The Rocky Road to Freedom
I grew up in a family of my father, mother, brother and sister. I’m the oldest of the three siblings.
My dad and his brothers grew up on a farm. They had very little. Their family was poor. My grandfather died when my father was seven. My grandmother was a schoolteacher. She raised eight kids.
Dad and his brothers started a company that, after becoming publicly traded, reached a ranking of #27 on the Fortune 100.
Once my father and his brothers had all of their success in business, my father’s priority was to give my brother, sister and me the kind of freedom that he had never had. Having needed to work from a very young age, he discouraged me from working (and I need to emphasize that he didn’t mean any harm by that). He also gave us a lot of freedom, which was great.
Dad knew what kind of world he wanted for us. Yet my parents never told us much about money or educated us in what is now known as “financial literacy.” Mostly my dad just gave me money when I needed it or asked for it. The point is, I didn’t grow up with any discipline as it relates to money and planning, or anything like that.
My dad would sometimes say I was spending too much money and should spend less. The problem was that no numbers were attached to his statement. It was all too vague for me. I would try to remember to spend less, and did so for a little while. But that didn’t lead to any type of quantitative changes.
In those days, I was very involved in the world of horses — even then, a pretty expensive endeavor. I guess you’d say that’s what created what my father felt were a lot of expenses. He’d keep asking, “Would you spend less?” or say with firmness: “I want you to spend less." However he would convey that message, I really wouldn’t go along.
I used to go see him in his office a lot because I liked seeing him there. He had this great secretary that I adored. One day I went in and, before he barely had said hello, he stood up, grabbed his hat, and said, “We are walking up to the bank.” His energy was a clue that something was up — but I had no idea what.
When we got to the bank, he introduced me to a banker named Bill. My father said, “What is going to happen here is you and I are no longer going to communicate about money. When you need money or however you and Bill want to set it up, you are going to deal with him and not with me.”
I thought: “Well, that is kind of weird.” But my father was quite serious about it. Why this change? He said it was because he had asked me to spend less money and I had not done so. I hadn’t taken the request very seriously.
My dad had never been very good at saying no to me. Many fathers are like this with their daughters. He finally realized that he needed to step out of the picture. So he said: “Bill is going to work out a budget with you, and you’ll be working with him on all of this from here on.” He explained that a trust that he had for me had been moved to the bank, and this was the money that Bill would use to give to me when I needed it.
That was really my first exposure to the whole concept of a trust. Looking back, I would say that this introduction, and new relationship with Bill, had the potential to be terrible. Fortunately, I adored my father. Though thinking the new set-up weird, I wanted to cooperate.
For a long time, I had wanted to become more financially literate. I had made some attempts, but they were very poor attempts. I had enrolled in a class in economics, which was a disaster. Because I didn’t have any preparation for it (my Masters is in English) I was in over my head from Day One. I don’t even know why I picked economics other than it had to do with numbers. The class was really hard. I stuck it out but it was horrible, and very discouraging.
Another time, I asked my father if I could talk with our accountant in order to try to understand taxes and anything financial. My dad said, “Yes.” When I went to see our accountant, he started talking way over my head. I wasn’t savvy enough to realize that some people who are great at what they do are horrible teachers. That was the case with this man. Once again, I felt intimidated.
Here’s one more. I met a man at church. He was some kind of financial professional. I asked him if he would teach me about investments and he said he would. I went to his office to meet with him and it quickly became evident that all he wanted from me was an introduction to my father. I felt really hurt by that.
There are so many kinds of wrong turns you can make when you are young. I didn’t have the right teachers, I didn’t know where to look, and I didn’t know the right questions to ask. Though trying to "grow up" financially, I had failed again and again. Maybe this had influenced my father to change the set-up totally — he probably knew most of the things that I had tried to do.
When introduced to Bill, I was 30 years old. I saw this new relationship as possibly a time when I could learn. Despite the surprise, I wasn’t entirely against what Dad said was the new set-up. Bill was pretty nice, so I didn’t have any bad feelings about him. I trusted my father completely, and figured he knew what he was doing.
The first meeting with Bill was kind of, “Hello, how are you?” Bill told me to come back in a few days and we would get started.
At our next meeting, the first thing he asked me was: “How much do you spend every month?” I had no idea — absolutely no idea. I was embarrassed because I figured most people were able to answer that question. So I told him, “I really don’t have any idea.”
He said, “We are going to need to know that, because it’s basic. For the coming months, I will make sure there is money in the checking account. About how much will you need?” I guessed an amount.
During that first month, I had to keep track of what was actually being spent. I did so and took the information back to him. Based on that, we created a budget, which we projected for the year. I thought this would be okay.
So now I was living on a budget. Of course, before long, by about the 25th of the month, I had run completely out of money. I called Bill. “I’m so sorry but I ran out of money and I need you to put more money in my checking account.”
“Sorry,” Bill replied, “but you know that isn’t the way this works. You are a smart young woman. I am sure you can figure out how to handle the situation.”
“No, seriously — I need you to put some money in my account.”
“We made a budget based on your spending and you’ve got a week to go until the first of next month. I know you can figure this out.”
That was it — the end of the conversation. He hung up. He wouldn’t budge. And I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, “Wow, I don’t have any money.” I looked around the cupboards and thought about what I could eat for the next week. I only came up short that first month. After that, I got better and was able to make the money last for the full month.
After a few months, it occurred to me to get a job. It sounds so silly. Here I was 30 years old and most people would have thought of that step much earlier — but I never had to because I didn’t really need it.
The YMCA hired me, and it was wonderful. I ended up loving it there. The Y doesn’t pay that much, but they provide a lot of training and it was a great group. That opened the door for me working.
In the meantime, Bill and I had a lot of contact. He was willing to talk to me as much as I wanted to talk. He gave me ideas. Probably the idea of getting a job even came from him.
My father couldn’t have picked a better person to fill this role. All in all, Bill and I had a very respectful relationship. He was just the right mix of being firm and being kind. He had a sense of humor. We would joke around a little bit.
After Bill and I had worked for probably a year, I felt like I had grown up and taken charge of my life financially. It was a little late, granted — but at least it happened. I now knew what I spent. I knew how to work under a budget — I was in control. I had a job that I liked. All of it happened within a year, and it all happened because my dad paired me up with this wonderful trust officer.
What was it in me that made this happen? I always had this sense of wanting to have a good life, and a vague sense that involved taking charge of my life. But I was just kind of in the dark about how and where to start. I don’t think I ever would have done what I did with Bill by myself.
The other part of that question is: What was it about Bill that made these changes take place? It was his personality. The role he was playing with me, I think, was well within his job-description. He was very generous with his time and anything I might want to learn. He was very firm about the parameters of the budget. It was just the right mix.
I worked with him for just two or three years overall. The second and third years, we fine-tuned my personal-finance skills; he taught me basics of trusts and banking and how to read my trust statements; and he helped me with a few "sticky wickets" in my YMCA job.
I learned what my father wanted me to learn. I became responsible and stopped overspending. To this day, I’m pretty careful.
That day Dad and I walked to the bank — it was a turning point. It began the time when I grew up financially. That is why I have such good memories of working with Bill.