What Helped You Become Financially Aware?

by Kentin Waits on 22 January 2013 6 comments

We all know people who, while being fantastic and otherwise brilliant human beings, just aren’t good with money. For whatever reason, they haven’t embraced a financially-responsible lifestyle and are anything but strategic about saving. It’s as if these folks missed the Money Management 101 curriculum that echoes in the back of our own minds. It prompts the question — why are some people financially aware and others seemingly blissfully ignorant? (See also: A Beginner's Guide to Frugal Living)

My Financial Wake-Up

I think my own turning point with money began at the tender age of 13.

As the youngest son of an older father (he was 52 when I was born. And before you ask, no, I wasn’t an “oops” baby), I was eligible to receive dependent benefits from Social Security when my dad turned 65. My parents, evidently seeing some seed of responsibility in me, allowed me to manage this modest monthly windfall all on my own.

Once a Saver, Always a Saver

Now, to a child of 13 back in 1982, $120 and some change each month was some serious cabbage.

I already had a bank account by that time, but now I had a reason to pay attention to it. I remember filling in those old bank passbooks (long extinct now), and although I wasn’t sure what my goal for the cash was at the time, I knew it was important to save it.

I didn’t do anything particularly brilliant to make the balance grow more quickly, and I didn’t leverage it to start a highly-profitable childhood business (what kind of young capitalist was I?). But in spite of my slow-and-steady approach, something kind of wonderful happened — I become aware of money. I logged my deposits and the interest religiously, watched the balance grow, and understood what I could afford and what I couldn’t.

I received those checks every month until I turned 18. During those five intervening years, nearly without realizing it, I began to understand the potential of money, the power of saving, and the amount of time it takes to build a nest egg. Combined with the part-time jobs I had during high school (candy counter clerk, fundraiser for the local police department, janitor, and kitchen helper at a nursing home, to name a few), I put some serious mileage on that little savings passbook.

Was It Me or the Money?

Now, so many years later, I wonder how much that early exposure to money helped to shape my choices and define my financial style. Would any amount of money have had the same effect, or was it precisely due to feeling responsible for an amount I considered substantial at the time? I’m not sure I know the answer. But I am glad I had the opportunity to experience some fiscal responsibility so early in life and feel like that little passbook held a hefty enough sum to smooth my first few teetering steps into adulthood.

Financial awareness can come from all sorts of things — early exposure to money, financial hardship, an inheritance, or a loss. How those situations are presented to us and how we respond to them can make all the difference in the world. It leads us to websites like this as part of a smooth journey or as an unexpected destination after a bumpy and wild ride.

What moments in your life helped shape your current relationship with money? What led you here as a fan of this site or this topic? Did your childhood help set up you up for healthy relationship with money later in life, or did you have to overcome some negative modeling before you found your groove? Let the rest of us know in comments below. 

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Edward

Good article! Hahaha... I can just imagine somebody leaning over to see the balance of a 13-year old's passbook and being shocked that it was more than they themselves had. $120 in the 80s *was* serious moola!

I've always been fairly frugal and for all my working career I put away my 10-15% (as everyone recommends) like a good little squirrel. However, after seeing my retirement investments flounder, lose some value, or do absolutely nothing at all, I decided about 3 years ago to take it into my own hands and learn all this stuff. 'Cause it seemed to me that nobody cared about my money as much as I did--certainly not the advisers. Once they had the initial investment, they could care less about the returns.

Last year I decided to get tough. 15% isn't really that much. I boosted my saving to 30% (no noticeable change in lifestyle), 42% (still no noticeable change in lifestyle), and now I'm at 50-55% savings. It's radical, but seeing my net worth go so quickly off the charts has been well worth it. There's lots of resources out there that tell people how to save that much.

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Mario

Not a straightforward answer for me. Arguably, what ultimately led me down this path was seeing my own family's struggle with finances (and the many resulting arguments from it) and me vowing I won't end in the same situation.

But what truly gave me the knowledge I needed to actually upkeep that vow is the Internet. It began small;I'd search Google for 'best credit cards', 'how debit cards work', and etc. The initial questions soon led to bigger questions -- 'How does FICO work', 'how does IRAs work', etc -- which made me began frequenting personal finance forums (e.g. Reddit, FatWallet, etc) which then led to me frequenting personal finance websites (e.g. WiseBread).

Without both of the above, I'd be in a much worse situation (no desire to be responsible and no knowledge to be).

Here's a funny thing, though, video games probably played a huge part in how well I took to learning personal finance.

Well, not necessarily the games themselves, but the community. When I was younger, I would hang around forums and I would get into discussions/arguments that would last hours or, in some cases, span days. What's important, though, was that the arguments had a lot of technical aspects. I would argue the financials of video game companies, statistical information regarding the possibility that one of my favorite games would do well, sales information to back up my claims that so-and-so company sucks, price/performance ratios of various products, etc. Basically, financials (albeit corporate financials) and their importance became second nature to me.

It was all entirely in fun (otherwise, the impatient little kid me would definitely not be searching heavily for company financials and market analyst opinions), but the structure of it all really helped me get attuned to learning personal finance later on.

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Liisa Rettedal

I had a dad who was a control freak with money (frugal to a fault), a mom who as a result went nuts with money after their divorce in my teens, an ill-timed inheritance from my grandmother that I partially squandered, and then a pretty big hole I ended up in in college.

What turned me around was getting diagnosed with fibromyalgia 7 years ago... it completely disrupted my life when I couldn't work for a month and had to look my debts in the face. Since then I've paid off my credit card and tax debts, paid cash to marry a frugal man, paid cash for a vacation or two, paid off both cars and a few things we made payments on monthly, and now am about to seriously tackle student loans.

I value financial freedom so much more now than instant gratification, and although having significant health issues isn't fun, I'm glad for the way it stopped me in my tracks and spurred me on towards change!

Kentin Waits's picture

Edward -- Wow. Saving 50-55% of your income is amazing (and inspirational). Mario -- thanks for sharing your story too. It shows that knowledge and community can come from the most unexpected places.

Guest's picture

I understood the importance of money when I did part time job in college. In schooling time, my parent gives me money for pocket expenses so I had no need of extra money but in college my expenses increased and I decided to do part time job. I started saving money for future expenses thus it has become my habit that is continue so far.

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Jason

I became financially aware when I was 23. It was about a year after starting my first engineering job. I went to high school and college during the booming 90's when all investments made money and companies were actively competing to hire new engineering grads. So I had started the job, bought two cars and a house, and my wife had just started grad school. Then in 2002 came the first round a layoffs at my company. I looked our finances and calculated how long I could pay our bills if I lost my job. The answer was 3 weeks. THAT was a wake up call and was the push my wife and I needed to get serious about getting out of debt and saving money. I didn't get laid off and over the next 5 years cut spending to the bone to pay off our mountain of debt and build savings.