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Financial Lessons From My Parents—And What I Had To Learn Myself

My parents taught me two important things about money—the rest I learned on my own

Here’s what I learned about money from my dad, an underemployed writer turned cancer-treatment-bounty-hunter who would help hopeless patients find treatments all over the world: Money is a control tool. Any time I’d ask for it, there was a cost that seemed greater than the cash value. So before he’d hand over my allowance after a week of regularly scheduled chores, he’d have me do something like clean the entire garage before I went to see my friends on a Saturday—while they were waiting for me in the driveway. So I got a job bussing tables that paid 10 times my allowance. But Dad also once wrote a best-selling book that made a lot of money, so I knew it was possible for someone like us to hit it big.

Here’s what I learned about money from my mother, an artist, who at one time had a stellar career as a prima ballerina and clothing designer, but burned out and was never able to make much of a living after the ’80s: Money is elusive. This is a woman who would survive by finding an apartment, stop paying rent, then get evicted and play it out long enough to get money together for another place. And the process would repeat itself. She was always running, until she was able to buy a place when she was in her 60s. But also, sometimes, she’d get a windfall and we’d spend all of it on a fancy dinner at Trader Vic’s.

Just a regular day for Vanessa and Grace

These lessons were not helpful in my early adult life or later on toward building a solid financial future. I’ve been flush and broke and gone bankrupt. In my career as a personal finance and feminist parenting writer, which has included stints as a waitress/bartender, corporate project manager, and dating-service owner, I’ve learned quite a bit about money on my own.

I’m a single mom to a five-year-old girl named Grace. She is the delight of my life, a whippersnapping monkey spirit with a wide-open heart and a contagious laugh. My refrigerator’s on the fritz and my 11-year-old Prius needs a new hindquarter. Sometimes I lose my breath, staring down the aloneness of it all, the fragility of my position, the enormity of the responsibility, the fact that I simply can’t get sick or let any plate stop spinning, even for a second. I feel, acutely, the surcharge on being single—paying in full for housing while my coupled friends share. I have to do all kinds of logistical gymnastics in order to leave town for business or vacation, and the system favors the married when it comes to insurance, taxes, and health care spending.

[quote position="right" is_quote="false"]Sometimes I lose my breath, staring down the aloneness of it all, the fragility of my position, the enormity of the responsibility[/quote]

But I’m going to acknowledge right here, right now, that I’m lucky. I met the right people at the right time to get the right gigs. I own a two-bedroom condo and get a tiny bit of child support from Grace’s dad, who lives an hour away. We are healthy. We don’t need a lot of stuff. We live in a place where there’s plenty of healthy food options and an excellent public school system where Grace has started an immersion French program. And I’m white, middle class, and have all my papers in order, so I’m certain that helps.

I know there are plenty of other parents, single and coupled, who struggle. They can barely make ends meet. They come home from work, bleary eyed and still have to do a second or third shift taking care of their kids and keeping the house running and the dragons at bay. Maybe there are health issues and they want to work but they can’t. Maybe they keep putting on their best shirt and going on interview after interview, but they can’t seem to land anything. I see you. I know you. I’ve been you.

[quote position="left" is_quote="false"]The system favors the married when it comes to insurance, taxes, and health care spending.[/quote]

So here are the important money lessons I’ve learned as a single mother and as a personal finance writer, from my own mistakes and successes. They might not all apply to everyone, but they’re working for me:

I invest in the afterlife: I met with an estate attorney and she forced me to think about the unthinkable—What happens to my assets, my kid, and my junk when I die? Or worse, what if Grace and I die together? Even if I didn’t have assets, I wouldn’t want any uncertainly about my wishes, because that just causes infighting among those left behind. Life insurance is also critical and surprisingly inexpensive. It’s the most unselfish purchase you can make.

I say yes: I’ve taken high-paying work I didn’t really want to do at first, and was actually surprised that I loved doing it. I accepted an invitation for a socially and environmentally conscious cruise to the Dominican Republic, and it sparked a whole new business idea for me. I say yes to things where there’s money and opportunity—even if I’m uncomfortable—knowing that I can always back out if I have to.

I say no: I probably won’t go to lunch or coffee unless there’s a specific business outcome (or unless I really want to hang out with that person socially). I won’t work for free unless I’m truly ok donating my work because it’s something I want to write or if I want to help a person or a cause. I mean, I’m still a good person.

Saying no means potentially saying yes to something better in the future

I shop smarter: This means using Amazon Subscribe & Save for most recurring purchases—not only do I get about 15 percent off cleaning supplies, toilet paper, shampoo, etc., when I get a certain amount delivered per month, but I’m also not wandering around Target on perilously low blood sugar, deciding that a clearance St. Patrick’s Day t-shirt in the wrong size is an irresistible bargain. I’ve set spending rules for myself:

-- I can’t do many dinners out, but I can get whatever I want from the farmer’s market.

-- I rarely buy new clothes, but I can go wild at my favorite thrift store.

-- I don’t pay for cable TV, but I can buy the entire season of Walking Dead on Amazon if I want.

-- I cornered a hapless Covered California rep to find out how I could max my health insurance and figured out how to qualify for better PPO insurance for less than I’d been paying at my HMO for the past two years.

-- I don’t buy new furniture or move, but I do pay someone to help me clean, organize, and purge so my home doesn’t feel cluttered. This, however, is an ongoing evolution.

-- I never pay retail for an oil change or parking or museum admission—coupon sites like Groupon and RetailMeNot have saved me hundreds of dollars over the years.

I spend on things that matter: I go to a real dentist who charges real money because I don’t want to mess around with my teeth. (I also saw my parents pay for their early neglect with painful and expensive surgery and replacement teeth.) I pay for piano and dance lessons for my daughter because they are fundamental to who she is as a person. I put money in my IRA, my health savings account, and Grace’s 529 college savings plan each month (it’s automated, so I can’t talk myself out of it). We give to charities, especially when friends ask.

Like every single other human out there, I’m still a work in progress, and I’ve done some indefensible money wasting in the name of vanity and the pursuit of bliss (But the eyelash extensions looked so pretty for the first few days! And I’m just very pinterested in built-in bookshelves!) I always say we’re going to have a lean Christmas, and then I blow a bunch of money on December 23 because it’s just so much fun to buy presents. I could be better on recording incoming and outgoing checks, so I don’t have to guess when I reconcile accounts in Quicken months later. I’m nervous about how the new administration might eviscerate my health care, and maybe I’m one staph infection away from complete ruin.

But here’s how I know I’m on the right track today. My daughter Grace, who is adopted, is hyper-aware that foster kids don’t always get enough of what they need—including love. Last Christmas, after we shopped from an agency wish list for specific gifts, she grabbed her wallet, which contained her worldly fortune of $19. She drew hearts on a card and stuffed $10 into the envelope. “Here,” she said, handing the bundle to me, “send this to the foster kids. They need it.”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the most important money lesson of all.

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