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I'm hopeless with money and I wish I had been taught at school how to handle it

By Mary Kenny

Published 26/09/2016

Facing facts: Kate Northrup says we need to reform our attitudes to money. File image
Facing facts: Kate Northrup says we need to reform our attitudes to money. File image

A friend and I were playing the Victoria Beckham game of "what I wish I'd known when I was 18". Although it's a bit pointless - most of us would have made the same mistakes all over again - still, we agreed unanimously on this: the one thing we really, really wish we'd been properly taught about, was money.

We went out into the world without the faintest idea of what it entailed. To this day, I am still vague on the difference between stocks and bonds; not sure whether an "annuity" only applies to retirement, or whether anyone can have one; don't really know what "mutual funds" are; couldn't really explain what a "venture capitalist" does; pretty hazy about "stakeholders" and "network marketing". I only quite recently came to understand what "discretionary income" really means.

My Hungarian brother-in-law, who originally emigrated from communist Budapest to the US, said that the most wondrous discovery he made in the free world was "compound interest". "Money could grow money," he exclaimed. "Amazing!"

I'm sure I learned about compound interest in school maths, but I still couldn't explain it. And what's worse. I couldn't say I'm all that engaged by it. And that, says Kate Northrup, in a useful - if sometimes a little over-gushy - American book called 'Money - A Love Story' is where the trouble begins.

We have negative attitudes to money. We don't face up to facts about money. We don't have sensible conversations about money with partners, spouses or friends. We have strange feelings of shame about money. We don't think money is "spiritual" - that's a bit over the top, because, Kate, it isn't. Ms Northrup is on sounder grounds when she says that "money is about value" - and it's about the value we place on it.

I had to catch up on some back taxes for my late husband last week and I was not only tearing my hair out scrabbling around for old bank ledgers, but I also came to the realisation that in 41 years of married life, Richard and I had never had a proper conversation about money. Never. He was as bad as I was - maybe worse. Stick your head in the sand when money matters arise. If a brown envelope from the Revenue comes through the letter box, go straight to the pub.

We'd say that we didn't talk about money after 6pm. But we didn't talk about it before 6pm either. Neither did we ever quarrel about money. We just spent it as it came along and rarely opened bank statements. It's the airy-fairy school of financial management.

I still find it difficult to open bank statements, and I'll go for weeks, even months, without checking out how much is in my account: just trusting that stuff comes out when I go to an ATM.

Kate Northrup says that this is the first thing you should do if you want to reform your attitudes to money: check your account every single day. (She also thinks you should have an accountant, a financial planner, a bookkeeper and a lawyer to help you with your finances - does she know what lawyers cost?) And she suggests keeping a "money journal" - to help you take control, and to develop a positive "love" attitude to money.

Examine your "cultural heritage" about attitudes to money, she says. Were you brought up with the idea that money is somehow not very nice? She cites the case of a woman raised in a hippy-type commune where money was disdained, and considered "not spiritual", and thus, bad money relationships dogged her all her life.

I think many of us were brought up on a misunderstood quote from St Paul: "Money is the root of all evil."

What the apostle actually said was "the love of money is the root of all evil", and truthfully, when you see how people can be corrupted by money - brown envelopes of another sort have bought the favours of many a politician - it is not altogether inexact.

And Irish culture traditionally placed emphasis on generosity: the "Cavan man", who could "peel an orange in his pocket", was the subject of stigma and comical disdain. Women's lore had it that one of the worst fates was to be married to a mean man, and as money is also supposed to carry symbolic meaning, I wonder now if this had any link with character.

A friend - now dead - told me that her first husband had been very mean, and that this was reflected in his attitudes in bed as well as on budgets: he was "withholding", sexually. She divorced him, but of course, then he was mean with child maintenance.

Yes, attitudes to money can reflect your character and your attitudes to many other things. Kate Northrup reminds us that money is something we invented to signify value, so it's all emblematic. My attitudes to money are a strange mixture of shame, guilt, occasional energetic phases of being active and constructive, responsibility and extravagance; sometimes, a secret streak of meanness.

Shirley Conran, who invented Superwoman has been on a campaign to convince teenage girls that they must get to grips with money matters, and she's an adviser to the Department for Education to help inform young women about practical money management in maths. (She's just had a fellowship award from London University for her endeavours).

Well done, Shirl; and maybe many 18-year-olds today will sail into the future, confident they know all about the differences between a stock and a bond.

Belfast Telegraph

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