People are “desperate” to avoid their parents’ money mistakes, therapists say.
Jo Piazza is the author of the upcoming memoir How to Be Married in which she crowdsourced marriage advice from around the world in an effort to figure out how to have a successful partnership.
I opened my first savings account when I was 10-years-old. Most kids are prodded, kicking and screaming, to do this by parents who want to teach them the value of money, of stashing something away in case of an emergency, of being prudent about financial decisions.
I’d watched my parents spend themselves into debt, living paycheck to paycheck and constantly fighting about money. Ten-year-old me craved financial security, even if it was just $5 in a savings account each month.
“It’s a safety net, for a rainy day,” I said proudly when I returned home with my personal savings ledger. I think I’d heard those words uttered by Mr. Drummond on Different Strokes, who I believed to be an excellent parental moral compass.
Don’t get me wrong, my parents were good parents. But, when it came to money, they weren’t always the adults. Both my mom and dad worked and they earned good salaries. And yet it always seemed like they spent more than they were bringing in. There was always the burden of credit card debt, of overdue bill payments. The electricity was shut off more than once.
Recently, both of my parents became ill and stopped working. Their safety net was practically nonexistent, they had no retirement savings and were still significantly in debt on their house.
And even though I’m now a 36-year old married woman (and mom-to-be) with several savings accounts, a 401k and a very practical and low interest mortgage, I worry all the time that I will be doomed to repeat my parents’ monetary mistakes. I check myself every time I make a large purchase or become too indulgent. When I lost my fancy corporate job last year I altered my spending, but not by much. I’ve made so many decisions that are different from my parents’ and yet I worry that I’ll somehow fall into their patterns.
I’m not alone in my fears.
“I had two patients today struggling with this exact issue,” the clinical psychologist and marriage counselor Laurie Sanford told me. “I see a lot of patients who are desperate to avoid their parents’ financial mistakes. One of the biggest internal issues people face on a lot of fronts, particularly financial, is, ‘Can I be different from my parents?’’”
The good news, according to Sanford is that the answer is yes.
“This can happen most effectively if we are consciously aware of what we are trying to do. Things only get messed up when they are out of our awareness and our behavior is run by unconscious forces,” Sanford said.
To that end, I try to be as conscious as possible. I’ve recently kept track of my spending on the Mint app. And to be honest, I’m a little bit of a spendthrift when it comes to Uber rides and fancy coffee. My husband and I eat out way too much. We just bought a brand new car even though we probably should have gone for something used (and a little cheaper). Things are about to get way more complicated as we think about growing our little family of two to three. And so I want to be even more conscious.
Katherine Woodward Thomas, the renowned marriage and family therapist and author of “Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After,” told me she thinks our parents’ lived life is the thing we define ourselves by.
“In some ways we learn from their mistakes. In other ways we are reactive to them. Your task is to examine them and understand what gave birth to their mistakes,” Woodward Thomas told me.
When I thought about it, really thought about it, my dad’s propensity to spend like there was no tomorrow was born of the fact that he grew up in a family where there was very little to spend. He was one of five kids in a blue collar town in the Pennsylvania Poconos. He was raised on hand me downs. He hitchhiked out to Iowa to go to college and law school and put himself through both schools by bartending and working as a journalist. By the time he was making money, he must have felt like he finally deserved to spend it. My mom, on the other hand, grew up fairly well off. It wouldn’t be wrong or unkind to say she was a little bit spoiled as a Denver debutante who had her own horse imported from Chile. But her family never encountered any money problems and so she inherited an ethos of spending without the need to save.
The purpose of thinking about this, according to Woodward Thomas, is to better understand a cycle so that we can break it. We aren’t really doomed to anything, as long as we’re consciously thinking about it. The truth is, my husband and I now have something bigger to worry about than the past.
“It’s more important for you to think about how the money decisions you are making now will influence the next generation, how you want them to affect your kids,” Woodward Thomas said. Doing that is a more effective way of breaking familial cycles than just saying: “I don’t want to be like my parents.”
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