John at 7

John aged 7 (almost)

At home, we have been discussing not so much how we acquired such large consumer debt, nor how we got out of it to the point where we can now repair our roof, install solar panels and invest.  No, the question we are now asking is how do we regard money, what’s our money mentality?

We think it goes back to childhood, for that is often where habits both good and bad are started.

OK it’s normal to blame our parents and we are standing by with the ‘Guilty’ cap ready to be castigated by sons in due course.  But people’s relationships generally reflect their personalities and these get passed down generation by generation.  Both my parents have passed away now, as have all their siblings so this won’t really embarrass anyone.  Here’s my story.

My father was one of 7 who had to leave school at 12 to go to work despite winning a scholarship to the grammar school – his parents couldn’t afford the uniform.  This is our youngest son’s age at the moment.   My grandfather, who had survived WW1, was in and out of work all his life.  This wasn’t what his offspring – my dad, uncles and aunts – wanted and, one by one, they all entered the Civil Service in some form or other.

Although he was not the oldest, my dad was the strong man of the family.  He went to work at the post office, delivering telegrams and hitching lifts on his bike from any passing bus or tram.  At night he studied by correspondence college to satisfy his dream of becoming a Customs Officer.  He achieved this but was always embarrassed at having to write on forms, under Education, the word ‘Elementary’.

He would have made a good accountant as he was incredibly diligent and organised although he never really understood algebra.

My mother, one of three who had left school at 14, been to secretarial college, could touch type, knew shorthand etc, read incessantly, played the piano rather badly, just had her housekeeping allowance.  Full stop.  Not a penny more.  Worse – if there was anything spent on me (or my sister) my dad would note it down.  Sometimes it was in his handwriting, but other times it was in hers and I rather suspect he demanded receipts for my school trousers, maybe before handing over the money.  I may be unfair in this – we will never know.

Mum was very much more a party girl at heart, wanting to enjoy herself.  Even as a teenager she had been on joyrides in aeroplanes and her family had taken her and her two siblings on a Mediterranean cruise.  Her dad, my maternal grandfather whom I hardly remember, was an engineer.  Well, he fixed laundry machinery anyway but that was a whole lot further up the food chain than cleaning windows.

My parents met and married before WW2.   As I discovered recently, despite the different ‘status’ of the two families, her family approved of him but his didn’t approve of her.  I imagine hers thought he would keep her under control and his thought she was too frivolous.  Hers were right.

There was an unwritten subtext that he was in charge and there was no money.  Yet she was not allowed to work – I don’t think it was a government directive, I am sure he just wouldn’t let her.

And then the war arrived, which ruined a lot of lives and, although they both survived without injury, I am sure it ruined their relationship.  My dad was in the Home Guard – God knows what he got up to but there were no cross-channel ferries.  He wasn’t called up officially until 1941 and spent some time away from home in the RAF and Navy.  Their dog Tinker died and my sister arrived – no connection implied!  Some time after WW2, I came along.

I imagine the suppression of her spirit on the grounds of supposed poverty must have been at least part of the cause of her bitterness.   This would have been made worse by the fact that he had natural understanding and, dare one say, charm – not in the spiv way.  He didn’t like parties and the few social events were mainly to go to his parents’ house in Hove.  But people naturally trusted and thought well of him while my mother had few social skills, or at least had lost them by the time I became aware.

I hardly ever saw him as he was always at work, or when at home he would spend time doing his clerical work – adding up the household expenditure, probably noting how many pairs of trousers I had.  He would keep a log book for the car – which occasionally ventured out.  It was an historical document – every journey, gallon of petrol, pint of oil, where we went etc was noted as if it were a Lancaster bomber that he maintained during the war.  In the winter time, it would be jacked up and my job was to go and rotate the wheels to stop the brakes rusting. It was a Morris 8 – FKP 873 if you want to know, dark red.

There were rare occasions when he had time to be with me.  He was very good at woodwork and practical things and it was a privilege to spend time with him.  That was so rare – he didn’t play with me as a toddler or child nor have too much time until I could discuss things.  And he took me down the the harbour from time to time when the greatest joy was to go on the ships, down into the engine room.  He knew all the skippers.  I am sure my love of science and machinery was fostered by this and visits to Farnborough Air Show with him.

But I took away from childhood an idea that life was about austerity and adding up accounts while entertainment consisted of listening to the radio – we had no TV.  It wasn’t about fun and happiness. I escaped into reading and thinking.  We rarely went to the cinema, my mother took me to classical music concerts from time to time and did go on holiday from time to time – twice to France in fact – but I bet it was completely budgeted beforehand.

He and I shared a very fast wit which frequently left mother wondering what we were talking about. He understood people, was reflective and thoughtful, always able to see the other point of view.  But this had another effect.  He was a born interrogator of the gentle type.  You never lied to him because he would almost certainly know it, probably know the answer even if he didn’t let on, or let you believe he knew that answer even if he really didn’t.

So my dad, for all his good qualities – and he was a good man, worked hard – was an out and out control freak.

I don’t remember any closeness between them, an occasional peck on the cheek but mainly rows.   I’m sure it wasn’t all gloom and doom – in the photo I seem quite happy – but at least that is my abiding memory.  It was only after my father had a stroke many years later that, sadly, bits of mum started to shine through – because she was in charge.

The attitude to money was very destructive – it was austerity at its strongest yet dad earned quite well – he never had debts apart from a mortgage which he paid off in 10 years.   No doubt this was the effect of his childhood.

My money mentality has therefore been not to spend – but then to spend on a few luxuries.  I was fascinated by photography and wanted a Leica camera.  Dad helped me buy one when I passed some major exams – this was not something most teenagers had.  At university I worked all summer one year and swapped it for a new Nikon F that cost over £200.  That term I  managed to live on only £10.   After the Nikon was stolen, even while relatively penniless, I returned to the Leica fold.

This attitude has continued into adult life – spending little then splashing out.  A sort of financial bulimia.  It is very unhealthy.

I struggle even now to be able to spend sensibly, preferring hoarding until something significant comes along.  At the moment I would love a Range Rover Autograph and a Leica M Monochrom.   Not much change from £100k there.  Boys toys, of course.

So I am trying to buy the occasional bunch of flowers, pictures for the house, and value going to the theatre.  Because these are the things which count.

What’s your money mentality and how has it led you astray?

Maria is in St Louis for FinCon13.  She will report in due course….