The Without World
Today’s post is an excerpt from my first book, A Common Sense Approach for Your Money. I thought it appropriate given the financial situation so many families are finding themselves in because of the pandemic.
I grew up in the “without world”— without sufficient food, reasonable clothing, financial resources, sufficient education, and practical knowledge of the social graces of life. I had no one to take me under his or her wing and educate me on how to live successfully. My role models came from generations of people who worked hard without education and sufficient payback for their efforts. They continually lost out due to their lack of financial learning, which resulted in their inability to earn reasonable cash income and properly manage their money. They had to fight day to day to get the most meager of basics for their families. This cycle of wanting was passed generation to generation.
To break this cycle, I had to learn the key aspects of living on my own. I needed to determine the lifestyle I wanted, how to earn enough income to support that lifestyle, what it meant to be educated, how to approach and manage my money, and how to deal with the practicalities of the outside world. Each day, week, and year was a major struggle. I lived in a constant state of without and feeling the anxiety of not knowing how I could get the financial resources I needed to succeed. I did not really understand the financial journey my life would take, as I was focused on just surviving in the short term. This “without world” has motivated me throughout my life. I made a vow to escape it and provide my family with financial security. In reality, my “without world” continued until I reached my thirties, when I clearly learned what I needed to do and how I wanted to live.
In my youth, like most people, I saw both my parents work as hard as they could to support our family without more than a minimal result. I respected them for all they did to support our family. They could not work enough hours to earn a livable income—similar to today’s campaign to mandate a living hourly wage of fifteen dollars and hour for workers. My father worked seven days per week. In retrospect, he truly exemplified the concept of the working poor. He could not make enough money to get ahead regardless of the number of hours he worked. In fact, he never really got ahead in life, financially or in any other respect. He dealt with struggle after struggle—some were his fault, while others were created by happenstance. My mom saved us, as she had a part-time cleaning job at our neighborhood church that paid enough for our monthly groceries. There were many months that without her earnings, we would have had little to eat.
As I grew up, a good portion of my free time with my father, when he was not working, was spent collecting newspapers and scrap metal in our family truck during school nights (this was before recycling became a common practice). We would take what we collected to the scrap yard the next day after school when my dad got home from work to earn a few extra dollars to buy groceries. If he had a good week and we earned more money than expected, he would take me to the local bar, and I would sit with him and he would order me a birch-beer-flavored soda as he sipped his favorite cold brew fresh from the tap.
As the oldest of five children, I was really bothered by our financial situation. It seemed that everything I needed for school or play was a big ask. I could not join my friends for movies, parties, or other social events. This weighed heavily on me. I vowed at age eight (yes, age eight) and announced to the adults in my life that the “without world” would not be how I would live my life. It was simply too hard. I told my family members I would grow up to have a job that paid me well for my ideas and thoughts. I did not want to live as my parents did—paycheck to paycheck—hoping that something positive would come along to make our daily struggle easier.
From the time I was twelve on, I had to pay for my school clothes, spending money, and any other needs I had outside basic shelter, food, and medical care. (I later learned these were the toughest years for my mom and dad, as my father was underemployed for about five years and it was learned that my brother had major heart issues that needed medical attention and we had no health insurance). By providing for my own needs, including shopping for my school clothes at the local W.T. Grant, a now bankrupt retailer which was located within walking distance from my home, I learned the importance and rewards of working. I mowed lawns, raked leaves, cleaned yards, and worked after school assisting the elementary school janitor to earn money. I worked my way through college as a campus tour guide, janitor at a local elementary school, and house painter.
The fruits of my labor were that I became the first person in my immediate family to graduate high school, graduate first in my class at college, join a profession, become a senior corporate executive and, in time, a multi-millionaire. I ran several businesses, traveled the world, and met key business leaders, government officials, and celebrities.
I accomplished all this finding my own way. This was both good and bad. I made about every painful mistake you can in managing relationships and money, although I did not have to declare bankruptcy or experience foreclosure. I had no one to teach me what I should expect, what I should anticipate in life, and what life could and would financially throw at me.
My parents did teach me certain fundamental truths, however. From my father, I learned the importance of showing up on time and working hard. From my mother, I learned the importance of getting the best education I could and that without an education, I would be stuck in the “without world.” My mother also instilled in me what would be the most valuable trait I would need to be successful in life: a positive, expectant attitude. I was to be positive regardless of how difficult things would get. If life threw lemons at me, I was told to make lemonade. There was no challenge I could not overcome. As such, I have lived most of my adult life on what my wife fondly calls the River Denial. Many times, I made things appear better than they actually were. Sometimes this was to my benefit and other times to my detriment.
Please know that I believe my parents did the best they could for me. Both of them only graduated eighth grade, were orphaned in their teens, and struggled mightily throughout their adult lives to support their family. They did not have solid role models or life coaches to help them through life’s financial struggles. I was able to take care of my mother in the latter or Returning Stage of her life (you will learn more about that in Chapter 5) such that she could live financially stress-free. My father died at what I believe to be a young age, sixty-eight when I was thirty-four, and did not have the chance to enjoy my financial success. My parents gave me what knowledge they had about the world. It was not enough, however, to prepare me for the realities I would face.
Today in our society, we are taught history, math, the sciences, religion, philosophy, the environment, politics, and gender issues. In my experience, however, we have not spent sufficient time teaching how to run our lives financially, the key life events and risks we will face, the decisions we will need to make, the resources available to us, and the ramifications of poor decision making.
The difficulty in teaching people about their relationship with money is that each person’s journey is decidedly different. Each person will make financial decisions based on their individual needs and desires. No two people will go through life and make a copycat set of decisions about what they will wear, how they will live, whom they will marry, how they will spend their free time, or how they will work. Each journey through what I call the FinancialVerse, although governed by the same set of ground rules and macroeconomic considerations, will differ in the decisions made and life experiences that will impact the traveler.
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