Like most parents, Krista and I are doing our best to teach the amigos where money comes from and what its value is. This task is proving to be far more difficult than I’d anticipated.
I grew up the fourth of five, the son of a professor and a stay-at-home mom. We lived in a peaceful and quiet college town. The schools were excellent and the neighborhoods were pleasant. With very few exceptions, my peers’ homes and lives were inconspicuously middle-class. I don’t believe any of my friends worried about where their next meal was coming from.
On the other hand, as we grew older most of us held part-time jobs in order to pay for the “extra” stuff we wanted. At the risk of sending your “cranky geezer meter” into overdrive, I feel obliged to state that my cohort and I possessed a clearer and more accurate sense of what “extra” and “wanted” (as opposed to “needed”) means than the youth of today. When we were in our early teens, a “want” might mean a really expensive (e.g., $20-$30) pair of Converse basketball shoes or a 10-speed Schwinn bicycle. A typical “want” in our final couple of years of high school was a dependable-if-unsightly automobile and gas money plus an insurance policy to go with it.
Oh, sure, I had a couple of friends whose parents were pretty loaded. They were the ones who flew first class to a swanky ski resort in the Rocky Mountains every Christmas break, while there ate EVERY meal in restaurants, and returned to Indiana in early January with bronze faces. Most of us, however, took one or two week vacations in the summer, traveled by family station wagon, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the car (eating at a restaurant was an extravagance which most could afford only rarely), and spent the evenings with relatives scattered around the country or in the bohemian digs of our parents’ former graduate students.
I remember having a discussion with one of my (relatively) wealthy friends when we were in 4th grade. I lamented to him how my father was quite stingy about stopping the car to let my sisters or me pee. “Hold it,” usually delivered in a stone-cold monotone, was dad’s standard reply when one of us started squirming or whimpering in the back of the car. We knew better than to push him on this, for bladder discomfort—even extreme bladder discomfort—was preferable to incurring his wrath.
“Does your dad pull over for you when you find a gas station? Or does he tell you to just hold it?” I asked my friend innocently.
“Hmmm. Honestly, now that I think about it, I’ve never really had that problem. When I have to go I just unbuckle my seat and walk to the back of the plane,” he replied nonchalantly.
Back to the amigos. While they’re a little too sophisticated to believe that money grows on trees, it’s nonetheless apparent that they suffer from a couple of troubling, and potentially dangerous, economic misapprehensions. They seem to believe that we have an unending supply of money, that dollars spontaneously reproduce somehow, somewhere, and that all we need to do to purchase things is to (a) whip out a piece of plastic and stick it in a machine at whatever store we happen to be visiting, (b) whip out a different piece of plastic, stick it in a slot in a machine at the bank, and watch the cash magically appear from an opening directly below the magic card slot, or (c) ask grandma, who tends to be equally magical in her dispensations.
To be fair, their confusion is understandable. They have never seen their mother examine patients’ eyes or remove foreign bodies from same. They’ve never accompanied me to my workplace at the University of Dayton School of Law to witness first-hand how I earn my paycheck. We wake them up, feed them breakfast, nudge them out the door so they can get to school on time, see them a few hours later when they return, feed them supper, haggle over homework, and put them to bed. From their perspective, based on their limited information, the “magic money machine” theory makes some sense.
Recently I was in the car with Daniel, amigo #2, and we had a conversation on this topic.
“Dad, how much money do you and mom make?”
I told him.
“Is that a lot?”
“Compared to what some people make, yes, I suppose. Compared to others, it’s not. But we have wayyy more than we need, Daniel, and we have wayyy more than 99.999% of the world’s population.”
“But could we run out of money someday?”
“Yes, if we’re not careful with it.”
He seemed unfazed by this sobering possibility.
“Well,” he began, “I’m not too worried about it.”
“That’s probably good, Daniel. We should be good stewards of our money, but we shouldn’t worry about it too much.”
“Yeah. Plus, we’ve always got Grandma to depend on.”
Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected] Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.