My Extremely Scientific Theory Why I’m a Money Genius and My Little Bro Is Not

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.  


22 Comments / Post A Comment

LDW@twitter (#1,216)

Wow! This is SO familiar. I’m the oldest of 4 and there are 5 and 6 years between me and and my brothers. My sister’s about a year and a half behind me. When I was little, my dad was still in grad school and I vivid memories of being told no and wearing secondhand clothing. Then my dad’s career took off and my brothers were able ask for things and hear yes. I think it makes me a bit better at self-denial. The hard part is not resenting the way they still feel free to ask my parents for money. It’s really up to my parents to say no and force them to be a bit more independent but it’s hard not to feel like they should grow up without being pushed.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

As an only child partnered with a man who is the middle child of 5 siblings, this dynamic is also present in most of his other siblings – he has an older sibling who feels completely entitled to live rent-free in his parents’ intended investment property, and that frankly, they should kiss his and his wife’s feet just for paying their own bills (they guy’s 24 years old and he owns his own house that he’s renting out – come on!)
And his younger two siblings come with their hands out at least once a week, as well as having rent and bills covered on a regular basis by parents.
My partner resents his siblings for having access to all this cash, but he doesn’t understand that it’s his parents he should be mad at, because they are the ATM that won’t say “no”. Every time they hand over the cash, they reinforce that their kids only have to ask and they shall receive, no questions asked.

OhMarie (#299)

My family is exactly the same way (I am the older of two) and I never linked it back to this, but I think you’re absolutely right.

I wonder if the next generation of kids will have this same pattern now that most of the people my age are delaying having kids until they’re more set up instead of struggling while your kids are young.

I had thought about much of this before, but I didn’t carry that observation over to my own life and possible future family, the way you do in your last point. Maybe I will be able to possibly have kids someday?

This is my life! When I was 10, my dad was a soldier with a large amount of consumer debt; when my youngest sister was 10, he had a 6-figure salary on top of his military pension. (My mom has rarely worked.) The differences have been interesting to see– my youngest sister asks for– and gets!– things I’d never have dreamed of, like tickets to big-name pop concerts and yearly trips to Broadway. But she’s only ever lived in one town, and we moved all over when I was little (I spent several formative years in Germany) so I’d call us even :)

Megs (#644)

As the youngest, I can attest that there is truth to the pattern of the oldest being the financially more responsible. I doubt my older sister has ever asked my parents for money as an adult. I wish I could say the same.

Then again, growing up, my clothes and toys were all her hand-me-downs. Not that we couldn’t afford it, just that that’s how it goes for little sisters. I’m sure I grew a little resentful and pushed for new things whenever I could. No was definitely just an obstacle.

However, things started to switch when we hit high school. She had her college completely paid for out of my parents’ college fund – and I’m sure they would have paid for me as well 5 years later if there had been anything left after that. (I wonder if there are a lot of families like this?) So, upon getting out of college, she had zero debt and I managed to have… well, a lot.

I still wear her hand-me-downs, but I kinda love it now. It’s like shopping at a thrift store that only carries Banana Republic and Ann Taylor.

guenna77 (#856)

It’s interesting… my 2-years-younger brother and i have the same dynamic with our parents over money. they called him their “deficit spender” even at a young age, while I am and have always been a saver. we also did the move-up, although my parents did wait to be slightly more “established”- married for 8 years before having us in their 30’s. honestly, i don’t remember ever consciously feeling like money was tight – just controlled – but i was still very aware of my parents’ cost-saving efforts in the earlier years. like, we’d take ski vacations (which obviously aren’t cheap), but bring a thermos, ramen and our own hot chocolate; eat spaghetti dinners… i got the message – being thrifty with stuff like that, and wherever else you can, is HOW you afford the ski vacation.

My brother on the other hand did not get that message and definitely sees our parents as an atm. I once heard him demand that my father buy him an ATV (this was a low point for him and when he was denied (and laughed at) he said “why not, you’ve got plenty of money!, also working. he never had a job during college (aside from summer lifeguarding) but still had this expectation that the ‘rents would finance a summer on the jersey shore, because “they have the money.”

While i was home at one point recently i went to the drugstore with my father. he told me i should go around and get whatever i needed because he was paying and my brother would certainly take advantage if he were there and go crazy – the offer to “even it out” – but like you, i kind of have to be browbeat into taking advantage of it because i don’t think about it that way.

very interesting thoughts… new ways to see my family dynamic.

sparrow303 (#1,641)

The opposite can happen as well, given reverse circumstances.

When I was small, my parents were married, and although my dad didn’t let us spend money on anything discretionary (literally had to hide our new school clothes until the tags were off), we had a lot more money.

By the time my brother was the same age, our folks were divorced and my mom was practically broke (we’re talking food pantry broke). Today, my brother doesn’t spend money on anything– he makes a smallish salary as a research assistant, and squirrels everything away. I make a decent salary as a teacher but am more free with my spending, though certainly not to the point of needing financial support. While we have both been fiscally responsible, my brother never treats himself, whereas I do on a weekly basis.

kellyography (#250)

I think this is pretty accurate, and I relate heavily with the author!

I grew up with just my mom, who had me at 21. She recently recounted a story about how when I was about 7 or so, I had a friend over and we were at the grocery store or something, and my friend asked for a candy bar at the register, and I was apparently horrified, because you were NEVER supposed to ask for something like that.

My sisters, however, were born when I was 11 and 13 respectively, and the older of the two (now 16) just crashed my mom’s new Ford Edge and sees no problem with demanding her own new car for Christmas. We are just totally different people.

wearitcounts (#772)

interesting. i experienced kind of an opposite scenario. my parents waited til they finished grad school and had established careers before having me. i grew up in the higher-income bracket, and my sister (five years younger) did to an extent, too. but then i had my education paid for in full by my parents, and my sister took on debt, because right as she was hitting college age, The Economy Stuff Happened, and my dad’s retail business morphed completely. so i think all that sort of gave her a better adult perspective on money than i have. she’s more of a saver for sure. i’m working on it.

Stina (#686)

Youngest here: My parents borrowed from me while my sister constantly asked for money.

Raise you one stereotype: Clearly you older siblings are just jealous that we were smaller, cuter, and more socially skilled so that we could get what we wanted.

Blondsak (#2,299)

@Stina Yeahhhh, of my siblings it was only the oldest who ever borrowed money (that I’m aware of, anyway). But all of us are fairly smart with our money for which I thank my Dad’s crazy spending habits, which we all grew up watching with some trepidation.

theotherginger (#1,304)

@Stina I’m an older sibling, and careful with my money (like, I have savings and have gone on special trips while being a grad student, and saved enough so I could buy an interview suit when I needed to), but my brother is way better at money than I am. He used to be cheap (I define cheap as lacking in generosity) but he has changed now – as in thrifty, but generous to charities, to hosting dinners and getting me really thoughtful gifts. So, go youngest children! We do have different relationships with our parents, though, perhaps based on birth order, and perhaps based on him being male and me being female.

cobalt (#2,114)

I’m the younger of two, but am still very financially conscious/responsible. I attribute that to my parents going through a lot of intense job stress during my middle school years. Despite their efforts to shelter me, I could sense how vulnerable they were and it’s a tough thing as a kid to see your parents “broken down” by external aspects rather than magically being able to solve every problem. Made it tough to ask for money for new clothes/social activities when your parents are concerned about losing the house /supporting elderly relatives/working multiple jobs to keep things afloat. Rough years.

I’m actually more “spendy” now (though still for experiences vs. for “things”) since my parents’ situation stabilized a while ago (& I think they’re set for retirement). Plus, having my own funds from working (at least before med school) & not having much student loan debt while no longer worrying as much about my parents has allowed me less guilt about spending money for non-absolutely-essential things.

honey cowl (#1,510)

I’m an older sibling with a 4-years-younger brother too. Our dynamic is similar, though not identical, to this. I think there are a lot of family situations that turn out this way, but I’m sure an equal number if responsible younger siblings will chime in here.

blueblazes (#1,798)

Interesting post! I think it is true for a certain cohort. I was born in ’81, my little sister was born in ’90 after my Dad changed fields and really started earning. She had a completely different growing-up experience than I did, especially high school and college.

On the other hand, my husband was the youngest in his family and is both poorer and more responsible than both of his older siblings. He grew up in a post-divorce, working class single mom home where money was always tight.

So I suppose the lesson is that you grow up to be like your parents.

Marzipan (#1,194)

I was the youngest of six, and while I do like a lot of the theory here, it doesn’t work for me. My parents were significantly poorer when my siblings were young then when I was – my parents had their first kid when Dad was not yet out of law school, and I showed up when my dad was established, making pretty good money. I don’t remember money being tight in a way that I recognized, though my mom has always loved a deal. My siblings complained about how good I have it, though I would say the (not serious) complaints are more related to permissiveness than money.

My parents have (recently!) called me cheap; I hardly ever buy things, I don’t spend a lot, I’m don’t make much but I’m financially solvent (ah, don’t listen to me, I don’t even know what that means “solvent”) and I’d say pretty fiscally responsible. I don’t know why it is. My mom said no to me, or did the “do you reeeally need it?” trick, which worked SURPRISINGLY OFTEN on me. I guess, to fit into your theory, I never saw no as just an obstacle, I didn’t need there to be a reason, I didn’t think about whether it was a no because we couldn’t afford it or just because I shouldn’t have it. I just accepted it. I didn’t get the thing because she said I didn’t get it.

Also, I remember being super selfishly cheap for my parents. Like, I remember thinking, when my parents helped my older siblings out with a car, or a house loan, or buying them a computer, or allowing them to go on a trip to Germany (which my brother didn’t end up going on, and, actually, a couple years later, I did go on that trip paid for…wait for it…my parents), I would meanly feel like it was unfair, like somehow my parents being generous to them would be BAD for me. Anyways, I was just randomly remembering those feelings happening and I realize how totally wrong (of course my parents being generous is good for me!! duh!!!) and crazy selfish that was. I don’t know why I felt that way! teenagers are horrible in a lot of different ways.

julebsorry (#1,572)

Interesting theory! I think I have simpler tastes than my sister (I like to shop at thrift shops, I didn’t buy my first “fancy purse” until I was about 28, etc),and I definitely grew up while my mom finished her PhD and had less $. However, I think we’re both money-conscious, but in different ways. She likes nice stuff, but is a ferocious bargain hunter who feels she’s personally failed if she ever pays retail price. I mainly just don’t buy much, and shop the cheap stuff when I do.

However, I would definitely say she’s more at ease demanding money from my parents. For instance, when my parents generously offered to pay for my wedding, I sat down with them, we worked out a budget that would accommodate their and my wishes, and I worked as hard as possible to save every penny I could for them. In recognition of their generosity, the wedding was in their local town, and most of the guests were their family and friends.

My sister mentally tallied about how much she thought my parents spent and simply demanded a check from them for that amount for her own wedding, “so it’s fair”. She then threw a wedding in her husband’s hometown, six states away from my parents, that was fully based on her own personal tastes and invited mainly college friends/husband’s family. In her mind, it was perfectly reasonable to do this, but I think it wasn’t quite as “fair” as she saw it. So, sometimes it’s also a different mentality in how we view our parent’s money, and how we extract it, even if both siblings benefit from the $.

My sister is only two years younger than I am, so we grew up in the same low-middle income bracket. We have the reverse – I’m not great with money and she’s much thriftier than I am – but that is also compounded by her spendy period in high school (so she got more money lectures than I did that apparently I could have used!), me going to grad school (my mother helped me out A LOT, maybe a little too much, BUT I am paying her back now), and our general personality/life differences.

We’re both pretty responsible, but have made bad choices or needed some extra help here and there, and our parents help us out as they are able. The ways they help have been different, but I’d consider them pretty equal all things considered. We don’t think of our parents as ATMs, and we’re both trying to live within our means and take advantage of them as little as possible.

Seems to have worked out.

ThatJenn (#916)

I’ve thought about this a lot even though I’m an only child. My parents struggled with money when I was young, and then divorced when I was seven, adding more financial strain. Since then, my mother has gone from broke-with-no-credit-history as she was when they divorced to solidly upper-middle-class, living in a 3000+ square foot home with a hot tub and a sauna in the basement. But when I was a freshman in high school 13 years ago, she didn’t know if she’d be able to contribute to my college education (she, my dad, my grandparents, and a massive scholarship ended up covering it completely just a few years later). The difference over just a few years, any few years you want to compare, has been pretty astounding.

I got married five years ago (I’m now divorced) to someone who looked at my parents’ lifestyles (they are similar lifestyles, though my mom pays for hers with cash and my dad with massive credit card debt) and decided I came from a rich family, which just made me laugh and laugh, because I remember what a big deal it was when my mother bought her first car without help from her parents, and when we finally were able to eat out for dinner, and when we could afford to pay someone to put in our new floors instead of doing it ourselves when the carpet was wearing through, and so on. (We didn’t do the second-hand clothes but I think it was only because my parents both worked so much that they never had time to really go to the store or look for bargains, so all our clothes were from the cheaper catalogue companies.) Yes, my parents fall into the wealthy category now, but I did not grow up rich. Privileged, yes. Middle-class, yes. But nothing like the life they live now. Even a sibling just a few years younger than me would have had a much different experience than I had.

ThatJenn (#916)

@ThatJenn I should note that my parents’ broke-ness was never fully broke because we had family that would have helped out if we needed and we were never food-insecure/never missed a mortgage payment. But there were definitely no luxuries and no travel for a few years there, and we ate a lot of really cheap food, which is nothing at all like how my parents live now, or even lived by the time I went to college.

Titania (#489)

My parents had children quite late (mom was 38, dad was 35; 41/38 for my brother) and thus were already at the peak of their earning years. As the girl with the interest in clothing and shoes and jewelry, I spent a much bigger proportion of my allowance growing up. My brother spent barely any of his allowance growing up, as the only things he ever wanted were copious quantities of junk food (not allowed) and the occasional book/movie/video game. As adults, we’re both equally good at managing our money, although he has a slightly larger nest egg (through the miracles of compound interest on all that unspent allowance) and much greater earning potential. We are the living, breathing example of what social scientists are always talking about when they discuss the benefits to your children of having them later.

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