Once when my mother was driving me home from a piano lesson, she took a different route than usual. At a certain point she stopped the station wagon, went inside a building, and emerged a few minutes later with a bag in her hand. Getting back into the driver’s seat, she gave me the bag and said, “Don’t tell Dad.”
Inside was a white summer dress made of cotton poplin, with an emerald-colored sash at the waist. I loved it instantly, but the thrill of ownership came with a realization. I was five years old, and for the first time, I had an inkling that parents could have different opinions on how to spend money.
Mom and Dad didn’t always agree on the details when it came to money matters, but they both shared the firm belief that my siblings and I should learn to be responsible with money. For this reason they started giving me an allowance at an early age, even when I was too young to buy things by myself.
At first, my allowance was USD 10 a month – more than I could fathom spending as a second grader – and my father, as he put it, “kept it safe” for me. Every few months Dad would announce that he had deposited this money in a bank account for me. Of course, I didn’t have my own account, so my parents were merely putting cash into their account, but still, he was making the point that what one ought to do with money is save it. Well, that’s what I prefer to think.
Even though my family didn’t have a lot of money, my parents always made me feel wealthy, and I got a raise every few years. First to USD 10 a week in elementary school (bubble gum and sugary drinks after school), then USD 20 a week in middle school (pizza and mood rings) and by the time I graduated high school, USD 40 a week (movie tickets, music and clothing). Occasionally, I’d be presented with a cash bonus for a good report card.
What did I do with the money? I saved up for a Sony Walkman that I’d been coveting for months. I roamed the East Village with friends on weekends, raided bookstores and vintage boutiques, and tried to be a bohemian, or at least outfit myself like one.
In today’s uncertain economic times, we may find ourselves re-examining past choices about spending and saving, or disagreeing with a loved one about financial matters – even over something as trivial as a new dress. Where we put our money says a lot about our values, and there’s no better time than now to know ourselves in this regard. For a close look at the role that money plays in the lives of Beijing families, see this month’s feature, “Money: How We Spend.”