These personal reflections on money and wealth were selected after a facilitated conversation among Unitarian Universalist leaders who serve on the UUA President’s Council.
I grew up on a farm, so my parents were self-employed. The issue of working hard was always very important. I was the first in my family to go to college, so I had an image of myself as a professional woman. I also got my master’s degree. I was working and then had children. I worked full time until our second child was born and then I worked part time. After about a year it became obvious to me that it was difficult to handle the children and the household and hold down a job that I was not making a lot of money at, because I was doing social work at the time but also had to pay for day care. [My husband’s] travel was picking up, and so we made the decision that I would stop working.
Not having a paycheck really changed my perspective of who I was. I began to ask what the value of my work really was if I was not earning a paycheck. Because for some reason I had always measured myself that way—just the fact of having a paycheck. So I always felt the work I did with the children and volunteering work had to make up for the paycheck I wasn’t bringing into the family. Fast forward a few years and now our daughters have graduated from high school. The question for me became: I am not doing that work anymore of raising the family and holding the household together, do I go back to work? What is the value of what I have been doing over the last eighteen years? Our income had changed dramatically; we were at a point where I did not have to go back to work to make a financial contribution. We were doing fine. So I really had an opportunity to look at what I wanted to do with my life—was that paycheck that important or were there other ways I could use my life and my talents to give back in a way I wouldn’t if I went out and found a job.
I grew up in a small town, the fifth of ten children for an American Baptist minister—so with essentially no money. When I was in first grade all the boys played marbles at recess. They always played keepsies, which means you brought your own marbles and if you played and lost, you lost your marble. Then you could buy a bag of ten new marbles for 20 cents. What would happen with boys is that the marbles would fall out of their pockets in classes. The teachers would pick them up and give them to the janitor. The janitor ended up with thousands of marbles and he would resell them for a penny a piece, used marbles. So at recess, if you wanted, you could just pay a penny, get yourself a marble, and you could play.
…Over the next two years I played marbles all the time, every recess. I started to accumulate a very large marbles collection. I decided to undercut the janitor and offer two marbles per penny. By the time I finished third grade I had not only established myself firmly with my peer group as the marble king, I had put $18 dollars in the bank from marble sales, had three years of spending money, and was able to give my younger brothers thousands of marbles they could keep for their own collection. This is when I decided you don’t have to start with nothing and stay with nothing. There are ways to move somewhere else.
I began to think about how it had flowed across the generations in my family and I thought about my mother’s side. Her forebears were fairly successful New York merchants and did very well. And on my father’s side there was a long history of being doctors and lawyers and they did moderately well. And then as classically is the case for so many, the Depression came along and largely wiped out the New York merchant family. And with that came a great deal of hardship for my grandmother and her children. When it came time to decide whether or not the kids—my mother and her brother—would go to college, it turned out that the brother, being a male and it being those days, was the one who got to go to college, and my mother, who was clearly the brighter of the two, did not. The result was that he wasted his college years and she was frustrated for many years afterwards.
My parents, respecting money a great deal, were very careful with it. And that led to our being able to enjoy ourselves, because they made things possible for us that they denied to themselves.
In my own life I’ve been very comfortable money-wise. And I’ve had money to spend when I needed it. Uncle Sam came forward just in time when I got out of the service to help me go to graduate school. And after that, my legal career has been sufficiently remunerative to not hurt for money. However, I find money a difficult commodity to come by in the life I’ve increasingly begun to lead, which is to try to start things that I think are important. And I have spent much of the past forty years trying to initiate projects that I thought have meaning for society, putting my own money into them but trying very hard to try to persuade others that their money should be directed in that fashion. So for me, money is partly priming the pump and partly trying to induce others to attach the same value that I do to a project and devote their resources accordingly. So I spend a great deal of time thinking about money, because these causes are important to me and it will take money to make them happen.
In my family of origin we started also with very little. By the time I was an early teenager, my parents had saved up a little bit of money, but then my grandfather developed Parkinson’s disease and had to go to a nursing home. My father called his brother and sister. His brother had virtually no capacity to help out, his sister did but wouldn’t, so the financial burden really fell to my parents to help pay for the nursing home. They almost went bankrupt as a result of this and it was not until the month before my grandfather died that they realized there was a federal program out there, Medicaid, which would have helped him. There was no way to recapture the money they had spent to help my grandfather, so they were basically starting from scratch when my brother and I went to college. It was a real struggle for them for a long, long time. The lesson I took from this was that no matter what you have, you still need a cushion on top of what you think you might need. It is not that you can never have enough, but you have to be really careful. And also it is important to look for other sources of revenue that might be available to you if you run into a hard spot.
My father worked in a bank, so I understood money, at least as a child can understand money. We got an allowance; we had to make that allowance last all month. We were taught to budget, to make that twenty-five cents last. As a grown-up I think one of the most important things is, we read Your Money or Your Life several years ago; we read it together and we tried to really look at where our values were and where our time was going in terms of money. It was life changing in a lot of ways because we could see what we valued. Another moment I remember is a few years ago. I am sort of semiretired now, so investments are important and we all know what happened in 2008. I support a woman through Women International and I said, “Oh, I can’t do this anymore.” I just laughed at myself because it is $350 a year and I definitely have $350 a year to put one of these women in the program even after 2008. So I felt like a shift happened to me. I kind of joked “I am through being cheap.” I am trying to be more generous, even with people I know that don’t have means.
I grew up on the margins of the middle class. The marginal part came from the fact that my parents divorced when I was five, back in 1947 when divorce was not so common. My father was a newspaperman—which I grew up to be—and he was paid squat. My mother got the house, and there was not enough money with my father’s consistent child support to keep the house, so she rented rooms to women. This is postwar when there was a housing shortage, and I grew up in a house of women, which was interesting. And when I got old enough to start earning money, the money went to my mother no matter. I worked at various jobs; I did not get paid much, but it helped. And that continued through my early professional life because my grandmother moved in with us and then she got sick. This was before coherent health insurance, and I lived at home the first year and a half of my newspaper career. Essentially I gave my salary to pay my grandmother’s medical bills.
The thing that made us marginally middle class is that both of my parents went to college, so you get the values without the money… The message I internalized was scarcity and pain, watching my mother trying to get the bills paid and the struggles she had… Money made me squirm most of my life… I have gotten past my discomfort, but it is still not the favorite part of my life. I have struggled to become very responsible about saving and investing and making sure that all my insurance is in place and all the things you need to do to be a responsible adult, but it didn’t come easy for me.