking account I now have is what they call a “Second Chance” account (for those of us with nasty banking histories). It’s fairly simple and earns no interest. It costs $10 a month, but I can cash my checks that Mrs. H writes for me, and if I keep the account clean for a year, the fee will be reduced to $5 a month.
And it builds good credit — again, if I keep it clean. My father would probably say I’m a hopeless case, but I don’t think so.
I feel somewhat confident after all this time that things have changed enough for me to be safe. I think I finally have, as my father put it “respect for money”. I’m facing the challenge. I had to eat a LOT of crow to open that account, and I did it with my head up and my chin tucked in properly. After all this time, it’s hard not to earn respect for money when I’m stuck scraping spare change together to catch the bus to work or buy a single propane canister for the room heater.
In some ways, I was never forced to be a grownup until now. Oh, I pretended to be an adult very well for a while. I looked like one and went to work like one, but I never really acted the part well — at least not in private. I’ve done some serious growing up through these last few years of hardship. I’m in recovery in more ways than one.
I also opened a savings account which has $20 in it right now. First time in (I honestly don’t know how many) years that I’ve had a savings account WITH money in it.
$20. All mine.
I pray that from such little acorns a great oak will grow.
When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is. — Oscar Wilde