- I grew up working class and learned good work ethic from my parents.
- But I didn’t learn much else about money, because, I’m sure, my parents were in the dark about financial services.
- Working for a personal finance startup opened my eyes to the ways I could use money to thrive.
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my parents offered my sister and me our first allowance. We were each responsible for a rotating set of weekly chores, and each got $3 per week for we did them.
By the time I was 10 or 11, they discontinued the allowance program.
Our parents realized using money as an incentive meant we could forfeit the week’s pay if we didn’t want to do the housework on our list. We were elementary school children with parents to feed, clothe, and house us, so we had little need for money. The novelty of cap erasers and Airheads from the school store wore off fast, and money didn’t have much luster.
But the housework still needed to get done.
So they pulled the allowance and instituted a “You do the chores because we told you to do the chores” policy in its place.
That’s the earliest I remember learning anything about money from my parents. The lesson? You do work because work needs to be done.
We’re a rural, working-class family from the Midwest. In our part of Wisconsin, with its German roots and farm families, work ethic is our moral code.
My parents didn’t teach us so much about our country’s financial systems — because, I assume, they were as much in the dark about them as most Americans are. We didn’t talk about financial services, because they aren’t built for people like us, who are, as my parents put it “not born rich.”
My parents taught us how to work, and that shaped everything I believed about money.
What ‘good work ethic’ means for your finances
Because it’s in my DNA, I can’t help but see strong work ethic as a virtue. My efficiency, stoicism, and persistence have earned me the life my parents hoped I’d have — one where I earn double what they did at my age and have the adventures they delayed to raise us.
But the glorification of work ethic is insidious. It underpins millennial hustle culture and the ridiculous politics that have stuck us with a federal minimum wage that hasn’t budged in more than a decade.
“You do the work because it needs to get done” is the attitude that kept my mom silent when she knew she earned less money than her male coworkers while doing more work and honing more skills to stand out. It motivated my stepdad to be promoted to supervisor in his manufacturing job, only to lose all the protections of his union — and to turn his bitterness on the union workers instead of the system that pit him against them. It convinced my dad not to chase down payments owed for his construction jobs, even when his electricity was being cut off.
Operating on work ethic means you make do with what you get.
a matter of discipline. You don’t expect more, you don’t spend more than you make, and you never ask for help.
(Because we’re white and able-bodied, we were inherently trained to believe paying work would be available as long as we were willing to do it.)
Overcoming internalized budget culture
My parents’ disciplined approach to money is pretty much in line with the maxims of overall budget culture — the mindset that good money management means restriction and deprivation, and financial wellness is about hoarding what you’ve got.
I internalized all of it — work hard, ask for nothing, spend nothing, do it yourself. But I didn’t adopt the behaviors. Instead, I became an adult who was bad with money.
I borrowed student loans for college and promptly ignored them as soon as I stepped off campus. I maxed out a credit card by 24 and stopped applying for more. I lived paycheck to paycheck — spending when I had it and restricting when I didn’t. I didn’t know my
. I paid 11% interest on a seven-year loan for an $8,000 used car. I paid the maximum security deposit to move into new apartments.
I believed being good with money meant settling for a boring job and forgoing all luxury or comfort until retirement, and I didn’t want to live that way. The other option seemed to be to throw it all out the window, bury my head in the sand, and hope for the best.
In 2015, I got my first full-time job as a staff writer with a personal finance media startup, and everything I believed about money changed. I was earning a solid living doing creative work I loved. Plus, because of the niche, I was gaining an understanding of financial systems and services that helped me make decisions about money that had nothing to do with discipline or restriction.
I figured out how to have a better relationship with money — on my own terms.
What I wish I’d learned about money earlier
I’ll always be grateful for the work ethic I learned from my parents … and I wish I’d gotten the nuances of money a bit earlier in life.
I don’t fault my family or community for this. Our education system is lacking in general, and it barely noted financial literacy until my generation was mostly done with school. My parents taught me what it takes to thrive when you’re not born rich.
As an adult, I fought against those lessons until I realized I didn’t have to bury my head in the sand to feel OK about money. I could find easy ways to stay on top of my finances without toiling away on a budget or sucking all the fun out of my life.
I learned how to use my interests and skills to get paid well for work I enjoyed. I learned to be ambitious. In the flush startup world, I learned to expect a standard of employee wellness and benefits, so I’d know to ask for more in the future.
I learned about paying myself first, so I can work on financial goals and spend money on comfort and joy at the same time. I learned that online banking and financial apps can handle the most boring parts of money management for me.
I learned that finance is a spectrum, and not everyone’s definition of “thriving” is my definition of thriving. I can manage my debt, savings, and long-term planning however I see fit — and there are so many ways to do that without running afoul of financial service providers.
I learned to value my time and mental health, so I don’t feel guilty when I eat out, pay someone to clean my house, or take a Lyft to the airport. I’ll happily rent forever so I’m not the one dealing with a washer on the fritz. I’ll always feed my travel fund, but my IRA might have to wait.
Money doesn’t have to be a drag
When you’re “not born rich,” the messages you get around money from your community and the culture at large tell you you don’t deserve it. You’re not meant to do exciting work, earn a living wage, build wealth, enjoy the finer things, or live free of financial stress. You’ll work hard and pinch pennies; that’s just the hand you were dealt.
Through a little financial literacy, I learned there are a ton of ways to be good with money.
I work hard and expect to be paid well. I spend money, because that’s what it’s made for. I use credit cards and loans to ease financial burdens, and I repay them in ways that fit into the life I’ve designed.
I’m a product of my working-class roots, but I don’t have to follow the rules they taught me.