When he was awake at night – eyes open, staring into the dark – it was money that Dad was thinking about.
So he sometimes called family meetings, to talk about it.
The four of us assembled in the living room. Dad crossed his legs so one ankle rested on the opposing knee. He balanced a yellow legal pad on his thigh. He clicked a pen into the ready position.
“We’re spending too much money,” he said. “I’ve written out our expenses. We’re going to see where we can tighten the belt.”
“Wait wait are we okay?” I said. I’m maybe ten years old.
I looked from him to Mom and then back again.
“Yes yes we’re fine," Mom said, nodding.
Dad pressed his lips together.
“Let’s start. Television – what if we pull the plug?”
“No!” my brother said.
“Fine by me,” Mom said. “You know I’ve been trying to do that anyw – ”
“No!” I said.
“If you guys want to pay for it, great. Otherwise, we’re axing it," Dad said.
Being twelve and ten, respectively, my brother and I had fairly limited income-earning potential. So, you know, hard to really take responsibility for the cable bill, in that situation.
He made a note on the legal pad.
“Okay. Now. America Online. Do we really need that?”
You might be reading this and thinking about the the hard choices that parents have to make. The choices they have to make in order to make ends meet and put food on the table.
But that’s not what we’re talking about. We were totally fine and comfortable – which was this great luxury, this great privilege. It’s just that that wasn’t enough for him. He also wanted to have lots of money in the bank. Lots and lots.
“Why?” Mom said, when he told her that.
“Because it’s how you keep score,” he said.
So, all in all, a totally healthy and reasonable relationship to money.
Which led to the impromptu lessons about saving that I was the lucky recipient of.
“You start saving for retirement at twenty-one,” he said, giving me a serious look. “You save over a long period of time. That’s how you do it. Do you understand compound interest?”
“You do? What is it?”
“You want me to explain it?”
“Well let’s say you save $100 today,” he said, gesturing with his hands, explaining the whole thing, obviously essential information for a fifth-grader, the fact that money earns interest, then interest on interest, and then interest on interest on interest, and so on, forever. Forever!
“You don’t get rich by spending money, I’ll tell you that,” Dad said, nodding for emphasis.
“Right,” I said, also nodding, really taking the lesson to heart, and eagerly fashioning my own weird money anxiety – so it would be just like Dad’s.