Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tell All Tuesday~ Who The Heck Am I and How Did I End Up This Way

As promised in an earlier post, part 1 of my life story and how it relates to personal finance and money. Part 2 will be next week.

I grew up in a New York City Suburb in a middle class family. My grandparents arrived in America in the 1920's like so many other immigrant families in search of a better life than what was in the Old Country and to provide better opportunities for their family. The town I grew up in was full of hard working folks, a fairly progressive school system and close enough to NYC that many folks took the train into Queens and Manhattan for work.

My family was distinctly solid blue collar middle class, probably leaning towards the lower middle class in terms of family income, but money or lack of it was not a big topic in my family. We always had a roof over our heads, food on our table, new clothes for school; we took vacations, and had nice Holidays. A lot of this was made possible by the fact I lived in a two family house with my grandparents on the first floor (they owned the house) we lived on the second floor and I don't think my parents paid much, if any rent. Their rent was helping to take care of my grandparents and household expenses. My father was self employed and worked full time, my mother worked part time until I was in junior high school, then she worked full time at a local business. I was not that different than many of my school friends, this sort of living arrangement was very common. Almost all of my friends had multiple generations living at home and English was usually a second language in these homes.

My local public high school and park and rec department offered things like free swimming, tennis, golf, music, and drama lessons. We also had friends who had horses and like most young horse crazy girls, I rode and worked in the local stable to help pay for lessons. We had family members who lived in Florida, on the Connecticut Shore, on the Eastern End of Long Island (think great beaches) and in Canada-our vacations were usually to visit these family members in these exotic locations.

Money was something that we really never discussed (either having or not having it). I don't think either of my parents were great savers, I know my mother to this day can not save, she excessively spends. Money was never a topic of conversation until high school and my father was diagnosed with a cancer that eventually took his life.

I have a some distinct memories about money growing up. One grandmother scrimped and saved and enjoyed her money. She enjoyed saving her money and buying nice clothes for church, presents for her grandchildren and children and getting her hair done a couple times a month at the beauty parlor. She opened my first savings account and always encouraged me to put half my gift money into the savings account and use the other half as "pin money". My other grandmother was similar in her line of thinking, but I remember her NOT enjoying her money. I can remember her going on vacation, coming home and just complaining on how much money she spent. I never remember her saying she had a good time on vacation, just that it was expensive. My third distinct memory was my parents never really teaching me about money, savings, or planning for tomorrow.

What I do remember about my teen aged years was getting a lot of mixed messages about money. A lot. As I said earlier, I never really thought about money. I got money for Christmas and birthdays and it got put into a savings account. I had part time baby sitting jobs as soon as I was old enough, they helped to pay for my riding lessons and other things. Money gotten as presents was put into my "savings account". Growing up I got either jewelry or money as a presents, it was what my family did. I never really wanted for anything, I had what I needed and if I really wanted something extravagant, I worked and saved for it.

My first mixed money messages that I can remember was applying to colleges. Finances got very tight as my father became more ill and could not work. Senior class picture time came and my family could not afford the picture package that had the 8x10 and 5 x7's, we got one sheet of wallet sized photos. I'd go to friend’s houses and proudly sitting on the mantle or sideboard was the obligatory senior picture, not in my house. That was probably the first time I realized my family had a money issue. My father was very ill, yet my mother insisted that I apply for schools and encouraged me to apply to private colleges and not really focus on the State University System. I got into 4 of my 5 colleges. I ended up taking a position at a school about 4 hours from home that at the time cost a whopping $11,000 for tuition, room and board. The biggest factor in deciding to go to this school was the financial aid package. My parents would only have to come up with about $2,000 out of pocket; the rest was covered by loans, grants and scholarships. My mother was insistent that I go to my very expensive private four year college. I remember many of my cousins being surprised for two reasons. One reason was my cousins did not go away to college, if they went to school, they stayed local. I was bucking the family trend by going away to school. The other was the cost. I'm sure my family’s financial situation was discussed at my various cousins’ homes, families talk. I can remember one of my cousins asking if I was going to be able to stay in school once I got there.

Affording college was difficult. Like many students, I got through school on student loans, grants, scholarships, work study jobs, side jobs, summer jobs and the occasional cash present from family members.

I remember trying to talk to my mother about money as a college student and she just switching the conversation or totally ignoring me. She was not going to talk about money, especially hers, she loved getting information on my money. I needed to work on my financial aid, I needed books and supplies, I needed to know what support I was going to get. Her message to me was that school was important and she would support me, but when I would send a bill or ask for the money to pay a school bill, it always got pushed off, or sent in late. What I did find odd was that I would be told my promised payments would be late for a variety of pressing financial reasons, yet I would go home for a weekend at home (and to raid the pantry, do laundry, sleep in my own bed, eat some decent food, see friends), I'd find things like a new large screen TV, bags of new clothes, upgraded cable, a new VCR (in the early 80’s VCR’s were expensive), tales of going out to lunch and dinner almost every night of the week, yet my promised and very much needed $300 book allowance was always late.

The message I got from my mother through college and later through graduate school was a great example of a mixed signal. I was told I had to support myself and live independently and my attempts to do so were met with anything from resistance to sabotage. Harsh words, but in retrospect that is what happened.

Part 11-Graduate School and beyond.


Dawn said...

I come from a blue collar background as well.
My parents were absolutely horrible with their money.
Dad made a lot of it - but they spent it as fast as they made it.
It never occurred to them to help with my siblings and I furthering our education - we were on our own.
They were absolutely fabulous as loving and emotionally supportive parents though.
Their wealth was relationship wealth.
Which leads me to my hubby's parents.
They were all about "getting rich."
They made a ton of money - but recently divorced after 50 years of marriage.
The point I'm getting at - is as a young married couple, we struggled with mixed financial modeling as well.
It is so weird trying to sort out the things we are taught, isn't it?

I can't wait to read part 2 of your story!!!

Ms. M&P said...

I like hearing about your background. It's always nice to learn more about people and get a context. looking forward to part 2!

Shuchong said...

I think this might be one of my favorite kinds of posts. I think it's the lit major in me... I want to know the story behind the numbers:)

In any event, I too am excited for part II.

Dawn said...

I am really glad you wrote these posts. Like Shuchong, I like hearing the story behind your blog. Thank you for sharing!