Bienvenido El Dinero: Listening to Family Secrets

Welcome to my new savvy financial column. Together, we’re going to explore how to make money and keep it, understand its pitfalls, and celebrate its joys. With every dollar you earn comes the trappings of responsibility and possibilities that can be life changing. There are many facets to the world of finance and nothing gets me more excited than talking simply about money with you. I’m here to share my experiences and in doing so, hope to bring to light your relationship with money.

It’s no coincidence that I’ve spent the last 30 years climbing the corporate ladder of accounting and finance, reaching the top as a leader for thriving organizations. It also hasn’t escaped me that I followed in the footsteps of men most of my life, often the only woman in the boardroom. As a writer, my purpose is to keep the conversation going with women all over the globe.

Growing up, my family showed me that money was the oxygen to a healthy household and exposed bad things that could happen when you cut off the air supply. While the men in my family were shrewd businessmen who survived their fair share of economic downturns with relatively few scars, I was surrounded by strong-minded southern women who forged their own way, with or without their husbands’ blessings. There were plenty of battles on the homefront over money and I bore witness to the games my mother and grandmothers played to retain control over their precious pennies. It was obvious to me at a young age that money made the world go ‘round and I made up my mind early on to be in the driver’s seat of my own financial life.

As a child, I paid close attention to the stories my maternal grandmother told of the firm stand she took upon marrying my grandfather. The daughter of a successful oil man, she wielded her inheritance, keeping her own separate accounts. She spent the money the way she wanted, outside the purview of her controlling and authoritarian husband, firmly planted in his good job and cherished pension. When he told my mother she couldn’t have something she wanted, my grandmother would slip her the funds behind his back. In their colluding female minds, it was forgivable because they saw it as their own money, not governed by the rules of holy matrimony. My mother carried this scheme into her own marriage. 

I watched my paternal grandmother play a different game. A frugal survivor of the Great Depression, she mastered the art of stretching a dollar, turning them into her own slush fund stashed underneath the bathroom sink. She was pragmatic and since my grandfather never knew about her little nest egg, they lived in peace. But, she had found her power. In her later years, she moved into a nursing home and kept a white cotton zipper pouch stuffed with cash safety-pinned inside her bra. Her private stash still kept her safe and warm.

Over the years, the wars over money in my childhood home left craters in my parent’s marriage. They battled over my mother’s habit of spending money she didn’t have and hiding it, a clandestine way to feel free. She would do anything to avoid being told no. My mother never gave in, holding tightly to her covert spending until my father finally gave up, realizing it was a fruitless fight. They drew a line of demarcation to keep from killing each other. After my mother’s death, my father confessed he had never trusted her. My mother’s defiance may have given her the feeling of being in control, but as a result, she sabotaged their wedded bliss.

My mother’s game stays with me every day. But, I chose to live more honestly. From the time I held that hard-earned wad of currency in my hand from my first babysitting job, having my own precious cash began to infuse its power into my being. I understood the days of asking for an allowance or permission to spend it were over. And it felt good. My world opened up wider when I got my first “real” job and by the time I left home at 17, I understood freedom for the first time, knowing deep in my bones I could support myself. The connection between working hard and getting paid was like a drug to me. Survival was the name of this game and I set my sights to learn how to play it.

My elders taught me that money wielded power and bestowed freedom, but it could also be a weapon and depending on how you use it, could help or hurt a life. I’ve made mistakes and so will you. I’ve gotten in my own way. The lessons of the past can be brutal, but also educational if we choose to look deep enough. Money (with its many dialects) is a language I’ve learned to speak. Like any language, it’s also an art. As women we wield tremendous power; through the understanding and management of our own money, we give ourselves a voice, and build lives of independence.




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