- My dad shipped out to Bosnia with the Army when I was a senior in high school, and my stepmom took over the handling of the family finances.
- Up until that point, I didn’t know much about managing a family’s money. But watching my stepmom go through the process of taking things over taught me two important lessons.
- The first is to keep separate accounts from my husband (along with joint accounts), and the second is the importance of teaching kids about money when they’re young, which is what I’m doing with my own daughters now.
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When I was a senior in high school, my dad – who was in the Army – was deployed to Bosnia. Up until that point in my life, my relationship with money had been pretty passive.
I had never had a job, I didn’t get an allowance (I just asked for money when I needed it … and I certainly didn’t always get it!) and no one had ever sat me down to talk about money, handling money, and what dealing with money meant or should look like.
Of course, my parents were far from alone in their reticence to discuss money with their kids. Studies have shown that 69% of parents have some reluctance when it comes to talking about money with their children, and only 23% of kids say they talk with their parents frequently about it.
Back to that fall of my senior year of high school. My dad was shipping out and I was busy with everything someone in their last year of high school is normally busy with – studying, applying to and visiting colleges, worrying about leaving behind friends, etc. The last thing I expected was to suddenly get a lesson in financial planning.
But that’s exactly what I got, however unintended the lesson actually was.
My stepmom took over the family finances
In the weeks leading up to my dad’s departure, I started to notice a shift in his conversations with my stepmom. In his absence, she would essentially be “taking over” their finances: keeping track of the bills, making sure payments went out on time, keeping their budget on track … all the financial things that keep a household afloat.
I remember them going through a filing cabinet full of documents (probably the old-school equivalent of my own money-tracking system), and poring over pages and pages of documents. I remember at the time it was like a lightbulb went off: “Oh, so this is what it means to carefully plan and manage your own money.”
Until that time, I never really stopped to question what handling the finances of a household actually looked like. I knew the lights came on when I flipped a switch, the TV when I hit a button, and I had clothes and food and all the other necessities I needed.
However, as my dad prepared to head out for his deployment and I watched my stepmom prepare to take over the handling of their money, I suddenly realized – it takes a lot to manage a home financially.
Had I had a job, or an allowance, I might have learned this lesson a bit sooner, but lucky for me, studies also show that children pay close attention to issues related to money, so I likely absorbed some information about managing money just from watching how my parents dealt with it while I was growing up.
It wasn’t really until my dad left and my stepmom took over, though, that I truly thought about everything that goes into overall financial health. And since I was about to head off to college and be on my own for the first time in my life, it was an important lesson to learn.
The 2 big lessons that stuck with me
These days, the lessons I learned about what it takes to handle a household’s finances have helped me twofold. The first and most obvious is in my own marriage. From day one, I made sure that we both stayed informed about our financial status, that we were working toward common savings goals, and that I maintained my own financial stability – aside from our joint finances – as well.
After six years of marriage, I still have my own checking account (as does my husband) along with our joint one, and I have my own credit card (as does he) along with our joint one.
It’s not about keeping financial secrets – we discuss any big purchase we make, even if it does get paid with our “own” money – but more about both of us keeping some level of autonomy over our “own” money.
The second, and perhaps more essential, way that I’m carrying my parents’ money lesson with me today is with my own girls. Both are still young – 3 and almost 2 – but I’ve already started laying down the basics.
They have physical piggy banks and online savings accounts, they come shopping with us and we talk about “buying” things and, when they’re a little older, they will receive allowances as a way to start learning how to divvy up and handle money (not because they are performing tasks at home that they will be required to do anyway, because that can teach them entitlement).
Although they didn’t know it, my dad and stepmom helped set the wheels in motion years ago for me to teach these important lessons to my own kids.