Friday, March 28, 2008

Money Memories

English Major wrote an interesting post on her money memories. I'm a bit surprised that she doesn't remember much related to money from before her teens. My parents started paying an allowance when I was in preschool, and how I manage money as an adult reflects the lessons I learned throughout my youth.

The Camera
Throughout preschool and the first years of elementary school, my parents gave me $1 every Saturday. It was enough to get some bubble gum or some little trinket every week if I felt like it, but most of the things I really wanted required a few weeks of saving. At one point, I decided that I really wanted this camera that cost $11. I already had a few dollars saved, but it felt like it took a very long time. Every time I was at K-Mart, I'd go visit the cameras, and it was very exciting when I finally got to take one home with me. My mother bought me the first roll of film, and she always paid for developing the prints, but after that I often had to buy film using my own allowance.

For a first grader, photography was a rather expensive hobby. I didn't mind that since taking pictures was more fun that getting new toys. Looking back, I'm glad I had the self-discipline to save for a camera and film since those pictures provide a record, not just of my life at age six, but of who I was and what I found pretty or interesting. There are a lot of generic pictures of my family, the cat, the tree in our front yard, etc., but there are also a few that are fairly neat, like the pictures documenting every step of the process the night my dad decided to shave his beard, a momentous event since he'd had a beard longer than he'd known my mother.

The Bank

At first I kept all of my money in a wallet I bought a flea market. It was made of pale-green satiny fabric with a Japanese print that I thought was one of the prettiest things I'd ever seen. Eventually, by saving my allowance and money my aunt and grandmother sent for my birthday, I accumulated over $100 in that wallet, and my mother suggested I open a savings account.

For the next few years, I put every penny of birthday money and a lot of my allowance, which eventually rose to $2.50 and then $5 a week before my parents discontinued the allowance when I was in junior high, into that account. I only withdrew money to open a certificate of deposit. I have no idea how I learned about c.d.'s, but my brother and I both opened ours the same day so it may have been my mother's idea. The tellers at the bank were always so respectful when we came to the bank, and that made an impression on me. When we went to open our c.d.'s, there was a wait to see the person who handled those accounts. A teller offered us sodas, and I sat in the bank lobby, sipping Dr. Pepper from a cold glass bottle and feeling oh-so-grown-up.

I pored over my bank statement every month. Interest was fascinating; it was absolutely mind blowing that the bank would give me a few dollars every month in exchange for letting them lend my money to other people. I sent off to the Federal Reserve for a free comic book on how our country's banking system works. I was the sort of incipient pf geek who sympathized with the father from Mary Poppins and his desire to have his children put their tuppence in the bank and watch them multiply.

Why was I saving this money? For college, of course. Ultimately, that money didn't make much difference. I did well in school, studied for the SAT and ACT, and worked hard on writing good admissions and scholarship essays. My first choice, a top-notch liberal arts college with very strong science programs, accepted me and offered me $15,000 a year in scholarships, plus work study and unsubsidized Stafford loans.

It was my dream school. I'd researched it thoroughly, talked on the telephone with two of their biology professors about research opportunities, and chatted with some of their students online, and the college seemed like a perfect fit both academically and culturally. My parents hadn't been willing to make the trip to go visit in person until we determined whether attending that college would be feasible.

It wasn't. Other than what I had saved, my college fund consisted of just under $600 from the quarters my grandmother saved in a piggy bank and has us roll and take to the bank every December. My parents were prepared to help, but their expected contribution as calculated by the college was almost twice what they had calculated they could afford. I wasn't aware of the opportunities for private loans back then, but I doubt my parents would have been willing to cosign for that much money, and unemployed seventeen year olds really aren't in great positions to take out loans by themselves. I'd been raised to be aware that our family's resources were finite and that we often didn't get everything we desired, but I was still disappointed. The dream school just wasn't in reach no matter how badly I wanted it or how hard I'd worked to get in.

So I accepted the full-ride plus offered by the state university instead. It was the sensible decision. I've had the opportunity for a good education in my university's honors college at no cost, and that will make adult life easier and my parents' retirement planning less stressful. I've gotten to do neat research and work with some wonderful professors. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and I have absolutely no excuse to feel sorry for myself. Still, if I have children, I'd like for them to have choices that I did not. I plan to start setting aside savings for them now in the hope that I'll be prepared to help pay for their educations decades hence.

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