The Tough Job of Changing Our Financial Family Tree

I’ve been thinking a lot about our family financial trees. Dave Ramsey talks about this; about how for many people struggling with debt, they have many (or most) relatives and ancestors who have struggled with debt as well. Rick and I see this as we look through our family trees. Personally, I can recall dozens of family members making statements such as:

  • I can afford the payment, so that’s all that matters
  • We’ll never be out of debt
  • I had to file bankruptcy (again)
  • We don’t have the money
  • I can’t retire
  • We’re just destined to be poor

And numerous other statements revealing their financial states. I’ve been thinking so much about this as we work to pay off our debt. Personally, we don’t talk about our debt or its decline with our families. We’ve done so in the past and the reactions have mostly been less than favorable. We hear “You’ll never do it.” We get the head shakes when we mention that we aren’t spending money on this or that.

And from a spiritual standpoint, I can definitely feel strongholds tying to work their way in and stop us from achieving our goal of debt freedom.

The resistance we encounter from loved ones, from ourselves and from the enemy don’t stop us, though. Two main things keep us going:

  1. Our knowledge that we serve an AWESOME God that wants us to succeed at becoming debt free.
  2. Our refusal to allow our kids to inherit a life filled with debt

For a very long time, both Rick and I assumed (as we were taught) that a person’s money situation is a “luck of the draw” thing. Either you were blessed with financial wealth – or you were cursed with financial struggles.

As I began reading personal finance blogs near the end of 2012, I started to learn differently. I began finding stories of people who were once deep in debt and had managed to work themselves out and build wealth.

If all of these people managed to break free of debt and money struggles, I asked myself, why couldn’t we? 

And so began our journey to dump our debt. We made (for the first time in our lives) a budget and started tracking our spending so that we could see where our money was going. We began to track our monthly debt totals, minimum payments and interest payments in order to gain motivation to keep going.

At first the habits of spending recklessly were hard to break. But as Ruth talks about, there are often other chains that are at least partially responsible for the debt mess that needs to be dealt with. Low self-esteem, relationships that need healing, etc. As we worked to uncover the reasons behind our formerly irresponsible spending – and to heal from them – sticking to our budget began to get easier.

At roughly the one-and-a-half year point in our journey we experienced some personal family crises and our debt went on the rise again. As those crises came to a head in year three, we saw all of our hard work disappear as our debt skyrocketed to unprecedented numbers. And so, in the fall of last year we found ourselves facing a decision.

We could give in to failure as we saw so many family members do over and over again, succumbing to the normalcy of the financially desolate family tree (we call it a generational curse), or we could start again.

Family crises behind us, we chose to start again. And it finally feels as if we’ve beaten those long-held family beliefs that we are destined to struggle with money. They no longer bind or threaten us with such intensity. And when they do try and raise their ugly heads, we simply look at our kids.

One picture that stays clearly in my mind is that of my grandparents. I absolutely adored my grandparents. They were two of the sweetest, kindest people on earth. But they sucked with money. Sucked with money to the point that their kids all had to chip in what they could (which was not much, due to their own financial struggles) to help grandma and grandpa survive. Christmas and birthday presents to G&G were always money related: either cash, or the payment of an overdue bill, or a new TV because G&G’s TV had broken and there was no money to get a new one. I remember giving grandma new “house shoes” as hers were well beyond their prime and there was no money for her to buy new ones.

The thing that drives us to keep going in our debt payoff is that picture of G&G. More than anything, we want to be a financial blessing and not a financial burden to our kids. So we work to build a new family tree; one that is ripe with financial responsibility. Is it easy? Not usually. But I know it will be worth it. 

I want to encourage you today that if you are struggling with long-held beliefs that you will always struggle with money, there is hope. With education, practice, determination and faith you can indeed change your family tree, so please don’t give up. You deserve better than a lifetime of money struggles. 🙂

What is your family financial tree like? Have you had to overcome deeply ingrained beliefs about money that were incorrectly taught?

25 comments on “The Tough Job of Changing Our Financial Family Tree

  1. I love this post, Laurie! It is so true – so many of our financial beliefs and behaviors stem from our family and childhood.

    One of my close family members, though not completely irresponsible, had money habits that were less than healthy. He once told me that debt is just a fact of life and I should just get used to it, something I believed and subscribed to for years and years. Like you, when I stumbled upon personal finance blogs a few years ago and saw others paying off debt and even retiring early, I decided we could choose a different path as well (though not always the most popular one, for sure).

    1. Thanks so much, Amanda!! I”m so happy for you that you chose a different path as well. Good job on not settling for “normal”!

  2. My family tree proves to be a pretty good one actually. Both my parents and grandparents and Aunt and Uncle were excellent with money and never needed the kids to help them out. However, they certainly never educated us on finances and how to manage money. Now all my siblings struggle financially. I have always been good with money, so I am now the only financially healthy one. However, now my sister has lost her job again, is divorcing for the third time and has a five-year old. We have no other choice but to let her move in with us until she can get back on her feet financially. This is a large stressor for me, but I am determined to help her get healthy financial and gain back a little control in her life.

    1. That’s great that you’ve chosen to help your sister and work to teach her good habits. Hopefully she will learn from your good example.

  3. Yes, it is hard to move past ingrained behaviors I agree. Not all of us had good financial teachers growing up but the important thing is that we are teaching our children going forward that debt is not okay and to make better financial decisions 🙂

    1. So true, Mackenzie!! People often don’t understand that choice is involved, and that is crucial to good habits.

  4. I’ve never really thought about a financial family tree but I think it holds true. My wife volunteered at an organization that primarily served low-income people that “lived off the system.” Their life & budget revolved around monthly check payments. It’s all they knew.

    The other workers would try telling them that you just need a little education & hard work and life will improve dramatically. Ultimately breaking the cycle of American poverty.

    1. What a powerful story, Josh!! We lived the same way as our relatives when it was all we knew too. It took courage and lots of hard work to educate ourselves and step out and do something different. It’s scary to do that.

  5. The book “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki started my financial awakening. Talk about generational messages. When you realize that all it takes to change your thinking is sometimes just realizing that what you grew up thinking just may not be the truth and the only way, the path is opened for enlightenment. I’m so glad you guys woke up in time Laurie. And as we both know, the power of words and gratitude for the grace of God is key.

    1. Awesome comment, Kay. I loved that book too. Two great dads, two powerful messages; one good and one not so good. My family are all great people, but it’s sad to me that they are still believing the lies about debt and wealth.

  6. Thinking through my family tree has been motivating and insightful. I can see the generations fluctuating between serious thrift and lifestyle inflation, and I can see how they were reacting to the previous generation. I definitely want to shift certain aspects of the financial legacy I’ve received, but also wonder if our kids will react to our values and practices differently than we’d like.

    1. I think media and peer pressure play a huge role too. And the easy availability of credit. Right now, anyway, my kids are staunchly against debt, having suffered from our money mistakes. I hope they stay staunchly against it.

  7. I find that any kind of stress rattles my efforts with money . . . and food. I self-medicate with both spending and eating – often one and the same as I spend on food. But there is no stress like family crisis stress. Money goals just fade into the background when a family crisis takes over. Been there. I’m so glad that yours is behind you, and I really do have the impression that you’re going to go forward in leaps and bounds from this point on. Thanks so much once again for the raw honesty of your writing, Laurie.

    1. Thank you so much, my dear friend. Your words of encouragement really mean a lot to me. 🙂 I’ve conquered the stress = spending, but am still working on the stress = eating. One day, my friend – one day!

  8. Thanks for sharing Laurie. “a person’s money situation is a luck of the draw” this is such a family mentality type thing, something children grow up with because their parents didn’t know how to deal with their money and it takes over a family tree. It take someone like you or me within that family to break that way of thinking and change that family tree forever.

  9. I swear it sounded like you captured a conversation at one of my family gatherings, lol. I’ve tried to convince my brother to just track his money and spending and he is SO resistant. He just keeps on about not being able to afford it, not ever being able to retire, and a lot of woe is me drama.

    I’m working on my end to change my financial family tree, but like you mentioned now I get shunned or feel distance from the family because I’m so different and not just keep on doing things the same way they’ve been done. They feel that I got lucky because I got a good job, and I point out we all started in the same house, I just worked my ass off for both degrees, and while working full time and this is the payout. I could still be in as much debt though, as I see many co-workers in that trap, but Mrs. SSC helped me change my thinking about finance and we hope to pass that along to our little ones.

  10. Our family has some divergent attitudes about money. For instance, my dad was always saying he didn’t have money, but he made good income and had reasonable assets. It just wasn’t enough to keep up with the big dogs in town, and that seemed to be a disappointment to him. On the other hand, my maternal grandparents scrimped, saved and never went out to eat. Growing up, I only knew they owned some tiny cinderblock rental houses. Who would have known they also had a great investment portfolio?

    And now I find that my hubby and I both have siblings who have no clue about money and we worry about what happens when our parents are no longer around to float these siblings. Unfortunately, they didn’t learn from the good examples around them, and resent any pressures that they should learn better behaviors.

    1. Ugh, I hear you, Emily. It’s scary when you have family members that just do not get it. Funny about your grandparents; that was the way it was in those days – you didn’t flaunt your wealth for fear it would disappear.

  11. This is something I think about a lot. There’s a saying that it takes three generations to make, maintain, then lose family money and that preys on my mind as we build wealth.

    I think the money smarts skipped a generation on one parent’s side – Dad’s mom only had an 8th grade education but was amazing. She saved the farm, more than once, kept it solvent during a war, and still had plenty by the end of her long life to leave something to her grandkids. Mom’s family was so poor that Mom never had the chance to truly learn how to transition from poverty to lower middle class so it was really hard for her to change their path but I was lucky enough to both learn from their mistakes and have the internet at my fingertips, chock full of early PF blogs and finance forums, when I needed it the most in my late teens.

    Now we’re facing the challenge of the next generation ourselves: How do we teach our little JuggerBaby to be smart with money in the same way I had to be, when we’ve worked so hard that we’ve changed our circumstances substantially? I’m quite sure that much of my success stems from the almost dire situation I found myself in, how do we instill the same sense of respect for the frailty of our money situations when we’re considered “comfortable”?

    Interestingly, I recently read that the families in Italy that were wealthy hundreds of years ago remain wealthy today. I wonder what they know that we don’t!

    1. Interesting story about your parents/grandma!!!! And very interesting about the families in Italy! I suspect that they spend much time mentoring their descendants, which is something many American families have lost these days. Great comment!

    2. I’ve also heard that it takes 3 generations which is concerning for me since I would say that my parents are first generation rich (though technically my grandparents are also wealthy, but they built their wealth later in life around the same time as my parents), which means that it’s me who might spoil the kids. That’s why teaching kids about money is such an important priority to me, and teaching my kids about work too.

      1. Hannah, I have a feeling you’ll do just fine. As a parent of older kids (16, 13, 11,10) it’s tough sometimes to not just hand them money and to make them earn it, but I keep thinking about the long-term picture. The more I give them the satisfaction of earning on their own (and the understanding that they have to pay someone to do work that they don’t want to do), the more I am establishing in their hearts this concept of the value of work and managing money well. You’ll do just fine with the Lord as your guide, Hannah.

  12. I got really lucky. Everyone in my family is either a saver, investor, or just generally frugal. The main bad habit in the family is hoarding, most on my dad’s side. He’s constantly falling prey to believing his stuff is worth more than it is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *