Over the years, I’ve accumulated a long list of friends with younger siblings who loved to spend their parents’ money. The families are middle class, but these younger siblings are all the kind of profligate kids who charm their parents into buying them the best clothes, the most expensive lessons, the latest upgrades in gear for their activities. They’re the ones who see their parents as cash machines, constantly hitting them up for a few bills from their wallet.
Meanwhile, the older sibling lives a less-flashy existence than the younger upstart. We watch our money. Our parents coax us into buying things, if only to balance things out. As an older sibling myself, I have my own idea about how kids can end up with such different values about money. It’s about the trajectory of our middle-class parents’ income.
My brother and I were born four years apart. When I was in second grade, my family lived in a cozy bungalow in the city, shared one car, and browsed the corner “Nearly New” store for bargains. When my brother was in second grade, we lived in a cookie-cutter colonial in a friendly suburb where people flashed clothes from the expensive shops at the mall. My parents’ careers had been established, salaries had increased, and my brother grew up in a whole different income bracket.
And it made us different. My brother acknowledges that he remembers little of those early days in the bungalow. It’s only recently has he even realized that there were periods when financial strain was present in our family. He never experienced our family being suddenly flush with money, or could picture them ever earning less.
In that early stage in the bungalow, I remember asking for something—a pair of roller skates—and being told no, because there wasn’t enough. I remember learning that there may have been enough for one toy, but not three. For one toy, but not every time. I developed a sense that my self-control, my saying no, helped out my family. To this day, I get a firmer satisfaction out of saying no or of brokering a deal, than spending with abandon.
My younger brother didn’t grow up with those constraints. For a whole cohort of ‘80s kids—of a certain class, for sure—we started out in one place, and then our parents were promoted and financial situations improved. If the mom stayed at home for awhile (and in the ‘80s it was still almost always the mom), she went back to work sometime after the youngest was in school, adding an extra income to the family.
Even after knowing my parents were better off, I worried that asking for money before going out with my friends, or demanding the clothes everyone else wore in school, would make a dent in their finances. My brother saw “no” as an obstacle. Our parents were simply gatekeepers of their untold riches. His only worry was getting them to say “Open Sesame.”
I saw “no” as legitimate, but he saw them as arbitrary. They have tons of money, he used to tell me when I called out his behavior. He’s still far more optimistic about their finances than anyone else in the family— including my parents. He’s also still financially dependent on them, though now it’s reluctantly. It took him some time to figure it out, he says, but now he’s finally eager to avoid having to ask for money.
Whenever I hear the refrain—usually from the college-educated, upwardly mobile types—that they want to be financially established before they want to have a family, I want to cry out that growing up with the bare minimum of “established” is what made me so financially responsible today! Every family will have a different version of “enough” and “not enough,” but I am grateful to have been there when my parents were just starting out, making do and planning for a better future—it’s made my own “starting out” time much easier.
Sarah Sluis lives on the Lower East Side and writes, often about movies. She is excellent at saving pennies.