Not all lessons in life come from a teacher in a classroom setting. Some of the most important lessons in life are the ones we learn outside the classroom. These lessons could be about finances, relationships or other miscellaneous areas.
I find the best lessons come from simply watching other people and seeing how things end up for them. This works to my advantage because I don’t have to feel the consequences of their actions or the stress that comes along with them.
I’m going to be focusing on the financial lessons I’ve learned so far, but it’s safe to say I’ve learned a lot more than just about money.
Lesson One: No Money
I’ve mentioned often my family was super poor during my early childhood years. Hotdogs, easy mac, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Susquehanna Hash (a truly amazing combo of baked beans, onions, bacon and hash browns) and other cheap fare were the staples of my meals at home. Fortunately, I got free breakfast and lunch at school so I got in some more variety than I would’ve otherwise gotten. Let me tell you, I very rarely complain about institutionally cooked food now.
I grew up with the constant refrain of “no we can’t afford that”. My mom was super honest with us about the money we didn’t have. Light up shoes, Beanie Babies, Lisa Frank notebooks.… all on the no list. (Also, hello 90’s flashback).
I learned there wasn’t an infinite pool of money for us. What money we had came from my mom working her butt off to try to get ahead.
I learned I hated being poor. I never want to be that poor again. Having been close to rock bottom at a young age was honestly better than having to experience that later in life when it might’ve broken me.
I learned how to live cheaply. This came in handy when my relationship with my parents went south and I was thrust out into the real world at age 18. I kept an eagle eye on my money and tried my hardest to use what little I did have wisely. Hitting up garage sales for new to me clothes, dorm accessories, and college bed sized sheets saved me hundreds of dollars at a time when every penny counted.
Lesson Two: Classroom Examples
When I was six, I didn’t realize how big of an impact moving school districts was going to have on my life. I moved from a meh school to a district that boasted of multiple schools regularly featured in the top schools in the state. My high school, for example, was #16 in the state my senior year. It doesn’t sound impressive until you realize we were the only school not in the major metropolitan area. We got cupcakes at lunch for all of our hard work.
I’m not sure if being such a great school let the teachers have a bit more flexibility with their lessons, or if we were a great school because they weren’t giving the standard lessons. A lot of people can moan about having to learn the mitochondria was the powerhouse of the cell but not how the stock market works or how compound interest can work against you or for you. I can’t complain, because I did.
My fifth grade teacher did a unit that had something to do with some math concept. I can’t remember the original intent, but the main focus of the lesson was the stock market. We all started out with the same “amount” of money, and then went through the newspaper to pick out stocks we wanted. We learned how they were tiny pieces of public companies and how that helped both the company and the stock holder. Heavy stuff for a fifth grader, but at that age I was a sponge and soaked it up. This is also the age I attempted to read Anna Karenina because it was worth 75 AR points.
I think we got about $1000 to “buy” stocks with. Most of us picked the very large global corporation that was headquartered in our town and employed many parents. Unfortunately for us, this was spring of 2002 and most of our stocks tanked. I think only one or two people in my class ended up with more than what we started with. That was an incredibly powerful lesson to learn at 11 years old. The stock market could help you out, or it could make your money vanish in a poof of smoke. (Sorry if that made any of my older readers feel old. At least we looked it up in the newspaper and not Google!)
The second lesson came from my sixth grade math teacher. We were learning about the various kinds of interest. For compound interest, he shared his battle with the credit card debt he accrued in college and shortly after he graduated. Watching those numbers go up, up, and up despite him paying the minimum payment was sobering. I carried that knowledge with me until I was 18 and could put the lessons to use for myself. I perhaps took the lesson a bit too hard, as it made me avoid getting a credit card at all until my junior year of college. However, I never put more on the card than I had in my bank account and made sure to pay it off well before the due date.
I actually wrote an email to my former teacher telling him what an impact his lesson had on me. I haven’t heard back from him (doubt I will either) but I wanted him to know what he’s teaching makes a difference.
Lesson 3: Friends and Family
I’m the youngest of three sisters. My middle sister is five years older than me, and my oldest sister is ten years older than me. That means at any given time I tried to keep up with my middle sister while she was in the process of trying to keep up with our other sister. I have a ton of references I get well beyond what most Millennials do simply because my sisters were watching/saying stuff appropriate to their age groups.
That means when I was 12, my middle sister was 17. She struggled mightily with trying to balance her checkbook. Every month it was an all Saturday chore to get her bank statements and register to match up. Watching the painful process (and being suckered in to help her) gave me a really good idea of tracking every penny I spent. Or, at least making sure I had a nice buffer in my account so I didn’t have to spend a whole Saturday inside with my checkbook. Not many 12 year olds know how to balance a checkbook (especially these days).
I also watched my sister struggle to pay for college. She took my parents up on their offer to pay for 2 years of community college, but couldn’t pay for college on her own after that and dropped out of school for awhile after that. Our parents refused to provide their financials to FAFSA, so she couldn’t get any grants or federal loans. She was also smart enough to avoid private loans. This meant she had to wait until she was either a mother (not happening) or 24 to be financially independent from our parents. She did eventually get to go back and graduate after she got married.
My parents told me I was going to get the same deal in 5 years. This motivated me, at age 13, mind you, to start hustling so I didn’t have to worry about paying for college. I stayed in Girl Scouts, did sports, volunteered a ton, was active in my youth group, and joined a few clubs in school. My application to college looked awesome, if I do say so myself. Thankfully I was rewarded for all my hard work with a full-ride scholarship for academics. This came in handy when I was broker than a joke my freshman year. It also came in handy when I was able to graduate with no debt whatsoever and immediately start saving a good chunk of my paychecks.
I had several friends who were one or two years older than me struggling to find a job, feed themselves, and pay off their student loans. This made me motivated to do well in my classes while on scholarship so I didn’t lose it. I came close, but persevered in the end. I also learned how not to spend loan money (even though I didn’t have any loan money). My classmates were livin it up off campus, eating delivery pizza often, buying fancy electronics.….…. and made fun of me for living in the dorms. I tried to tell them I was going to come out ahead in the long run but they didn’t listen. Now I watch from afar as they gripe about their student loan debt and try to start GoFundMe accounts to get people to help them pay it off.
Lesson 4: Video Games
Growing up, you could find me doing one of 4 things: exploring the ravine system behind my house with my best friend, playing “house” with Legos, reading a thick book, or playing a video game. I played a lot of different video games on a lot of different consoles: Gameboys, computer, Playstation… I dabbled in a least a little bit of it. My favorites were the Pokémon series, Mario Kart style racing games, and Age of Empires.
In Pokémon games, you earn money as you fight battles against other trainers. There are items in the game that get progressively more expensive as you advance in the game. If I wanted to be well equipped to take on the Élite Four at the end of the game, I needed to very best items and those cost a LOT of money. So, I learned to save my money up for the end. I would use the healing centers for free to revive my team instead of using potions and other items. I would battle more than I needed to raise more money. I would also hoard items I came across. I was more likely to run out of space in my bag than run out of money.
Age of Empires operated in a similar vein. You went out and harvested nearby natural resources to turn them into more buildings, villagers, soldiers and upgrade packages. If you didn’t have any wood, you couldn’t build more houses to create more people. If you didn’t have enough gold, no upgrades to your armor or weapons. I always sent my people running around like crazy to ensure I had enough resources to build up a massive army that crushed my enemies with no mercy.
I was also enamored with a video game we played for a class in middle school. I have no idea what it’s called, but I’d dearly love to figure it out. You started off as a character and followed them through their life. It was like a more involved video game version of Life. You could choose to help out people and they’d give you money later. Doing chores and other work was rewarded with money, while shopping and outfitting your house cost you money. My character’s house was always sparsely decorated and all but a few simulations ended up with them dying as a happy death as 90 year old millionaires. I asked my former teachers if they could remember the name of the video game, but they couldn’t remember 🙁
Lesson 5: Blogs
What kind of post would this be if I didn’t include the blogs I read all the time!? I wouldn’t even be on this super saver path without discovering Mr. Money Mustache in college. Shortly after that I read Paula Pant’s blog Afford Anything, and then Jim Collins’ blog and then down the rabbit hole to the numerous FIRE blogs out there. From how to live frugally to real estate to how to redo your house with pex plumbing to advice on taxes, there’s a blog out there for everything and everybody. Including this one 🙂
I love to read everyone’s blogs because I learn something each time, I’m entertained, and it gives me a different perspective on something that I might not have thought of yet. Not to mention the wonderful sense of community that we’ve been building! Check out this article for a list of my favorite blogs!
As you see, good lessons can be learned from anywhere. So the next time your mom yells at you to JUST STOP LYING AROUND AND DO SOMETHING PRODUCTIVE FOR GOODNESS SAKES, you can tell her you’re learning valuable life lessons. I’m lucky I was exposed to so many different methods of learning growing up, as I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them. Now, I’m going to go fire up Age of Empires because I realized it’s been way too long since I played it! (Age of Empires II: Conqueror’s Expansion is still the best one, btw).
What taught you your most valuable financial lesson? Was it from a classroom?