- I grew up working class and learned a good work ethic from my parents.
- But I didn’t learn much else about money, because I’m sure my parents didn’t know anything about financial services.
- Working for a personal finance startup opened my eyes to the ways I could use money to thrive.
When I was around 8 or 9 years old, my parents gave my sister and me our first allowance. We were each responsible for a rotating set of weekly chores, and we each received $3 a week to complete them.
When I was 10 or 11, they stopped the allowance program.
Our parents realized that using money as an incentive meant that we could lose the week’s pay if we didn’t want to do the housework on our list. We were primary school children with parents to feed us, clothe us and house us, so we didn’t need any money. The novelty of erasers and airheads from the school store wore off quickly, and the silver didn’t have much shine.
But the housework still had to be done.
So they withdrew the allowance and instituted a “You do chores because we told you to do chores” policy in its place.
This is the first time I can remember learning anything about money from my parents. Lesson? You work because the work must be done.
We are a rural working family from the Midwest. In our part of Wisconsin, with its German roots and farming families, the work ethic is our moral code.
My parents didn’t teach us much about our country’s financial systems – because, I guess, they were just as much in the dark about them. like most americans are. We haven’t talked about financial services, because they’re not designed for people like us, who weren’t born rich, like my parents said.
My parents taught us to work and that shaped everything I believed about money.
What a “good work ethic” means for your finances
Because it’s in my DNA, I can’t help but consider a strong work ethic a virtue. My efficiency, stoicism and perseverance have earned me the life my parents hoped to have – a life where I earn double what they earned at my age and have the adventures they delayed for us. raise.
But the glorification of the work ethic is insidious. It underpins the millennial hustle culture and ridiculous politics that has stuck us with a federal minimum wage that hasn’t budged in over a decade.
“You do the work because it needs to be done” is the attitude that silenced my mother when she knew she was making less money than her male colleagues while doing more work and honing more skills. to stand out. It motivated my stepfather to be promoted to supervisor in his manufacturing job, only to lose all his union protections — and to turn his bitterness against union workers instead of the system that pits him against them. This convinced my father not to pursue payments due for his construction work, even when his electricity was out.
Operating according to the work ethic means you get by with what you get.
a matter of discipline. You don’t expect more, you don’t spend more than you earn, and you never ask for help.
(Because we are white and able-bodied, we were inherently trained to believe that paid work would be available as long as we were willing to do so.)
Overcoming the internalized budgetary culture
My parents’ disciplined approach to money is pretty much in line with the maxims of budget culture – the mindset that good money management means restriction and deprivation, and financial well-being is about hoarding what you have.
I internalized everything – work hard, ask for nothing, spend nothing, do it yourself. But I didn’t adopt the behaviors. Instead, I became an adult who was bad with money.
I took out student loans for college and quickly ignored them as soon as I left campus. I maxed out one credit card by 24 and stopped asking for more. I lived paycheck to paycheck – spending when I had it and cutting back when I didn’t. I didn’t know my
. I paid 11% interest on a seven-year loan for an $8,000 used car. I paid the maximum security deposit to move into new apartments.
I believed that being good with money meant being content with a boring job and giving up any luxuries or comforts until retirement, and I didn’t want to live that way. The other option seemed to be to throw everything out the window, put my head in the sand and hope for the best.
In 2015, I got my first full-time job as an editor at a personal finance media startup, and everything I believed about money changed. I made a solid living doing creative work that I loved. Also, because of the niche, I was gaining an understanding of financial systems and services that helped me make decisions about money that had nothing to do with discipline or restriction.
I figured out how to have a better relationship with money – on my own terms.
What I wish I had known about money sooner
I will always be grateful for the work ethic I learned from my parents… and I wish I had understood the nuances of money a little earlier in life.
I don’t blame my family or my community for this. Our education system is generally lacking, and it barely rated financial literacy until my generation was done with school. My parents taught me what it takes to thrive when you weren’t born rich.
As an adult, I fought against these lessons until I realized that I didn’t have to put my head in the sand to feel good about money. I could find easy ways to stay on top of my finances without working hard on a budget or sucking all the fun out of my life.
I learned to use my interests and skills to get paid well for a job I loved. I learned to be ambitious. In the world of startups, I’ve learned to expect a level of employee well-being and benefits, so I’ll know to ask for more in the future.
I learned to pay myself first, so I could work on financial goals and spend money for comfort and joy at the same time. I learned that online banking and finance apps can handle the most annoying parts of money management for me.
I learned that finance is a spectrum, and not everyone’s definition of “thrive” is my definition of thriving. I can manage my debt, my savings and my long-term planning as I see fit – and there is so many ways to do it without clashing with financial service providers.
I’ve learned to value my time and my sanity, so I don’t feel guilty when I eat out, pay someone to clean my house, or take a Lyft at the airport. I’ll be happy to rent forever so I’m not the one dealing with a broken washing machine. I will still fund my travel fund, but my IRA may have to wait.
Money shouldn’t be a barrier
When you weren’t born rich, the messages you receive from your community and the culture in general tell you that you don’t deserve it. You’re not meant to do exciting work, earn a living wage, create wealth, enjoy the good things, or live without financial stress. You will work hard and earn money; it’s just the hand that was dealt to you.
Through a bit of financial literacy, I learned that there are a ton of ways to be good with money.
I work hard and expect to be paid well. I spend money, because that’s what it’s for. I use credit cards and loans to ease financial burdens, and I pay them back in a way that matches the life I have designed.
I’m a product of my working-class roots, but I don’t have to follow the rules they taught me.