Discovering Your Own Money Baggage

Most of my adult life you could have described me as a workaholic. Sixty-hour workweeks were standard. I was always the first to arrive and the last to go home at night, regardless of the job. I could never do enough. And yet, despite working long hours at good paying jobs, I never had more than just enough to get by.

I grew up on a farm in Loveland, Colorado, where we didn’t have inside plumbing until I was in third grade. My dad got up at four-thirty in the morning to milk the cows, seven days a week. He would work in the wheat, barley, or alfalfa fields all day and be back in the barn at five o’clock at night to milk the cows a second time. He’d come in for dinner. He’d eat. He’d sit in his easy chair exhausted and fall asleep. Around nine he’d get up and go to bed. At four-thirty the next morning he was up milking the cows again.

I remember wishing my dad would play with me, but he never had time for playing. If he wasn’t milking the cows, he was driving the tractor in the fields or working on the machinery. It seemed like the only time I spent with him was going to town to get a part for some machinery that was broken. I secretly hoped something would break so we could go to town together; a guilty wish since I knew fixing it would cost money, which was in short supply.

I remember only one vacation in my entire childhood, three days at a cabin in the mountains. I dreaded hearing my friends describe their vacations, praying they wouldn’t ask me what I did. Playing on our tire swing and reading library books always paled in comparison to their vacation activities. I wanted to fit in but knew I never would.

While my dad was tending the farm, I saw my mother work equally hard, raising us, taking care of everyone, and making sure that we had three square meals on the table each day. Growing up in this environment, I made a conclusion about life that, years later, I came to recognize as the first part of my money baggage. What I learned through observing everything around me was you have to work really hard.

But working hard is not the only thing I learned from my parents. I also observed how the constant struggle with money issues affected our lives, and this became the second part of my money baggage. Let me explain.

August meant harvest time on the farm. My father had the wheat and barley trucked to the granary. On settlement day, we received a check for the tonnage of grain delivered.

It was the happiest day of the year, and it started with a trip to the bank. The whole family drove five miles from the granary in Loveland to the town of Berthoud to deposit the check. We’d go out for an ice-cream cone afterward—something we didn’t usually do. I vividly remember riding in the back of my parents’ blue 1954 Ford, with the wind in my hair and feeling that everything was right in the world.

Months later, in January, February, or March, I would see my father at his desk poring over papers, sorting bills, running his hands through his hair, trying to make ends meet. His shoulders would be slumped and he’d shake his head a lot. Eventually he would throw his pencil down, push his chair back from the desk, and say, “Well, we just have to go to the bank and get a loan to make it through until harvest.” I could see the anguish in his eyes and, although he never said it aloud, I knew he felt like a failure.

In the kitchen, I saw my mother crying. I loved my mom so much. I wanted her to be happy and it broke my heart to see her cry. It made me feel alone and really sad for her. And scared—scared that we wouldn’t have enough to eat, that my parents wouldn’t ever be happy again, that I’d never have a life like other kids, that life wasn’t going to turn out.

The ride on this second trip to the bank, to borrow the money to get us through until the next harvest, felt much different. The three of us rode in silence: my father gripping the steering wheel and clenching his jaw; my mom looking out the window with a resigned look on her face; and me in the back seat, hoping she wouldn’t start crying again.

Every year, this boom and bust cycle repeated itself. Happiness on settlement day; fear, sadness, and frustration on loan day. I vividly remember the day my dad sold the farm. To get out from under the debt that had accumulated over the years, he was forced to hand it over to a banker from Denver who wore fancy cowboy boots that had probably never seen the inside of a barn. From a distance, I saw him hand my dad the check for the farm and, even from where I stood, I could see the relief in my dad’s face—finally he could get out of debt. But I knew deep inside he was humiliated to have “lost” the family farm. From that moment on we were tenant farmers—living on the farm that had been in my dad’s family for more than forty years. But instead of my dad working hard to make money for us, he was doing it for the rich businessman.

From watching and experiencing all of this, the second part of my money baggage emerged. I concluded there is never enough. I put these two innocent conclusions about money together at an early age and they became my money baggage: You have to work hard to make money, and even if you do, you’ll never make enough. This simple and erroneous conclusion became the unconscious burden I carried around for the next thirty-plus years of my life.

To be continued next week … Part 2 of Discovering Your Own Money Baggage.

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