Thursday, June 29, 2006

Money, my father and me

Strangford Harbour

My father worked as a poorly-paid local government officer for fifty years. He had two different jobs for two local authorities, one for twenty years, the second for thirty. Why local government work? It had a good guaranteed pension.

Every month on payday he would draw down the whole monthly salary in cash at the bank. When he got home that evening he unlocked the money drawer in the Victorian cabinet in my parents’ bedroom, and took out around twenty or so banker’s envelopes. Each of the envelopes was labelled: mortgage; housekeeping; clothes; holidays, and so on. He would divide the cash according to a pre-arranged budget and not a penny more would be spent over the coming month. I believe, though I can’t be sure, that he may have had a category for unexpected expenses, but this would not have been a large amount.

He never bought anything on hire purchase. If we wanted anything special, we saved up for it. Neither he nor my mother wanted her to work after their marriage – they were of that generation and background - so he had total control of the household’s finances.

His own father, a post office clerk, had developed TB when Dad was seven and died when he was nine. My grandmother was left with two boys to raise in pre-welfare state days. She came from a large family, fortunately, with a couple of sisters who had “married well” and who I suspect helped out. She also took in other people’s laundry. As a boy my father worked at weekends and evenings in order to boost the family income.

So financial security was a critical factor for him. He was deeply fearful of becoming destitute. I found out after his death that he once advised my sister never to take a job if it didn’t have a good pension scheme. He never had this conversation with me, and I have since wondered why. Was our relationship that distant? He never said anything critical because we were both wary of broaching sensitive subjects, but I suspect he disapproved of the wandering lifestyle that I adopted in my early years. Or did he perhaps think I was the type who would survive and didn’t need good financial advice?

Wrong. I was careless. I thought I would meet a man who would look after me financially. Or just that something would turn up. So I frittered money away, albeit in a low-key way. But then about twelve years ago, I hit a crossroads, my life changed and I gradually started taking better care of myself all round, including financially.

I’ve learned that I can’t budget in the rigid fashion that my father did, in the same way that I can’t diet. Tell me to spend £x on this and £y on that and balance my chequebook, and I will develop an irresistible craving to blow £300 on a Gucci handbag and throw away the receipt. Well maybe not exactly, but sooner or later I abandon the budget. I feel as if I am drowning when I am controlling my spending to such a degree, and going on a spending spree is the equivalent of kicking hard for the surface in order to be able to breathe.

After a period of burn-out a few years ago and on receipt of a (very) small windfall, I made the decision to switch from full-time executive assistant roles to temporary office work. I couldn’t take the pressure any longer, and I wanted finally to allow myself freedom and time to develop my other talents, the ones that I enjoy more.

By the standards of my peers I now live very simply, and to some extent I have become my father’s daughter. No banker’s envelopes for me, and I only do what I have to in the way of balancing cheque books and so on. But I have become one of life’s minimalists. There were no luxuries to speak of anyway when I was growing up, so it is no real hardship.

I question sometimes, with a good deal of self-recrimination, why I have never been able to settle as he did into a “safe” long-term conventional career. I tell myself at these times that by the standards of most of the world’s population I am wealthy, that I have always been able to get work, and that while money is definitely a necessity it is only useful for comfort, not happiness. I’ll be all right. Everything will be all right. And the risk will be worth it.

Magical thinking? Perhaps. But perhaps not.


Blogger Stray said...

How does the picture connect with your story? Somehow I know that it does ... but I'm not sure how or why?

Do you believe you could have had one of those twenty or thirty year jobs? I'm not sure such things exist any more, but if they did I think it would be a poor marriage. And nomads and traders have a vital role to play in connecting together the islands of tribes people without the wanderlust - if only to say "there are other places than here" to someone who needs that unspoken hope to be confirmed.

Do you think there is any chance that your father might have longed to sit you down and say "Don't ever take a job that has a good pension"? Perhaps he felt and thought this, hoped it for you, but couldn't say it for fear the envelopes would bite him later?

8:13 am  
Anonymous pohanginapete said...

I think it takes both courage and trust to live like this. I, for one, am glad you've chosen to free yourself to develop your other talents, some of which we, your readers, therefore get to enjoy.

I think Stray's made some excellent points, too.

9:40 am  
Anonymous pohanginapete said...

oh yes, and at the risk of annoying Stray [:^)], I'd rather you didn't attempt to explain the picture. It evokes particular things for me, some of which clearly connect with what you're saying and others that hint at things that might be possible. Your call, of course, Mary. (Sorry, Stray).

9:46 am  
Blogger Stray said...

Not annoyed at all P :) I guess I felt the connection but wasn't really sure why. But yes, perhaps the hinting is more powerful than black and white. I'm afraid impertinent questioning is an old habit for me!

I agree - it's courage and trust at work, and the world is so much richer for people who don't focus on amassing riches.

10:08 am  
Blogger Jean said...

Given the much more extreme reaction you might have had to your father's habits, your choices seem to me to reflect a remarkable degree of relaxed sensitivity and self-knowledge.

This sure is an area full of deep-seated, powerful feelings, though, isn't it? - fear, guilt, inadequacy, other people's moral standards... Often pushed under the carpet, and good to get our habits and assumptions out and examine them from time to time (said the person about to put down a holding deposit on a flat and shitting herself about it).

10:39 am  
Blogger leslee said...

Oh, I can so relate to this, at least on how I hoped someone else would help keep me afloat (although I've always figured I'd have to work, too) and how I hate to deny myself anything. I have learned to simplify, though. I'm pretty judicious about what I'll blow money on.

But I have gotten tired of financial insecurity, and what I think it does to the relationship equation. Which is why I'm turning tail and taking a full-time job (with pension, or at least retirement fund). I guess sometimes you do reach a point where you see the future and it doesn't look pretty so you have to do something about it.

2:22 pm  
Blogger LJ said...

A spendthrift...product of careful, thrifty depression-era parents, I have come late to making peace with the issue of money, too.
It's a huge symbol, isn't it? If you think of it as energy, I mean.
I related very strongly to what you said about rigidity making you want to blow money and throw away receipts...I've done that too.
But now...wanting a simpler life, & planning escape from the steady job (& steady salary), I find it's easier to save. As if some howling voice had stopped and's just easier to balance.
Really good entry, M.

3:49 pm  
Blogger starnitesky said...

I had to spend many years living like this due to living on a low income after my husband left me to bring up two children on my own, I used to leave the money in the bank but had a book with all the money allocated to their different places. I found it was a way of feeling secure when there was little money about. I also remember my own father with his book doing a similar thing.

I admire you being able to be somewhat free by doing temporary work, at this time I have to still have the security of my permanent job. A thought provoking post Mary.

10:47 pm  
Blogger rdl said...

Great post! I like the way you think and isn't it funny how much like our parents we really are.

12:00 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Thank you all:

Stray - there is a tenuous link between the photo and the article. That's all I can say without giving the game away for Pete!

Thanks for your thoughtful comments .... no, I could never have stuck that type of job the way he did. It's a great gift to be able to wholeheartedly accept one's own idiosyncracies. And I think he was probably concerned but didn't know how to approach me. Communication was not our strong suit. And I love the nomad analogy ..

Thanks Pete. The recent exchanges in the comment section on your blog, as you may have guessed, fed into this piece. Your example of making clear choices on the way you want to live your life is a good one for me ....

Jean: Yes, so much emotion indeed. A holding deposit, that is big, isn't it? I am excited and pleased for you ...

Leslee: To everything there is a season ... We're exchanging territories it seems to me. I'll be interested to follow your progress, both of us in new areas of life.

LJ: Planning and saving and living simply, you and me both. It is a relief to be able to hear oneself now that the howling voice has stopped .....

Starnitesky: Thanks for this comment and the word about your own father. I think a lot of people of that generation were very careful. They had to be.

Rdl: My sister says to me from time to time "You sound just like Mum". :-)

7:10 pm  
Blogger g said...

I liked the sweet portrait of your father embedded in this post.

Still, I would be reluctant to imagine what was actually going on in his mind. The words to your sister, reported second hand, could have been meant in so many ways.

And why didn't he share the same words with you? Who knows? Why was your communication what it was? Who knows again.

I think its pretty safe to say he loved your dearly, but couldn't express it, not often, not well, not with words.

2:26 am  
Anonymous in a trance said...

How I wish my dad could be as practical. My father works in a government-run hospital, salary's quite low, but growing up in a well-run household with a good enough income, he somehow developed a gambling problem, not to mention a lax attitude towards financial planning. It's bringing in more problems than he could've imagined. My struggle now is to learn from his mistakes.

9:51 am  
Blogger herhimnbryn said...

Mary, such a thoughtful and perceptive post about your Pa and how his stratergies for security have been like ripples on a pond through your life.
It reminded me of my Pa teaching me to do monthly accounts when I received my first pay packet!

2:34 pm  
Blogger Sky said...

Perhaps your father wished on some level to be more like you - more spontaneous and driven by passion and so could never could bring himself to have the conversation with you? Perhaps he knew you had an innate odometer which would always keep you safe while letting you travel outside a safety zone? (Maybe your sister didn't have the same strengths?)

The photographic illustration is fascinating. For me it speaks to the safety of being on the edge; no chance of "sinking" (drowning?) with a life vest held carefully in place; remaining "grounded."

It is the "edge" which speaks so loudly to me here among the words. I see you as one who prefers to dive into the water and swim instead of lingering on the edge of life. Maybe you have felt that the part of you which is more like your father has held you in place more often than you would have liked. Yet, Mary, in the short time I have read your blog I have found you remarkably courageous, true to your heart, making choices which will carry you to the happiness you long for. It takes a brave person to leave the security of the known and dependable to go after that which is risky but imbued with deeper passion. And, you are that brave person! :)

6:06 pm  
Blogger zhoen said...

I'd like to think he trusted you would be fine. And intuited that the world was changing, the old rules might not apply.

9:40 pm  
Blogger chuck said...

I, like many, like the idea of security.
Still, I prefer to forego the cost of health insurance and, instead, to spend those funds on good culinary experiences at home or in restaurants.
Probably this is not smart behavior, though maybe the FUN times are what keep me healthy.
I can relate to the way you have weighted your values. Interesting post.

7:25 am  
Blogger Mary said...

G: Thank you for your thoughtful words ..

In a trance: Welcome. Your situation must be so difficult. Wishing you much success in your quest to learn from it.

Herhimnbryn: These memories do stick with us, don't they ...

Sky: I am always glad to read your words, and I was extremely touched by this comment. Thank you. And
you are so very perceptive about what led me to choose this particular photograph. .. the life jacket, the edge. That's it.

Zhoen: I'd like to think that too ...

Chuck: I agree. Fun times are undervalued - and we all need them!

9:15 pm  
Blogger herhimnbryn said...

Mary, thankyou for your kind comment on my post and thankyou for adding the blog to your links.

10:51 pm  
Anonymous Jess said...

Mary, so glad you were able to get the little Blogger glitch taken care of. How disconnected I felt, not being able to leave you a comment! I'm catching up on the reading bit by bit, enjoying your writing & pictures and especially the self-portraits. I so appreciate the comments you've left for me. Thanks for being there!

7:21 pm  
Blogger Brenda said...

Fathers and money, you have hit the nail right on the head. Perhaps our mothers couldn't teach us because they weren't the money-holders of the family. I am quite opposite to my father, who had a career as a world-class geochemist, and a great business mind, and ended up quite wealthy. My mother is working class and I certainly know how to shop and how to squeeze every penny of my income out. A few years ago, adrift (the photo taking me there, though that's in a safe harbour, I was more out in the ocean), some terrible financial decisions behind me, with few job prospects, I simply decided to 'be' a writer and artist, and to that end I am amassing a body of work, helped hugely by having a blog. Where it might take me, I have no idea - that raft adrift image again. I'm left in a position of trusting...

A thought-provoking post, thank you. I really admire how you can share the intimate centre of your life, life's path.

12:43 am  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

But it seems your father spoke to you without having to say a word. You remembered his envelopes, his prudence, his way of being in the world. The most eloquent voice of all.

3:45 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Herhimnbryn: You're welcome!

Jess: I'm really happy to hear from you, and you sound good as well. I thank you for being there ...

Brenda: Trust. Yes. Thank you.

Patry: Of course you are right. I learned his lesson.

7:42 am  
Blogger phlegmfatale said...

The idea of tossing over job happiness for long-term benefits is something of a conundrum, to me. If your job is not fulfilling or --worse-- makes you sad/depressed/pressured, these things can debilitate your health and put the possibility of reaching retirement age into question. I landed a "great" job at 20 and stayed there 9 years, but those years were spirit-crushing and I feel very damaged for the experience. Perhaps your father respected your independence, and yes, recognized you'd find your path - it sounds as though you have.

1:24 am  

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