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Oh Captains, My Captains: An Ode to Financial Capability Role Models

This blog is a shout-out to my parents, who modeled key financial capability strategies for me and my four sisters that have had a huge positive impact on our individual financial lives and family culture.

My first real understanding of the stressors of adult financial responsibilities came when my parents, along with many neighbors, fought against a rent hike. We lived in an affordable housing community called Roosevelt Island in New York City. Roosevelt Island was unique, in ways that I have blogged about before, including the fact that people of all economic levels lived side by side with little distinction in class. Shared church (literally for all denominations), shared school, shared parks, etc. When a rent hike went into effect, I realized quickly that rent was serious and having to pay more was not something anyone seemed to want. I remember signs and arguments and great conviction in the need to keep the rent affordable for all tenants. Lesson #1 – Fight for your economic stability.

A job transfer brought us to Miami, Florida, in the mid-1980s. Life changed drastically and I was, for the first time, very aware that my family did not have a lot of money. We lived in a neighborhood where our house got robbed, multiple times; our car was very old and constantly breaking down; my mom had to work full-time and leave the five of us to manage ourselves; and other kids were much more open about our lack of new clothes, cool shoes and all the other things kids use to size each other up money-wise. Suburban life proved harder on the wallet and my parents did not hide this fact from us. We were never protected from the harsh reality of limited income. Lesson #2 – Don’t pretend there’s more money than there is.

As time moved forward, my parents got their financial footing, set financial goals and shared those goals with us girls. The most prominent being the goal of home ownership. Home ownership was made a family goal. We were all advised that to have a home of our own we would have to cut our spending. At a family meeting, my parents took their stack of credit cards, ceremoniously cut them in half and pronounced the end to spending. The fragmented cards were kept on a shelf in the dining room for all to view. After a home was purchased; the cup of cut cards was kept on a prominent shelf as a reminder to avoid credit card debt. Lesson #3 – Credit card spending is not good for meeting financial goals.

Beginning when my sisters and I were very young, we were encouraged to work. Everyone was required to work, both at home (for no pay) and outside the home. I learned to love work very quickly. Work meant money and time doing something that belonged to me, as well as pride and money. Did I mention money? In a world where there was a lot of competition for resources, the ability to earn my own money and spend it on my terms meant everything. Lesson #4 – Work for what you want.

My mom had a secret power - she is a super saver. However, because she made money seem to appear out of nowhere, saving was not a lesson we learned. Instead my parents taught us to give it away. Money, time, talents, things. Everything was shared and/or given to others in need. I have never met people who spent more time volunteering than my parents. As I write this blog, my mother is on unpaid leave from work to tend to an elderly relative and my dad just texted me asking how to connect someone to homeless services. (True story.) I know this lesson would seem to go against common sense toward building a robust financial future, but when you spend your time volunteering, sharing yourself with others and making people more important than possessions, you’re not shopping or trying to keep up with the Joneses, or obsessing over what you don’t have. Lesson #5 – Share what you have.

During Financial Capability Month, reflect on the money lessons you learned as a kid. (Feel free to share them in the comments below!) These early impressions have a huge impact on your financial life. Not all lessons are positive, but they each teach us something valuable, even when it’s what not to do. Wherever you are in your financial life, make a commitment to do one thing to be a financial capability role model to someone else. Maybe, one day, you’ll get a blog written about you too.

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