The Three Most Influential Lessons My Parents Taught Me

This is a guest post from MLR @ My Life ROI. If you like this post, check out his website or subscribe to his feed. I would like to thank Frugal Dad for allowing me this opportunity and I hope you all enjoy the post!

One thing that separates me from a lot of personal finance bloggers is that I have never been in massive debt. I never went through that “wake up” period where I looked at my bank account and noticed it was $1,500 overdrawn. And then only to realize my credit cards were maxed out. Sure, I have had my fair share of sticky situations where I had to step back, assess my situation, nervously laugh to myself, and then work on getting back to my yellow brick road. But never massive debt. So what could I possibly share that is worth reading?

My parents, and particularly my father (a daddy’s boy, you could say), taught me some very important financial lessons, if not life lessons. I have combined those lessons with my experiences that I have gathered from high school, college, and the past few years in the workforce since I graduated from college. I have a very analytical frame of mind so I like to breakdown situations into consumable sections. And if I had it my way their would be a lot of numbers.

I find that my posts are probably best for the 16-35 year olds out there who are looking for some useful information. And parents who are looking at ways to connect with their kids. And we have reached a full circle… this all comes back to the three most influential lessons my parents taught me. I hope some of you parents out there can use these lessons to connect with your kids. And if my peers never got these lessons from your parents, I hope some of you can also digest this information for your own betterment!

Lesson #1: Want is not need.

Photo courtesy of babasteve

I was not a particular needy child. My Christmas list usually only consisted of one or two things. My mother tells me stories from when I was a young’n. She used to love buying me gifts. And I loved tearing through them. But once I opened them all up I would take the two things I wanted and go to my room… leaving the rest of the gifts to sit under the tree lonely. I guess I was just quirky like that.

But boys will boys and every now and then I would see something in a store that caught my eye. I would demand it. I NEEDED it. I would go over every reason in the book as to why I needed it and how detrimental it would be if I did not get it. My parents could have easily purchased me these gifts. After all, I did not ask for much, right? However, I am glad they did not enable my behavior no matter how infrequent it was.

My parents always talked to me in a logical manner explaining to me why it was not something that was needed. They did this from a young age and continued it until I was an adult. A typical conversation between a 14 year old me and my pops would go:

Dad: So you need this baseball that clocks your speed for $40?

Me: Yes! How else will I know if I am ready to pitch when I get to high school?!

Dad: Do you and your coach feel comfortable with how you are developing?

Me: Yes.

Dad: Do you think you are a league above your peers when you pitch?

Me: Yes.

Dad: Then what does your speed matter? I’ll take you by a batting cage once a year and clock your speed for $1.

Me: Ugh, fine.

My dad never once said “No!” That would ensue in a fight. Teenagers, and even younger kids, are more logical than we sometimes give them credit for. My dad must have had the patience of a saint because he was always willing to discuss these little issues with me. But in the end, what did I gain?

Now when I look at purchasing an item that I think I need, or maybe just really want, I really break the item down into a bunch of questions I know my dad would ask. Are there any cheaper alternates, like the batting cage once a year instead of a baseball that clocks your speed and will probably break after 20 throws? To you this is a simple discussion. To a kid who is starting to develop his outlook on the world this is a very influential lesson.

Lesson #2: TINSTAFL, There Is No Such Thing As a Free Lunch.


Every now and then the aforementioned lesson would not work on me. But still, my dad never gave me an outright “No!” Every now and then he and I would discuss the merits of a particular purchase and wind up in a stalemate. And that is where we would stay. He never acted as if he had a mystical overpowering veto that would end all discussion. But at the same time he didn’t agree with what I was doing so I knew I needed to work for it.

If I trace my interest in business and entrepreneurship back I think it would all start at age 8. I wanted a new bike because my dad purchased me a Huffy and other people in my neighborhood had Specialized and Diamondback bikes. For those of you who do not know, a Specialized or Diamondback bike is usually leagues above a Huffy. Looking back I can’t blame him. I was a 8 year old who was taking my bike into the woods and building jumps that probably made my spokes shake in their sockets.

But I was determined to get a new bike. As I am sure you are used to hearing from your child, I needed it. I started informing all of the neighbors that I would do any work for them. I would shovel snow, cut grass, rake leaves, pull weeds, take out trash, or help with any other job they wanted assistance on. I once had a neighbor who paid me to lay new bricks along their front garden. It actually wound up being considerably hard work and I am pretty sure they got a bargain. I was getting money steadily. I decided to expand my business and started doing fresh squeezed lemonade and apple stands. I stole the apples from my neighbor’s tree and my dad made the lemonade for me. It was probably a losing proposition but I guess he just liked seeing me put so much effort into a goal. Sales were not good, my street had no road traffic. I went door-to-door selling this lemonade. (Note: This was a neighborhood where everyone knew everyone and my dad stayed outside as I did it)

After a few months I think I lost sight of my end goal. But I kept doing these jobs in order to get money because I liked having my little piggy bank full of money. Between all of the jobs I was doing around the neighborhood and all of the money I collected from the dryer I had enough money for a new bike within about 6 months. My dad reminded me at this point and we went to the bike store in town. I looked around and found the bike I wanted. I was sure it would be better than all of my friend’s bikes.

Let me guess what you are thinking… my dad either bought it for me or I wasted all of my money on it? Nope. I got gun shy and realized I was about to spend 6 months of hard work on a single possession that I would use to skid around (kill the tires), go off jumps (kill the shocks and spokes), crash into curbs (warp the wheels and bend the spokes), and otherwise just ruin it. I decided I wanted to save the money for something more deserving of my money. I kept my Huffy.

My dad did not make me work, he gave me the opportunity to work for something I wanted. By working I realized the value of a dollar and looked at purchases in a different way… even at a young age.

Lesson #3: The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago, the second best time is now.

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks

What did my dad and I do a few days after I rejected the idea of buying a new bicycle? We went to our local bank, Bank of America. My dad opened me up a joint savings and checking account that only I would deposit and withdrawal from. My dad may have planted the idea in my head but I remember it as being my idea. I saw my dad go to the bank all of the time to get money and he had explained the concept to me plenty of times. I liked the idea of having my money locked up for safekeeping while still letting me access it when I needed it. The piggy bank was getting full, anyways.

I opened up my bank account and over the next 8 years I would give my dad money and a deposit slip anytime I earned some. He would take it to the bank when he was going for his own reasons. And that is where my life into personal finance really started… at the ripe age of 8.

My dad always made it clear that I wanted to have a safety cushion in that bank account. He would say things like “What happens when you are 16 and need a car?” Because of the TINSTAFL lesson the idea never crossed my mind that I was guaranteed a free car just for being born to the man. Now, he was not as rough as he may seem and he did wind up helping me out with a car. It was a used Dodge Neon. It also happened to be a hand me down from my sister. I got a great deal as I only had to pay for gas and insurance since the car was already paid off. Now that I look back at it, though, I am pretty sure my dad completely subsidized my car insurance payments. But the idea remained constant, he wanted to make sure I understood that nothing was free.

By the time I was 16 I had a few thousand dollars saved up. This was all earned through hard work and some holiday presents. I was continuously educated by my dad that I was ahead of the game and that everything I did now was worth tenfold down the road.

How well did these lessons carry on?

Once I got my car at 16 I went on to work part-time all throughout high school. I worked at a restaurant as a dish guy, bus boy, and waiter and Best Buy as a salesman after that. I started earning actual money rather than side money for little yard projects. I, just like any kid, made mistakes with my money. I don’t think I really needed that $800 sound system in my Neon (Best Buy employee prices, have you!).

But I continued to work and continued to save.

I wound up choosing a state school, the University of Maryland. Why? It was ranked in the top 20 for my intended major and I wanted to pay my way through school. I found accomplishment in not having to ask my parents for money.

I worked throughout college. The main job that paid for my school was running an exterior painting company. I made enough money in two summers to pay for 3 years of school plus a two month trip across Europe. I also wound up working for some other companies, one of them being UPS. UPS was HARD work but it looked great on my resume.

And what am I driving? A 2004 Hyundai Accent with 86,000 miles on it. Even after being in my career for a few years I have not caved to the pressures of my neighbors with Specialized bikes co-workers with brand new Mustangs.

I would say these lessons were pretty influential, what do you think? Did your parents teach you anything that you would add to the list?


  1. Thanks so much for the opportunity to post on your site!

    I hope your readers find value and I look forward to all of their comments and questions!

    Talk to you all soon! 🙂

  2. I, like you, have never been deep in debt, I am in debt, just not deep. I think it is great that your dad was able to instill that kind of knowledge in you at such a young age. I learned from my parents as well but it was more of a what not to do with your money way. I hope that I can teach my children to be good stewards of their financial future.

  3. Great post MLR. As a child, my needs were few so had no problems on that front. Now that I’m a father, and with the kind of marketing aimed at the kids, it is tough sometimes to reason with them when they are set upon something. However, i manage to convey most of the lessons you have detailed here and am sure my kids will thank me for it when they are older.

  4. Sorry to nitpick, but under your Lesson 2, please change “Every now and then ME and HIM would discuss…” to “Every now and then HE and I would discuss…”

    Other than that, great post.

  5. @Kyle — I definitely think it was great my Dad was willing to teach me those lessons. Perhaps it is YMMV (your mileage may vary) and other people’s kids won’t be as receptive… but definitely worth a shot. Were you very receptive to the lessons of what NOT to do? I know most people need to touch the stove first…

    @ Prasanth — Thanks 🙂 I hear you on the marketing. It seems to get worse and worse. Why else would all the little knick knacks be on the low shelves (approx child height)? And I would venture to say your kids will definitely appreciate these lessons!

    @ Teaspoon – Thanks for picking up on that. It can be pretty easy to slip up on nominative and objective personal pronouns and, well, you caught me! 😉 Glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. So many of these life lessons are my exact points that I am addressing at a conference I am speaking at. This is an amazing article. We are fortunate to have had parents instill these life lessons in us early so that debt free living has been a way of life for the long haul.
    Just yesterday my son wanted to buy an airsoft gun with the $25 he received for his bday. We had to go through the “routine…again.” About ‘saving, spending, giving’ before he was able to narrow down just how much he could actually spend on the gun. It’s those small seeds we plant now, that will grow and ripen over the years. Thanks for a great post.

  7. MLR,

    Very nice post. A personal finance blogger who has not made the journey out of debt is a pretty unique position.

    I am definitely trying to be intentional about teaching those type of lessons to my boys. The cool thing about children is they usually benefit from all of our learning, so I am hoping my boys learn from the lessons I did while digging out of $70k in debt and have a financial life more like yours.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. Sad to say that, unfortunately, I was an only child who never really wanted for much. I got an allowance every so often without having to do any chores, I was never coerced into getting a job to pay for anything, and the part-time jobs I had in high school provided me with lots of “fun money” that I never had to save or manage at all.

    In retrospect, I learned very little about managing finances from my parents (ironically, my father is an accountant). I tend to be rather pragmatic on my own, so it didn’t take me *too* long to figure out that I did need to live within my means.

    Now I have my own children, and have promised myself that I will do what I can to engender good financial management skills early on. Sometimes a counter-example is just as good, in this case. 🙂

  9. Thanks. This is a beautiful post and story.

    You are fortunate and grateful – a rare combination.

    Your post made me think about the lessons I learned growing up and the lessons I now teach my kids.

    I will be thinking about this for some time…no real conclusions….but I will be sending your post to my kids.

    Thanks friend.

  10. Nice post. Our parents and upbringing sounds very similar. I had saved up about $250 by the time I was 7, saving my birthday/Christmas money and allowances. I had been keeping it in a can hidden in my room until my mom found it when she was cleaning. That’s when my parents decided it was time to open an account for me at the credit union. I think this is why I had an impressive credit score by the time I turned 18 (around 720 if I remember right).

    By the time I was 21 I had saved up $7,000 to put toward a car. Looking back I should have bought a nice used vehicle and not gone into debt. Alas, I purchased a brand new Hyundai Elantra instead. Granted, I shopped around online and pit the dealerships against each other till I got the price down to $14,000 with all options. It still saddled me with $7,000 worth of debt though. Thankfully that was the only debt I got into during my college years since I worked 1 or more jobs to pay my way, and attended community college to cut costs.

    In addition to saving, my mom taught me to tithe 10% of everything I earn to the church, starting with the first time they ever gave me an allowance. This is a practice which I have kept throughout my life, and am very happy I learned at a young age. I know there are many who struggle with this but I never have. I think it’s because it was never really an option for me NOT to give, at least in my mind. Kind of like automatic savings withdrawals, I just know that that money isn’t for me to spend and there are other people who could use it a whole lot more than I could.

  11. How wonderful and lucky you were to have a patient parent and one who knew the lessons to teach. And did so in a life-enforcing way. (Yes, there are other parents who teach these lessons. But the manner of teaching is such that it breaks kids down in terrible ways.)

    Many of us not only did not have parents that were patient, but they knew nothing about money themselves. There was nothing to teach and their example, alas, was less than positive.

    Thanks for focusing on the important issue of how parents can be positive influencers and teachers about finances in their children’s lives. And the importance of message consistency.

    Some parents tell their children one thing and do another. (Parents can’t teach the difference between need and want and then indulge in their own spending sprees on non-essentials. The lesson won’t stick with the kids.)That’s where many a money problem starts with kids.

    It was interesting to hear about how little you wanted as a kid. I’d love to hear a psychologist’s take on the relationship (if any) between how much kids want and how much love they feel and their sense of self.

    One suspects that people who feel loved and wanted; who have a sense of identity apart from what they wear, do, eat, etc. and a sense of purpose are less “needy” when it comes to material things.

    But who knows? I”m pretty sure that a lot of the kids today who demand expensive stuff are well loved (perhaps spoiled and entitled). So what really fuels that “gotta have it” in some more than others?

  12. I loved this post! I was raised in a very similar way–& looking back I SO appreciate how my parents treated me maturely when talking about money. I truly think it made me spend my money more maturely. My husband was raised differently with many strong “no because i said so” statements fro
    his parents. Before we have kids we’ll need to come to some sort of consensus on this subject in how to handle it with our own kiddos…but in the meantime you put into words exactly what I’vd been trying to explain to him!!

  13. @ Jen@BB&B — What conference are you speaking at? I am really glad you found it “amazing!” I wasn’t expecting that. 🙂 And you are definitely right that we were fortunate… I won’t deny that. Does your son enjoy the routine, though? I think that is key to creating lasting change.

    @ The Happy Rock — Indeed it is a unique position! I think it gives me the perspective that I am not hyper sensitive to the idea of debt and the idea of saving has really been planted in me. Are your boys receptive to your teaching? All the lessons in the world won’t stop them from touching the stove if they aren’t receptive! 🙂

    @ Skip — Sometimes I wonder how I would be different if I grew up like that. The usage of the word coerced makes me curious as if you think that is what happened to me? Because that isn’t how I see it at all! And the fact that you learned that you needed to live within your means relatively quickly is awesome! I just don’t think most people learn that lesson too quickly (based on my peers). I am sure you will give great financial guidance to your kids.

    @ Wealth Pilgrim — Thank you very much 🙂 I tend to lack the “entitlement” of my generation as I have been told, haha! PLEASE let me know how your kids liked the post. And if you think of any lessons that you were taught and now teach your kids I would be happy to discuss. It is a fascinating topic to me.

    @ Amy — You’re right… our upbringing does sound similar! That is about what I saved, too. Just at 8 instead of 7. Really funny! And just like you I had a great credit score upon entering college. That actually had to do with my dad making me get a credit card at 16 and teaching me how to use it, though. In re: to the car don’t fret. It isn’t like you bought a new Jetta. You got a Hyundai, an affordable and well-warrantied car! I don’t think that was a horrible decision at all in relative terms (to our peers). In re: to tithing, that is awesome. Charity makes the world go round-and-round.

    @ Beth — I hope you can let us all know how everything pans out. I would be interested to see if other kids are as receptive to my dad’s tactics as I was.

    @ IRG — Lucky, yes. And you are 100% correct, the method of instilling values matters just as much as the values you are instilling. I think my parents really let me make a lot of my own decisions from a young age which led to organic growth, or growth from within. That’s unfortunate that your parents didn’t have much to teach and that is why I support mandatory PF classes in high school to create a base of knowledge from which to grow.

    Leading by example IS huge, though. My dad used to say “Monkey see, Monkey do!” all the time. I didn’t really get it at first… I thought it was just funny. Obviously it was about all us little kids mimicking… Each other. Friends. Parents.

    I would also like to hear a psychologist’s take on the relationship between the two. I have often times wondered why I wasn’t as focused on material possessions.

    I wish I could answer your last question, I really do.

    @ Jlyn — I was the last child in my family. My parents had already realized “No because I said so” just leads to either resentment or outright disobedient children. Like I said, children are much more logical than we give them credit for.

    Show this post to your husband and post back with what he thinks… I would be interested to see if it helps him understand what you have been trying to say!

  14. Nice post. I am in a similar position. I had a great upbringing regarding money. I have never been in debt – having started a savings account at an early age. Adn now at age 41, am in a good place financially. It does seem to be somewhat unique among personal finance bloggers. Many seem to be coming from a position of debt. Anyway, I’m off to check out your blog. Thanks.

  15. I think you made a terrible mistake by working at ups. You call it hrad work. That it is and more. The lifting, loading, twisting, turning you did moving thousnads of boxes is going to come and haunt you when you get old. That work has already guaranteed made your back weak and it will all come to work when you are older and may be sooner then that. Many times hard work is not just hrad but bad for your body.

  16. Great post.. wonderful to read account from someones life and how it helped them .. I am from India and I can tell you that values are imbibed in all of us by our parents right from the childhood.. its a national phenomeno and savings is on top of that.. no wonder India’s savings rate is among the highest in the world.. I too have learned few lessons from my parets like
    1. Spend lesser that we can
    2. Eat at home coz its best, more tasty,prepared by mom and more importantly dont ahve to pay bill after eating.
    3.Never take a loanor atleast avoid it till its possible. Hence the debt levels in India are so low.

  17. My Dad taught me to pay off all my bills on time and in full. Like you, I’ve never had any debt (other than a home mortgage). I was also taught not to buy anything I can’t afford. I use credit cards for the ease of purchasing, but never buy anything I couldn’t pay for with cash.

    I had some friends who got into credit card debt and those revolving interest rates are the worst!

  18. I really like “Lesson #3: The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago, the second best time is now”. It’s so true, and so very relevant in personal finance. I think that for many people it’s easy to look at what you SHOULD have done in the past, but difficult to translate that into an action plan for the present. This is something that I will be sharing with my family.


  19. Wow, our dad’s both had the same teaching method! My dad *always* had me explain why I *needed* something or why I *wanted* it. He saved me from a lot of silly purchases and also helped teach me how to research smart purchases. I still go through the same thought process when I am about to buy something – no matter how small.

  20. Kudos to your dad for treating you with respect. It seems like many parents do try to settle everything with an outright no or discussion-ending veto (and half of them wussy out and give into the kid’s demands anyway). But that’s rude, sets a bad example, and probably has a lot to do with why kids rarely respect their parents.

  21. @ Steven — Hard knocks can teach you a bit, I had quite a few of those due to my independent nature. Maybe I will write a post on that 🙂 And thanks for the compliment, I am glad you like my style!

    @ Michele — Good to see someone who started young and has lasted into their 40s! I have met people who get “worn out,” per se, of keeping up the responsible finances. Hope you like my blog!

    @ John — If you are twisting and turning you are lifting the packages incorrectly. You need to have good form. If you make sure your form is correct UPS just becomes a workout at the gym.

    @ Rajeev — I had 3 Indian-American roommates in college and only 1 seemed to have the same financial outlook as myself. I am glad to meet another 🙂

    @ DDFD — Do you find yourself teaching the lessons in the same way? What are your major obstacles?

    @ Stella — People often times mistake credit card purchases as debt. I, like you, make all of my purchases on a credit card and then pay it off at the end of the month.

    @ Sandy — I’ve got a nice bridge you would be interested in 🙂 (I was born in NY!)

    @ Adam — Let me know how receptive your family is to the post/lesson! Post back here or on my blog 🙂

    @ Catherine — That is great! My dad saved me from some silly purchases, too. But the best part? He would not forbid me from making a mistake.. there were a few instances where he let me do what I want and I learned my lesson. And like you, I now scrutinize every purchase (for better or for worse :P).

    @ Cyllya — I agree. I may have disagreed with my dad a lot. But I never lost respect for him because I knew he treated me fairly. I see some parents in stores and am shocked at how the interactions play out…

  22. I read the three and said, “Right, right and right”. If parents are doing their job, why state these? I suspect it is because they are no longer doing it. I’m 64, and I got it: my brother is 61, and he got it. Neither he nor I got into serious credit card debt; his daughter did. What has changed? Of all the possibilities, I see 2: young people today think the answer is usually yes. Second, people throw food away and talk about who likes or does not like brussel sprouts. Go figure. Michael Bash

  23. I have two different reactions to this post.

    Firstly that it was brilliant and that I want to teach these lessons to my future children and that you wrote it very well and expressed it clearly too.

    And then the second reaction is sadness. Now that I think about it, my dad told me all the same lessons that yours did [he even used the exact same phrase, “the best time to plant a tree is thirty years ago, the second best time is now”], but in my case they didn’t stick. Whether this is because they were divorced, so I only saw him at weekends, which mean it was always ‘tell’ and never ‘show’, whether it was because discussing such things would happen once in a blue moon, or because I could see that he didn’t stick to it in his own life, from as much as I could see, or for some other reason. Maybe I’ll learn them from now on though.

  24. Thanks so much for sharing your great story, you got such a great father that every one wish for.
    I realize that there is a big difference in education methods that Western parents and Asia parents use to teach their children.
    Usually, in my country, there is no opened-conversation between parents and children, there is no “because I said so”, too. When I did something wrongs, I received punishment.
    I started learning using money when I was 6, but I was given very small amount of money which just enough to buy a small cake at schol in break time. After growing up, I look back and feel that my parents have used the right methods to teach me. The punishment will be effective if parents tell their children why they doing so.
    However, for my future kids, I will consider using both methods, the one that I learn from you and the one from my childhood experiences. 🙂

  25. A well written and well loved post.
    One lesson I learned was when lending money… first decide if you can live without it and count it as gone. If you don’t you can destroy a friendship.
    I also learned to spend your money wisely getting something for it (owning a home instead of renting – if you can afford it). You feel a sense of accomplishment and greater personal value then.
    I’ve also learned through their experience that you must plan ahead to be prepared for the future.
    Thanks for the post.