A few years ago, I had a memorable dinner with two friends from high school. Tom, Paul, and I shared good wine, good food and, especially, good conversation. We spent a lot of time talking about how we perceived money when we were younger, and about how those perceptions shaped us as adults.
Tom’s family was poor. They lived in a single-wide mobile home. His father built bar stools in the garage; his mother waited tables. Because there was no room inside the trailer house, Tom’s family slept outside in tents. And because his father’s business never made much money, his mother learned to pinch pennies. She was a queen of thrift.
“I didn’t learn much about money from my mom and dad,” Tom said as he sipped his wine. “I learned more from Paul’s parents. I remember going over to his house and marveling that he had opened a savings account. I remember that passbook you had, and how your parents would drive you into town to make deposits. I went home and told my mom that I wanted a savings account, but it never amounted to much.”
“I still have that savings account,” said Paul. “The same account my parents opened for me when I was a kid is my savings account today.” Paul’s father also taught him how to invest in the stock market. His parents owned a split-level home on several acres of land, and they raised their children in a middle-class environment. They instilled smart money habits in their children.
“I wish my parents had taught me some of that,” I said over a mouthful of pasta. When I was a boy, my family was poor. I grew up in a trailer house too (although we never had to sleep outside in tents like Tom’s family did). I lived in this house from the time I was two until I left for college:
Dad was sometimes unemployed. During those dark days, he had trouble putting food on the table or buying clothes for his kids. But he wasn’t always broke.
“When Dad hade money, which wasn’t often, he spent it on toys,” I told Tom and Paul. “He didn’t save. He didn’t invest. I can’t remember that he ever invested a dime in anything. He bought computers and airplanes and sailboats. But then when he was broke, he turned around and sold them again. He and mom never taught me anything about money.”
But my father did teach me about business. He was a serial entrepreneur, always starting one business or another. Many of those businesses failed, but some were wildly successful. (In fact, one business still supports most of my family thirty years after Dad started it!)
My friends and I finished our food, paid the bill, and went our separate ways. But that conversation about money has stuck with me for years. [Read more…]