Living With Money explores the personal side of personal finance: how our bank balances do and don’t define who we are.
Many American adults receive financial support from their parents (40 percent of people in the 22-to-34 age bracket, according to one report). Parents do this in myriad ways — chip in on tuition, help out after college, or contribute to a down payment on a home. But in this 34-year-old woman’s case, her parents give her a $20,000/year clothing allowance even though she and her husband comfortably support themselves and their two children on their tech-job salaries in San Francisco. Here, she talks about why her parents — first-generation immigrants who worked hard to give their kids what they hadn’t had — decided to give her this money, and how she spends it.
Growing up, I was never in want of new clothes. My mom enjoyed shopping and dressing me up. Materially, we were spoiled. But when I started to get older, I started feeling guilty.
From an early age, I’ve always been fixated on saving money as a point of pride. As kids, my parents offered us a choice: We could either get an allowance — like, $10 a week or something — and spend it on whatever we wanted, or we could get no allowance and they’d pay for everything but we had to run our purchases by them first. My sisters were like, “I don’t want an allowance. That’s like asking me if I want less money or more money!” But I picked the allowance, because I wanted to save up for things. I liked the idea of making a conscious effort to get something instead of having it handed to me. My parents couldn’t understand this at all. When I was in high school, I wanted to get a summer job at Starbucks to get work experience, and they were like, “But you don’t need to. Why are you trying to make your life more difficult?”
My parents are immigrants, and did not have much when they first came to the U.S. My mom waited tables and shared a small apartment with five people while she was in grad school. After they got married, my parents were like, “We’ll know we’ve made it when we can afford a house.” And not a fancy house — just a place to live. They worked hard and wound up doing well for themselves, and my sisters and I grew up very comfortably. I think my mom has always wanted to give me things she couldn’t have when she was my age, and she’s totally baffled when I’m like, “Thank you so much, but I just don’t think I need it.” She’s like, “What’s wrong with you?” It frustrates the crap out of her.
It was always important to my mom that we look our best. Her attitude was, “You have the means to present yourself well, so you should.” Whenever we went shopping, she’d be like, “Wear something nice, because the salespeople are snobby and they’ll be rude to you if they don’t think you have the means to buy something. Why would you elect to be disrespected?” In that sense, being well dressed is a matter of pride.
I got married pretty young, and around that time my mom started worrying that I was being too tight with money, and that I was “depriving” myself of nice things just for the sake of being frugal — as ridiculous as that sounds. I think she was also worried that my husband wouldn’t treat me like the queen they thought I was, at least in the material sense. When it comes to gifts, my parents go big or go home, and that’s not how my husband or his family are. He and my in-laws are not selfish, but gifts are just not their way. And that made my mom nervous. She was like, “You need to treat yourself, because if no one sees you doing it, then they won’t treat you either.”
My parents basically insisted on not cutting me off, even when I had the means to be financially independent. It didn’t matter that I had a good job and was making my own money. My mom would call me and be like, “Are you still using La Mer face cream?” And then it would come in the mail. At one point I was like, “This is crazy.” And she was like, “Why are you trifling over this? Just take it.” We have barely ever bought our kids clothes, because they’re always sending new ones.
As I got older, my mom and I started having more and more arguments over my being “cheap,” by her definition. I’m careful with money, but she felt I was wasting too much time on scrimping when it wasn’t necessary. Like, “We have worked so hard to put you in a position where you don’t have to shop at Costco.” A lot of people would argue differently — that frugality across the board is a good habit — but she sees it as trite.
If my mom sees me not buy something that I want, she will not let it go. For example, when those Valentino Rockstud shoes first came out a few years ago, I made the mistake of eyeing them when I was out shopping with her. She asked me if I wanted them, and I said that they just doesn’t seem like a worthwhile purchase. And she just latched onto it and was constantly giving me shit. Any time she felt like I was being overly frugal, she’d be like, “It’s like the shoes!” I finally wound up getting the flat version — which, by the way, are actually more expensive than the high-heel ones — and she still wasn’t satisfied. She couldn’t understand why I had waited so long.
One day, about a year ago, my mom announced that she and my dad were giving my sisters and me an allowance. She called me and said, “Your father and I are giving you this. I know your career is going well and you’re not wanting for anything, but you deserve an indulgence every once in a while.” I was like, “This really isn’t necessary,” and she was like, “I know. But I’ve already decided. So get a pen and write down this credit-card number.” First, she asked me what amount I thought was reasonable. And I was like, “I don’t know! ‘Reasonable’ is not a term I would use for this arrangement.’” So she set the limit at $10,000 a year. Then she was like, “Well, maybe you’ll see something expensive you really like. I’ll just make it $20,000.” I don’t think she’s actually keeping track, though.
I felt weird about it at first, and my husband and I discussed it at great length. He wasn’t bothered by it at all; he was just like, “Oh, that’s nice.” He read it — correctly, I think — as being sort of an earmarked fund for the kinds of things that you want to buy, but feel like you shouldn’t, and then are still thinking about five days later. It’s for special things. I don’t spend it on things that are just alright; I spend it on things I really love, but are a little extravagant. For example, I just bought a long silk skirt with ostrich-feather trim, and it’s so pretty.
My mom knew that if she gave me a check, I would dutifully invest it in some ETF and not touch it. But by doing this arrangement via credit card, she’s ensuring that the money will only be spent to treat myself. I do most of my shopping online, and sometimes I’ll put in her email for the receipt so that she knows what I’m getting. She also has her credit-card information on file at certain department stores, so I can buy things that way too. I once did that at Saks, and I was mortified to bring it up with the sales guy, but he was totally unfazed. I was like, “I’m so embarrassed, but …” and he was like, “Oh, people do this all the time,” which made me feel better. But it did make me feel very childlike: “My mommy said I could buy this.”
The truth is, it’s much easier to spend money that’s not yours, and this has made me less critical toward my purchases. I shop more with an emotional mind than a rational mind. It’s definitely the “splurge” slush fund. My mom has seen me deliberate over whether to buy something, and this is her way of giving me the opportunity to skip that process. And we’ve stopped arguing about money as a result, for the most part.