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Money Madness

By Jessie Christensen

“Mom, how much money is in your bank account?” This was the question my son chose to spring on me the other night during the chaos of cleaning up dinner. I hesitated a bit, partly because I wasn’t sure of the exact amount and partly because I wasn’t sure how much to share with my son. I did finally tell him an approximate amount of money, and then we talked a little bit about how it might sound like a large number, but that we had quite a few bills to pay and how much they were in relation to the amount of money currently in my bank account. After listening to me for a minute, he launched into a detailed explanation of his savings and expenditures of tokens in an online game that he has been playing lately, then ran off to take a shower.

As I finished cleaning the kitchen and thought more about our conversation, I realized that I haven’t talked to my kids much about money. I don’t know what their thoughts and attitudes are about it; other than a few random conversations about our budget and sporadic FHE lessons about tithing, the topic doesn’t come up much in our house. I do know, however, that even if we aren’t talking about, they are still forming attitudes and beliefs about money from the things they see and hear around them. A few years ago I read a book about budgeting that focused on the psychological issues surrounding money—the premise of the book was that no budgeting system will ever fix your money issues until you figure out and solve the particular money beliefs that are driving your behavior. Until I read that book, I thought I was doing pretty well when it came to money management, but I was able to discover some unpleasant truths about myself and the way I handle money (like being scared to talk to my children about it, for example).

As a young child, I learned that money was something unpredictable, not readily available, and something that we lacked in comparison to other families. I don’t think my parents meant to teach me that explicitly, but that was the message I picked up through some of their actions. When I was twelve I got an early-morning paper route and learned that money meant freedom and control. With my own source of income I could buy previously forbidden, frivolous things like donuts, sparkly lip gloss, and my very own CDs. As I grew older, I went away to college and began fully supporting myself. Learning to manage my own budget and distinguish between wants and needs was tricky and I made some pretty dumb spending mistakes (I still do). For a while I developed a rather bad attitude of reverse snobbery—I took pride in the fact that I rarely bought new things, ate cheap meals, didn’t own a car, and wasn’t a “slave to materialism” as I perceived others to be. Thankfully I have mostly matured out of that stage, but still have a long way to go when it comes to resolving all my particular emotional issues when it comes to money.

At this point in my life, my main attitude toward money and budgeting is that of priorities and choices. I am currently blessed to have a stable income at a level that covers my basic needs and then some. Over the years I have realized that, no matter what income I have, I will never be able to afford everything I could ever want. I feel much better about my spending choices when I frame them in my mind as choosing between levels of priority, rather than framing them as deprivation or limitation. When I tell my kids that we aren’t going to buy something, rather than simply saying ‘we can’t afford that’, I’ve been working on telling them ‘I don’t want to spend our money on that; I’d rather spend it on something else’. This summer we all learned a valuable lesson in priorities when our cat required emergency surgery after eating some toys that were carelessly left on the floor by one of my children. Thankfully I had the money in my savings account, but spending it on the cat meant we weren’t able to spend it on a short vacation I had been planning. As I explained to my children, by taking on ownership of a pet, we were taking on responsibility for spending our money and time on helping that pet live a good life.

Really, money is just a tool, but for everyone it is also a symbol that represents things like love, trust, power, and control.  I recently read a discussion on another blog about the fact that we talk about money, budgeting, and stewardship at church. Some questioned the reasoning behind this, since money can be a rather personal subject and because it does not obviously relate to our spirituality. I think, though, that our attitudes about money and are choices in using it are an important component of our spiritual well-being. We are here on Earth to refine ourselves spiritually and become more like Heavenly Father. The way we deal with a temporal thing like money is an important part of our spiritual journey. Do we let either our abundance of or lack of money create pride in our hearts that separates us from our brothers and sisters? Do our attitudes about money build up or tear down our relationships with family members?  Do we use the money we have in ways that benefit our families and neighbors? Does the way we think about money harden our hearts or soften them? As my children get older, these are the types of questions I want to discuss with them, because I think they are just as important as understanding how much money is in our bank account.

What does money mean to you? If you feel comfortable sharing, what particular money attitudes have you struggled with in your life? How do you teach children about using money wisely?

About Jessie Christensen

Jessie served a mission in Spain and graduated from BYU with bachelor's degrees in Spanish Translation and English, as well as a master's in Spanish Literature. She currently works full-time at a university library and nurtures her three children, one cat, and a fluctuating number of fish. She relaxes by reading, baking, canning fruit, and putting together jigsaw puzzles.

16 thoughts on “Money Madness”

  1. I don't really recall my parents teaching me about money, but I do know that I picked up lessons on how to deal with money by hearing my parents and grandparents talk about it. I knew that tithing always came first and that rather than have a car payment, my family preferred to buy a car with cash and then put away money each month to save for the next car.

    What I didn't learn about is investing, partly because my dad didn't make enough to have extra to invest, and partly because my family is extremely conservative and risk averse with money.

    One thing I struggle with is money and friendships/relationships. I am constantly saying no to invitations to do things because I don't want to spend money on dinners out and movie theater tickets. I know that at times it's worth spending $20 to invest in a relationship, but if I said yes to every invitation, I wouldn't have anything left to spend on the things that are higher priorities for me. I also know that I can propose free or lower cost activities, but there are times when you just can't hijack someone else's plan.

  2. Although I'm a hopeless snob about the fact that our family doesn't own a car, I hope you'll admit that in the right place (a city with good public transportation and other options–bicycles, Zipcar, etc.) non-ownership of a car is a wise financial decision and not merely an excuse for looking down on those who, because of where they live, don't enjoy that option.

  3. I recall being worried about money as a child because I could sense my parents were worried about money. My mom would carefully plan out her grocery shopping list being very mindful of sales, coupons, and deals. We shopped at garage sales and thrift stores much more often then department stores. But my parents were always very wise to assure me we had money for all the things we /needed/, we just didn't have money for things we merely /wanted/.

    Looking forward, I wonder how my every day relationship with money will shape my child's views. Whereas my parents were scrimping, new-grads just getting started on their careers when they had me, my husband and I were young professionals with established careers when we had our son. I wonder if I spend money a little too freely. I shop sales and I carefully weigh purchases, but that doesn't stop pregnant-me from throwing a pumpkin pie into the cart because yuuuuuum I /want/ to eat that. (Well, and it's on sale for only a buck more than the raw materials and I won't have to bake it myself and wait 24 hours for it to "cure.")

  4. Finishing up that pie example, but all that is internal thought rationalizing a /want/ not a /need/ and baby boy just sees me grab the pie and toss it the basket.

  5. I had/have grand plans for my kids learning about money and budgeting via a weekly allowance. Unfortunately my kids' parents are really abysmally horrible about giving them their allowances — either because they forget or because they forget to get cash or because they don't have the money to give out in the bank account. And these parents (or at least one of them) feels terribly guilty about their kids not learning about paying tithing, budgeting, saving up for things they want, etc. But then these parents pretend there is a 'virtual bank account' for each kid of all the money they WOULD have if they actually got their allowances, which in effect means that if on the rare occasions that a kid asks for something at the store, the parents look at each other and figure, well technically the kid has that money in our imaginary bank account so, sure go ahead, kid, and "buy" that thing when we check out, the kid never having actually seen or touched that money, not to mention being able to pay tithing on said money. Parenting fail, if you ask me!

    As for me, my dad was HUGE on money and finances and teaching kids about money. Nothing was purchased unless Consumer Reports had been consulted for the Best Buy, money was saved and invested for the future (retirement, college). Money was fought and yelled over at the tops of their lungs most everyday of my life. We were always being told we couldn't afford things; I later learned roughly how much my parents' combined income was and my eyes nearly bugged out. But, when my dad died at 65, just a couple years after retiring, my mom was set up for the rest of her life, so that was good.

    I am the money handler in our marriage, and I try to keep a budget and do fairly well at it, including budgeting for future or occasional bills (such as twice-yearly insurance payments or trying to pay cash for all of our vehicles). We have no retirement plans other than the employment-sponsored one through my husband's work, nor any college/missions funds going, nor any investments. I feel very guilty about it.

  6. If your child is learning about money from video games he is probably getting a good primer on savings and comparison shopping without even realizing it. My personal first encounter with the idea of saving, prioritization and opportunity cost was an old robot game where you had limited super powers and wasting them early in the game made the rest of the game much more difficult. In real life I am now very mindful about saving for the future just in case.

    However, very few video games include the idea of long term investment and most of them make earning money (or points or tokens) ridiculously easy (because it's more fun that way). This can give a child a warped view of just how long it takes in real life to save up the same sort amount of “money” they can “earn” in a single afternoon gaming. So when teaching children about money I find the most useful lessons are to explain compound interest and to teach them how to turn prices into labor. A $100 toy is 20 hours at minimum wage. A $200,000 house is ten years of salary for a struggling artist but two years of salary for an experienced engineer. $10,000 in cash will stay $10,000 in cash but $10,000 invested at 10% will double to $20,000 in seven years and double again to $40,000 after the next seven. That sort of thing.

  7. Money is a funny thing and I totally agree how we approach it revolves around our experiences in childhood. Both my husband and I were raised in poverty – but our views on money now are completely different. He tends to feel like now that he has money he is owed things. Kind of like he is making up for lost time. On the other hand I rarely buy things for myself. even if I want something I talk myself out of it because I say that I don't "need" it. I still struggle with the idea that money isn't a stable commodity.

  8. Ah, such a complicated topic and fraught with a lot of emotion! My kids are still really little (oldest is 3) so we haven't quite got to the teaching about money stage. But, maybe I'm behind? How much can a three year old understand about money?! (As with most parenting things, I really have no idea what I'm doing.)

    It has been interesting to combine our attitudes about money in marriage. Thankfully, my husband and I are relatively similar in our views, but even then, we were raised in different families and things always come up where one of us says, "well, MY parents did this…" and the other just doesn't get it.

    I also have tended toward the reverse snobbery throughout my life as well, probably because my mom did it A LOT since we just didn't have a lot of extras growing up. I'm sure it was just her coping mechanism. But, I'm trying really hard to not judge people for their choices as well as just owning up to my own financial choices. I try hard not to say things like "we can't afford it" but instead, "That's not a priority for me." (And reminding myself that just because something's not a priority for me, but is for someone else, doesn't make them a poor steward of their resources.)

  9. I have always thought it was interesting that Elder Ashton in "One for the Money" said our attitudes about money should always be changing and evolving. For me, a lot of how I view money management has come from Amy Dacyczyn who write The Tightwad Gazette. That has been very good for us. But sometimes it has gone over the top–when I feel guilty for spending money on something I can afford and need but can't get on sale or at a garage sale. And sometimes I have judged others spending. There is a necessary balance and probably like keeping balance it requires a continual shifting. One time as college students we bought a window air conditioner. It was a very hot summer and I was eight months pregnant and DYING of the heat. We got the air conditioner marked down (it was a floor model) and we paid with cash. But I still felt guilty. Then I had a dream in which, basically, The Lord told me he didn't care about the air conditioner. It was fine. What he was more concerned about what whether I was keeping the commandments. I guess there are times we save and invest and don't spend. And others when we do. I think money is ultimately like time–like you said, a way to measure where our hearts are.

  10. Jessie, and what was the name of the book you read about "budgeting that focused on the psychological issues surrounding money," if you please?

  11. Money and financial concerns are a leading cause of divorce in marriage. I have struggled myself to learn to communicate well with my spouse about money since I realized in the first year of marriage we did not have the same background in this regard. Like combining two household's traditions together, I thought, of course, that my way was the best way–budget, don't go into debt except for home and maybe an education, counsel about it often, save a % of what you earn, and spend frugally. That idealism can only go so far in such practical matters. It's a good framework for priorities, but what happens when your income barely allows you to pay your bills without any left over for food?

    Things fell apart in times of want–like when my husband was in graduate school. But then we recovered and began to see that tension turn to our own money traditions. We made good progress for more than 15 years in our attitudes and practices regarding money.

    But then the recession hit, and my husband's industry was hit very hard. My anxiety about money returned. This is where I have come to grow and understand so much about the emotional and spiritual roots of money. So much so that I've spent the last year interviewing other people about their experiences with faith and finances for an upcoming book.

    Through this experience I learned that I trusted in the security that money offers more than I trusted my Heavenly Father and my husband. I wish I didn't have to go through such a hard experience to come to trust them both more fully. However, only through years–not weeks or months or days–have I come to know that God is with us always. The trick is remembering and trusting that He is there even in the things that don't appear to be spiritual.

  12. Thanks for all the great comments guys!

    Melanie–you are right about trying to negotiate money in relationships with friends. Things that I'm willing to spend on money on are things they might not be willing to do, and vice versa. I've run into this with family too and it can get tricky.

    Mark B.–I would love to live somewhere where I could not have a car; as it is, I try to minimize my car usage and my kids walk to school and we walk to church as much as we can. I think you bring up good example of choosing your priorities when it comes to how you spend your time and money.

    Janell–I also worry about the same issue. As a kid I worried a lot about money because my parents did. Now I have a more comfortable financial situation, and I don't want my kids to have the same worries, but perhaps I don't talk about it enough and they'll swing the other way and feel entitled.

    Strollerblader–Yep, figuring out allowance systems and teaching moments is hard and always changing. I've also noticed that my relationship with my parents and money is always changing. When I was a kid, I tried not to ask them for much because I knew money was tight. Now that they are grandparents, they are much freer with spending money on my kids, and it's hard for me because I'm used to trying not to ask them for anything.

    JSG–Yes, my kids play several computer games that involve those kinds of things and I think they are helpful in helping them learn about saving and planning. I have also started talking to them about compound interest, especially when they get birthday money from relatives and I want them to put aside some of it in savings.

    Robin–I have felt both those attitudes and tend to swing to either side of the pendulum at different times. Sometimes I spend freely because I can and I feel like I 'deserve' nice things. Other times I feel totally guilty about buying stuff or refuse to spend money when it would be totally appropriate.

    EL–I totally don't know what I'm doing either! I just hope for the best. And it took me a number of years to realize that the reverse snobbery was just a coping mechanism, but it's still a form of pride and judgement so I'm trying not to do it so much.

    Ana–You are right–I think it's important for us to constantly be learning and evolving when it comes to money, just like in many other issues in our lives. I've also had purchases that were hard for me because they are things I thought I'd 'never' spend money on, but they were the appropriate thing at the time.

    Jill and Lisa–sorry, I should have put the name of the book in the post. The title is The Cure for Money Madness by Spencer Sherman

  13. A really good book for teaching kids about money is "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees" by Neale Godfrey.

    I have three brothers, we were raised by the same parents yet we all have different views on money. I am a saver, like to have nice things but will do without until we have the money or something broke. Next brother down buys whatever he wants, whether he has money or not. Creditors are always calling him, he's always close to having something being reposed. Next one is always in debt, lives with my dad because he doesn't make enough money to support his family, is always going out to restaurants with his family, figures he will never get ahead, youngest brother is a saver, does without unless he has cash to buy it, eats at my house to save on food.

    Four kids, same parents, different outlooks on money. I remember when we had nothing to eat but malt o meal cereal and spaghetti and how many years it took my parents to save up for a new couch. We never went out to eat, my youngest brother got to go out all the time, yet it the third born who always has to go out to restaurants.

  14. i think that we talk about finances in church because being in bondage to debt, interest, etc. prevents us from being as focused on spiritual things as we need to be.

    my husband and i have spent the last year starting a business and we both felt that it was extremely hard to focus on spiritual things when we were so anxious about our tight finances. things like scripture study, which were routine for us going into starting the business, were hard to focus on and devote mental energy to when we were so weighed down by financial anxiety. we are just finally starting to meet our needs more comfortably and i am amazed at the difference i feel. i am able to focus more on my spirituality and i am better able to look outside myself and serve others because i am not overwhelmed by money. i definitely have a strong testimony of being financially independent.

  15. I like that idea about responding with a discussion about priorities when choosing not to buy something rather than saying, "We can't afford it." I see parallels to time management, too. Thought-provoking post.


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