Money Baggage and Family

One of the most painful aspects of money baggage is the effect it has on those we love the most. Wendell’s story illustrates this. His money baggage is: Money is more important than family.

When I was five years old, my father decided to go into business for himself. We moved to Hanover, Pennsylvania after he purchased an Oldsmobile/Cadillac dealership. He was gone a lot. Out the door at eight o’clock every morning, he would return for dinner around six, and then go back to work, not coming home until after my sister, brother, and I had gone to bed. I don’t remember him ever reading us any books or tucking me into bed at night. When I was eight years old, I joined a Little League baseball team. My dad never came to a game.

To spend time with my father, I would go to work with him and we would have breakfast together at the Sunnyside Diner, the greasy spoon behind the dealership.

When I was ten, I began to play racquetball on a regular basis with a friend down the street. I came up with an idea: if I worked really hard to earn some money mowing lawns in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter, I could give my dad a racquetball racquet. Then we could spend time together playing racquetball.

I never felt more proud than on that Christmas, watching my dad unwrap the new racquet I had bought with my own $15. We talked about playing together the next week, but he never had time. So we talked about getting in a game after the first of the year, then maybe in the spring. It never happened; the dealership always came first, second, and third. My dad never once used that racquet.

So, I spent a lot of Saturdays around the dealership, washing cars. I’d do anything to be with him. My wife still wonders to this day why I can’t stand to wash our cars.

Wendell remembers his father fondly. His dad didn’t intentionally ignore him—Wendell knows this; his father was simply living a life consistent with his own money baggage, which was to work hard, be successful, and take care of the family financially. His dad never said money was more important than family, but actions speak louder than words, and Wendell came to that conclusion on his own.

As an adult, Wendell didn’t consciously believe that money was more important than family. But he took it as a fact that what a father does is work hard to make sure the family is well taken care of.

At his first job after he was married—selling cars—Wendell worked sixty-five to seventy hours a week. Some days he’d leave the house at five a.m., work all day, and get back home around seven p.m.

Just before his first son was born, Wendell went back to college for an accounting degree and afterwards started working sixty-five to seventy hours a week as a CPA. He began to travel internationally, with a goal to become a partner at a large accounting firm. One day, flying back from Europe, Wendell started to reflect on his life.

I began to wonder if all the time away from my family was worth it. I suddenly realized that I had missed out on more than ten years of putting my boys to bed, of having dinner with my family, of attending my sons’ sporting and school events. Ten years, all because I had placed work in front of my family, just as my own dad had.

I looked back across many generations of my family and saw that the same message about work had always been there: Money is more important than family. I became determined on the flight home to break this painful cycle. I wanted to make it up to my kids and wife before it was too late.

Be assured that, to the extent our money baggage is unexamined, we are passing it on to our kids. You might never even talk about money around them, but your kids are like little scientists watching and picking up clues and drawing conclusions. They watch how you approach work, how you talk about it, and how you deal with money. If you are working at a job you don’t like, they take that in. If they see you and your spouse fight about money, they make note of it. They notice when you don’t have time for them. They will assume that whatever you choose to do instead of spending time with them is more important to you than they are, especially if you don’t consciously understand and explain the reasons why. From their observations of your behaviors, conclusions about life and money silently take shape in their young minds.

Parents who work too much often feel guilty and try to compensate for it by giving their kids the best. They provide a nice house,  give them plenty of things, and send them to good schools. But they aren’t giving their kids what the kids really want: emotional connection and time together. The parents might alleviate their guilt by giving presents or money to show their love, but that can lead kids to conclude that money equals love. A lot of people’s money baggage forms around this confusion.

When they grow up, they might emulate their folks, working hard, being too busy, and giving their own kids presents and money to show them that they love them. And the cycle continues.

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