The Only Thing My Mama Needed to Teach Me About Money

by Shawanda Greene

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Why is it so hard to grasp the concept of scarcity? Didn’t we learn that stuff in grade school? Although I believe it’s important to minimize the negative impact we have on the planet, that’s not what I’m getting at. Even if you don’t care about responsibly managing the earth’s resources, you should concern yourself with taking care of your own.

Oh, how I remember my very first lesson with scarcity. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old at the time. It happened while waiting with my mama in the supermarket checkout line. I can’t recall what I asked my mom to buy for me, but I remember my mother saying I couldn’t have that thing I wanted because she didn’t have any money. Well then, “write a check” I told her. In a few short sentences, my mother taught me all I needed to know about scarcity.

Honey, you have to have money in the bank before you go to writin’ checks! You can’t just write a check. You have to have money.

All the time prior to my mother telling me that, it never occurred to me that checks represented money – the result of someone paying you for providing a service. I wasn’t devastated by my mother’s response. I remembered going to the bank with her. She put money in the bank. She took money out. I understood. From then on, I knew there were no easy solutions to getting what you want out of life.

In order to replenish your bank account so that you can write checks (man, that’s ol’ school) so that you can buy the things you want, you have to work for it.

Investopedia explains scarcity as follows:

When we talk of scarcity within an economic context, it refers to limited resources, not a lack of riches. These resources are the inputs of production: land, labor and capital.

People must make choices between different items because the resources necessary to fulfill their wants are limited. These decisions are made by giving up (trading off) one want to satisfy another.

It’s a bit strange that I’d bring up scarcity now given I haven’t seriously thought about the matter since I taught it to a group of first graders a few years back. Actually, it’s not that strange. This past Saturday, I spent almost the entire day attending a financial educator volunteer training session. I won’t get into it now, but the programs offered by this organization are phenomenal.

During the latter part of the day, we went over how to teach high school students about money management. One of the pointers offered by the financial counselor-in-chief (I just made that up) was to let the children know that name brands aren’t important. Money spent on luxurious clothing could be redirected to savings and retirement accounts. A fellow volunteer expressed concern with how she’d deliver the news that labels aren’t necessities when it’s so important for teenagers to fit in with their peers.

Over a short break, I discussed with my fellow financial education volunteer how to let the children down easily. I thought the matter could be summed up in a sentence. “Your parents don’t have an unlimited supply of resources.” Done.

But the parents in the classroom carried on and on about how parents don’t put their foot down. And how some people will go into debt in order to provide their children with every trinket they fancy.

I could not understand why these people thought it’d be so difficult to teach young adults about the limitations placed on everyone’s resources. They were taught this stuff in grade school.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it to any of the volunteer events for high schoolers, but, just in case, I’ve been thinking about how I’d let the children know they can’t have everything they want all at once. Assuming they’re having a hard time revisiting a concept that was taught to them barely a decade prior, I’ve prepared the following response:

What?! You stupid?! NO ONE has an unlimited supply of resources. Including parents. They’re not leprechauns. They’re real people who have to give in order to get. You will too some day. So if you want to buy expensive, high-end products then you’d better start thinking about what kind of career will compensate you well enough to afford the things you want.

What do you think of that? How do you determine how your monetary resources should be allocated? What would you say? Remember these are children I’ll be dealing with.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Carla November 13, 2009 at 3:16 AM

That is a really good question and honestly, I don't know what I would say besides what you just wrote. I don't have kids, I don't have younger siblings, no nieces or nephews and no young cousins. The few friends I do have with kids have their heads on straight so that's not an issue. My mother told me plainly that 'we didn't have the money for XY or Z' BUT she also didn't each me about budgeting, proper use of credit, using checks, loans, or even how much our utilities cost (because 'it wasn't my business'). When I found out she made much, much more money than I thought and her income was relatively high for the time we were living in ('80 and making over $70K year) I was even more confused! What really did "we don't have the money" really meant? She never lived over her head by any means.

I guess I don't have an answer!


TheyCallMeCheap November 13, 2009 at 3:54 AM

During my childhood, both my mom and dad worked. They also kept their expenses really low too, so I don't really understand how my mom could tell me she didn't have the money. What she meant was that she didn't want to spend her money on what I wanted. After all, she was in the checkout line when she told me she didn't have any money.

All the extra stuff about budgeting and responsible use of credit was self taught. But still, that one lesson was enough to establish a strong foundation.


ctreit November 13, 2009 at 12:33 PM

Scarcity is the essence of life, isn't it?

I had a discussion with my oldest son and his girl-friend about luxuries a while ago. My kids know that I will provide for them well, but that this does not included the latest A&F items. Shirts, yes, A&F fashion statements for $85, no. My kids don't have a problem with that. Why should they? The girl-friend, a single child, thought that parents kind of had an obligation to share with their children any luxuries that they indulged in. I think not. End of discussion for me.

Guess how this topic came up? We were going on ski vacation, in itself a luxury as far as I am concerned. This is a vacation on which I normally take my wife, but this time my son wanted to come. So, my wife and I stayed in a nice and pretty expensive hotel, but the (adult) son & his girlfriend stayed in a separate bed-and-breakfast for which I also paid. (I paid for everything else like lift tickets and food, too.) Somehow the girl-friend thought that this was not right. WHAT? – I would have thought a "Thanks a million!" was a more appropriate response. Do I need to tell you that she's no longer his girlfriend?


TheyCallMeCheap November 18, 2009 at 5:18 PM

That EX-girlfriend is just ungrateful. Parents are required to provide for you until you're 18. Even then, it's just the basics. I try to watch that feeling of entitlement. What have I done to deserve the life I have? Well, I have done a little bit to get where I am, but any success I have can be largely attributed to the fact that I was born in a free country. I'm also fortunate in that I had a loving, supportive, and stable family growing up.

I wish someone would take me on a paid vacation.


Ashley November 13, 2009 at 10:38 PM

You changed your comments :-) ! I had a single parent house hold and think my mom did a good job of teaching me about money. From jump I was taught to never pay more for anything than I had to no matter what (coupons, sale, clearance) even if it wasn't always convenient. My mom also, didn't use credit cards. She probably had a horrible credit history but she never had any debt.

Paying full price for anything still gives me buyers remorse. A few weeks ago I went shopping for new clothes and got over $500 clothing items and a pair of quality dress flats for $55. That included 2 new workout outfits, 11 new work shirts, a pair of jeans, and 2 dresses and all are fashionable, good quality, and somewhat name brand. Those are the types of purchases that give me a shoppers rush.

As I recently explained to someone, I'd tell the kids that using credit you can't afford to pay back/writing checks you can't cash, is the same as being a thief. You are promising a store that you will pay them for the stuff you are taking, and if you don't keep that promise it's exactly the same as stealing. If you take your time in paying them back you're giving them permission to screw you over (for lack of a better word) by charging you interest and fees. No one wants to get screwed over…. right?


FABULOUSLYBROKE.COM November 14, 2009 at 10:06 PM


I did that, girl!

I told off a group of Grade 8s who said to me: "I am going to be rich and never have to worry about NUTTIN"

I was like:.."You, there. Look at me. I am $60,000 in debt, living on ramen, trying to sell off my wardrobe to pay for my education. You don't wanna be here."

But your response: "What?! You stupid?! NO ONE has an unlimited supply of resources. Including parents. They’re not leprechauns. They’re real people who have to give in order to get. You will too some day. So if you want to buy expensive, high-end products then you’d better start thinking about what kind of career will compensate you well enough to afford the things you want."

Love it. Do it. Especially the leprechauns part, with a little dance for good measure


TheyCallMeCheap November 15, 2009 at 5:17 AM

@Ashley – I wish I was that good at bargain shopping. I bought a tripod today at full retail price. Before I bought it, I kept thinking maybe I should go on-line to do a little price comparison. I really wasn't in the mood for that so I just bought it. The tripod was only about $18, but still…I don't want to make a habit of that.

I like the stealing angle. I've even heard people who'd been in credit card trouble say they thought it was free money. Why would a corporation give you and everyone else in the country free money? Tell me you weren't aware of the payment terms. Tell me you overestimated your ability to repay the loan. But don't tell me you thought it was free money. I have a hard time believing people are that daggum dumb.

@FabulouslyBroke – LOL! It's shocking how hard it is to get rich. I had another run in with one of the parents in the group today. She doesn't like my straight shootin' approach to counseling/teaching. I hate when people expect you to tip toe through life. Hey, if you have an opinion, you're going to offend someone. Especially if that opinion is a fact. *shrugs shoulders*


Jackie November 16, 2009 at 9:09 AM

For a group of kids in a school setting, I might try asking them to make a list of the things they’d like to get this week. And then ask them what they plan to give up in order to get those things (time, money, opportunity to do something else, some of the items.)

For my own son, I try to do this by telling him no, by asking him to figure things out, etc. Also from as soon as he could point, I started telling him he could choose one thing at the grocery store. That left it up to him to figure out that he had a limited amount to work with.


TheyCallMeCheap November 17, 2009 at 3:19 AM

Heck that sounds like a good exercise for me. Makes me think of The 4-Hour Workweek for some reason. Thanks for sharing.


Andrew February 18, 2012 at 9:11 AM

These days,the kids would say "Just put it on your credit card", as my younger one did a few years ago. To paraphrase a dead economist (forget his name) "economics is the efficient use of scarce resources that have alternate uses" Make kids pay for the own flippin' A&F hoodies, and they'll understand the concept of scarcity just fine.


Shawanda February 23, 2012 at 5:53 PM

So true. When I was a kid, I used to try to save any allowance I received while hoping to convince my mom to buy non-necessities for me. Her response was often "pull your money out." My level of desire for the particular item would drop significantly as soon as I heard those words.


Pam at MoneyTrail March 16, 2012 at 3:02 PM

I can remember telling my mother to "just write a check for it."! The modern day version of that is the credit card. Kids have to understand that there needs to be money behind the credit card. I think putting them in charge of their own money really helps teach them responsible money management skills. They are much more careful and thoughtful when spending their own money than they are when spending Mom's money!


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