Growing up (a money post)

So here’s another post started in 2011.

I was struck by a comment by “brokeprofessionals” (they used to have a blog, but sold it many years back!) on an old get rich slowly post (remember when that blog was worth reading?  Man, we need to clear out our drafts from 2011.).  The commenter said, and I quote, “for most of us, growing up we never saw our parents or our parents [sic] friends struggling.”

He makes the argument that in general we were born after our parents were settled financially and we didn’t see them just starting out.

That, of course, does not mesh with my personal experience, nor probably with the experiences of the bulk of Americans.  My parents struggled financially when we were growing up.  That’s part of why my sister and I chose jobs that pay well and have saved a ton.  We don’t *want* to have to worry about the rent or be insanely frugal or have to worry about small over-charges or larger emergencies.  So much of our childhood was spent worrying about money.  That tends to leave a mark.

And actually, our parents were doing better before I was born and were doing much better before my sister was born.  For a while they got to live in the same city and were both employed.  After my sister was born things were less stable because of jobs in separate parts of the country, spells of unemployment, etc., etc., etc.  But hey, at least we still had the nice couches and the stereo system and the VW bug (man I loved that car) from before I was born.  Those lasted through high school.  My parents still have the couches.

My DH lived in a trailer in the woods when he was a little kid and his dad broke his back and had to retrain from being a carpenter to being an accountant while his mom was getting her RN.

Children are expensive.  Starting jobs don’t always lead to stable careers.  Families can interfere with flexibility.

And, of course, much of America is struggling and has been.  Inequality has been widening since Reagan, and was wider before Johnson.  Families struggle, especially those with children.  Not everybody has the blessing of being upper-middle class.  Most people don’t.

How about you?  Did your parents struggle financially when you were growing up?

55 Responses to “Growing up (a money post)”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    Yes, they struggled. But, when I went off to school, they bought another house and got better furniture. We owned a home until I was seven, then they bought another when I graduated high school. After I thought about that, I was just a little miffed, but not much because I knew they did not do it on purpose. Daddy became a contractor a few years before I left home, so things were better by the time I left. Later, they had no struggles at all.

  2. Nanani Says:

    Wow, that is an impressively small definition of “us” in the seed quote there.
    My mom had a VERY stable job (government) since before I was born, but my dad went through booms and busts, and when I was 15 the family finances were devastated by a particular incident in a way that strongly affected me when I hit the moving out and starting school milestones a few years later.

    Hard to untangle the effect of the incident when I was 15, but I am more inclined to save than spend as an adult!

  3. becca Says:

    I find it interesting/strange that you say “That’s part of why my sister and I chose jobs that pay well and have saved a ton.” What jobs did your parents choose? You already mentioned they were very frugal, so I don’t imagine their lack of savings had to do with that end (I am assuming here about your parents, because with the inherent ambiguity of #1 and #2, I don’t know if previous posts about frugal parents refer to the current #1; do you both have a sister? If only #1 does, then I can distinguish in my mind references to each person growing up).

    I say this because I don’t know how you can *choose* good careers. The odds are much better if you major in electrical engineering than in medieval history, of course. However, you can *choose* a perfectly practical major and discover that an assumption you made doesn’t hold. Like you pick petroleum engineering and not only does OPEC decide to kill the natural gas industry and suck profit out of oil, but you also have enough unexpected family responsibilities that you can’t do the crazy traveling out to the rigs thing required to make that degree pay off. I mean, were you consulting the BLS in high school and did the numbers steer you clear? My Dad certainly consulted the BLS about different careers I was considering when I was around 14, but I don’t think it’s been remarkably accurate. And we still took under consideration what I *liked* and found compelling (I have a friend who says that may be my *sole* problem- I am trying to do “cure diseases science” instead of “bomb robot science”. He’s likely incorrect, but it does make me feel better).

    Either that, or the difficulty I’ve had as a biomedical PhD is pretty convincing argument that the timing of entering the workforce and your life hiccups matters more than the choices that are in your control.

    I and my partner are finding it tough to make stable careers, much tougher than I imagined based on watching my parents growing up. My Mom was a Teamster, so she would occasionally worry about too little money if they went on strike, or getting fired over being late too many times in a short period (this type of infraction was heavily regulated). And even when her job *wasn’t* stable (i.e. she was in the “accumulating seniority” stage of being on call and other stress), I never felt like she worried about her *ability to get a job*. The kind of job she has doesn’t exist now, of course (they sold out the next generation during the UPS strike, if I recall correctly). And “transportation”, as an industry, was always a bread and butter stable but healthily competitive (read: less profit for large corporations) type sector. My Mom made very near the median household income most of my childhood. Doing that one one income (particularly a female partner in a heterosexual marriage) even then gave us more “slack” than many families. Compulsively keeping fixed expenses (especially housing!!!) low gave us more.

    My parents had better cash flow/ability to manage unexpected expenses than most families I see then or now. That said, they did so in a way that produced essentially no wealth-generation Cheap housing meant a co-op, not a mortgage, so no forced savings- given where we lived and the time they lived there, I doubt housing in their area even kept pace with inflation anyway, racial and economic stratification in the Chicago area region were not kind to the South Suburbs and other areas which ended up majority black. Not only that, but when my Mom went and talked to some kind of investment professional and they asked “how much risk are you comfortable with?” her answer was “essentially none”. Thus, “investment” in government savings bonds for my college education. In this sense, despite the slack in their budget being easier than other families, my parents probably sacrificed *much more* than people with comparable amounts available for college. Fortunately (?) since we were essentially lower income for my university, financial aid made up the difference anyway. I’m not so sure the numbers work out quite as favorably now.

    It’s very possible that much of my cognitive dissonance about the difficulty of careers stems from a Facebook effect type problem- we only hear updates from other people’s lives when things are going well. Maybe it’s this hard for everyone. Maybe swings of over 100k /year in family income over a few year period are normal. Maybe it takes 2 years for most people to find family sustaining jobs. But I feel like it’s not supposed to be this hard, and I must have chosen something wrong or have something wrong with me that it is.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I could have gotten a Ph.D. in history or mathematics. I looked at completion times, unemployment rates and starting salaries before choosing a more lucrative field. Additionally although pure math is not lucrative, having math skills is, and having the ability to think logically provides a lot of potentially lucrative options. I could have gone into journalism or been a dramaturge like my cousins with the wealthy parents, but I wanted security and the ability to run the a/c whenever I wanted.

      This has little to do with undergraduate majors and a lot to do with useful skills and career choice. (And of course, in the end, as predicted, my cousin the dramaturge ended up managing a theater because there are a lot of people who go into theater with creative skills, but very few with the ability to deal with numbers.)

      My sister could have chosen dance or engineering or potentially many other fields as she is multi talented. She picked engineering.

      BME degrees are more useful in some parts of the country than others. It’s one of those things where if you’re not living in San Diego or Boston or a few other places your options are more limited.

      Yes, swings of 100K are normal among high income couples. Someone recently had a working paper on this– how high salaries for a certain part of the population tend to be temporary.

      PS you should talk to cloud about bioinformatics– that’s a growing field that’s absorbing a lot of people we know with degrees in “wet” sciences.

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        I teach bioinformatics in one of the top places in the country for it (UCSC). It is still a good degree, whether PhD, MS, or BS. Other bio degrees—not so much, as biology departments have been overproducing PhDs for a couple of decades and the combined government, academic, non-profit, and for-profit job market can’t even reduce the huge postdoc holding tank, much less keep up with the continued overproduction. Part of the problem is that everyone was counting on exponential growth of the NIH budget, and that only lasted for a little over a decade.

      • becca Says:

        Somehow, I imagine you’d have done well financially/career satisfaction-wise with a mathematics PhD. But if you’re aiming at academia first and field second, knowing those factors going in is definitely good. I didn’t have that kind of perspective on grad school, and I wonder if I’d have picked something different if I had. Quite possibly, as I was pretty against competition- that was one of the three deterrents of med school (the others being bubble tests and debt). But my interests are, if anything, even broader than when I was looking at grad schools. If I had to pick grad school now, I don’t know if I could ever settle on one field and pretend to be a narrow specialist long enough to get through!
        Dance or engineering is almost a crystallized passion or practicality kind of thing- engineering has a lot to recommend it.

        I suppose an income of 300k one year and 200k the next would be a budget headache. I think that working paper sounds interesting! 122k and then 22k is a budget headache… and also a weird class/status/economic security whiplash.

        If you’ll pardon the threadjacking, I would be interested what cloud (and other Grumpeteers- gasstationwithoutpumps?) see as marketable skills related to bioinformatics. I’m quasi-occupied gestating, but I’m playing around with Python (there’s a boatload of MOOCs out there so at least it’s easy to get a feel for it). I’ve been wondering how to make that wet lab-> data science transition.

        I liked San Diego, but relocating to the high CoL areas is hard to do on faith. There are a lot of young disillusioned kids who went to Silicon Valley and couldn’t compete as programmers. With kids in tow, it’s not a reasonable option unless we get *two* jobs lined up. Though I suppose I could look into conferences and workshops in SD to attend and network, it’d be a good way to put out some feelers (Carebear is originally from there, so at least I could stay with family). SfN is there this year, but I’ll probably have a human come out of me during that meeting. I wonder if there’s a conference that blends bioinformatics and other molecular stuff particularly well.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I’d suggest shooting an email to Wandering Scientist as an “Ask Cloud”! It looks like she just got back from vacation.

        One of my friends (a DVM) is trying to make the transition by getting an online degree (from UIC, actually), but our friend who works for one of the bioinformatics companies in the bay area says that is unnecessary (she has a bio undergrad degree + programming skills). Really, you just need to network, she says. And yes, Python.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Come to think of it, her husband has a BME degree and is working for a company that’s making smartphone apps for medical stuff. He used to actually use his BME degree, but recently made the switch.

    • Linda Says:

      Yeah, the south suburbs in Chicago are still lagging behind. I was just staying with a friend in one of those ‘burbs a few weeks ago and she was relating the results of a recent Crain’s Chicago Business article showing that the property values in her village have actually gone down since the last survey. Overall, property values in the north side Chicago neighborhoods and in the north suburbs have recovered and advanced from the housing bubble, but the south side neighborhoods and south suburbs are still lagging. [Nice to “see” another Chicago south suburban-raised person here!]

      • becca Says:

        One random thing I found interesting was about which industries failed to rebound from the Great Recession. As of 2014 (there is a great data infographic from the NYT called “How The Recession Reshaped the Economy”), a lot of the real estate and associated finance areas had not come back, which made a lot of sense to me intuitively- they were the most directly impacted areas of the economy. At the same time, there were some really heavy hit areas like “textile mills” and “newspaper publishers” that simply didn’t seem to me to directly relate to the specific problems of the Great Recession. Instead, the Recession shook things up and seemed to serve as a catalyst to accelerate pre-existing trends.
        I suspect what’s happening in the South Suburbs is that they are the housing market equivalent of textile mills and newspaper publishers. They weren’t doing well prior to the recession, and the recession intensified the pain and rate of decline. I’d love for them to come back, but don’t see a path for it.

    • chacha1 Says:

      fwiw I haven’t had particular difficulty *finding* jobs but I’ve had a helluva time *keeping* jobs. I have never been fired for cause. I’ve been laid off twice, had a department closed underneath me, have had to cycle between docket clerk, secretary, and paralegal – all in the same field and in the same city. I have worked in … ten different firms, counting my present employment, in the past 20 years in L.A. That includes three short-term stints as a temp and four (counting present) where my tenure was roughly a year.

      I have no faith in the security of my current job because, as with every other law office I’ve worked in but two – one of which I left to move across-country, and one of which I left after 8 years because I was dying of stress trying to do the work of two people – my actual work product is not even part of the retention equation. It’s much more based on “how much money the partners want to make and whether they think that can achieve that by cutting support staff.”

      There are approximately eight metro areas in the country where I could realistically look for full-time employment in my field. Three are in red-state hellholes. Then there’s San Francisco, L.A., and San Diego, Seattle, and NYC. Given the COL in any of those, financial security is a matter of taking the next job available even if it stinks.

      And this is in an in-demand, specialty field of law, with a Master’s Degree and a paralegal certification.

      • Rosa Says:

        at one point the problem with my resume was that my previous jobs, going several back, were with companies/locations that no longer existed. No HR department, employees scattered. Personal contact info for previous managers, as long as I made the effort to keep in touch (this was before Facebook/Linked In.)

        My current employer took a big gamble on a new contract, and made it, so we’re good for the next many years. But it was a gamble. Luckily the previous 2 are big enough that even with serious setbacks they will continue to exist.

  4. Ana Says:

    “did your parents struggle financially when you were growing up”. No. At least not from the time I could actually remember. I know they did struggle when I was quite small, but by the time I started school things were stable. We moved to a very very low COL area, they bought a modest home, we went to public school and lived very frugally so there was always lots of cushion. They are still doing fine, living in the same house which was paid off years ago, my father is still working & they are more than all set for retirement. I guess my parents’ situation influenced me in that I wanted the same for myself—stability and lack of major struggles/worries. So I chose the career my father had. We are in a much higher COL area and not anywhere near as frugal, so we have some worries that I hope will ease up.

  5. monsterzero Says:

    I think so, at least before I was ten, but it’s hard to be sure because they didn’t talk about money in front of us. My dad worked in a warehouse; my mom ran a daycare out of our house and charged $1.50/hour (ca. 1980) per kid for 5 to 10 kids at a time.

    I remember when we started being able to get McDonald’s once a week, and it was a big deal to go to a restaurant with waitstaff, we only did that for birthdays.

    At some point my dad became an assistant manager and we were able to add on to the house so my grandma could move in. I think some of my mom’s siblings helped with that, though I also remember some of that help being in the form of government cheese.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I remember government cheese! We never got it directly ourselves, but when I was little our downstairs neighbor would trade it (or maybe just give it?). (I also remember seeing “gov’t cheese” on a tv show “8 is enough”(?) and thinking, that is so not what it looks like.)

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        There was a period (late 80s? early 90s?) when government cheese was pretty much ubiquitous. I remember my (decidedly middle class, widow of a CPA) grandmother having some in the refrig, which she probably got from her cleaning lady (who wasn’t all that badly off herself; she mostly liked to keep busy, and have some money of her own). I think at one point you may have been eligible to claim some if you were a senior citizen, regardless of income.

        It was “American cheese,” the same stuff that comes in wrapped singles, but in block form. My grandmother’s taste in cheese wasn’t very highfalutin, but I think she went back to velveeta after she worked her way through that one very large chunk (which seemed disinclined to go bad before it was consumed).

        It was certainly edible, and I’m sure it was welcome nutrition in many households (give or take the fact that it violated pretty much all the then-current dietary guidelines), but I also have the impression that the supply exceeded demand by a considerable amount. I think there was some connection to farm subsidies.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yep, food aid came out of agricultural subsidies. It’s an interesting history.

  6. crazy grad mama Says:

    “Struggle” is maybe too strong of a word; there was always money to pay for basic essentials, although not much more than that when I was elementary-school age. I remember my parents talking about budgeting and moving money between lines of credit and stuff like that. I was jealous of kids who had fancier clothes and way more new toys than us.

    By the time I reached high school, my parents had started to have a little money to spare and could pay for little extras like the fees for me being on the swim team. Then they moved across the country and my dad started getting promoted and my mom started working and now they’re very settled financially, in a way that’s sometimes hard for me to wrap my mind around because of the conversations I remember from childhood.

  7. chacha1 Says:

    I’d also say “struggle” is a strong word, but there was definitely a consciousness of money management in our household throughout my life before leaving home. I don’t remember my parents ever fighting, I don’t remember any scenes of stress related to money, but it is pretty hard to disguise from one’s children that:
    we are moving from Wisconsin to South Georgia for a job;
    the job went away and now we are moving from the nice brick house with a pool to a doublewide in a trailer park, located between a rural highway and a railroad track;
    Dad has gone back to college and Mom has gone back to work and we are now latchkey kids;
    Dad is working again and there is property to move the doublewide to, but it is on a dirt road pretty far out of town, and there we will stay until I graduate from college;
    There is a long stretch of time when 25-cent frozen pot pies and boxed mac’n’cheese make regular appearances in our dinner menu;
    There is a year when a family outing to McDonald’s is a big treat;
    There is a clear expectation that the kids will have part-time jobs as soon as they have driver’s licenses. I actually started working at 14, as a file clerk in my Dad’s office.

    My parents have owned homes from pretty early on, thanks mostly to Dad’s Navy service but probably also reflecting some help from their parents. His degree was in civil engineering and he then got an MBA. Mom’s degree was in the humanities; she worked as a teacher and later got an M.Ed., which did not mean much for $$ because deep-South public school system.

    All I can say about the precipitating comment is, the commenter’s parent(s), and those of his immediate peer group, must never have had to move across-country or go back to school for jobs.

    I am sure that the unspoken financial concerns of my childhood played a big part in steering me away from the blindingly-obviously-unprofitable course of getting a History Ph.D. and sticking with law-firm employment.

  8. bogart Says:

    It also looks like neither the “seed” author quoted nor any of the commenters above me(?) experienced parents divorcing while they were kids? Mine didn’t, though my mother started the long and complex process of disentangling their existences (certainly including finances) while we were still at home — something that eventually led to my having divorced parents, one of whom (Dad) lived way above his means and the other of whom (Mom) lives at or below hers. But my two best friends’ parents did divorce, in both cases with pretty noticeable financial consequences for their children (and both moms, plus one of the two dads though my sense is the financial challenges preceded the split, in that case). I’m quite sure that shaped my sense that I don’t ever want the availability of money (for me or my kid) to be limited to someone else’s resources (income/wealth), including my husband/their dad. As to how that shaped my career plans — probably not too much, I don’t think I had a good understanding of how various paths I might have chosen would shape my earning power (other than, equestrienne = bad idea) or other life decisions (e.g. where I’d live). But to date at least, the decision I made (social science Ph.D.), without being particularly good (I had NO IDEA what the academic job market looked like when I started grad school, nor even when I stuck through it), hasn’t done me terribly wrong, either.

    • Anon with divorced parents Says:

      Totally agree with this. Divorce can have a huge monetary impact. My parents did quite well financially. They both had secure professional jobs and, while they married and had kids in their early 20s, both came from well off families who put them through medical/law school. So, no, my parents never struggled.

      But they would have done a lot better in terms of available income if they hadn’t each chosen to get married and divorced multiple times and if they hadn’t picked lower income partners who they then had to support both during the marriages and post-divorce.

    • Rosa Says:

      my parents split up when i was in high school, and finished divorcing when I was in college. But overall our financial situation after the split felt better to us kids – there was less money but more stability, because my mom was the stable one (also, I think, because she prepared for the divorce – went back to work, got a more advanced degree, etc). It was hard as hell on her, and I assume on my father though that wasn’t visible to us because he was the one who left.

      I don’t know if struggle is the right word for how I grew up – there was money, sometimes what seemed like lots of money (we always owned a house, never rented. There was college savings.) – but there was tremendous instability. First my dad was with a company that was contracting and kept moving us – he managed to get promoted as the company shrank, instead of let go, but it meant moving often, we moved twice during my kindergarten year – and then he was unemployed several times. I don’t think I’m alone in this – I have a really clear memory of what must have been one of the Reagan recessions, early ’80s, a classmate bursting into tears because I’d ruined a joint project and she didn’t have more paper to redo it, her dad was out of work.

      There was a little web based game going around a few years ago that was supposed to illustrate poverty for middle class people. I “won” with flying colors the very first time – of course you don’t take the dog to the vet, of course you don’t fix the car, of course you don’t buy name brand orange juice (that last one is from life, not the game). I am really really good at locking down spending, at least in theory. Very luckily I haven’t ever had to as an adult.

    • scantee Says:

      My parents divorced when I was five, in the early 80’s and the following five or six years were pretty tough for them financially and my siblings and I definitely witnessed, and experienced, that struggle. My father’s finances were hit especially hard and his lifestyle took a pretty big hit. Right after he moved out he lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the downtown are our working class city (remember cities in the 80’s? they were shitholes) and we all slept in one bed when we went to visit him.

      Slowly things got better. My mom went back to working at her stable job as a teacher and by the time I was in high school my dad had secured a very high-paying job. It would probably be the equivalent of around $400k in today’s dollars. With just a little bit of planning and care with his money, he could have retired early with two houses, nice cars and a very large nest egg. Instead, he blew it, all of it, on what I am not sure. My mom chugged along in her teaching career and retired in her early 60’s with a sweet pension and a good amount of savings.

      There is this general sense that divorce is always financially devastating because it means that two households need to be maintained, but I don’t think that it is always as straightforward as that. In the end, I think the it was good for my parents’ finances that they divorced. I suspect that if my mom had stayed with my father he would have blown through all of his money AND hers. On her own, she was able to be frugal, to keep her lifestyle in check, and retire comfortably. Better to have have at least one parent with stable finances.

    • bogart Says:

      Oh — right. Others make a good point very relevant to my experience (not as clear to me re: my friends’ parents situations, but that’s not surprising) — it was *definitely* better for everyone involved that my parents divorced with the possible exception of my dad (but quite possibly even him). My mom’s divorcing him allowed her to use her own resources (time, money) to create a stable resource base for herself and us kids. My dad never really improved, but was no longer able to sink the rest of us, and to the extent that he tried to take advantage of his kids, my mom somewhat bailed us out.

      • Shannon Says:

        My parents divorced and took very different trajectories. My mother and stepfather were teachers – stable jobs with good pensions. We didn’t have a lot (vacations were few and far between) but we never worried. My dad and stepmother became entrepreneurs – building houses – and experienced HUGE fluctuations in income. They didn’t plan very well – spent lots when they had it rather than saving for a rainy day. Ultimately, I think both paths had a big influence on me. Being an academic allows for financial stability (state university = good benefits and pensions) but also allows me to have more control over my time, which is something I always admired about the entrepreneur route. I do realize that my experience is not normal as divorce tends to be financially devastating. The emotional toll of it is a whole different story though.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Interestingly, there’s a really cool paper by Ananat and Michaels that made a splash a few years back (Justin Wolfers wrote it up) that showed that while on average divorce didn’t affect kids positively or negatively, that’s actually because half of divorced women do much better after the divorce (often marrying better husbands the second time around) and half of them do worse (often not getting remarried). Better being defined as higher income.

      • bogart Says:

        Yeah, my mother’s experience is definitely an argument for divorce. And she didn’t remarry, but did well by and for herself, something that I think has definitely shaped my perspective of the possibilities.

  9. bethh Says:

    My parents did not struggle, ever, to my memory. They were always pretty frugal, though – my mom always shopped at the military base store, we kept cars forever. My mom was a SAHP for most of my life. However they came from families that struggled with money – my dad’s family was pretty poor and he wound up going to one of the military academies mostly because it was free. My mom’s parents did move cross-country when she was 12 to pursue better jobs, and they declared bankruptcy when she was in college, although by the time my grandfather died he’d entered the stock market and did really well.

    I think my parents absorbed good lessons from this – they always logged all their spending in a binder that was stored in a desk drawer, so although I never pored over it, I was always aware of a level of fiscal mindfulness. It’s served me well, but I’ve also gotten pretty lucky in my career track.

  10. oldmdgirl Says:

    My parents didn’t struggle, but though we lived in NYC, we lived in a rent stabilized apartment, didn’t eat out, and never took vacations. And my parents only had one kid. With more than one kid, it would have been tight, or so I am told.

  11. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    For the most part, no. They did live fairly frugally (or, perhaps more precisely, they had clear priorities; they drove used cars and lived in an older house, but my sibling and I went to private school, and Dad paid for our Ivy-league college tuitions), but they were also both only children, married and reproduced relatively late, and got a good deal of support from their parents (e.g. combined wedding gifts from the two sets of parents that added up to a 50% down payment on the house). The major potential financial crisis of my childhood (my mother died when I was in elementary school, without life insurance and with very little savings) was averted in part due to social security (she’d worked for over a decade, so we got survivor benefits, which helped pay for afterschool care and homemaking services in the form of a part-time housekeeper) and in part thanks to, again, grandparents (who served as fill-in caregivers when my father traveled for work, which he did a lot). My father had a major job transition (government service to the nonprofit sector) when he was about 50 (and I was in my teens), and he certainly worried out loud a bit at that point, but actually ended up better off financially.

    So no, and, although I know my parents did some sensible financial planning when they were married, I can’t claim that my father was a particularly good money manager, partly because he spent much of my childhood operating in (non-financial) crisis mode. Retirement worked out okay for him mostly because (a) he had a government pension starting at age 50, (b) he inherited some money (though as it turned out, he never really drew on it) and (c) he never actually retired (he worked up until a few months before he died, at 85). All of that allowed him to have a fairly nice lifestyle while living well within his means (and not thinking too much about it all, which is the real luxury as far as I’m concerned).

    On the other hand, *he* grew up during the depression, and watched his father (who was an unemployed architect, and then a WPA architect) and mother struggle to some degree (there was something of a family safety net in place, as well as some pooling of family resources; each of his grandmothers lived with his family at some point. And *he* went to private school, though he was never quite sure who paid for that — probably the wealthier grandmother, who also sent the leavings of the Sunday roast home with my grandmother, who sometimes made it stretch a *long* way).

    So I guess I’d say “struggle” is relative. I heard my father worry out loud about money on occasion, and he probably heard his parents worry even more (and with more reason), but nobody was in serious danger of going without food, clothing, shelter, or medical care, and everybody got pretty pricey educations (even if our lifestyles didn’t match those of many of our classmates; we basically had family incomes at the low end of the non-scholarship student spectrum). And, although I remember some divorces and business difficulties (including one case where one business partner dynamited the others’ house, with the partner and his family in it; fortunately no one was hurt), I don’t remember knowing that anybody in my community (school or church) was struggling financially. Some of them may have been, however. But that kind of obliviousness is definitely one definition of privilege.

    • Contingent Cassandra Says:

      P.S. the grandparent I remember being most aware of the financial dimensions of various decisions (including the potential earning power of potential mates — she didn’t really think in terms of *my* earning power) was probably the one who grew up closest to the edge, or at least most aware of being close to the edge — she was a doctor’s daughter whose father died when she was two, and whose mother made do by keeping the practice her father had established by boarding another doctor in their home, which also housed the medical office. I’m not sure quite what the financial arrangement there was, but I do know that grandmother and her husband (who also came from a modest, more working-class background) waited to marry until his salary was sufficient not only to support the two of them without the teacher’s salary she had been earning, but also to help out both of their families as needed.

  12. Flavia Says:

    I didn’t have a perception of my parents as “struggling,” but they were very frugal. Coupons, packed lunches, no vacations that weren’t trips to stay with my grandparents. A celebratory meal out meant going to a Mexican restaurant and only having an entree (and free chips and salsa!). And we lived for years in a half-finished house and for decades with its early-70s carpet, fixtures, etc. I definitely felt the contrast with my peers, since my parents had savvily bought in a top school district in a booming region.

    By their retirement they had become VERY comfortable and now have a totally different lifestyle.

    Unfortunately, I did not inherit or fully learn from their frugality, though (perhaps equally unfortunately) I have their taste: even in their leaner years they saved up for and took pleasure in finding antiques & whatnot, even though those pieces sat atop the awful 70s shag rug or in the goldenrod kitchen. I’m not a spendthrift, and my good fortune in my career (and the affordable regions its taken me to!) means my financial picture gets healthier ever year. But my sense of entitlement to nice stuff is always at the far edge of what’s appropriate for our household income/savings.

  13. jjiraffe Says:

    My parents struggled, and there were some real ups and downs. My dad went on strike when I was in college and money was really tight. I think my parents wanted to provide me with a life they couldn’t actually afford so often in college I just suddenly would had no money – they would promise to pay rent then couldn’t. I finally took out loans which helped everyone.

    The experience led me to not go to grad school (too expensive with existing loans and I hated being broke all the time) and led me to work in the highest paid profession I could find.

  14. SP Says:

    “How about you? Did your parents struggle financially when you were growing up?”
    Yes and no. They struggled to maintain a middle class lifestyle at time, but they never struggled in terms of poverty. They struggled relative to some of my peers/friends, but I was never worried about being fed or clothed. They had some pretty major financial issues related to running a business as a contractor (didn’t work out, not enough money/business management skills), but that was towards the tail end of high school.

    It might have somewhat shaped my desire for lots of financial sability, but I was always one who saved money I received, and I always was practical. Engineering in general was a great choice for me (so far). The niche I picked is somewhat cyclical and geographically focused in a few ares… but super interesting to me. On the other hand, software surely would have been more lucrative and in-demand over the years, but I just don’t get as excited about building a program as I do about developing something that becomes a physical product. The idea of building aps and websites just doesn’t do anything for me. Then again, maybe I could have gotten more interested in SW it if I’d worked on a few cool software products! They say mastery builds passion.

  15. Angela Says:

    SP said it well – my parents struggled to provide everything they wanted at times, but I don’t believe we were ever close to poverty. My mom was a SAHM until I was in high school and my dad’s construction company suffered the same booms and busts as any other business in that industry. My parents suffer in comparison to their parents – my mom’s father worked for the government and his pension and insurance have helped provide for my grandmother for decades. Her mom worked for a majority of their childhood and also inherited stocks purchased during the depression from her father. My dad’s parents started the business that he ran, which meant that he paid for his mother’s retirement buying a business that didn’t outlive him. My parents also didn’t make the best choices with their money – they didn’t have credit cards for the majority of my childhood because they had issues before I can remember. My mom’s mom paid for some of the extras like tutoring and piano lessons that my parents couldn’t. I definitely think that seeing my parents struggle led to me wanting to provide security for myself by choosing a career that I perceived to be stable, learning to manage my own money, and saving. But I also think that I was wired this way to start with and I chose a partner who reinforces those values.

  16. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    My parents had enough money to pay off their mortgage on the tiny house that the 6 of us lived in and put all 4 of us through college (3 public universities, 1 private)—just undergrad though, not grad school. We were on our own for grad school. Of course, this was in the 70s, when public universities were still funded by the state, rather than being thinly-disguised private schools.

    They were always frugal, but perhaps less so than I am—my mother would never buy used clothes, for example, but my wife and I have several things we’ve picked up at thrift stores. I spend a lot more for food and eating out, though—we only ate out once or twice a year when I was a kid, and usually at a cheap Chinese restaurant, while my wife and I have taken to eating out about once a week.

    At 90, my Dad still has enough money to pay his room and board in his retirement community for the rest of his life (even if he lives past 100), though my brother now manages the money for him, after he got scammed a couple of times. My mother was always the one to manage money when I was a kid, and I don’t think my Dad ever really learned how to handle his money without her.

  17. zenmoo Says:

    Nope, my parents were fine – my childhood was pretty cushy from age 5 onwards. Live in housekeeper from age 5 to 14, private school, summer school in Switzerland, living (but not tuition or fun) costs covered through six years of university, substantial contribution to a house down payment in a nice but not flash suburb via inheritance from my grandma (which we didn’t need as we’d saved enough). There was a one year blip after my father was made redundant when I was 14, but I don’t recall them being concerned about money at all then. They had a good cushion. And I’ve never had money issues – I think I’m naturally frugal in that I don’t like spending much, I like having plenty of savings and I read fine print well. I picked a good job field because it sounded interesting, have never had a prolonged period of job searching, married well and vote left-wing in the recognition that very few people are lucky enough to have had my immense good fortune.

  18. Revanche Says:

    Only always. I grew up on hand me downs that were originally homemade or bought from yard sales. I remember helping my parents with some of the odd jobs they did before they had more (relatively) stable (but not lucrative by any means) jobs. It was a luxury when we had our 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment to just the four of us. And yet I didn’t feel poor until we had more of the normal stuff (our own rooms, nicer cars) because they came with debt and that was far worse than making do with not enough. A lot has changed since 2011.

  19. bogart Says:

    Oh … and I spent my teen years around horse kids, many of whom (though not all of whom) had families with lots more money than did mine — and some had lots, lots, lots more money. I learned from this that while it can be useful at the margins, money itself buys neither skill nor happiness.

  20. Katherine Says:

    I grew up in a really high COL area, and my parents weren’t great at managing money, so I often felt poor in comparison with my friends (I went to private school for a few years and was in the yacht club’s high school sailing program). In reality looking back, I can see there was always plenty of money, even when my parents put themselves on allowances to save money and I had a scholarship for the sailing team fees (we were never members of the yacht club). My dad had bought a house in the early 80s before house prices went through the roof, and he earned enough that when I was in elementary school my mom quit her IT job and went to nursing school full-time. Then when I was entering high school we were able to live on my mom’s salary so my dad and a partner could start a business that didn’t pay them anything for the first few years. That risk really paid off when the business started doing really well just before I started college, and they were able to pay my private college tuition and living expenses in cash even though they hadn’t saved any money for my college.

    I didn’t appreciate at the time how well off we were, but now I do. I will probably never be that well off again, but so far it looks like my math phd is taking me to a stable career in a very low COL area. I am much more a frugal saver than either of my parents.

  21. If I had a windfall… – Windycitygal Says:

    […] In one, readers were asked what they would do with a windfall, and in the other they were asked whether their parents struggled financially when they were growing up. I feel that these two posts can be closely related to each other. After all, most of us learn […]

  22. Rumpus Says:

    I remember my parents struggling, though I didn’t understand what money really meant at that age. They were careful about expenses, and worked hard to change positions and increase their separate incomes even as they had to balance changing life situations. They had a big argument after my dad bought new tires for their car…a necessary expense but not one for which they had budgeted. Now, such an expense wouldn’t give them any concern at all. Both my parents worked jobs they didn’t like for years, because one of them would labor on while the other took classes or switched jobs to a better situation. I’m very proud of them for making things work. Now they’re retiring and it’s interesting to look at their careers as something like a biased random-walk.

  23. NZ Muse Says:

    Money was tight I believe when we first moved to NZ but we weren’t broke and definitely not poor. I think my experience is definitely more along their lines – mine had me in their 30s once they were settled and sorted. A lot of PFers with immigrant families have very different stories, and may need to support their parents as they age, but in my case mine are more secure than I expect to ever be myself.

  24. Cloud Says:

    Yes, I’m back from vacation, and happy to talk to anyone about the biotech job market, or at least the bits of it I know. Bioinformatics as a field has gone through a lot of changes since I entered, and continues to change. When people say “bioinformatics” now they usually mean something much more narrow than what they might have meant when I started (in about 2000). But, the broader scope of things are still going on, just getting called different things, and there are a lot of interesting new things coming up, too.

    @becca, I hear you about the cost/risk of moving to a high CoL area like San Diego. We’re not as out of whack as San Francisco, though! We could definitely live reasonably comfortably on one professional salary. We couldn’t have our current super spoiled lifestyle (house in a coastal area, expensive vacations, lots of paid activities for the kids), but we could have something pretty good. I know this because we looked into what our options were when I decided to set fire to my old career trajectory. (In the end, I like my spoiled lifestyle, and am willing to suck up some work pain to keep it… but there were other options.)

    However, our biotech job market is not as great as San Francisco or Boston right now, I think.

    Anyway, feel free to send me an email if you’re interested in talking. I’m wandsci at gmail dot com.

    As for the original question: my family was on food stamps when I was little, before I entered elementary school and my mom returned to teaching. I remember a bit of that time, but the food stamps did their job and I don’t remember worrying about where food or shelter would come from. Once we were a two income family again, we did OK. We were what I consider solidly middle class, but then when people call people like me middle class now I think that either “middle class” is a very broad designation, or one of those uses of the term is wrong. We’re much more comfortable money-wise than my family was growing up. But while I remember a few times when money was tight and we had to cut back on things, I don’t remember ever really struggling. That might be at least partially because of extended family support, though.

    • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

      I’m also replying to becca’s query about bioinformatics skills. I don’t know much about the current job market, as I’ve been at the same university for 30 years now, and only have hearsay evidence about the job market, from undergrads and grads. Our grad students (with one or two exceptions) have had no trouble getting postdocs and industrial or academic jobs, but UCSC has a reputation as one of the top places to do bioinformatics. Several of our students (BS, MS, or PhD) have been sucked into research or bioinformatics support jobs here at UCSC—the pay is just enough to live in Santa Cruz, which is highly attractive option for students who have lived here.

      Pure bioinformatics companies have not done well in industry, neither as software companies nor as research service companies—biologists aren’t willing to pay for software or professional bioinformatics support, except for small amounts to collaborators or subcontracts when forced to do so by requirements of big NIH grants.

      The skills a wet-lab biologist needs to develop include scripting (mainly in Python) to do simple analyses and format conversions, building pipelines of existing analysis tools (mainly for RNAseq and DNA sequencing data), and thorough understanding of both Bayesian statistics and frequentist statistics for multiple-hypothesis correction.

      Becoming a professional bioinformatician or biostatistican needs to add additional skills—which skills depends on what sort of work is needed: managing cloud computing, building large databases, security and privacy for medical records, advanced programming for new genome assembly techniques or gene prediction methods, designing experiments to have sufficient statistical power, … .

      Although there is a huge oversupply of PhD biologists, many of them are functionally innumerate, so a moderately solid base in multi-hypothesis statistics and modest programming skill can go a long way in the job market.

  25. Funny about Money Says:

    Not while I was growing up. We lived overseas in a locale where there was noplace for an American to spend money and nothing to spend it on; the company provided our housing and paid the cost of flying back to New York every two years, at the end of my father’s contracts. Though he was a blue-collar kinda guy, he made a very good salary because of the hard-duty pay and because at the time expat Americans paid no income tax either to the US government or to the King.

    BUT…before I was born, it was a different story. They were married during the Great Depression. My mother told me they once spent ten days with nothing to eat but pancakes and some oranges they’d managed to scavenge. My father, a merchant seaman, took a job as a shoe salesman, which he loathed. My mother finally managed to get a job with the State of California, which provided them with enough income to put a roof over their heads and enough stability that my father was able to go back to sea.

    They were never wealthy. But we never seemed to lack for anything we really needed. I don’t think they “struggled.” They just lived within their means, which were a great deal more limited than most 21st-century Americans would regard as normal.

  26. Grumpy Rumblings 2016 Year in blogging | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] one after that and the one after that are also money posts… I guess money posts were popular this […]

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