Reader Request Week 2023 #7: Money Among the Generations
David Goldfarb asks:
Something that occurred to me to wonder about, a while ago: as someone who grew up poor, how do you feel about your daughter’s attitude towards money? I’ve seen posts from her where she talks in a fairly casual way about spending what to me (also upper middle class! pretty close to your age!) seem like eye-watering amounts.
I wouldn’t characterize them as eye-watering amounts, personally. Eye-watering to me would be something purchasing a new automobile, deciding after a month you don’t like it anymore, and then buying a new one. That would water my eyes, guaranteed. Athena, on the other hand, buys things like stickers and stuffed animals and monthly food box subscriptions, and while those can add up over time, like anything (please don’t ask me about my guitar purchases and subscriptions to music production stuff), they’re really not in the same league. Also, we’re not upper middle class, we’re rich. We try not to be dicks about that fact! But, you know. In conversations like this, that matters.
As for my daughter’s attitude about money, let me approach that sideways by talking about the movie Crazy Rich Asians. I remember watching that movie and something about it striking me, and that thing was that some of the characters in that movie reminded me, in a very specific way, of the kids I went to high school with. Many of you will recall that I went to private boarding school in Southern California. It was a very good experience for me, and also, as a scholarship student who in his senior year was living in a trailer park when he wasn’t at school, I was also aware that my perspective on money was very different than the perspective a lot of my classmates had. I thought about it a lot; they didn’t think about it at all.
Which was the same as the characters in Crazy Rich Asians. They had their various problems and concerns and issues, and none of them had to do with finances — or if they did, were about the use and daily maintenance of money, not the acquisition and rationing of it, and even then it was not much remarked on (except by Constance Wu’s middle class character, who was the audience’s way into the story). Now, very few of the kids I went to high school with had the same level of wealth as the characters in the movie, and I certainly don’t today, but that attitude about money — it’s there, and will be there, and thus, not something to worry about on a daily basis — was certainly similar. To be very clear, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie and everything in it is heightened for dramatic and comedic effect. But the money vibe in the movie is based in a reality, and I experienced it in high school.
Athena has the same money vibe as those kids I went to school with. Not snobby, not “I have money therefore I am better than you,” which is a vibe when it comes to money, but is a different vibe, which is important to note. Rather, simply, “the money is there and I don’t have to think about it.” Material and financial security was and is a baseline assumption for her. She has absolutely none of my (frankly) PTSD about money and the lack of it at various times in my early life, or about the utter unreliability of the money when we did have it. Even now, I look at what I have and think, well, this could all go away tomorrow, even though intellectually I know that’s not going to be the case. We have enough money now that I could probably never make another dime and yet still feed myself until I roll off this mortal coil. That doesn’t matter. At the core of me, the feeling of financial instability never goes away. Athena doesn’t have that, and never has.
Which feels like a win to me, you know? Look, I’m not going to pretend I was 100% The Best Dad Ever — I am human, watch me fumble even basic things — but getting my child into adulthood without her worrying even once if she was going to have a place to live, or dinner, or shoes, well. I’m going to take that and mark it on my ledger as a plus. I and her mother did that for her, and I feel pretty great about that. I wish every kid could feel that level of security, and we all know that it’s not what every kid gets to feel, and that, in this new gilded age of ours, it’s something fewer kids get to have as we go along.
Athena’s financial privilege was not something she was ignorant of growing up. We don’t live in an enclave of well-off people; we live in rural Ohio, with farmers and blue collar workers. At one point in elementary school her classmates, because kids are blunt this way, flat out asked her if she was rich. She didn’t know, so she asked us. We told her the truth about it, which was, yes, and also, if we ever heard of her using the fact to try to make herself feel she was somehow better than her classmates (or, really, anyone), we would very unhappy, and then she would be very unhappy about that. Athena, so far as I know, took that to heart. She understood that she had essentially lucked into financial security, and that as a child, none of it was due to her. She kept, within the bounds of her age and life experience, a reasonably good grip on the situation.
I think it helped that as soon as she understood the concept that we had money, and that I and Krissy worked for it, we kept her up to date on how that money was made and what use it was being put to. Athena was told early about how much we made, the ins and outs of the publishing business, how taxes work, what we spent and how and why, so that money was not merely an abstract concept to her, nor was how it came and went in the household. I also made sure she understood how much luck was involved with that money — on my side, not Krissy’s — and what my position was relative to most writers and creatives. And I made sure she understood how lucky both of us were to have Krissy in our lives, as she has an eagle-sharp eye both for managing money and making sure we know where every penny of it is.
For all that, if your baseline is financial security and solvency, you approach the world with a different perspective than someone whose baseline is not that. Athena has spent and spends more at her age than I would have at those same ages, goes out to eat more, travels more and otherwise makes financial decisions differently than I would. I don’t generally feel these choices are especially extravagant, especially the ones that she then uses as fodder for writing (hello restaurant, food and travel pieces here at Whatever!). But they are still different choices, and I find those different choices interesting.
There’s another aspect of this understanding about money which is not as obvious to other folks, because it’s nothing something that she or we discuss much, nor will I go into detail about it now, which is that Athena has more than once used her financial privilege to help friends and others, and did so even when younger than she is now. She understood early on that a thing that was a baseline for her wasn’t so for others, and strove to be helpful with what she had. Which makes me immensely proud of her as a parent. She is a good person, and to the extent that I at all helped with that, I am grateful.
Now that Athena is an adult, she is more enmeshed with the family finances, not less; she’s going to be an active part of both Scalzi Enterprises and the Scalzi Family Foundation, not just because she’s going to inherit, but because there are things she can and will contribute to both. What’s going to be interesting to me is if and how participating in the making and formal distribution of family money is going to change her relationship to that money. We’ll find out! And I’m very much looking forward to that.
(Disclosure: As this piece is about Athena, I showed it to her and invited her to make any edits or comments she wanted before it was posted. She made none. It is as I first wrote it.)