When It Came To Money, My Dad Was A Sh*tty Role Model

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
By Rachel Kramer Bussel

For my bat mitzvah, my dad gave me a check for a thousand dollars — a gigantic sum for a suburban teen in the ’80s. It was extravagant, and I was appropriately giddy, plotting exactly what I would use it for. Until it bounced.

That’s one of many examples of the ways in which my father, while offering me unconditional love, failed me as a financial role model.

Though extremely intelligent, my dad dropped out of college the first time around, and, for his entire working life, was stuck doing jobs that paid far less than he could have made if he’d gotten his diploma. Work was never something intellectually fulfilling for him; instead, it was eight hours of necessary drudgery in order to pay the bills. And his jobs did pay the bills, but that was it — there wasn’t room for retirement savings. His marriage to my mom ended when I was little, in part because of his penchant for gambling.

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There was a game-show element to my dad’s approach to money. Money felt like a random prize I sometimes found behind door number-one when I visited him, and sometimes didn’t. One day, I remember going to the mall with him and buying pretty much whatever we wanted. He was flush with cash, and I was the lucky beneficiary. Of course it was fun to have a shopping spree, but there was also something off about it.

Many other times, especially if my dad was between jobs, we had to be much more frugal. At one point, he was on food stamps. And while I wasn’t ashamed of that fact, it also didn’t feel right. Nor, later on, did knowing that I was making more than him at my job as a magazine editor. I’m sure he was happy that I was doing well, but I longed for him to live up to his potential, too.

Money felt like a random prize I sometimes found behind door number-one when I visited him.

At home, with my mom, we certainly weren’t wealthy, but I always knew if I truly needed something, there’d be money for it. She’s the one who talked to me about savings and CDs and wills. My dad and I didn’t discuss money in the abstract as much as we talked about what it could buy right then.

It is as an adult, intent on starting a family of my own, that I’m most struck by the ways in which my dad's flawed financial instincts have hurt him. He managed to go back to school and graduate with honors at age 61. And while I’m proud of him, I’m sad that he never got to reap the benefits of his degree in the workplace. Rather than climbing the corporate ladder, he struggled to simply stay on the same low-paying rung.

Although I also had my mom’s positive example, I’m very much my father’s daughter. I could easily see myself following in my dad’s footsteps. In fact, I already have.

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