When I was growing up there were several rights of passages every sibling went through.
In a family with five children, money was tight. My parents wanted to give us everything but understood from their childhoods that we needed to learn the value of a gift and not take it for granted.
Twelve years separated my oldest sister from the youngest brother. The older ones were expected to watch over and help out the younger siblings and we each received a small weekly allowance for specific chores that were age appropriate. My brothers had to take care of the pool and yard. My sister and I, the house. Clearly sexist, but I’d have picked inside work during Tucson summers any day. Whatever extras we wanted had to come from the money we earned- no exceptions. By the time I came into existence (I was the 4th out of 5) my parents learned the importance of sticking to that rule. Plus it made it clear, money wasn’t given, it had to be earned.
When we turned 15 and could apply for a learner’s permit to drive, we each had to prove we could remove a flat tire without assistance, fill the gas tank, check tire pressure, check the water and oil levels, check wipers, etc. We didn’t have to be auto mechanics but we had to know the basics.
Then we had to keep the car properly stocked with emergency needs- a first aid kit, duct tape – (there’s very little that can’t be fixed with duct tape!), a basic tool kit, a gallon can in case we ran out of gas.
Gas was precious back then. In the 70’s we had severe shortages. One summer it was rationed to the point we could only fill up on even or odd days of the month, depending on the last number on our car license plate. I kid you not. I’ll never forget volunteering to wait for hours in a line just so I could drive the car a few minutes when I was fully licensed at 16.
It may sound antiquated and silly, but knowing I had some skills to take care of myself while driving was empowering. The comfort it gave our parents was priceless. In my adult life, an employee once had a flat. When I asked where her jack was she asked, “Who?”.
When we each turned 21, my grandmother gave us a twenty dollar bill. The only requirement? It was to be kept solely for an emergency. My grandmother was horrified to learn that we never carried cash. She believed everyone should have at least a few dollars at all times. Back then everyone didn’t have debit or credit cards. But even today it’s well worth following. Many places frown on getting hit with a 3% processing fee on purchases less than $20.
This gift came with strings- it could never be used for anything else. Not the movies or those incredibly cute earrings. She signed and dated it. Every so often she’d ask to see it. If spent, she asked why. Satisfied with the answer, she always replaced it. I continue to look lovingly at the original 20 dollar bill I still have in my wallet and the memories it invokes.
In our early twenties, my ex and I had no concept of money or how to buy and spend appropriately. If we wanted something we just charged it, too often forgetting that privilege comes with a whopping interest rate. That’s the problem with spending money you don’t have to pay immediately. Those extras build up quickly and before you see it coming, smack you in the face when the bill is due.
One day my grandmother sat us down and explained the importance of never spending what you don’t have, recounting numerous lessons she’d learned early in life with the hopes we’d never have the same experiences. She offered to pay our current bill in full, under the condition we saved something from every paycheck, even if it was just a few pennies, and never casually went into debt again. A promise I have faithfully followed to this day.
After starting our residencies and finally earning a paycheck we devised a way to buy our first house! It was such a momentous occasion. Unfortunately, the next year the roof caved in after a particularly rough monsoon season. The cost to repair was enormous, but the brand new “skylight” couldn’t be ignored. Already at our limit of debt with two medical school student loans due every month, as well as the mortgage, our only option seemed to be maxing our credit cards and paying over 24% the bank called interest. That’s when my father offered to loan us the money. In retrospect I’m not sure he ever expected to see it again (what was he going to do, foreclose on his kids?) but he still made clear it wasn’t a gift. We were so grateful for his generosity and thoughtfulness, the idea of not paying him back never entered our minds. We’d made an agreement. Family didn’t change our commitment or willingness to honor it. He ultimately refused the small amount of interest we wanted to add but did take our monthly payments for the 5 years it took to pay it off.
Back then we weren’t expected to be perfect but we were expected to learn and grow. Failure was considered a part of that process. We were taught to think through our problems and come up with appropriate resolutions under the love, guidance and support of those who cared. The goal was teaching us to become self sufficient adults. Appreciative of those we could depend on and turn to, but never becoming victims or feeling entitled. An incredibly difficult line to walk, but immeasurably gratifying when done well.