How Not To Teach Your Kids About Money

How an unpleasant event from my childhood shaped my views on money

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

It’s strange that my mother doesn’t remember the day when she ruined my relationship with money.

It was 1975 and she was a young, single parent trying to raise 2 small children on a meager income. We were a family of three, living in a tiny one-bedroom dump of an apartment where my sister and I shared a bedroom and my mother slept on a fold-out cot in the living room. We were not considered poor enough to qualify for food stamps or free school lunches, but money was very tight, always.

Money, or the lack of it, was always part of the conversation. It seems to me now that my mother was always mad at money. Not mad about money, but mad at it, as if had personally wronged her in some way.

My mother was always worried about how much money she had or didn’t have and which bill collector was going to get paid or not get paid that week. At a very young age, my sister and I became very familiar with money, or the lack of it. The monsters under our beds were the Power Company and the Rent Lady and the Phone Company. These were figures in our house, just as real to us as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

The monsters under our beds were the Power Company and the Rent Lady and the Phone Company. These were figures in our house, just as real to us as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

My mother kept her cash money in little white envelopes, usually with some kind of scribbled writing on the outside which said “groceries” or “rent” or “phone bill”. She never kept her money in a wallet. Always in an otherwise mostly empty purse in little white envelopes.

The sad apartment complex where we lived had an on-site laundromat. Every few days, my mother, sister, and I would load up all of our dirty clothes into a couple of plastic, cracked laundry baskets and haul the clothes to the laundromat to be washed.

As my mother was piling up the clothes in the laundry baskets, she would send my sister and I down to the corner Mini Mart convenience store to get $5.00 in quarters. “This is all the money I have for the laundromat. Don’t buy anything. No candy, no cokes, no gum. Just get change.” As she handed me the grubby five dollar bill.

We’d come back from the store with a little sandwich bag full of quarters and my mother would carry one basket of clothes and my sister and I would share the burden of carrying other one.

All three of us would march from the apartment, past the fenced-up pool area, up the hill to the laundromat.

Sitting on top of the dirty clothes that my mother carried would be the container of cheap laundry detergent, maybe Sun or All or Era. Her purse topped the basket that my sister and I carried.

My job was loading up the washer with the clothes and my sister’s job was putting the quarters in the washer and adding the detergent.

We always had to babysit the clothes at the laundromat or someone was bound to come in and pull out our clothes out of the washer and pile them on the tables, in order to get access to a washer. We did not want everybody staring at our wet underwear. Sometimes I’d spend the time reading those weird religious pamphlets that were in a little wire rack on the wall, or sometimes I’d bring one of my favorite Ramona & Beezus books to read while I waited for the clothes to finish.

One cold, rainy Saturday, we gathered the clothes and piled them in our cracked plastic baskets. Then we marched out the door, my mother making sure to lock the front door behind us.

We marched past the crappy pool, up the grassy, slippery hill to the laundromat. There were no doors on the laundromat, just an open room with a concrete floor, a roof, a string of those kind of plastic chairs that are connected to a wall and a wall of worn out washers and dryers. And a silver metal table in the back corner where you could fold your clothes.

The room smelled like so much damp, caked detergent and used up dryer sheets. The concrete floor was smooth under our bare feet. We loaded up the clothes in the washers and I read a book, probably Ramona & Beezus, as we waited for the clothes to finish.

When the clothes were nearly dry, my mother left the laundromat to drop the rent check off at the rental office. She grabbed one of those little white envelopes from her purse. “I’m taking the rent money to the office. I’ll be back in a few minutes”, she said as she disappeared around the corner.

So there we were, sitting in the laundromat, just waiting. My sister playing with Barbie and me reading a book. At some point the buzzer on the dryer sounded and we pulled our towels and sheets and pillow cases out of the dryer, folded them on the silver metal table, and piled them into the plastic basket.

Time to take the clothes home. On autopilot, my sister grabbed one side of the basket and I grabbed the other, we put the empty sandwich bag and the bottle of Sun detergent on the top of the clean clothes and left the laundromat, on our way home.

But the routine was different on that day — our mother wasn’t with us when we took the clothes home. We grabbed the one laundry basket and piled it high with the folded clothes. We were so used to our mother grabbing the other basket that we accidentally left the other laundry basket at the laundromat.

Once home, we opened the front door with our little latch key and turned on the t.v.

My mother walked into the apartment a few minutes later and praised the both of us for doing such a nice job folding the clothes. “Where’s the other basket?” she asked.

“Oh I forg…”.

I couldn’t finish the sentence because of the look of sheer panic on my mother’s face. “Oh my God, my purse was in that basket! Please don’t tell me you left my purse at the laundromat. I had the power bill money in that purse!”

She ran out the door and around the corner, past the fenced pool, and up the hill, through the slippery grass to the laundromat. My sister and I didn’t know if we should follow her, we just stood there waiting on her to return, crossing our fingers she’d return safe with her purse and the power bill money, but not having a real understanding of what would happen if she didn’t find it.

Some minutes later, she returned, her eyes red and her face a mixture of anger and worry, but mostly anger. “You couldn’t find it?” I asked in a quiet voice. Perhaps I already knew the answer, perhaps I didn’t. But when she screamed “No!”, I felt all the worry a 7 year old can feel about not being able to pay the power bill.

I took it upon myself to fix the problem. I would go up to the laundromat and find the purse. Perhaps she was already calling people to tell them what stupid, irresponsible children she had, or maybe she was just sitting in a depressed zombie-like state like she sometimes did, but she didn’t notice me leaving. Or if she did, she didn’t try to stop me.

I ran into the laundromat and immediately starting searching the place for the purse. It wasn’t a very big place, but still I looked all around. Under the chairs, on the floor in front of the wall of washers. The place looked exactly as we had left it, except our 2nd laundry basket was gone. There was no one else there and I walked over to the silver metal table where my sister and I had carefully folded the towels and pillowcases just a few minutes before.

Under the table, a red strap caught my eye. Could it be?! I couldn’t believe it. I crawled under the table and pulled out the purse. It was her purse! I was so ecstatic, I just couldn’t wait to give it back to her. I didn’t even look inside. Here I was, a responsible one! I was really growing up, helping her to solve grownup problems. I just knew how proud she was going to be that her grownup girl had found the purse!

Here I was, a responsible one! I was really growing up, helping her to solve grownup problems. I just knew how proud she was going to be that her grownup girl had found the purse!

I ran home with the purse and burst into the apartment. She was sitting there on the old couch, not really doing anything, just kind of staring into space. I hid the purse behind my back, as if it were a birthday or Christmas gift.

“Look what I found!” I yelled. “I found it!” I brought the purse from behind my back and held it out to her, a stupid, goofy smile on my face. For a brief moment, she gave me a strange look, and then grabbed the purse out of my hands. She immediately held the purse upside down and shook it. A few pieces of old gum wrappers and receipts fell out, with maybe a little bit of change and some crumbs. Of course, she already knew there was probably nothing left in it before she turned it upside down. But I didn’t. “IT’S EMPTY!!” she screamed at me. “IT’S EMPTY! THEY STOLE IT! THEY STOLE ALL OF MY MONEY! YOU DIDN’T EVEN HAVE SENSE ENOUGH TO GET MY PURSE AND NOW WE HAVE NO WAY TO PAY THE POWER BILL! YOU LET THOSE THUGS STEAL MY MONEY!” She then took it a step further and made a big show out of unzipping all of the little inside pockets. “SEE, NOTHING THERE! NOTHING IN THAT POCKET EITHER!” “WERE YOU SO STUPID TO THINK THEY WOULDN’T TAKE THE MONEY!?”

“IT’S JUST A STUPID, EMPTY PURSE!”, she screamed, and then she threw it across the room.

She came at me then, grabbing my shoulders, shaking me, yelling how stupid and irresponsible I was. It was probably my sister’s crying that stopped her from really hitting me, from “knocking me into next week” as she sometimes said.

I really thought she’d be grateful that I found the purse. She wasn’t.

After her screaming fit, I picked up the purse and looked in it again. Maybe the money was there after all, and she just missed it. She was right of course, it was empty.

And I was just a stupid kid for trying to help, for trying to make it better. A completely worthless stupid kid who was irresponsible with money. In fact, exposing the fact that the money was really gone had actually made everything worse. From that moment on, hiding, and especially hiding money, became something I was good at.

Money was really never a friend to me after that. When I had enough of it, I couldn’t let go of it to pay the bills I owed. When I didn’t have enough, I couldn’t stop writing checks that I knew would bounce. Nor could I stop myself from racking up charge after charge on credit cards. Something about that day turned money into my enemy.

Many years later, when my brand-new husband wanted to open a shared bank account, how could I explain that I felt like I was going to throw up if I had to show someone my bank balance? Talking about money, my money, what I had or didn’t have, felt like a violation of the worst kind, felt like some kind of horrible examination that should require anesthesia, but none was given.

I don’t know how she paid the power bill, and she doesn’t remember either. Maybe she didn’t pay it. Or maybe she called the monsters at the Power Company to explain what happened and asked them for one more day, or week, or month. Perhaps they were understanding. I don’t know.

The money was never found.

It seems really crazy to think that the loss of that $75 has haunted me into my adult life.

I read once that you only relate to the people in your life in the same ways you related to your family while growing up. Your boss — yeah, you subconsciously relate to her as your mother. Your neighbor — yeah, he’s your no-good uncle. Does that same logic apply to money? How many arguments have I had with my mother, my husband, my own kids, other family members over that lost $75? The embarrassment of the whole thing? Of course, the arguments never directly referenced that day in the laundromat, but underneath it all, it was there. So many arguments about money, dressed up as something else, actually lead right back to the loss of that $75 and how worthless and irresponsible I was then and probably am now, too.

I hope whoever found that money was able to do something with it, like buy groceries, or pay the rent lady. I hope maybe they are reading this and have a happy memory of finding a small white envelope that was like a miracle to them with scribbled writing on it that said Power Bill.

All these years later, I’m still trying to forget it.

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