Don’t get me wrong: She lived well within her means. In fact, she lived below her means (another great lesson I wish I’d learned better). But my parents often disagreed about what those means were. My dad was more financially conservative (some might say cheap) than my mom was. She wasn’t a big spender, but she was a big giver and a big believer in indulging a fantasy from time to time. She often took the life’s-too-short approach to financial decisions (as in life’s too short not to get those shoes, go on that vacation or spring for those really good concert tickets)—something my dad never did.
Whenever my parents reached an especially tense impasse over financial issues, she’d end the argument by channeling her best Billie Holiday and belting out, “God Bless the Child That’s Got It’s Own.” This drove my father crazy, but he never figured out how to override her message, which was clear: “I’ve got mine, and I’ll decide what to do with it.” That, even to my child’s eye, was clearly a form of power and she wielded it well.
My mom’s other lessons in economic empowerment were gleaned less directly. She and my dad had a joint bank account, joint ownership of their home, they paid joint taxes and made all significant purchases jointly. But, in addition to their shared holdings, she made sure she had her own credit card accounts, her own investments, and her own credit rating. She was mindful of finding bargains but she understood quality and she never sacrificed one for the other.
“It’s not a steal if it’s garbage,” she’d say, whenever I spotted something she deemed unworthy of any price tag. “Unless they’re paying you to take it home, you’re getting taken.”
In a pinch, my mom could always “find” money in the house—and not just pocket change, but significant amounts tucked away in unused coffee cups, between the pages of books, or inside old boxes kept on high shelves. She never said a word about this, but I knew that if the world fell apart, she could buy enough food or gas or water to keep us afloat until somebody figured out how to put it back together.
When New York offered its most experienced teachers an early buyout package, she took it, maxing out her pension and benefits without putting in the extra time. Now widowed, she’s still stubbornly independent on every front and still as generous as the day is long.
She takes pleasure in giving to the causes she deems worthy and to her grandchildren often for no reason at all. Every once in a while, she asks them to lift an old coffee or juice jar for her, claiming to be testing their strength. Filled to the brim with coins, the jars weigh a ton, but if the kids can lift one, she says, they get to keep it. The record, so far, is held by my daughter, who emptied her jar into the CoinStar once and got back more than $100. That’s not a bad haul for picking up an old jar of loose change. And it’s not a bad lesson to learn young: Every little bit counts. It’s a lesson, like the ones my mother taught me, that will last a lifetime.