Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Long Preamble -- there will be Boots!

I'm going to try telling you a long story in order to tell you a short one -- some of my dissatisfaction with my blog recently is that I so often abandon the stories I want to tell for lack of time. I'm hoping to find or make room for occasional more exploratory, lengthy posts, even if I then end up posting less often.

Before I start, though, I'll offer you a carrot. I'm going to tell the long story now, but the short story will appear within days and it will include pictures of NEW BOOTS. So please, patience?

More properly, what I'm telling isn't so much a story as a lengthy preamble. To set the stage for something that happened this Christmas, I feel as if I need to go all the way back to my childhood and explain some things about me and money. Just as Lisa over at Privilege is self-reflexive about her High-WASP upbringing, I know that many of my behavioural patterns were set long ago and I think it's worth tracing those roots.

I've told you before that I'm the oldest of twelve children (ten natural, two adopted) in a working/middle class family -- my father was a Public Servant, a tradesman (chef, actually) who worked his way up to a supervisory/administrative position; my mother taught elementary school for a few years before staying at home to raise us. Single modest income, very large family, my parents did a great job of keeping us well fed and well clothed frugally -- as the oldest, I would get new clothes more than my siblings who relied on hand-me-downs, but all of us wore second-hand often, either from church rummage sales or from helpful friends. Regular cow's-milk-in-a-carton was something I only had at my grandma's and I considered it a treat -- at home, we mixed powdered milk with water, and I swear, there is really nothing you can do to make that taste good, nothing! We did use canned milk -- for tea, for baking, for sauces -- and when it went on sale as a loss leader at the local grocery store, my sibs and I would be charged with taking the "7 for a dollar" through the checkout, to get around the one per order restriction and load up. We did the same for margarine -- although my mother couldn't stomach the stuff and always had her own private stash of butter (which, interestingly, I never thought of resenting, never even thought of dipping into on the sly -- it was sacrosanct, and it seemed obvious that she was entitled beyond question).

My dad occasionally retold a story of an evening when I was 3 or 4 and my grandparents were going to babysit myself, my two younger brothers, and my little sister. Cleaning up a bit before heading out to the movies, Dad threw some papers into the fire, realizing too late that he'd caught up the two-dollar bill that was going to pay for the evening's entertainment. They settled for a walk on their own instead, having emptied the coffers.

So given that they were operating such a tight ship, money-wise, my parents were very observant about how we spent any money that came our way. Very observant. Very strict. If, for example, we found a pop bottle on the way home, we were not to cash it in, as our neighbourhood and school friends would do, for two cents' worth of candy at the corner store. We tried this once, explaining to our mom that the owner wouldn't redeem bottles for cash, only for goods, and we got in trouble. Next time, she insisted, we should ask for something useful, a packet of seeds, for example, which she'd noticed they stocked. (In case that you think the redemption of pop bottles is an odd or esoteric item to include in a discussion of money, you've never been part of a family whose patriarch would brake and pull over if he saw a bottle that needed to be retrieved; you've probably never piled up cases of bottles into an old wagon and lugged them back to a depot for cash, either.)

We did occasionally get an allowance, depending on what books mom had been borrowing from the library, what child-care methods she was trying out (Cheaper by the Dozen had a noticeable influence!) -- again, sensible spending was the watchword, and I remember stocking up on stationery at the local Woolworth's -- amazing what you could buy for a quarter "back," as the kids say, "in the day." But rather than rely on an allowance, I started baby-sitting for cash somewhere around 11 or 12 (not surprisingly, I was very competent with little ones, even at that age), and also had a paper route. The summer I turned 14, I picked strawberries, then raspberries, then beans, then blueberries, and my siblings and I did more of that over the next several summers, banking some of the money individually, but also pooling our resources to contribute to a family tent-trailer and a boat. Also starting when I was 14, I started working as a page in the children's department of our municipal library -- $1.15 an hour, an amazing sum! I saved up, that year, for a flight to England to visit my other grandma.

Even with this money I earned on my own, though, my parents continued to exercise strict control. They had a formula for our earnings: a third for spending; a third for banking; and a third for family. For several months in high school, in fact, I stopped by their bank once a month to pay fifty dollars against their mortgage. From the perspective of 2010, this sounds unlikely, but readers who are my contemporaries will probably note that it was an unusual expectation at the time as well. I don't remember ever resenting it, though, and I think I even prided myself on my contributions. What I did mind was that they would ever comment on how I spent the third that was my pocket money. There was so much control in that household that earning my own money, paying my own way, having things I didn't have to ask for, sometimes even things I would keep hidden, was very important.

This attitude towards money, the equation of earning with independence, the refusal to relinquish that independence, may have had something to do with my dropping out of university the first time round, in my second year. I had a part-time job after hours in the veterinary clinic of a family friend -- 30 hours a week. Since I lived at home and had earned scholarships to cover my tuition, I could have managed without the job. Having it, though, allowed me to buy and maintain my beloved Sunbeam Imp -- more independence! -- but the twice-daily 45-minute drive, the long work hours all eventually proved too much competition with classes and I finally gave up school and got a full-time clerical position. I moved from one job to another, working my way to a better and better pay cheque and when Pater and I married, I was the one with the chequing account and the credit rating; he finished his B.Sc. and I kept bringing home the proverbial bacon. When we switched roles so that I could stay home with our first daughter, I was insistent that I manage the money and relieved that he hadn't the slightest interest in taking over. Not earning my own funds was perhaps the most difficult part of being a stay-at-home mom, even though Pater was loud and clear about believing that my work was as valuable as his, that I had earned an equal share of his income. Administering the bank accounts at least let me hang on to that sense of independence that was so important, even though I would occasionally feel like a fraud at it. I was much happier when I started building my piano/music theory studio and again having independently-earned funds.

All of which is to say, this lengthy preamble, that we have always deposited any individual earnings into our joint accounts and that I have always been the one to keep track of what goes in and what comes out of those accounts. Pater is not one of those men who like his toys; he's not keen on shopping; and his idea of money management used to be to take out $50 and then manage until three days after spending it all before getting out another $50. He trusts me to be responsible with our money, and he doesn't say too much about the new pairs of shoes. I used to be meticulous about my chequebook ledger, recording all deposits, making note of each cheque, balancing the book at the end of each month when the bank statement arrived. I did that month after month for decades and now, of course, it's a thing of the past. Instead, ever since a bundle of erroneous charges totalling $800 went through my MasterCard a few years ago, I take a minute each morning to check my statement on line. This works very well for feeling secure about credit card fraud, but I have to tell you: it takes the surprise out of the Christmas gifts!

Which is where my long preamble ends. Next post, the short story and the boots. I'll try not to keep you waiting too long . . . Saturday, perhaps?


Deja Pseu said...

I can really relate to your feeling of income = independence, even though our family upbringings were quite different.

Looking forward to hearing about the boots!

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

What an interesting post...I too had hand me downs but they were from a rich cousin and were of higher quality than my parents purchased for me!
It is so true that our attitudes towards money are formed early.
You'll be getting to wear those boots a lot with our weather of late! See your boots soon.

indigo16 said...

Although funds were very tight in my house too, I also began earning at a young age and funded most of my needs myself.
Sadly having been so good at home I let it all fall apart later on and in the end lost my share of the house. It was not necessary but probably inevitable when you are bringing up children on your own.
I really admire your housekeeping even now although I am no longer in debt, I want to vomit before checking my bank account.
I hope your next story is about the purchase of some nifty boots though!
Hope you had a good New Year I think posting longer but less is a great idea I have noticed that about many of my posts and I quite enjoy the structure you can get with a longer post too,
Best wishes Alison
P.S glad you liked the trees, that seems a long time ago now!

LPC said...

Take your time, please. I am enjoying the unfolding. Stories are what we have in the second half of our life. To tell as lived, or to make anew.

Duchesse said...

I find financial histories compelling. This is fascinating (maybe even more than the boot reveal). How people handle money reveals a great deal about their family's values, and shapes them, as you have noted.

Contributing to your parents' mortgage: you are the first person I've heard of who's done this as a teen.

Some parents now permit their kids to live at home (with no financial contribution) well into their 30s and then wonder why the kids are so "entitled".

Lesley said...

Loved this!
And if you show me your boots, I'll show you mine (when they come)!

materfamilias said...

Pseu: Bet you can guess what company the boots are from . . .
Hostess: If I had any rich cousins, I didn't know about them . . .
Alison: Being single with kids has got to be a huge financial challenge and turns all our best plans upside down. I'm grateful I've never had to scramble like that. And yes, I loved the trees!
LPC: Indeed -- puzzling out those stories from the first half of life becomes my big preoccupation on this side of 50.
Duchesse: In looking back, I never feel resentful about having to be so careful and responsible about money when I was young, but instead, I guess, somewhat proud of the skills and attitudes I learned. I've tried to pass some of that along with fairly reasonable success.
Lesley: Thanks for the enthusiasm! Feels like a bit of a departure for me and I worry a bit about boring readers. I look forward to a mutual unveiling of the boots!

Angie Muresan said...

First of all, I am so glad you are back!
Secondly, my dad and his seven siblings had a very similar financial upbringing to yours. They all had to contribute 1/3 of their income to the family fund as houses in the country they were born in had to be paid off upon purchasing.
My dad hated having to contribute though. He never asked us for a dime and our allowances were plenty and generous. His good intentions didn't have good results. All five of us kids grew up disrespecting money and running though vast amounts in the shortest possible time.
We learned the hard way, I suppose.

La Belette Rouge said...

You got me hooked! I can't wait to see where the preamble leads to. My fantasy is that there has been a purchase that is in sharp contrast to all you learned about money. I notice that this what I am hoping for.

Mardel said...

Hmm, I am interested in where this is going with the boots, that were perhaps a surprise and not a surprise? I think our histories make such interesting stories, including the financial ones.

Things were not as tight in my family, but they were not easy either and although I did not have to contribute to the general fund with my earnings, I did have to save and I grumbled at parental monitoring of how I did spend the portion that was supposed to be "mine". Even so those lessons were well learned and I have always been independent and careful, always saving and putting aside, even though, at stages in my life, I have been able to make some pretty frivolous purchases. This saving mentality is something my DH and I have in common as he was around 10 when his family lost everything trying to leave Europe in the early days of WWII. We can both be quite generous with our funds, but only because we are confident that we have also been quite frugal.

Your comment on the Christmas gifts made me smile though, as I now handle all our finances and my DH is unfortunately no longer able to handle his own account without help. Not only do I know what is in the bill, I probably had to help him finalize the payment. I remind myself that it is the thought that counts, surprise or not.

Anonymous said...

My parents grew up in the Depression and funds were very tight. My grandmother used to make dresses for my mother from the sacks flour and sugar came in. There is also a family recipe for a milk and egg free cake.

Until I was about 12, my parents were just making it with four girls. We all shopped with my oldest sister; we all wore her hand me downs. My father took pension benefits when negotiating his salary, whereas many of his colleagues opted for silver water jugs, and famous Canadian paintings.

But, you are the second teenager I have heard of who paid the rent or mortgage. My father took three jobs in grade 9 to help pay the bills; again during the depression, so it's not quite the same as you doing it. He was quite proud he could help his mother out, and you should be proud of what you've done.

The preamble is great!


materfamilias said...

Angie: Funny, isn't it, the way we lurch from generation to generation trying to correct or tweak what our parents did, instead often merely making a different set of mistakes. Although I'm not sure your dad's way was a mistake -- learning the hard way is sometimes the best way to learn!
LBR: So you won't be surprised if . . .
Mardel: Although our financial histories are different, sounds as if we share some traits -- and you've come closest to sussing out the direction of my story . . .
Christine: My parents and my in-laws grew up in the Depression as well, and the lessons learned in those years reverberate for a long, long time.

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