It was my 22nd-birthday dinner, four agonizing months since college graduation, and I’d finally landed a magazine writing job. I’d been “freelancing” for the local entertainment tabloid (which really meant I got two tickets to concerts I was reviewing plus VIP parking passes) and a staff position had opened up.
“That’s great, honey ... do you get benefits?” Yep. Did I think I’d be moving out of the house? Not right away. And then this: “So, what’s the salary?” I will never forget my mom’s slack jaw and my dad’s “You’re kidding me” when the daughter for whom they’d paid out-of-state tuition to the University of Michigan told them she was going to earn $7 an hour. Fully aware of my financial privilege to have graduated debt-free, I felt guilty for letting them down.
Families are weird about money. I never knew my dad’s salary. Yet every January, I’d overhear that we’d overspent on Christmas. In March, he’d “do the taxes” in his study, which meant a weekend of muttering and moodiness.
I know how financial stress can scare (even scar) kids, but I also appreciate the lessons my dad taught me. He showed his teenage daughters precisely how much his auto insurance premium rose each quarter because of our driving records. He considered checkbook balancing to be a life skill as vital as changing a tire and parallel parking. To this day, I’ll spend an hour hunched over my statement in search of 42 cents. I still hear his voice: “We work too hard to let the bank have our money.”
Steve and I have tried to be good role models and talk often about our finances, not minding if the girls listen in or overhear. We aim for age-appropriate transparency.
As preschoolers, Sophia and Olivia helped choose the charities we’d donate to (including the American Cancer Society because that’s what Grandpa died from). In grade school, they’d look up the salaries of careers that sounded fun and I’d try to explain how those numbers might translate into grownup expenses. I’ve told them about the relief we felt when we used wedding-gift money to pay off our credit cards and how we vowed never to carry a balance again.
And yet I still won’t tell the girls my salary. Partly, it’s a number they’re too young to be trusted with. But maybe I’m scarred by my parents’ judgment more than 20 years ago. Last time my daughters asked, my answer seemed to satisfy them: “I make more than the mayor, but less than the president.”