The Most Important Finance Lesson My Parents Taught Me (That Has Nothing To Do With Money)
My parents have taught me many things in my life — arguably almost everything I know, feel, and understand can be traced back to them. Especially when it comes to finance, I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone or any resources I have gained more from than my parents.
And one of the most valuable lessons they’ve taught me doesn’t have to do with budgets, spreadsheets, and interest rates.
My parents taught me that, the #1 thing you need to do in order to become wealthy is this: never, ever give a fuck about what people think of you.
This is of course, a crasser, and more elaborate way of expressing the age-old lesson to “always be yourself.” When it comes to personal financial stability, there are few things as detrimental to your bottom line as other peoples’ opinion of you…and most importantly, how you deal with them.
I was born and largely raised in a small, suburban town in Connecticut. Every stereotype you could possibly think of rang true: I went to a small private school, I had a dress code to adhere to in school (pleated-skirt included), kids were rolling up in brand-new Mercedes and Range Rovers as soon as they turned 16, there were parties and bonfires with alcohol and drugs every weekend (because how else are rich kids going to spend their money?)…remember the TV show The O.C.? Yeah, like that…except with occasional snow.
My parents are both immigrant research scientists and engineers born into working families, so a far stretch from the reality of many at my school (for whom one parent worked on Wall Street, and the other — often the mother — didn’t work at all). But both of their work brought them to Connecticut, and since they were living proof that education can get you far, they decided that a priority was placing my sister and I in the best possible school around.
I was, and will forever be, grateful for the excellent education they provided me. But I will also always remember how much of an outsider I was at that school and in my town. We were verrrrry far from being poor to be sure; I have never wanted for anything, and my parents are very affluent in comparison to the vast majority of the world. But there, in that environment, I was different. We shared two cars for the eventual four drivers (gasp!), my sister and I both worked part-time in high school to pay for any outings (as well as gas and car insurance), I couldn’t just put out my hand and get mommy and daddy’s credit card whenever I wanted, and I grocery shopped with my father, coupons in hand, working the sale-coupon combos to make sure that each week’s food budget was optimized.
Only later in life did I realized that all of this, this beautiful, glorious, happy, but “different-from-my-peers” life wasn’t because my parents “couldn’t afford” to live like our neighbors, but rather because they didn’t give any fucks. For christ’s sake, we already lived in a type of luxury that only the top 10% of the country had the privilege of living in, yet as a kid, I was made to feel bad about being in the bottom of that 10%? How does that make any kind of sense?!
My parents’ priorities were different. They wanted to be able to pay for our undergraduate education so that we didn’t have to stress and worry like they did when they were younger. They wanted to make sure that no matter what happened, if one of them lost their job or got sick or hurt, they could continue to put food on the table and keep the house that their children had gotten used to.
They wanted to spend according to their personal ethical and moral priorities, and not according to some absurd standard of what is “normal” and what they should do with their money. They wanted to make sure that the privilege they created for themselves through years of hard work wasn’t squandered.
This attitude is something that I have long-since kept. While I live in a completely different environment than I used to, I am still the “different” one when it comes to my spending.
I drive an old beater, even though I could technically “afford” to have a car payment (and my partner and I share it). I comparison shop like a fiend when it comes to groceries. I don’t shop at all when it comes to pretty much everything else. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve paid for a meal outside of my home in the last six months. I don’t have TV. I bike the 12 kilometers to work as soon as the paths are clear of snow.
People say I need to “relax” and “enjoy life” or give me the oh-so-typical “you can’t take your money to the grave, so why not spend it” spiel. People say I’m weird.
I think they’re weird.
I can’t for the life of me understand how having cable and spending three hours a day in front of the TV is “enjoying life.” How spending 30 minutes in traffic every morning is more “relaxing” than a 45 minute bike ride. How spending those 30 minutes in traffic is any different with your ass in a 2016 car versus a 2004 car. How going out to eat four times a week can continue to be enjoyable once it becomes the norm. How consuming new clothes, electronics, or junk does anything to make your life more enjoyable and beautiful in the long run.
All of my choices have saved me thousands of dollars over my short adult life so far. And if I look at my parents (and remember the beauty of compounding interest), that’s going to add up after a while. But thanks to them and what they’ve taught me, it isn’t about the money; it’s about making life choices that reflect who I am.
I don’t consume more resources than are absolutely necessary, because as the child of scientists, I know what our consumer culture is doing to the earth on which I am privileged to spend what will hopefully be the better part of a century. I need a safe place to sleep, healthy food and water, and access to healthcare when I’m sick. The rest is unnecessary: the rest is a luxury. My family, my friends, the great outdoors, my professional and personal contributions to society — those are the things that make me profoundly happy and at peace.
I don’t consume, because a new car, a brunch out every week, or a new TV show isn’t going to make me profoundly happy and bring me peace. I don’t consume, because I give many fucks as to the health and well-being of my planet, my self, and those I love; for them, I give a near infinite amount of fucks.
But to the people who think I’m weird and “cheap”? Who tell me I should join the crowd and spend because it’s what everyone else is doing? To them and their opinion, I give no fucks at all.
And that has made all the difference in the world.
Nathalie was raised by two immigrant scientists who taught her, from a young age, the value of a dollar and, most importantly, how to align her spending with her values above all else. As a staunch environmentalist and humanist, the importance of frugal and simple living is as much an ethical choice for her as it is a financial one. She has traveled extensively since she was a child, and currently lives in Quebec City.
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