My Parents Taught Me Absolutely Nothing About Money. Here’s What Happened

financial literacy

Here’s the thing about money.

It’s a little bit like air: If you have enough of it, you don’t really have to think about it too hard — especially if you’re not the one in charge of making it.

Like many twentysomethings, I’ve fumbled my way through my finances for a long time, going into credit card debt and failing to save for my retirement.

But the difference? It’s all my fault.

I’m not struggling under the weight of student loan debt or camping out on pizza-box furniture, unable to afford the real deal.

I was lucky to grow up with parents who could afford to put me through college free and clear, so I have no student loans to speak of. I didn’t have to work a part-time job in high school or even college, and I got pretty much everything I wanted growing up.

Yes, including a pony. A real one.

financial literacy

My parents both grew up poor. When they met, they started a business together, which quickly flourished. By the time I came around, they were making six figures… several times over.

In their new position of plenty, they wanted me to have the childhood they couldn’t (Read: one free of financial worry).

I totally understand and appreciate their intention and all the indulgences I got to experience as a child.

But since my wealthy parents never had to worry about balancing the books, they never had conversations about how to do so with me — and so I continued to treat my own, much-more-finite funds like they were inexhaustible after I left the nest.

Growing Up Without Any Financial Literacy

Let me start by acknowledging this post is about as #FirstWorldProblems as it gets.

Growing up with enough money (let alone a surplus of it) is a privilege I was very lucky to experience, and I did absolutely nothing to earn or deserve such an advantage in life.

But due to my lack of financial literacy, I promptly messed up that advantage.

Here’s how not learning anything about money as a child or teenager has hurt me as an adult.

I Went Into Debt Without Thinking Twice

financial literacy

Lots of teenagers and twentysomethings go into credit card debt.

When you’re just starting out and working jobs that don’t pay quite enough to make ends meet, it can be hard not to.

And with sky-high student loans already keeping many millennials in the red, it’s easy to take a defeatist attitude: You’re gonna be in debt anyway, right?

Please don’t take that position! No matter how much debt you’re already in, more debt is always worse. Here’s how much of your precious cash you waste if you’re just making minimum payments every month.

Like many of my peers, once I had the opportunity, I immediately racked up credit card debt.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t need to.

I didn’t use my credit card to help me bridge an income gap between jobs, or pay for a medical emergency. Mine was an error of sheer ignorance and bad impulse control. And since I didn’t have student loans, I was destroying my totally clean financial slate.

Luckily, since I got a job here at TPH, I’ve learned a ton about personal finance.

I was able to repair my credit after identity theft, pay down the cards and even start using them to my own benefit.

By choosing cards with rewards that fit my needs (can you say travel hacking?) and paying them down all the way, every single month, I get free stuff without paying even a cent of interest.

But throwing my whole savings at paying them off in the first place, reducing my emergency fund to zero? Yeah, that wasn’t a great start.

I Struggle to Live Within My Means

financial literacy
Eva Katalin Kondoros/Getty

By the time I graduated from college, my understanding of money was basically this: You get it from working and you use it to buy things.

I thought money was for spending, and so I’d happily spend every cent I had available — and some I didn’t (see point one).

The concept of creating a budget and sticking to it was a difficult one for me, and it took me a long time to figure out how to make it work.

Sometimes, I still feel claustrophobic within my budget, like I have no unaccounted-for “free” money, and I make more than enough to support myself.

I know this is just because I’m spoiled, and almost everyone deals with this. But had budgeting been on my radar as a child, perhaps I’d at least be better at it, if not more accustomed to it.

I Only Just Started Saving for Retirement

This is, of course, directly related to the first and second points.

I vaguely knew saving money was a thing people did. But growing up, I could always rely on an amorphous, big-enough pool of funds. When I went on my own, I continued to treat my own money like my parents’ — inexhaustible.

Spoiler: I do not make an inexhaustible amount of money.

And I soon learned if I’m ever going to retire, I need to actually save some of it, which turns out to be a lot harder than I expected.

All of this is exacerbated by the ticking clock. If I’d known all this at 21, for instance, I’d just need to put away $25 per week. I still have some time before my 30th birthday, but every year makes the slope a little bit steeper.

My 20s are More Cluttered Than They Should Be

financial literacy

Yes, this really means “I have too much stuff.”

I can feel your eyes rolling, and I kind of agree with you. But hear me out.

Many of us spend our 20s living a freewheeling, fast-moving lifestyle. Blogs constantly feed us lists of destinations to visit or even move to — places you “absolutely must” see in your 20s.

Without a family, solid career, and — yes — a ton of stuff, it’s fairly simple to pick up and go.

But since I had my parents’ backing throughout college, I’d accumulated all the trappings of a “Real Home” — sets of dishes big enough for dinner parties and a desk I actually care about — well before my 25th birthday.

This might not seem like a problem, except when you consider I’ve moved eight times in as many years. Most other twentysomethings I know cycle through used-but-acceptable stuff sourced from Craigslist and the side of the road, buying and selling beat-up couches every time they move.

I, on the other hand, have settled-down furniture… even though I’m far from settling. That means every move has been costly and exhausting, requiring a moving truck and a lot of manpower.

I could ditch it all and start again with budget furniture… but I feel bad selling stuff my parents basically paid for. Plus, some of it’s really nice, and I have no idea when I’ll be able to afford “good” furniture again.

Why Teaching Kids About Money is So Important

financial literacy
Martin Barraud/Getty

My financial missteps likely have less to do with my parents’ wealth than with their choice not to teach me very much about personal finance.

Perhaps their own lack of financial knowledge led to this — but since they’re both business owners, I don’t think that’s the problem.

Furthermore, I fully understand every one of these financial faux pas is the result of my own choices and lack of knowledge. I had the opportunity to educate myself before making big decisions, and I didn’t.

My money foibles are all my own fault and my own responsibility.

But I do wish my parents had decided to teach me more about good financial hygiene — and I think that would have been more likely to happen if they’d struggled to balance the books themselves.

No matter where you stand on the financial security spectrum, if you have kids, it pays to teach them about how to use money strategically.

Not only will they spend less time stressing out about their bank accounts down the line — they’ll also be more grateful for everything they have now.

Whether your finances are pristine or in need of some TLC, helping your children understand how to use money is imperative.

For most of us, it’s not a skill that comes naturally — which makes it easy to trash the clean financial slate we’re born with once our teens and 20s roll around.

Luckily, we’ve got some posts to help you out.

If you’re ready to get your kids up to speed, check out:

If you could use a review of your own before you start schooling your little ones, here are some resources:

Meanwhile, for the sake of poetic justice, you should know I’ll probably never be rich again.

No matter how money savvy I become, my decision to become an English major — yet another effect of my complete financial obliviousness — means I probably won’t ever be a super-stellar earner.

At least I love my job!

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at Word Riot, DMQ Review, Hinchas de Poesia and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.