Lessons from My Parents: No Reward for Breathing

Money lessons learned by Elyse StefaniakBy Elyse Stefaniak

Growing up, I worked for tally marks. My parents didn’t believe in “paying us for breathing,” as they described allowance. So my siblings and I made our money doing chores around the house and then documenting them in tallies on the fridge. Sunday afternoons we were handed a fistful of quarters, a manifestation of the tallies that foreshadowed the feeling of payday. We could spend our hard earned coins on treats at the grocery store, or save up for toys at Target—the checkout clerks despised us. As we grew older, the jobs changed to suit our ages, and we began saving for more sophisticated items.

Summers as a preschool teacher assistant grew into a steady, year-round business as babysitters for my sister and me. My mom would take us clothes shopping once a year for necessities, but other clothes we wanted, plus our cellphone bill, were left to our extraneous source of income. Budgeting wasn’t a foreign idea because my cellphone bill seemed a product of inflation from the days of saving and calculated spending for American Girl doll accessories.

My adolescent finances seemed so normal to me that—even though I knew other families had different financial arrangements with their children—the first time I was confronted with the spectrum of financial independence was in college.

Freshman year, my parents encouraged me to work part time to have more spending money. I attend New York University, so I want to fully experience the city—visiting the museums, amazing restaurants, and stores. My friends want to do the same, but I find myself declining offers due to the cost.

Many of my friends have unlimited credit cards that their parents happily pay off, plus all-inclusive prepaid meal plans that they rarely use in favor of the unique cuisine found around the city. But I choose to be more calculated. Just as in childhood, my parents provide me with the necessities including tuition, housing, and a meal plan—and I’m fortunate to be able to afford that much. Others are running to two jobs after class to attempt to afford what their need-based scholarship won’t cover.

I am conscious of money not only because I have a job at school, but because my upbringing made me aware of how quickly money can come and go. I have noticed that my peers who pay attention to their budgets, regardless of their employment status, also appear to value their education and actually attend class—what a thought.