For my 16th birthday my dad gave me the gift of debt.
To wit: He took me to the bank, opened up a checking account with $200 in it and set me loose.
It was an unfortunate assumption on his part that I had any clue how checks worked. In school instead of teaching us life skills, they focused on the Louisiana Purchase. (Had I been in charge of that, our check to the French definitely would have bounced.)
Back in 1996, Mexicali Blues and Videoport lacked the technology to see that I was running far into the red as I bought incense and rented movies I already owned. Writing checks had no more meaning to me than the scads of to-do Post-its I had all over my full length mirror.
Sadly, this disregard of responsible spending followed me into college, where racking up credit card debt by buying dinner for my entire hall and wearing Chanel as my lipstick of choice was shrugged off with, “I’ll just pay it off when I get an amazing job, because that is what college says we get after.”
Then cell phones happened. The collection calls followed me everywhere, no matter the time of day. I was stalked by years of feckless squander via monotone voices threatening me from afar. “Victoria’s Secret will see you rot in hell!”
Based on the severe anxiety that would keep me up at night, I am not a total spendthrift sociopath. All of a sudden, the immense weight of the debt hole I had spent years digging was apparent and no one was going to ignore it.
One Saturday, shaking with panic, I called a family friend who told me about “consolidation.” I found a company that would buy my debt and I could pay them $180 a month until the end of time. Jump forward six more broke years trying to figure out adulting, continuing to pay off my college debt with my writer’s salary (I said until the end of time, remember?) and being a new bride…but luckily, my (now former) husband was extremely focused on budgeting. Not that it really rubbed off on me, but at least he wasn’t giving into my pleas of, “Let’s blow the tax return in Paris! It’s basically free money!”
I was raised to be doomed. But I didn’t want my son to be. Obviously missing out on fiscal training, I owed him the salvation of at least educating him early on the benefits of savvy saving. And that meant educating myself.
I happily recalled a purple safe I had in elementary school. It motivated me to pack my babysitting money in there for a few months at least. I bought my son a safe that looked like a fake book and told him that was a fun place to keep his allowance. The problem was, since it was always stuffed with cash, I found myself writing IOU’s to my 10-year-old for pizza money. (Do not tell me you’ve never pillaged the piggy bank. And yes, I always paid it back.)
This was no solution. So, to the bank we went to open a savings account. But I realized hiding all of his money away wasn’t going to teach him how to take care of it, so we came to a plan.
When he got allowance or a paycheck from acting in a commercial (he does this occasionally), the bulk of it would go into savings. He could keep part of it as spending money and part would be put aside to put towards helping another child in need—usually that means buying winter clothes to donate.
Now, we have touched upon spending money on what he deems important, saving for a car (his choice), and helping another child in need. I am not going to lie, that kid has more money in his savings account than me. And knowing that has inspired me to be way more conscious about what I spend money on.
There are things I won’t compromise upon: I need organic food. But I now use the online order form so I don’t impulse purchase, and that has already saved me hundreds. I have stopped getting my nails done professionally so often—I am a beekeeper and chicken momma, they chipped within a day anyway. Instead of buying new dresses for events, I borrow, hit consignment or rent. I deleted my Starbucks app in favor of my French Press. And when I go out to dinner, instead of eating five courses, I eat a couple of apps slowly. My life feels no different except I am not cringing at every 800 number that pops up in fear of the bank calling to yell at me.
And while I wait 20 years later for that amazing paycheck I was promised in college, the one that could fund Chanel lipsticks, I am rife with happiness that my son has learned the concept of “interest.” That kind of financial acumen is nothing less than priceless. Also, he can always cover my pizza cravings.
Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her son live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.