In our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.
Today, one woman explains why saving for the future can sometimes make her feel selfish—and how she learned that you can't help others if you don't help yourself first.
"Don't be selfish." That was a common refrain in my family when I was growing up. And I heard it a lot.
I came from a large family. There were six of us. My mother's family was even larger. She had ten brothers and sisters, and my father had four. Between my parents' siblings, I had over fifty cousins. We shared toys, clothes, candy, everything. People who didn't were selfish, my family believed, and, well, we all know that's not a good thing to be.
I was born and raised in an industrial city in Connecticut where most people worked long hours in manufacturing. Both my parents worked. And my family's philosophy towards money was work hard and it will come. I grew up thinking about money as something you earned to improve your lifestyle.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Saving, as a term, wasn't mentioned very often. And when it was, it revolved around how you spent what you earned, not planning for the future or for emergencies. Saving meant living within your means (don't abuse credit) and being responsible with your money (don't buy what you can't afford). So we always shopped on sale and prided ourselves on 'saving' on our purchases.
When I left home at a very early age—to attend boarding school on a scholarship—I took these notions toward money with me. I always worked after school and I used the money wisely to improve my standing, whether buying books or tickets to cultural events. My work ethic paid off. I got a scholarship to an Ivy League college and attended a good arts school for my Masters.
When I First Came Up Short Myself
Feeling super fortunate to be attending an Ivy League, I committed to seeing and doing all my environment at school had to offer. But travel and cultural events often cost more than the salary from my after-school job, and I had to rely on money from my siblings, all of whom were older, and my parents.
Once I graduated and started working as a freelance writer, I would turn to my family when my finances didn't add up as planned. I remember the time I toiled on a project for a month—then the director didn't want to pay me. I was shocked, angry and terrified. I hadn't billed on any other projects and had less than a hundred dollars in the bank. I had to swallow my pride and ask my parents for a few hundred dollars to cover the rent. Even though I knew I could depend on them for financial emergencies, I didn't take their help for granted. I always felt a strong sense of gratitude toward my parents and my siblings for chipping in when I really needed their help.
After years of working as writer-for-hire, nearing my 30s I took a job in advertising and started receiving a steady paycheck for the first time. I finally begin paying down my over $5,000 in credit card debt I had amassed as a grad student and my student loan that had been in deferment for many years.
I still did not have any substantial money saved, but I did participate in the company 401(k). Five years later, when I switched jobs, I went to see a financial planner because I had no idea what to do with my old 401(k). He introduced me to a chart showing how a smaller amount of money saved now could grow into a greater sum than a larger amount of money saved later.
This new awareness of compound interest compelled me to change my attitude toward money and think differently from my what my family had instilled in me. Their beliefs had always been "work hard, earn money, improve your lifestyle." Now I wanted to use my money for my future.
A New Attitude Toward Money
And I started to walk the talk. Every time I got a raise, I upped my savings deposit. Luckily, my career was steady and my raises dependable.
I was proud to no longer have to rely on my family—and to be able to buy nice clothes and get better haircuts, signaling I had made good on my education. But, as I built my career, meanwhile, a lot changed for them. Connecticut once offered steady income to anyone willing to work hard. Then, the manufacturing jobs moved overseas and my hometown became a depressed city with little opportunity.
Just having a strong work ethnic no longer worked. Many in my family were struggling with no end in sight. I often felt selfish complaining about some of my first world peeves, like pricey gym fees, while they struggled with car notes, and increased property taxes. I happily upped my spending on Christmas gifts for my immediate family. And, honestly, no one asked directly for any help. It was just that I felt guilty. But once someone did, it got a little murkier.
The Blurred Lines of When to Give
After spending a day with my niece who always excelled in school, she confided that she wasn’t going back to college because she had an outstanding debt with the school that needed to be paid off before she could start again. She had enrolled without really being prepared to attend school and work to meet tuition and other costs. I've always thought she was very bright so I paid off the debt—of a few hundred dollars—so that she could try again. She did and will be graduating soon as an honors student.
But a few months after paying off the loan, she called me to loan her money for a car to get to school. I didn't think she had the funds to actually repay me, so I had to decide whether I thought it was wise to give her the money. I didn't. I would be depleting my savings (even though it was a really cheap car), and she would be taking on the responsibility of maintaining a car when she probably wasn't prepared to do so.
"It was an awkward moment: I knew she knew I had the money. And I found myself explaining to my sisters, defensively, that I didn't think it was a good way to spend my savings."
When I said no, it was an awkward moment. I knew she knew I had the money. And I found myself later explaining to my sisters, defensively, that I didn't think it was a good way to spend my savings. My discomfort made me realize I had to give some real thought to when and how to give financial help. Because I was now in a position to do so.
My niece never asked for money again, and no one else in my family did either. As the youngest, my proud brothers and sisters would never ask their little sister for money. But I'd hear the stories from my mother and want to help. So I used the experience with my niece as a guide because, in that instance, I felt I'd made the right decision.
Here's what I've arrived at: If I feel that I am giving money to a chronic situation that is not really going to improve, whether or not there's an infusion of cash, I am less apt to dip into my savings to help out. For those on the receiving end, it can be awkward to hear, "I think you need a better plan." After all, who am I to judge? But over time I have become more comfortable saying no.
It will always be a bit of a struggle. I never want to be ‘selfish’ as so many have shared with me in times of need. But I also am aware that I have to continuously rethink my emotions around money and what I think is a healthy attitude. I now follow my simple guidelines (will the money really make a difference?) when feeling conflicted.
Then, recently, I hit the wall in my own career. The area of advertising I was working in was so specialized I now have to consult in many different fields to diversify my experience. Going freelance meant I no longer had a steady paycheck, and I might have to rely on my savings to supplement my sporadic income.
Without my emergency fund, I wouldn't be able to take any risks. My ability to create opportunities would be extremely limited. And I would be unable to make investments—like taking classes, or working with a coach—that could change my career. Knowing this, my struggles with feeling selfish for setting aside money for emergencies and the unexpected seem a bit naive. It's clear to me now that you can't help others if you can't help yourself.
*Name has been changed.