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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Why money doesn't grow on my family tree

Published: Tuesday, March 4 2014 6:57 p.m. MST

Amy Choate-Nielsen looked back at her family history to see who had acumen for balancing a checkbook.

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I have never considered myself to be particularly financially savvy.

When it came to money, the only thing my father ever told me was to “avoid debt like the plague.” It was something he told me often, in moments of anguish and inspiration, something he said in such a way that his words became inscribed on my brain with a distrust of money and a fear of credit cards.

My solution was to never have a credit card. You can’t have any debt if you don’t have a credit card, I reasoned. And with that, and a weathered-looking checkbook, I entered the working world.

I had lots of different jobs. In middle school, I was a baby sitter. In high school, I was a hostess at a little restaurant in New Canaan, Conn., where I had the pleasure of showing Susan Sarandon her table one day at brunch.

Just before college I was a waitress at a pizza place down the road. My first semester I had a 4 a.m. shift washing dishes in the dining hall at Brigham Young University, and during the summers I worked as an office temp in Connecticut.

I went from one job to another, working my way up from spraying scalding water on soggy cereal to making spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations. I was lucky to always have somewhere to work, even if it wasn’t ideal.

I put my money in the bank. I paid my rent with checks. I bought my groceries and gas and then I spent whatever was left on whatever I needed. As I started to make more money, I spent it on whatever I wanted.

I developed quite a shoe collection, for instance.

When I got married, I was proud of myself for not having any debt. I didn’t have school debt or car debt or credit card debt. Just like my dad had told me, I’d avoided it like the plague.

But, I also didn’t have any credit, and I hardly had any savings.

Luckily, my husband was more prepared than I, which made it easy for me to defer my fears to him and let him handle our finances. I didn’t think too much about where our money was coming from or where it was going. As long as there was something coming from somewhere, I preferred not to know.

My husband preferred the opposite.

When my mother first told me how my great-grandmother Monta Pearl Warren, who lived from 1882 to 1927, used to disappear into her attic to write all day and put off her chores, it was an off-handed comment about how maybe that’s where I got my love of the written word from. But in that moment, I beamed. Perhaps the best of me is a little bit of my father’s mother, Fleeta, who baked the best divinity on the block, and a little bit of my mother’s grandmother, who could not care less about balancing her checkbook.

Her husband preferred she cared.

He was about 12 years older than her, and he worried that if he died before she did she wouldn’t have any idea how to run the household. And so, he wanted her to balance the checkbook and pay the bills while he was still alive. But as my mother tells it, Monta Pearl just wasn’t interested, and so my great-aunt Tottie managed the family’s finances.

It turned out that all of that bookkeeping might have taught my aunt Tottie a few lessons. Years later, in the early to mid-1900s, an age when businesswomen were scarce, my great aunt owned her own dress shop. She had a loyal clientele, impeccable taste and a business savvy that helped her negotiate the best deals.

Sadly, Monta Pearl died almost 30 years before her husband, despite his fears that he’d be the first to go.

As for me, I have become much more involved in the family budget. My husband and I are both on the same page for our finances, and I even have a credit card now, too.

But, given my family history, I won’t make any promises that I won’t someday make my daughter take over.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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