Last weekend, I took my kids to my mom’s hometown in the Mississippi Delta. They loved seeing the house she grew up in, hearing stories about how she danced on the icebox in her parents’ grocery store, and even seeing the small cemetery where our family members are buried. But mostly, they were struck—astonished, really—at the degree of poverty unlike anything they’ve ever seen, even in New York City: falling-down houses, rows of empty storefronts, busted up cars and a total lack of the comforts of life as they know it. Like any child would, they immediately latched on to how the lives they were seeing up close were different from their own: Where are the schools? What are their jobs if there are no businesses? Do they have Minecraft here?
For my husband and me, it was a chance to think long and hard about what we’re teaching our children—or not teaching them—about money. Not about how to open a bank account or save for retirement or stick to a budget, but about what money means. How do we want them to think about it? What kind of role should it play in their lives? The questions are nuanced, the answers complex, and we’re fumbling around with this one as much as anyone. Here’s what we came up with:
1. If you don’t have to think too hard about choosing between the $15 thing and the $25 thing, consider yourself lucky.
2. People make money; money doesn’t make people.
3. Many things affect people’s behavior. Money is one of them. But only one.
4. Do you want to be judged by how much or how little money you have? Neither does anyone else.
5. Money is relative. $5 to you is $50 to someone else is $500 to someone else. Which is as good a reason as any not to talk casually about how “broke” you are when you have food on your plate and shoes on your feet. Another reason? It’s super annoying.
6. If you order booze, cough up the cash. When you’re young and starting out, don’t assume other people should split the bill evenly. Always offer to pay your full share—especially if you drink. And pay attention: If one friend always gets an appetizer, and only an appetizer, maybe you should be the one to suggest a different (and less expensive) restaurant next time.
7. Don’t expect the friend with the most money to treat you. Ever. If they offer, great. But never expect it. It’s probably no fun to wonder if people just hang out with you because you pay for things.
8. If you can’t afford it, don’t go. Don’t waste a second feeling sorry for yourself. Okay, waste one second. Then get over it. Do you have friends? Two working legs and a job? Great. Stop with the waterworks.
9. Don’t ever feel like you have to apologize for what you do or don’t have in the bank. That goes for when you’re up or when you’re down.
10. Someone will always have more, and someone will always have less. Get used to it. The important question is, do you have what you need?
11. The cheapest form of payment is money. A wise woman once told me this, and she was right. Sometimes the easy way to pay for things is with cash, even when you’re counting the change at the bottom of your sock drawer to do it. It’s a clean transaction, in black and white. The hard way is with emotions, power dynamics, unspoken tensions, judgment and complicated relationships with spouses, friends, children, parents or siblings—because those are a very high cost.
12. Very little in life is ever truly “free.” This is the companion thought to #11. Say your friend is a lawyer, and offers to handle a small legal matter for you at no charge. You accept, the issue is settled, and you feel so grateful. But now…she acts weird when you’re together, like you owe her something. When you try to talk to her about it, she says it’s fine—but it doesn’t feel fine to you. Ask yourself: Are you racking up emotional debt? How are you “paying” in other ways? Was it worth it?
13. If one day you can afford anything you want, good for you. But don’t ever forget that you’re never too good to wait tables again. Remember the fear, stress and determination you had when things were hard, and remind yourself what the advantages—and limitations—of money really are. You can and will do what it takes to care for yourself and your family.
Yes, even if that means no Minecraft.