Did Your Family Talk About Money?

I’m so curious about how people come to end up with financial literacy. Of course you might learn along the way, but the earlier you learn about money and get really comfortable managing it, the bigger advantage you’d have.

It seems fairly obvious that the more financial literacy a person has, the better they are able to manage their money, and oversee both large and small scale financial decisions. Over the last few years I’ve learned a lot, mainly by researching and learning as I’ve come across new situations. Still though, it feels like it’s hard to know if my knowledge base is adequate (the old “you don’t know what you don’t know”). For bigger decisions and long term planning we’ve turned to experts, but that kind of help is not available day-to-day.

While I was growing up, we talked about money quite a bit without really digging into the details, if that makes sense. Even when I was very little it was clear to me that my Mom and Dad managed their money well- we went on annual vacations, enjoyed weekly dinners out with friends, and my sister and I had dance and piano lessons. We didn’t talk about how much money they made or really about how much abstract things (housing, aforementioned vacations, childcare) cost. My Mom and Dad would say things like “of course you can go on the field trip, it’s only $20” but also “if you like your lifestyle you’re going to have to work very hard” and “you’re crazy if you think you’re getting $100 jeans”. They made it clear that I would need to work and save (and they set a really good example of saving). When I started working I was really focused on saving a lot, and honestly kind of struggled with always feeling worried in the back of my mind that I wasn’t doing enough.

A few months into my first year of practice, though, I met a patient- we’ll call her Jane. Jane was in her late 50’s and coming in because she couldn’t sleep. We started to talk about her sleep patterns and I began to get the sense that there was some underlying stressor that was contributing. I probed a little but nothing- nice home, fulfilling job, supportive partner, until… money. She said “well, I’m just worried about retirement. I think I’m going to have to work well into my 70’s. Did you know that you need about a million dollars to retire?”

(PSA- this may not be quite true for you – lots of factors go into determining that number. Get personalized advice! This article about typical retirement savings is helpful, as is this one about saving and the FIRE movement).

It took me a minute to realize that Jane was learning this for the first time really late in the game. Jane and her partner are otherwise thriving. It seemed hard to believe that no one had ever talked to her about money and planning for the future, but she just shrugged. “We didn’t really talk about money growing up, and as an adult it always seemed to me like we were doing fine”.

Of course, I don’t think it makes sense to burden children with worrying about money or complicated details of managing household finances, but it seems like there is a sweet spot for sharing knowledge and building life skills. In the end, I sent Jane home with a number for a financial planner, practical resources, and no medication. Last I talked to her, she and her husband were figuring out a path forward, which included the likely sale of their home in favour of something smaller, but also a lot less anxiety. And step one was talking about it.

So now I’d like to know- did your family talk about money? Do you think you learned more from that or from personal experience? Do you think you’d do things differently if you had (or have!) a family of your own?

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