I am starting to believe that our relationship with money isn’t something we acquire as we stumble through life, like a favourite flavour of ice cream or a stance on the comedy stylings of Lena Dunham, but that it’s baked in early, something we aren’t born with yet still inherit from our parents.
In my case it was my father. He was a child of the Great Depression and left school aged thirteen to work in a filling station. Before he married my mother he had been a sewing-machine salesman, bouncer, security guard, welder and, if he wasn’t exaggerating when he told me this, which is also entirely possible, a gigolo. When I was born he was a sales representative for a motor-oil company and my mother was a primary-school teacher. She was the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Cape Town but had been disinherited when she married my dad so I grew up in a small home that was middle-class but only just, that clung to its middle-classness with a tenacity that only barely concealed its tenuousness.
Both my father and mother were from old-fashioned WASPy homes and didn’t believe in talking about money. If things were needed they were bought but only if they were needed, and although we didn’t eat well – my mother was a terrible cook – we ate sufficiently. We never went into debt for anything – every ten years my dad waited till he had the cash to buy a second-hand car slightly newer than the one he was driving.
He often went out on the road, and when I asked why, he told me he didn’t want to go but he had to in order to put food on the table. The message I took is that money isn’t its own organic entity, it doesn’t live and breathe and grow – it’s something slightly distasteful and inert, something not to be trusted entirely, an unpleasant necessity that must be wrestled into the house from the outside world.
I’m not exactly sure that my father ever really had a plan for the future, not even one that was dreamy or hare-brained. Perhaps it comes from growing up poor and spending a lifetime hustling for next month’s rent, but the closest thing he ever showed to a long-term strategy was the time he took me aside when I was six years old and said, “You should try make friends with your grandmother. She’s very rich and she can’t live forever.”
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, is still very rich and I never made friends with her, which is just as well because she turns 100 next month and is made entirely from non-biodegradable industrial by-products. She will certainly live forever.
My dad had a disreputable younger brother named Jerry, who was married six times and would disappear for long periods and then turn up on the doorstep with a new scheme for getting rich quick. He had leads on emerald mines and copper mines and once when he was flush with cash from the racetrack he bought a Tiger Moth biplane with the intention of raking in the big crop-dusting bucks. Once or twice my father fell for Jerry’s schemes – on one occasion we all packed up and moved to Nelspruit to make some fortune or other, and then two months later we moved back again – but for the most part he was the sensible one, the one who laughed at Jerry and warned me about dreamers with schemes.
“Only a fool thinks he can get rich quick,” my dad told me. What I heard was: “Only a fool thinks he can get rich.”
When my dad died our fortunes took a turn for the worse. There was no safety net. I spent the rest of my childhood in a series of small rented homes, wearing school shoes too big for me so that I could grow into them in two years’ time, and sometimes I would hear my mother crying in her bedroom after she went to bed, partly because she missed my dad, partly because the bills were due.
I wasn’t aware of how my attitude to money had been affected by all of this. I thought I was just the same as everyone else. I worked a couple of small jobs to pay off my student loan but I never bought a car because I didn’t have the cash. When I started making decent money I put it in the bank and watched it accumulate. It felt like a net, a cushion-zone of empty cardboard boxes and foam mattresses under the high ledge of my life. People told me to invest, to make it grow, to let the money do some of the work, but I couldn’t. The bigger the number, the safer I felt.
When you’re used to being one month away from disaster, you expect disaster every month, and the worst of it was, I was right. One day I lost my work, and it was a year before I worked again. I was frozen in a kind of panic. I couldn’t make good decisions, but the bank account was there. It caught me, and even as I watched it deflate under my weight, I was buying myself time to gather myself again.
I’m getting older now and I’ve moved into a different phase of my life. I like to tell myself that I’m wiser and more mature. I like to think I’ve grown up about money. I have bought a home for the first time in my life: it filled me with existential panic at the thought of owing so much, but I thought it showed how far I’ve progressed. But just lately I’ve noticed how I pour money into my access bond, watching it fill up the column of available funds. I make mental calculations – if I lose all my work now, how many months of repayments are already there? If disaster strikes, how much time have I bought? How safe am I?
People tell me that it’s wise to put money into your bond, but if it is wise, it’s just a coincidence. Money isn’t money to me, it’s the language of fear. I may have money of my own now, and assets, and a wife and responsibilities, but underneath it all I realise I’m still just a small boy lying in his bed at night, hoping his mom doesn’t start crying. I think I need a financial adviser. Or maybe just a therapist.
Did your parents relationship with money influence the way you see money today? Let us know in the comments below