For years I cursed my skinflint father for teaching me "the value of a dollar." It wasn't called "financial literacy" back then, or even "fiscal austerity," but my dad made sure I knew something about money as soon as I could rub two coins together. The first lesson — that the smaller, shinier dime was worth more than the big gray nickel — now seems like an appropriate intro to the world of finance.
Dad didn't pull down a big salary working as a government-employed astrophysicist, but he moved us to affluent Montgomery County, Md., for the public schools. Raising two daughters in the suburbs, Dad was afraid we'd wind up "spoiled." So we lived like characters out of a Dickens novel, holding on for decades to clothes, cars and furniture. Thirty years after I left home for college, the same decorative soaps were gathering dust in my parents' guest bathroom.
Dad got us earning early. If I wanted something, like a bicycle or ballet lessons, he extended what amounted to a matching grant. He'd pay half, then loan me the rest, interest free, with certain conditions. Good grades. No gum, swearing or rock and roll.
By harnessing my fledgling entrepreneurial spirit, he inadvertently introduced me to the concept of cost-benefit analysis. On a day-to-day basis, I developed focus and discipline around attainable goals that built character and "kept me out of jail," as my dad liked to put it.
I remember raiding the basement for salable junk, loading it into my little red wagon and dragging it down the street. No one really needed used troll dolls or Clue pieces, but the neighbors couldn't resist a child peddler. Were they horrified, or admiring? Who cares? They were buying!
As I grew older, I babysat. I cleaned toilets. I sold glittery Christmas cards door to door in the middle of summer. I recorded every loan payment in a ledger my parents kept in the kitchen. It was a great way to apply math skills, and I learned early on to take care of the things I cofinanced. After working for months to pay off a bicycle, I wouldn't think of leaving it out in the rain.
During my senior year of high school, I landed my first waitress job at a glorified diner in downtown Bethesda. Weekend mornings, I would drag myself out of bed to work the counter. The job was a gold mine, if you count quarters.
And my dad did, with Scrooge-like pleasure, when I got home after the breakfast shift. We had a ritual: I'd empty my pockets onto the kitchen table, and he'd gleefully arrange the quarters, dimes and nickels into neat little piles. Bank tellers would turn on the change-counting machine when they saw me coming. They seemed genuinely impressed by the frequency of my deposits.
College turned out to be another 50-50 deal. By the end of the summer, I'd banked $2000, which, back then, amounted to about one-third of the annual tuition at Middlebury College. Dad took the cash and sent me off, without a car or a credit card, to one of the most exclusive colleges in the country. The $40 monthly allowance he gave me for "incidentals" barely kept me in toothpaste and tampons. On holidays, I was expected to find and finance my way home.
Living off campus and working a couple of part-time jobs, I felt like the Little Match Girl peering in at the impossibly abundant lives of others. Half of the time, I was envious and resentful. Other parents seemed to want their kids to have "a great time at college," and that meant wheels, skiing, plane fare. Did my parents fail to get the memo?
The other half of the time I was disgusted to see privilege and opportunity wasted on kids who seemed neither aware nor appreciative of their extraordinarily good fortune. If college plays out like one beer commercial after another, where do you go from there?
I went to the library. A lot. After calculating how much each class at Middlebury cost my parents — and me — I never saw the logic of blowing one off.
I wonder sometimes how things might have been different if I'd had a trust fund and a gold card. I would have had a car before I was 28. I would have learned to downhill ski. I might even have turned out laid back, happy go lucky or fun loving — terms that have never been used to describe me.
But I probably would never have started a newspaper, either. My early work experience prepared me for the suffering a start-up demands. Knowing how to save, plan and analyze numbers — it's simple: don't spend more than you bring in — gave me the confidence to grow the business into a company where talented people want to work... hard.
For that I guess I owe my old man a debt of gratitude — and a free subscription.