by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
I was amused when my 18-year-old daughter, newly hired at an upscale mall shop during the Christmas rush, reported on how her work was going. “I can’t believe,” she said, “the amount of money that people are willing to spend on soap! And they buy gift bags full of stuff when it would be cheaper to just buy the individual items and have us put it in the gift bag for free. Who does that?”
I have to say I felt a glow of maternal pride at a rare sign that my grown child had actually absorbed some of my beliefs about living frugally—even if it was only in relation to how other people were spending their money. But it also made me think about the lessons that we learn as children about money, and the lessons that we pass on to our kids, often without any of it being particularly intentional.
What were the messages about money that you were raised with? I know folks who grew up very poor, but who didn’t feel poor as children because their parents always made them feel secure. And I know folks who always feel insecure about having enough because of the continual anxiety about money in their childhood homes. I know people who assume that the only reason that anyone would be poor is because they are lazy, and people whose delight in financial success is in being able to support the causes and people they care about.
Looking back, I know that the messages about frugality that I have tried to pass on to my daughter come directly from my family of origin. We were always financially secure, and there was money for music lessons and concerts and plays, but not for the fashionable clothes that were the norm at my high school. Certainly, there were not glittery gift bags of fancy soap.
I’m actually pretty comfortable with the ways I have reenacted my parents’ messages about money. But it makes me wonder what I have deliberately or accidentally taught my own child about money, and what I hope she has internalized to take into her adult life.
Here are a few things I hope I’ve conveyed:
· How much money a person has does not reliably predict anything about them other than how much money they have. How generous, kind, hard-working, reliable, good-hearted or smart a person is does not have anything in particular to do with how rich or poor they are.
· Money is neither good nor evil. It is a whole lot nicer to have enough money to buy the things you need than to have to worry about getting by. But money is like fire, electricity or any other form of power. It can be tremendously beneficially or tremendously destructive depending on how it’s channeled. It is worth thinking about how you use your money as power, even if it isn’t a whole lot of money.
· Spending money often feels good in the moment, but it’s easy to spend on things that only make you happy very briefly. Before you buy something, put some thought into the place it will have in your home and the effect it will have on your life. Some things you can buy really do make life better. But lots of things that are exciting in the moment just get in the way later. Any parent who has encountered a Happy Meal toy knows this.
· There is a whole advertising industry devoted to convincing us that people judge our worth based on the stuff we have. This is mostly a lie. When you hear people talking about what they like about a person they almost always say things like She’s so funny or He’s so generous or Wow, they are such an amazing singer/cook/storyteller/parent/whatever. Once you get past high school, the number of people who notice or care what brand of clothes you’re wearing is really very small.
· It has been scientifically proven that the most reliable to way to get happiness from your money is to give it away. This has been tested over and over again in a whole bunch of countries, with people of various different income levels. The results are clear. Spending money on other people makes us happier than spending money on ourselves. And yet most people find this hard to believe when it comes to their own money.
Just a couple more things that aren’t so much for the benefit of my daughter as they are pertinent to this conversation here (although it wouldn’t hurt for her to hear it, too):
· It’s OK to talk about money. Money is something that has a big impact on both our personal lives and our larger society, so it really isn’t helpful to act as if we are ignoring it, even as we shape our lives around earning and spending it. It’s worth thinking about. It’s worth talking about. Which is to say…
· The subject of money has everything to do with ethics and need, desire and generosity, responsibility and lack, longing and abundance. Which is to say that it is absolutely a religious topic. Let’s talk about money in church!