The cost of financial illiteracy

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

Money is up for me right now.

It has been for a while.

It has been forever, actually.

But, in different ways.

I’m 51 years old, and I’m still financially illiterate. But, to my credit, I’m less so than I was five years ago. I’m making strides, albeit perhaps — nay, not perhaps — certainly — too slowly.

It’s expensive being financially illiterate. This is because not only will you not see opportunities but others who do will not hesitate to take advantage of your naivete, innocence, or stupidity.

Certain people, when they see money left on the table, simply pocket it. A lot of people, actually.

Others will connive to get it out of your pocket. They won’t wait for it to appear on the table.

A lot of them will do this.

Our society seems to not only accept this as the possible cost of doing business, but to encourage it. In fact, what am I saying. It blatantly encourages taking advantage of people’s trust, using it against them as a weapon, weaponizing it, in fact, to earn a buck.

Advertising to children, for example. Tony the Tiger on the Frosted Flakes box. Sea Monkeys on the backs of the cereal boxes. Children clamoring for these things, driving their parents crazy. Advertisers undermining families. Undermining the parent-child relationship.

And that’s innocuous, comparatively speaking.

That’s small beans.

I read about the massive, chilling fleecing of the immigrant taxi driver community in the New York Times over the weekend. The Ponzi scheme of the taxi medallions. The way these rich, “smart” people took supreme, disgusting advantage of folks who came here seeking a better life for their families.

It’s a terrible article. Taxi drivers with “loans” of a million dollars and up. “Little more than indentured servitude” said the article.


Yet, will anyone do anything?

I doubt it. Taxi drivers are committing suicide in droves in New York. They are heart-broken. They sacrificed their health, their savings, their hopes and dreams.

Did they read the fine print on the contracts pushed toward them? Of course not. Most of them could not read English. Quite possibly, more than a handful could not read in any language.

Oh, they should have known better, we say.

Survival of the fittest, we say.

Now, someone close to me, who turned 50 last week, someone I love very much, finds himself 100-grand in debt to credit cards. He’s defaulted on everything, including his car loan.

He’s scared and beleaguered.

Was it his fault?

Of course it was.

Does that make it okay?

I don’t think so.

This person is close to me and suffers from the same messed-up financial education I received.

How did we get it so bad? So wrong?

What exactly did our parents do that set all of their kids so terribly askew in the financial realm?

I mean, our lives went and have gone terribly askew in other directions too. Financial is just one aspect.

One of us is in jail at the moment. Yep. Of course, that’s a whole other story.

The weaving bits of life, this tapestry that makes up a life — it can be hard to pull into one frame, one piece. Every thread relates to and depends upon the next.

Still, the topic of the hour is finances.

And my family’s abysmal track record with them. A track record I began trying to change about five years ago, at least for myself. And which I realize only now, as I write, that I have not sunk my teeth into seriously enough, even yet.

I’m quite warped about it, actually. I can only speak for myself. I don’t know for sure how other members of my family feel, what they’ve observed or thought about it, what they believe contributes to this peculiar and perverse desire, almost, for financial insolvency, as if it’s a badge of some sort, some bizarre point of pride.

I don’t think that’s far from the truth, actually.

I’ve wondered for the past few years if it’s possible it’s a Catholic thing. An Irish Catholic thing? My mother was Irish, and Catholic, born of immigrants from Counties Cork and Kerry. She grew up in what was a modest, working-class house in Redwood City, California — a house that now would command a $2 million price tag, I kid you not.

Her father was a switchman for Southern Pacific Railway, her mom — an alcoholic “homemaker.” Based on the very few stories I’ve heard about my grandmother, I think she did her utmost to dissolve any sense of home my grandfather tried to create for his two young daughters.

My mom excelled in school and attended Stanford University on full scholarship. She became the youngest society editor in the nation and was listed in Who’s Who in America more than once. She was a journalist. Politically liberal, a proud union supporter. She married my dad, a graduate of California Maritime Academy and a merchant marine.

Somehow, they bought a house in Piedmont. It’s true, the house was “only” $80,000 (or was it 60?), but as someone recently pointed out to me, this was while houses in Oakland were likely $30,000, or less. They had a little money, from where I know not. My dad’s parents were rather eccentric and asked for gold coins as gifts when they got married. They owned a little land once upon a time in Dulzura, near San Diego, California. Maybe they gave my parents a little money.

As it happened, I grew up in Piedmont, in a very large, elegant house on Highland Avenue within an extraordinarily rich community that only got richer — and rapidly — over the years. I went to school with the Coors’, the Kaisers, the Huntingtons, the Websters, the Knowlands. Yes, that Coors, that Kaiser, that Huntington, that Webster, and that Knowland. My first boyfriend was an heir to the Van de Kamp (frozen fish sticks, anyone?) fortune. His neighbor down the street, an only child, lived in a converted convent with 21 bedrooms.

You get the idea.

My dad had a cool car, once. He had a 1965 olive-green Mustang. My mom made him sell it when kids began to be born. It wasn’t a kid car. Then came the gold Buick, the bright yellow Chevy station wagon, the turd-brown Chrysler with the peeling vinyl roof.

I was forever dying of embarrassment when my parents brought us to school in these cars, as soon as it dawned on me that my family was “different” from many of the those around us, who dropped their kids off in sleek foreign luxury cars, or later, who’s kids drove themselves to school in nimbler versions of those same cars.

Our parents were different in other ways too.

My mom was a drunk, for one thing.

She was a talented journalist, and then, when she could not longer balance the two pursuits, she became a masterful drunk, determined to end her life by way of alcohol poisoning. It took some doing. She managed to finish herself off with cirrhosis a couple of decades later, when I was 27. In other words, our entire childhoods were steeped in the (super fun, I’m here to tell you) peregrinations and shenanigans of a very drunk, very angry, roving person hell-bent on blaming her offspring for her troubles.

That’s about the long and short of it.

What does money have to do with all of this?

I’m not sure. I do know that the contradictions of my childhood were of fun-house proportions. For example, we had pastel Easter dresses (and a suit) every year. Christmas dresses (and a suit). Matching pajamas for the annual Christmas picture.

We had elegant Dalmatians with names like Domino and Dandy. We had a veritable mansion with a “foyer” as big as my current living room. That foyer let onto a front room, which let onto a massive living room, massive dining room, a sun room, a bar, plus the kitchen. That was the first floor.

Yet, fights about money were common. As a merchant marine, my father would be gone for as many as eight months at a time. My mother was still working then. I can’t imagine how tired she was, with four children under the age of six and a full-time job. A full-time job with no allowances for family, in fact, with a strict, unspoken directive that this career was inappropriate for a mother, that she should just get lost.

She felt she had to go back to work immediately after giving birth, and she was probably right. She would most likely have lost her job entirely if she didn’t pretend kids were nothing, kids were no drag on her at all, inconsequential. She got a shot to dry up her milk — not uncommon in those days, I guess — deposited us in the nanny-of-the-day’s arms, and returned to her beat.

Several times in my childhood, my father tried to leave the merchant marine, presumably so he could be home to help raise us. The trouble was, he had poor luck on the job market, it seems. I remember him trying to start businesses several times. They were usually strange ventures buttressed by an air of the get-rich-quick scheme. He’d sign on with someone with wild promises, all excited, be taken advantage of, fleeced in other words, and then… and then, I don’t know what. Maybe that’s when he’d binge-drink.

You see, he was an alcoholic too, but I didn’t see that for a long time because he was a binge drinker whereas my mom was a daily, hourly, constantly drinker. Because my dad was sometimes sober, I didn’t register the problem.

I did know that there were scary times when he’d be home, sitting at the dining room table surrounded by stacks of paper. He’d smoke cigars and talk on the phone for what seemed like hours. As he did so, his face would change. His eyelids would droop. His voice would change. Then, he’d rove around the house for a while, screaming for us to fold the laundry.

Sometimes this was fun. When we watched Wonder Woman, he’d stop by the upstairs master bedroom, see what we were watching on the TV, and say, “Call me when she turns.”

When she began to turn, one of us would run to the top of the stairs and yell, “She’s turning, she’s turning!”

He’d be there in a flash, just in time to see Linda Carter emerge in all her glory, in her tight red, white, and blue shining suit, cinched in hard at the waist.

By early afternoon, he’d be asleep (“passed out,” my mom said) on the long white couch under the window. She loved when my father was “passed-out,” presumably because it made her drinking okay. That’s what I surmise now, from this distance. All I saw then was that it pleased her. She gloated. It gave her currency.

I remember my dad driving, with his eyelids “at half-mast,” my mother screaming, “You’re drunk,” while he raised and dropped his shoulders violently and repeatedly in a futile effort to stay awake. I would focus on those shoulders, trying to keep him awake by sheer force of will.

My mother was scathing. Her words, her epithets, burned. What can I say? She was a word-person. She knew how to wield words as weapons. She screamed at him constantly, calling him loser, candy-ass, and all kinds of other fun, clever names. I wish I could remember them all. The list would be a source of hilarity now. At the time, it was just terrifying.

She called us different names, but we all shared the “loser” moniker. We were more often simply “failures.” She’d tell us this somberly over candle-lit dinners, where we were her captive audience. We were really little. Our feet didn’t touch the floor.

She’d grow “maudlin,” as my dad would say later — a stage in the alcoholic journey I learned more than I’d ever like to know about. She’d expound ad nauseam on her dramatic talent and success, her intelligence, her brilliance, her awards, and then look at us witheringly and say, “What happened to you?”

We embarrassed her.

But, I digress. None of this is about money.

Or is it? The dinners — they are, maybe. My mom was a great cook, an important consolation for the abuse we suffered, and something I credit for my sensitivity to good food today. Thank you, Mom.

(“Mom” — that word is unfamiliar to me. Every time I say it, I feel like a traitor. What is a “mom”? She was terrifying. She was not “mom.” But I did use this word to address her, out of duty, and because it was expected and “normal.”)

She never skimped on food, that was for sure. She made whatever she liked, and rarely the same thing twice. We had beef bourguignon, vichyssoise, and consomes up the yin-yang.

She was obsessed with Julia Child.

She was society editor of the San Francisco Chronicle for years. It was her job to go to (extremely) fancy rich people’s parties — my dad would accompany her — and write about how winning they were.

I remember my parents getting ready for these parties in the evenings. I remember the dread mounting in me. My mom wore glittering afghans or cocktail dresses. She’d curl her eyelashes in this scary metal cage. She’d glance at me in the mirror, where I made myself as small as possible in the corner. Her eye peered out from the metal.

I remember the horrid smell and acrid burning in my nostrils of Right Guard deodorant.

My dad described, marveling, of how he’d return to the paper’s offices with my mom after these parties. She’d plop down at a typewriter and type an entire article, complete, just like that, and file it — a first draft. Much the way I write today. I do have her to thank for this. Thanks, Mom.

I’ve often wondered what that did to my mom, though — attending those parties, pretending to like those people, pretending to BE like them. She was beautiful, svelte (at least in the beginning). She had the most beautiful legs in the world. Quite possibly so. I know, because I inherited them. More than once in my twenties, thirties, and even once in my forties, men approached me on the street to say I had the most beautiful legs they’d ever seen. My mom told me this happened to her too. More than once.

My mom was proud of her legs. But she was more proud to be an Irish woman who believed in unions, blue collar labor, who was a sucker for the underdog.

That was a point of pride for her. One I inherited.

And underdogs aren’t rich. They don’t know how to work the levers of money.

Because, you see, they are too good for that.

Is it a Catholic thing? An Irish thing? A liberal thing? This distrust of money? I have wondered in recent years if it’s a midieval thing — some vestige from the 1500s or something… that certain people were “above” money. Some sort of weird noblesse oblige.

My mother insisted on shopping at Piedmont Grocery my entire life, a nauseatingly expensive food store — it’s still there and still ridiculous. But it’s comfortable (in part because it’s staffed by non-threatening employees who understand the old world order. Butchers who are Italian, for example. It’s a sensibility.).

My mom liked having her personal butcher. She liked pretty labels and interesting vessels. She always picked the food jars with the most whimsical art, the most unusual shapes. Her pantry had to be pretty.

To her credit, in the 60s and 70s when other moms, especially other working moms (of which there were almost none in Piedmont) eagerly bought all the newest food trends, she insisted on real food. She never bought SpaghettiOs and such, even though we begged for this crap. She never bought Wonder Bread, even though we were “so embarrassed” because all of our friends got Wonder Bread sandwiches at school, and we had weird bread with seeds in it.

I took bites of my friend Jennifer’s Wonder Bread PBJs and liked the way the gummy dough stuck to the roof of my mouth like a communion wafer. In contrast, my sandwiches were — I kid you not — more often than not liverwurst. Which I love now. Or egg salad. In kindergarten, I lost a tooth in an egg salad sandwich.

She was demoted several times, my mom, as her dedication to drinking outgrew her love of journalism. As she relinquished any semblance of managing her life or family.

My dad got involved with a trucking company. One day I came home from school and found him terrifyingly deflated at the table. He told me the trucks had been found at the side of a highway in Mexico, completely stripped.

There was some kind of fish farm. There were the Nikken magnets, later, which broke my heart entirely. Seeing my dear merchant marine father with hands as big as baseball mitts sitting bewildered amidst a sea of aging hippies in tie dye at some weird convention at the venerable Cow Palace brought me to tears.

There were several other ventures too. I don’t remember them all. I do remember my mom calling him an idiot on every possible occasion. I do remember standing beside him at Christmas, guarding him from my mother and any of her relatives who “didn’t like” my dad.

It was my job to protect him. I did it well.

Let’s not forget the Get Rich Quick books all over the house. And the white book with pink writing on the shelf in the living room which my dad pulled out and thrust at me every couple of years. The booked was titled “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

We went skiing every winter when we were little. We vacationed at the beach — local beaches, but still.

In my teens, however, there were several years when we weren’t allowed to turn on the heat in winter. Fights about money were constant. My dad said my mom spent all the money. I can’t remember her buying much more than clothes and food (and booze of course), but she had no limits when it came to this stuff.

Pyramid schemes. That’s what my dad was involved in. Many of them, over the years.

It must be a toxic cocktail, this combination. It clearly is, judging from how my parent’s children are doing. This combination of a dad who was taken for rides constantly by people meaner, cleverer, and greedier than him; a mom with no regard for money or saving, a liberal, blue-collar, underdog sensibility, and a job venerating the fun times of the very rich; and a surrounding community of “old-money” children.

Oh, yes, “old money” versus “new money.” We can’t forget that. That was a big theme. My parents had immense disdain for “new money.” “Nouveau riche,” they called these people, and they were obviously the height of tackiness. It was much better to be dirt-poor and honest than to be “nouveau riche.” In our house, the term was used repeatedly. It’s an interesting word for a child to know.

There was a tacit and total distrust for — nay, contempt of — anything even bordering on nouveau riche.

My mom’s job was to mingle with, party with, and celebrate the antics of the very rich… what must that have been like? How did that contribute to our weird relationship with money? A unique and detrimental cocktail, as I’ve said. One we haven’t even begun to parse, I’m afraid.

Still, I am fortunate. I discovered Mr. Money Mustache a few years ago. I read him voraciously. For the first time, I got a glimmer of a kind of frugality that wasn’t tacky or gross or painful. One that, on the contrary, was planet-saving, values-oriented, ethical. This new sheen painted over the dreaded frugality concept allowed me to embrace it. It was very important. I felt like I was part of a movement. One I could really get behind.

Five years later, we are definitely doing better. I have a buffer in the checking account — a rare thing indeed. I have some stocks. I have some retirement savings. Nothing big, mind you. I don’t have a passive income yet. I don’t have a second property, though my goal is to acquire one. But, I have goals and dreams, and I’m making progress.

Like the taxi drivers I mentioned at the beginning of this article, though, I am still woefully financially illiterate. Like my mom who refused to look at prices, but only at pretty labels, I — up to now — have literally felt I was too good to even think about, let alone learn about, let alone master, TAXES. As a result, I have been fleeced every year by my own government because I haven’t known how to protect myself.

Just yesterday, at the ripe age of 51, I googled “how to save on taxes.” For the first time.

But at least I did it.

I gave thousands of dollars to credit card companies for years. It seemed to be the price of existence. But for the last five, I have not done this. I carry no credit card debt, and I’m proud of this.

I have much work to do. Much work to understand myself and my hangups around money — about what is too much, what is too little, what is ethical, what is not. I have much work to do before I can believe I’m worthy of feeling secure. Of making myself and my loved ones so. But I am committed to doing just that.

In fact, I’m committed to doing more than that. Incredibly — and for this I have only God or whatever form God may take, to thank — my son was not born with my affliction. He has immense financial sense. So does my daughter. They (half-jokingly) kid that I scared the bejesus out of them so many times that of course they are financially astute and conservative.

I didn’t realize I had scarred them so deeply, but it’s true that there were at least a couple of times when I couldn’t pay the grocery bill, or I had to scrounge around for gas money. I never intentionally burdened them, but somehow they gleaned the situation through the air. As kids do.

The knowledge that my kids and others I love referred to in this article will need me — that my ex, also, will need me, as he’s ill — spurs me on to master money to the best of my ability.

It’s interesting that it’s only because I will be able — nay, I must — help others that I can get my head and heart around EARNING and PRESERVING money. That, you see, is part of the weird noblesse oblige or what have you. It’s not for me, you see… oh, no! It’s for others! I’m a saint, I must save the others!

It will be a journey, this effort to get over extremely weird money hangups. You’re invited to join me. And to chime in with insight! God knows, I need it.