5 Ways I'm Imperfect With Money (and How I Can Improve)

5 Ways I'm Imperfect With Money (and How I Can Improve)

My friends and I spend a lot of time obsessing over how we're shaping our kids as they grow.

Are we teaching empathy? Are we modeling positive behavior? Are we correcting without shaming? Are we allowing them to make their own mistakes?

Yet the one subject that feels too intimate to discuss is how we're handling money—and what we're teaching our kids from our examples.

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When I ask my friends about it, the answers can be divided roughly like this: 30% embarrassed, ducking out of the conversation; 5% complaining about how broke they are; 75% bursting into bitter, tear-tinged laughter. Whatever your economic level, dealing with budgets, spending and money can make you feel like a kid again—in a bad, "Help, where's my mom?" kind of way.

The good news here is that nobody's perfect. Nobody is getting this right 100% of the time. Wealthy people worry that their kids are spoiled, or that they're resentful. Broke folk like me worry that our kids are anxious, or that they're resentful. Lessons will be learned one way or another, and the whole process evolves as you do it.

Since this is about all of us, I'll put my own imperfections on display—and get some expert advice on how I can improve.

1. Imperfection: Refusing to Pay for Nice Things

I had a ridiculous six-month period in which I had no printer in my home office. Yes, it's a tax deduction, since I work from my home, but I was still loath to spend the money on it. In the meantime, I spent money printing to my local print shop, buying ink for a free printer handed down from a friend of mine (that died, ink-filled, after two months), and mooching off my sister's working printer.

Finally buying one—at a President's Day sale, as suggested by the guy at the store the week before the sale was going to happen—has revolutionized my life. But when do I go ahead and buy the new item, and when do I cheap out and get the crappy one?

Path to Perfection: Paying More to Buy Quality ... Sometimes
Brett Graff, a financial writer and economist at The Home Economist, knows of what I speak. She admits she cheaped out on sneakers for her daughter's hip-hop dance team, and before she could say "boom-bap," they were in shreds. "Not only did they look bad," she says, "But I knew that the lack of support could do long-term damage to her spine and legs, so I did what was previously unthinkable: bought brand-name sneakers for a growing kid." With no regrets. Because "the difference, to me, is between 'need' and 'want,' " she says. "Spend the extra money on what you need, and save the Goodwill/freecycle/Craigslist buys for the things that are not so necessary." Oh, and those name-brand sneakers? She got them on sale and picked the mid-range version.

2. Imperfection: Over-Explaining

I've told this story before, but it never gets old (to me): When I was going back to school to become a special education teacher, my older daughter was heartbroken at the idea that I was going to leave her for extended periods. I explained that the training would help me get a job to pay for things like her much-beloved ballet lessons. She took this in, and later that day I heard her explain that "Mommy's going back to school because we ran outta money for ballet." Mortifying!

Path to Perfection: Own It. And Repeat It.
Not so fast, says Graff. "You answered correctly," she says. "It just doesn't always get through the first time, like with so many of the lessons we teach our kids. Keep reiterating that ballet (or whatever) is just not in the budget this month, and enlist her help to see where you can trim costs—cable TV, for instance." She also recommends having a separate conversation about topics not to be discussed outside the house ... like the family budget.

3. Imperfection: Getting Carried Away by "Treasures"

We have this awesome place near us called Scrap SF. Part of the "creative reuse" trend, it's a warehouse where people bring unwanted office and craft supplies, plus other odds 'n' sods. You pretty much pay what you feel like for reams of leftover paper, odd sizes of vintage fabric, insulated cups printed with the name of a defunct company and orphaned Littlest Pet Shop animals. When my friends take their kids to Target, I head to Scrap and let my kids pick out "treasures," which they then bring to the cash register to pay their nominal amount (or not, as determined by the cash register hipster).

But am I just reinforcing materialism by making it OK for them to acquire stuff, even though it doesn't hurt our pocketbook? Am I any different than a kabillionaire who's not worrying about his kids becoming spoiled?

Path to Perfection: Stuff in, Stuff Out.
Meh, says Graff. "Inexpensive treats, oddly, make us happier than expensive ones," she says, maybe because there's less at stake so we're not going to be disappointed. "But where do you store it all? And how do they learn to make choices? Make sure they choose a predetermined number of items and, when you get home, get rid of that same number of items." This, she says, makes for a teachable—and declutterable—moment.

4. Imperfection: Going Hog Wild With a Windfall

There's a saying that my old Weight Watchers leader used whenever someone would agonize over the terrible guilt they felt over a calorie splurge. "Call it a vegetable and move on," she'd say, waving her hand. Sometimes, the guilt (and its attending damage to the self-esteem) is more damaging than the sin.

So: A month or so ago, I finally got paid by a delinquent client. This meant we could finally replace a bunch of things at once—that printer, my oldest girl's sneakers, my boots, it was crazy. The UPS guy was at our house almost every day that week, and I worried that this "our ship has come in!" adventure would set my daughters up with the expectation that if we just wait passively, money will appear.

Any kid in a car seat recognizes red, yellow, and green, so put their allowance (or the family petty cash) in three jars and try this system.

Path to Perfection: Sort Your Savings
Any kid in a car seat recognizes red, yellow, and green, so put their allowance (or the family petty cash) in three jars and try this system.

Red is for savings—long-term, untouchable. Yellow is for short-term savings: that money is for holidays, birthdays, or that American Girl doll. The green jar is money they can spend today. If you've never discussed this distinction with your kids, it's okay: Call it a vegetable and start today.

5. Imperfection: Not Holding a Full-Time Job

I didn't exactly choose to stay freelance—actually, I've tried for jobs in the past three years (since my last layoff), but none came through. Though I tried my hardest at each interview, I will admit I felt a certain relief each time I heard "no." My heart is with my kids, and if I had my druthers, I'd be a full-time stay-at-home-mom.

But my defensive posture aside, if I made choice to stay home and live on less, is that responsible? Should I have tried harder for a job? Should I have denied myself the deep pleasure of throwing myself into parenting for the sake of our long-term financial goals?

Path to Perfection: Just Go With It
"Stop!" says Graff. "Stop, stop, stop! This is how the Mommy Wars got started, and there is no right answer." As a financial expert with one foot in each world (that's work vs. stay-at-home), she says, she hears both sides putting each other down, second-guessing their own decisions, and generally wringing their hands in an agony of insecurity. "We're constantly trashing each other for the sole purpose of making ourselves feel good, but the truth is, I can cite studies to support either side."

What's done is done. If you must, agonize over your decisions before you make them, and then strive to be at peace and deal with what is, not what should be or might have been. You're doing the best you can now, and next time, you'll do even better.

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