Early Lessons About Money

Tom Levinson Comments

Usually in our Monthly Comments, we share our observations about the financial markets. But this month, we’d like to shift the focus, onto some thoughts about how we live with money. We start with a question:

How did you learn your early lessons about money? 

Was it from your family? Or maybe from your friends? Were you in a classroom, or possibly the corner store? How old were you? Does a single incident stand out? Or maybe a few smaller moments? Is now the first time in a long time you’re recalling them? Who else knows about these early lessons?

Money is a fascinating, complicated subject. From the time we’re little kids, money shapes us: where we live and what we do, our life experiences and aspirations. We all have unique personal histories and priorities when it comes to money. Even partners and siblings – maybe especially partners and siblings – can have dramatically different approaches to financial life.

At the same time, it’s a frequently taboo topic. Important as it is, a lot of our “money life” happens in silence and isolation, conversations that don’t happen, memories that linger but stay buried. This taboo isn’t just imagined. In her 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, the American manners expert Emily Post wrote, the “very well-bred … intensely dislikes the mention of money, and never speaks of it (out of business hours) if he can avoid it.” Unfortunately, this taboo can have toxic repercussions.

There’s a concept in the field of education, known as “the hidden curriculum,” which refers to all the things we learn, even though they’re not explicitly taught. On reflection, it’s easy to start to see how powerful the hidden curriculum of money is, and how perverse and misaligned our cultural expectations often are around the topic. Consider: Money drives so much of our decision-making … but we’re not supposed to talk about it! No wonder money routinely tops the list of the most stressful topics in peoples’ lives.

Most of us don’t learn the fundamentals of money or personal finance when we’re young. There’s no formal, widespread curriculum. So we get our lessons in fits and starts, through what we see and hear – as well as from what we don’t see and fail to hear. As a result, money can often feel like a Gordian knot, an unsolvable puzzle.

The complexity is frequently compounded by the financial industry and press. “Financial speak” can seem like a whole other language. The people who explain money for a living typically stand to gain when the rest of us are befuddled. They’re the “experts”, and just as we do to other experts – electricians, pilots, engineers – we cede the field to them.

But money is too important, too central, and too learnable to wave the white flag on. That’s why, for Park Piedmont, we focus a lot of our time trying to inform and educate. To limit, wherever possible, the financial jargon. To share with you what we know – and freely admit when, as is so often the case, something is unknowable (like where the markets are headed). And to help you, our clients, feel increasingly competent and confident in your own life with money.

We see those roles as a big part of our work, and an important part of our purpose as a firm: to help make financial decision-making less complex, more understandable, and more of an ongoing, open conversation.

To keep the conversation going … please feel free to share your formative money moments with us, and/or your thoughts on other aspects of the “hidden curriculum” of money. We’d be happy to hear them!