“You seem so good with money, Sarah. Your parents must have taught you well.”
I want to shake people by the shoulders whenever I hear that.
Sure, I run a frugal living blog and podcast. But as much as it pains me to say, I have a lot of money baggage that causes me both emotional stress and financial stress. I’m deathly afraid I’ll pass this baggage on to my son.
Yes, I’ve worked on myself for the 36-plus years I’ve been alive and I think I’ve done a pretty decent job at being a good human being with the money I’ve got.
I also know there are many things I do wrong with money and how anxious I get when certain conversations about money come up. It makes me even more anxious thinking about whether my son will one day possess the very same anxieties I have now.
First off, my parents are awesome. There were a lot of things they did right—they imbued me with an incredible amount of self-confidence and the will to stand up for what’s right.
But I grew up in a traditional Asian household, which typically means that the male is the breadwinner and the female members learn to be good household managers. As someone who is naturally curious, it meant that I got scolded a lot whenever I asked a lot of questions, because I was just supposed to listen to my elders.
The conflict came when my mom became the breadwinner. She had a successful career in the finance industry and still ran the household. My father, a small business owner, was doing pretty well but felt like he wasn’t doing his part because he wasn’t earning as much.
As a result, both my sister and I grew up watching our parents work a lot of late nights and listening to closed-door conversations about why my father couldn’t take holidays off.
Because my mother pretty much did everything—from her demanding career to raising us kids and making sure the house was clean—she ended up stalling in her career.
I remember seeing her falling over from exhaustion because she was going to work during the day, coming home to cook dinner then rushing off to night school for her master’s degree. Needless to say, she never finished that master's degree.
As you might imagine, I grew up pretty conflicted over money. I learned that money was a source of both embarrassment and pleasure. I was supposed to work hard, even at the expense of my own happiness, because I had to do right by my family. Just like how my mother held back her career because she had to take care of her family.
I started coming to grips with my money story over ten years ago, when I was dating an ex-boyfriend in Australia. I worked my tail off and made most of the purchases—the rent, groceries and even our trips across the country. I gave so much of myself, just like my mom did, that I ended up broke and in credit card debt.
I ended up jobless because I went back to Canada to try to find a “grown up” job, thinking I was going to marry this guy . . . only to have him break up with me.
It’s not a coincidence that I run a frugal living blog, especially since I love to focus on the emotional stress of how we deal with our financial lives.
I’m still nervous around money. I’m pretty good at sharing tips on how to be frugal, but I don’t like to spend money on myself, and that’s not always a good thing. I’m super obsessive about the bills. I often tell myself (sometimes out loud) that I shouldn't have spent money on certain things.
My three-year-old is still a little too young to understand when I berate myself over money, but already some of my emotional stress is rubbing off on him. I woke up one morning to find him sitting by my bedroom doorway with the stack of receipts I had left on our dining room table.
I thought he was randomly sorting through the papers until I noticed he was separating each pile according to the store where the receipt had come from. His giggles filled the air as he shouted things like “groceries!” and “clothes!” and—get this—“miscellaneous!”
Any other parent would have probably found this cute, but I shook my head because I get crazy when I start sorting receipts and entering expenses in our budgeting spreadsheet. In that brief moment, I realized that if I don’t continue to work on my anxieties around money, I may pass these same habits on to my son.
Money shouldn’t be something to be feared. It’s merely a tool to help us enhance our life. That’s what I want him to know.
I want my son to be curious about the world and learn that money can be fun. It can make the world a better place. I want him to understand that letting yourself become consumed by financial stress and working yourself to the ground aren’t productive at all.
He’s only three, so I can’t really teach him complex topics like budgeting and compound interest yet. What I’m doing instead is trying to model how to use money in a fun way and how to be generous with others.
I purchased a small piggy bank and showed him where to put coins and how to get them back out. We sit together and count all the pennies he’s collected and make music by rubbing them together. We even shake the piggy bank and giggle at how fun it sounds.
As the holiday season is coming around, I’ve taken my son shopping to get my husband a few books he’s been talking about reading. I make sure to tell my son that these are presents, that I’m paying for them and that they’ll make his father happy.
The idea is to show him that money can be fun and a source for joy. I’ll have to keep working on my own habits and mindset as time goes on—but it’s a start.
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