As my two-year-old daughter grows up a little more every day, I think about all the fun stuff I get to teach her. Then I remember all the tough stuff I have to teach her, too, and I resolve not to shy away from it, or let anything fall through the cracks. One of those things is one of the touchiest subjects out there: money.
I know it’s not fair to just automatically blame my adult problems on my parents—I was a grown woman when I racked up credit card debt, this I know—but I just wish I’d been sat down and been taught the basics about managing my money, especially (yep) the dreaded credit cards.
Going through this has taught me to learn from those money mistakes—and give my daughter a solid financial understanding.
I was 22 when I got my first credit card, a college graduate who knew everything, and the power was heady. I first used it to buy a computer, and when the bill came, I didn’t want to spend the bulk of my paycheck on it, so I paid the minimum. When I wanted something, I knew I could charge it, and there was no one forcing me to pay the whole balance. I’d do it someday, I thought. I was 30 when I sat in my bank’s branch and asked for help. They consolidated my debt—with fees and interest, of course, and I had a regular payment that would come out of my account every month for three years. But it was done. The thing I remember most is how scary it was to confront my credit card debt.
But I needed to feel those feelings. Like financial planner Brittany Castro recently told Motherly, “You might feel shame, guilt, overwhelm, stress or anxiety, and it’s healthy to process those emotions—but don’t let them weigh you down and feel like you’re a horrible person, or that it is connected to your self-worth.” That’s exactly what I had let it do.
For a while, I blamed my mom for not telling me how to manage money, but I know she also wasn’t taught money lessons. We didn’t grow up with much of it; my parents divorced, and as a single mom, my mother pretty much lived paycheck to paycheck, struggling to support four growing girls. But as I know now, just because you don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean you can’t learn about it. When I was just starting out working and living paycheck-to-paycheck myself, I always told myself I’d get better about money once I eventually made more. Wrong! As my salary grew, so did my mistakes. My habits just got worse.
It took consolidating my debt, and then getting laid off just as my husband and I decided he would go back to school full time, for me (and us, as a family) to grow up about finances. We went on a budget to see how far we could stretch severance and unemployment until I got a new job. And by ‘went on a budget,’ I mean we put every expense in a spreadsheet and looked at where all our money was going. It was shocking. Seeing the money we were spending on things we didn’t need when it should have been allocated to more important things made me feel frivolous. And dumb.
Then, I took the control back. Seeing it all written down opened my eyes. Then I resolved that I wouldn’t let my kid go down this path.
From my money mistakes, these are the lessons I will teach my daughter.
- Credit cards are not your friend. I’m not going to tell her she shouldn’t have a credit card, and I will teach her about building up good credit. But I will teach her they are for emergencies, and occasional spending if and only if she pays off the balance (not the minimum!) Every. Single. Month. (Disclaimer: I have many friends who are great at accruing airline points and making their credit cards work for them. Good for you if you can too! But I’m not one of those people.) I will let her know the minimum payment is not because they’re really sweet about not needing that much back right now; I will teach her how interest and fees can bury her if she doesn’t pay that thing off.
- Force yourself to look at where your money goes. Remember when people used to balance their checkbooks? Yeah, me neither. I used to just check my checking account, make sure there was money in there, then spend. I made sure my bills were paid, sure, but the rest was my fun money. When I had debt and was not saving a penny, only the dreaded overdraft fee email could rain on my parade. When I finally created a spreadsheet with my expenses, I scrutinized where all my money went, and why. But pretending it wasn’t a concern kept me from setting real goals for my financial future.
- Save. Even if it’s just a little. I didn’t save for so long because I started out making so little money in comparison to my living expenses that I never thought I’d get ahead. But when I started making more, I started spending more. I wonder now how much I could have been saving (or paying off debt with) if I’d just squirreled away a little extra over the years. Now not only do I have a financial advisor (yes! Me! Can you believe?) to help me with retirement savings, I also have a setting on my bank account to directly deposit a set amount of money each month from my paychecks.
- Stop being afraid to be a grownup about money. This one is the biggest one, and the thing that kept me from getting my debt in order and putting me on a path to financial health. I put off thinking about it when I was younger (note: You’re never as young as you think you are when it comes to money), then when I racked up debt across multiple cards, I didn’t want to know how much it was. I kept it all at bay until it finally threatened to drown me.
I have no idea what my daughter’s financial future will look like as an adult. I don’t know if she will hear my lessons and do her own thing anyway. But I will give her the tools I wish I’d had.