I often joke to my husband that I wish he had been my father.
My father has never been in my life. It was my maternal grandparents who raised me. But my grandfather, although a good man at heart, had a drinking problem. Many of my recollections of him as a young child involve my grandmother Big Mama piling my two brothers, two sisters and myself into our station wagon to search for Papa on Fridays before he could drink away his week’s pay.
Without a father or strong father figure, all my financial lessons came from Big Mama. Surveys show that parents are the biggest influence on their children when it comes to money – positive or negative. Big Mama taught me well, but I also inherited her financial fears.
So, as I watch my husband father our children, I become a bit envious. He’s the father I longed to have, particularly because of his financial balance. Think Yoda with a calculator.
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People often ask me how we’re teaching our children to handle their money, guessing correctly that I’m pretty tough, the one teaching them to despise debt and spend as little as possible. Just recently a reader asked, “When do you start to teach kids about money?”
“The moment they start asking for stuff,” I said.
I’ve got some issues I hope not to pass on to my children. I’m obsessive about making sure all our various saving pots are full. I’m often scared to spend. Even when I’ve saved up for something, I have trouble letting go of the money. I struggle with buyer’s remorse. If I overspend on a certain category, like eating out, because I’ve been working late or running around for various activities, I'll beat myself up for wasting money. I get concerned about having enough in retirement even though I’ve been investing faithfully over the last 30 years.
But my husband, who is also a good saver, doesn’t have the anxieties I do about our finances. When he makes a financial mistake, he learns the lesson and moves on without letting the guilt haunt him.
One of his greatest gifts to our children has been his economic equilibrium.
It’s because of his balance that our children go to him when they want to make a purchase with their own money. Last summer, our son worked as a lifeguard and wanted to spend a significant percentage of his earnings on an iPad. I freaked out and argued that it was a waste of money. He already had an iPhone (a hand-me-down from me).
So he sought advice from his father, who brought out his yellow note pad. It’s one of his fathering techniques. He jots down notes and lists the pros and cons of a financial decision or any choice the children want to make.
Together, my son and my husband looked at all the various iPad models and options. They read consumer reviews. My husband listened patiently to his arguments in favor of the purchase. He encouraged our son to wait a while before buying the iPad so that it wouldn’t be an impulse buy.
In the end, my husband, without all the fussing I would have done, persuaded our son to purchase an iPad mini instead of the larger and more expensive model he originally wanted. It was a good compromise.
The way my husband handled the situation was wonderful to watch. He showed our son how to shop smart, to consider all options and, most importantly, to enjoy his purchase without remorse. He had, after all, saved for it.
There’s a growing movement to get mandatory financial literacy classes into schools, and that’s a good thing. Children and young adults need financial education – especially if they aren’t getting it at home, as many aren’t.
But the programs can’t replace good parenting. There are so many things about personal finance that even the best financial literacy curriculums can’t teach. Our children need to see wise financial decision-making in practice. They need to be able to develop a responsible relationship with money, and that often results from copying their parents’ financial habits.
So in honor of the upcoming Father’s Day, I want to praise my husband for being a great financial role model for our children. And if your dad has been a financial rock, take the time to tell him. Go ahead and get him a gift if you want, but in your card or in a note, make his day by sharing with him the things he’s done to help your family become financially secure. And never forget how blessed you are to have a father who has taught you an emotionally healthy way to balance your saving and spending.
Hear Michelle Singletary’s personal finance reports on www.npr.org. Readers may write to her c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington DC 20081.