It’s out earliest encounters with money that set the scene for our financial foibles
When I was three years old, my family spent a holiday at a guest farm outside Cape Town. While we were there, my father fell ill and took to his bed for two or three days, putting a damper on our activities. I don’t recall if it was compassion or the realisation that desperate measures were called for, but to hasten his recovery, I was moved to give him the few pennies I owned.
Having emptied my piggy bank, I had to find a way to replenish it. My ten-year-old brother received regular pocket money and always seemed to have a tantalising tower of coins beside his bed. With an instinctive grasp of the principle of the redistribution of wealth, I pinched his stash and tied it up in my pyjamas. (If I’d been around when he was three, I might have thought twice. When our jovial GP asked him if he collected blue glass bottles, the little Capitalist replied, ‘No, I collect money.’ The goodnatured man offered him a penny, but the dreadful child said, ‘Actually, I’d rather have the bottle.’ My mother declares that she could have fallen through the floor with mortification.)
At bedtime I apparently defended my pyjamas like a fiend, refusing to put them on. My brother, who had been complaining all afternoon about the mysterious decline in his fortunes, put two and two together and my crime was discovered.
I don’t remember the ensuing scene, but I think some of my beliefs about money were programmed into my subconscious that day. I learned that money is not a transferrable resource to be used where it is currently needed, but something that is jealously guarded by those who have it. Furthermore, that getting it elicits very strong feelings in the heart of the person who is giving it up. Some remnant of childhood guilt makes me feel almost sorry for people who owe me money. Perhaps that’s why I became a journalist – one sure-fire way of doing financial penance for the rest of my life.
I’ve read enough to know that in this new age we are required to get to the bottom of our psychological dramas and eradicate negative thought patterns. So I listened to self-esteem queen Suzi Orman, but whenever she flashed those scary American teeth in a million-dollar smile I wanted to smack her. I read Rich Dad Poor Dad and was 100 percent behind Poor Dad, which was not what the author intended. I wanted to smack him too, for being so shallow and smug and disrespectful of his own father.
‘Try the prayer for abundance,’ a friend from the love and light brigade suggested, thrusting a slip of paper into my hand. ‘Money will just fall from the sky.’
Although this was contrary to my experience, I sat at the table and read the words aloud, as instructed. But it felt wrong to be giving orders to the Universe, and it felt wrong to have to repeat the request day after day. If I were the Universe, I would not take kindly to the nagging inference that I might be hard of hearing.
I abandoned the prayer, but some trainee in the heavenly accounts department must have caught my half-hearted attempt. Blow me down if a cheque didn’t arrive in the mail shortly afterwards. It was for an editorial ‘contribution’ that (I knew perfectly well) I hadn’t made. Rich Dad would have banked it and enjoyed the interest until the company tumbled to the mistake. I, however, had visions not only of an employee having to pay it in, but also of the rightful recipient resorting to cat food because I’d appropriated the grocery money. I sent it back.
I know it’s possible to be as rich as a pixie, but I can’t settle for ill-gotten gains. It could be grandma’s work ethic that drives me, or it could be the faint memory of a tearful tussle over a small pair of pyjamas. You can try and bend the rules, but sooner or later, Big Brother will get you.
Published in Personal Finance Magazine