The more financial awareness seeps into every crevasse of my life, the more I realize just how big of an influence family members have on us in this regard. Whether they’ve meant to or not, family members set financial examples, good and bad, and we, “the kids” (though we’re not kids anymore) are always learning, absorbing. My parents never, ever talked to me about money, or even about money in front of me—in an effort to protect me from having to stress about grownup things, let kids be kids and all that. Well, I’m learning now—better late than never.
I’m also always interested in sibling relationships. I’m an only child, myself, so even as a kid, I was always fascinated by what it was like to have brothers and sisters. I’d ask my friends to tell me about it at length. I’m no different now, and love hearing about people’s experiences with their brothers and sisters.
My mom is the oldest, she has two younger sisters. They come from a very posh, upscale, high-society kind of family. It’s all so silly and old-fashioned to me, but they see nothing silly about it. They were debutantes and travelled the world and had European suitors and had clothes made for them to look exactly like what they saw in fashion magazines. You get the picture. Even though times have changed, and my generation couldn’t be more different, this upbringing is completely ingrained in them.
My mom was always the serious, studious, “conservative” one. I use the quotes because by today’s standards, they were all three wildly conservative, but okay. After high school, my mom studied nursing, but then married my dad and never worked. My middle aunt, Aunt B, was the “wild, crazy” forward-thinking one. She did work, and eventually became an executive at a big bank. However, once she got married and had my cousins, she quit her job to stay home. She loves dying her hair all kinds of colors, and owns pretty (dare I say “scandalous”?) underwear. My mom was like a, granny-panties from day-one kind of lady. Okay. My youngest aunt, Aunt R, was the wayward one. She didn’t ever work either, but “was foolish enough” to marry a man who wasn’t very wealthy. She and my uncle had financial hardships, always. To this day, they are in debt to everybody.
Anyway, I love them all dearly, this is my family, and it’s not my place to judge people’s life decisions. But it is my place to learn from what I’ve seen, and from everyone’s reactions to how things have turned out. This has been like a 30-year-long case study I’ve been conducting.
There are of course, endless details of how their lives have evolved. They’re now in their 60s. Some things have gone surprisingly well, and some things have gone really, really wrong for them, due to foreseeable and unforeseeable causes. My dad and my uncle (Aunt B’s husband) both died within months of each other 10 years ago (leaving my mom and her sister to be widows in their 50s), and my Aunt R got divorced last year—which was really earth-shattering for all of us. Divorce was not part of our family’s vocabulary.
Anyway, I’m not here to tell you my whole life story, just setting the scene to tell you about a phone call I had with my Aunt B yesterday. She and I are super close. She’s always been there for me—when I was secretly dating boys, and dying my hair blue, and going places my mom would not approve of—she was the one I’d call for help or advice.
She’s a bit of a drama queen and yesterday she called me with a dilemma: “My friends who live in Spain have invited me to come visit them. I’ve already bought a non-refundable ticket, but I’m not sure if I should go. I kind of can’t afford it—I’m spending a lot of money renovating [some of her rental property]. But WHEN will I ever get another opportunity like this?!” This was the first time my new-frugal mentality has kicked in in this realm. My gut reaction was to say, if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it! Also, you just got back IN JANUARY from a 2-month stay in Spain. WITH THOSE SAME FRIENDS. I actually did say this, gently. She’s very sensitive.
And then she told me the real truth. Really, there’s a guy there she wants to see again. “But what will people think of me?” she cried. “I might as well hang my panties on the front door! But we’re just friends, I swear it! It would just be nice to see him again.” At which point I rolled my eyes and told her to forget about what other people think and just do what makes her happy. I have no clue what the state of her finances is, but I’m suspecting that the “I can’t afford it” was just an excuse she had ready in case she decided not to go. I have no idea. But then I realized all the advice I was giving her, 1. If you can’t afford it don’t go, and 2. Forget what other people think—are completely, totally, and utterly opposite to her nature.
She’s the spendiest person I know, buying computers and cars and TVs and trips to Europe all the time. She claims they make her happy, these things. And maybe, they do. She’s a generally happy, goofy person. She often whines about being broke, but she obviously isn’t because this has been going on for at least the last 30 years. She’s just dramatic about it all. Okay, different from me, not my place to judge. But I knew telling her to seriously consider her finances before going, and to forget about the opinion of others, were both impossible asks.
And so I backed away from the situation, told her what she wanted to hear. “Go. Have fun. See the guy. Don’t tell anybody. I won’t tell my mom.” She cried with relief. I have to accept there are some ships whose courses I cannot change. All I can do is learn from them. And I’m trying to be aware of what’s ingrained in me, so I can set my own ship on the right path, before it’s too hard to change course.
Do you have family members who have been great examples of what not to do, financially? Is it okay to love them anyway? Do you feel compelled to tell them they’re doing wrong, or do you live and let live?