May 6, 2017

The homework was to bring in a dollar. Now, my creative writing students sat around the big classroom table. Each of them held a George Washington in their hands. “Okay, rip it in half,” I said. What happened next was so powerful. They were about to discover how childhood shapes our relationship with money.

For a few long seconds, this class of a dozen adults sat very still. Then it began.

The 20-something student who lived in a homeless shelter stared at her precious dollar. “My fears about money don’t have to control me,” she said.

We heard the soft sound of tearing paper. Then another student took action. A few more followed. Then, total silence.

The 30-something music industry executive shook his head. “I can’t believe something so simple is so hard to do,” he finally said. We watched as he took a deep breath and did the deed.

In the end, about half the students held onto their money. The 40-ish corporate marketing director apologized, saying, “I worked too hard to earn this.”

Respecting our relationship with money

How childhood shapes our relationship with money

We dove into an astonishing conversation about storytelling and personal finance. In reality, our budgets — or the lack of them — tell a very clear story. And if we understand who we are, we have a shot at financial responsibility, security and freedom.

The class ended with everyone excited about the next assignment: Write your money story. Share an early childhood memory involving money. Be sure to explain what your finances are like today.

I came up with this writing prompt after reading a bunch of books by personal finance guru Suze Orman. She does the dollar-ripping exercise in her workshops, leading to personal revelations for participants. They begin to see exactly how childhood shapes our relationship with money.

From there, I offered some scenarios that students found interesting:

  • The lonely kid might grow up to become the adult who always picks up the check when eating out with friends.
  • A kid with a dad who bought fancy cars instead of family groceries might be an adult with anxiety about paying bills.
  • Or maybe you’re like me, the kid whose parents controlled my spending. I always looked for someone else to provide for me.

Making sense of dollars & cents

The following week, we went around the room. Everyone read their pieces out loud. Students said what they wrote surprised even them. Funny how our own words and stories have a way of getting to our truth.

The marketing director who couldn’t rip her dollar tearfully shared the tale of a young girl raised by a struggling single mom. The girl had only one pair of jeans, which made her uncool in school. But she grew up to be a rich lady with more pairs of designer jeans than she needs.

Around the room we went, passing tissues. A 20-something student wrote fondly about the uncle who always gave her coins. She would run straight to the candy store to spend it. Her essay was about her struggle with credit card debt and out-of-control shopping.

I think you get the idea. Early childhood memories about money hold clues and keys to our adult money management issues. If we understand where we came from, maybe we can transform our budgets, wallets and bank accounts.

What I’ve just shared is a reconstructed memory from a New School course that I used to teach. I did this exercise twice. Then, I learned that it’s illegal to destroy money! But scenes from that long-ago class stay with me.

What’s your money story?

In case you’re wondering, I held onto my dollar for a few days. Then, I ripped it, which felt like taking control of my destiny. There are many ways to start respecting our relationship with money, and this was my moment.

From there, I began to pay more attention to how I invest, save and spend. If you’d like to hear my money story, check out this segment on National Public Radio: “My money story: When family values battle personal happiness.”

What about your money story, and other stories? For more about the writing process, check out my post: “How to write a personal essay.”