“Hey, you should buy us that for our birthday! We really want them!”
I looked up from braiding one nine-year old head of hair to see what her excited twin had been pointing at. On the t.v. screen was an ad for the “xia-xia” a toy that I could neither pronounce nor, being a poor college student, afford. The little motorized hermit crabs with brightly colored shells and baby crabs sitting like parasites in their mothers’ brains captured our attention for the rest of the commercial, inspiring the girls to dance around and make up words to the catchy, annoying theme song until the Disney channel came back on. Within five minutes of watching the show, they had promptly forgotten about the little diseased crustaceans they had wanted so badly. As I got up to make them lunch (noodles, no sauce), I thought about how strange their request had sounded. While my boyfriend’s little sisters are still young, I could never fathom these girls, who had recently graduated to reading chapter books and trying to put on my makeup, playing with those toys for more than five minutes. So why ask for them? Being the youngest in his tight-knit family, the cute little goobers were constantly spoiled with gifts and smothered with love and attention. Was it just because of their age that they felt so comfortable asking for things they really didn’t want? After all, most kids don’t really think about where money comes from. Once they got older, started jobs of their own, they would begin to understand the difference between want and need, right?
Having completed nearly three years of college, I can’t say for sure that they will. Watching my peers take out a buttload of loans or relying on their parents cashing in their 401k to finance their lifestyles, America’s future workforce isn’t exactly becoming independent, financially-savvy adults. Although I grew up in a family of four messy, perpetually hungry kids, I was lucky. Before we were five years old, our parents made sure we knew the value of a dollar. Fast food, an unholy word to my father, was a once-in-blue-moon, clandestine treat, and toys that weren’t made in the U.S.A. or came from Walmart were banned in our household. All of us daughters were taught to cook, clean, and mend and sew clothing. Before I was allowed to learn to drive, I had to know how to change my own oil, jump a dead battery, check my tire pressure, and name all the parts under the hood of the car. If we needed a new one, my parents would save their money until they could pay for it, in full. And our vegetable farm, a source of great pride to my dad, was the entire family’s responsibility. Summer vacations were filled with the heavy work of shoveling dirt, spreading fertilizer, planting, harvesting. We rarely spent money on things we didn’t need, and never on things we couldn’t afford. Though we went without a lot of the things that most children take for granted nowadays- cell phones, their own t.v., video games, their own rooms- we were acutely aware, even at a young age, of why. We knew that these things cost money, and that money came from hard work and prioritization.
Although I openly resented my parents for being so strict when I was living at home, looking back on my childhood, I have so many things to be grateful for. Being a leukemia nurse, my mother is one of the strongest human beings I have ever known. Knowing that she goes into work every day with a smile on her face and love in her heart to face death head-on never ceases to amaze me. Her life showed me the need for patience, respect, humility, and especially gratitude. Having to travel all over the world for his job as a biomedical engineer, my father taught us the joy and excitement of visiting new places. Because my mom and dad worked so hard and saved so much, they were able to afford to send each and every one of their children on trips to Europe or Australia. Because they had instilled such good values in us, we were able to go alone, a learning experience that without a doubt prepared me for making future adult decisions by myself. Without my dad’s encouragement of trying new things, my level of curiosity and sense of adventure would certainly not be what it is today. When he lost his job to an injury, we never went hungry or lost the house. Sure, money got significantly tighter, but even with just one working parent’s salary, we were still able to do most of the activities we had always pursued, because we had all learned what was truly important in life.
As I get closer to graduating college, I realize how well my parents have prepared me for living in the real world. Though I will still be graduating with a few small loans (and soon taking on more as I move on to law school), the majority of my college education was paid for through my family’s smart savings. My parents worked hard to ensure I had a much less worry free beginning to my adult life, and a good foundation to support me through the years ahead. As our country struggles to recover from the crippling financial mess we got ourselves into, I’ve seen more and more people begin to adopt the save-now, spend-later attitudes that has given my family so much success. An appreciation for the value of a dollar will hopefully become the new American way.