Avoiding an American Taboo

Indy: “Are we rich?”

Me: “Yes.”

It was a quick response, even though I knew the answer would haunt me as he retold it to his friends at school.

Sage had just gotten back from having lunch with a former Cambodian Refugee, who, at my son’s age lived in a cave with his mother and had two items to his name – a spoon and communist kerchief.

I explained, “Almost everyone in this country is rich. We have places to live, food, and most of us have cars and televisions. Many children your age do not have these things.”

He disagreed saying everyone he knows has all that stuff and they’re not rich.  I know what he means.

In this country, there’s always something more to have, always someone with better stuff. So, I tried to explain it as a ladder, telling him the story of the little boy who only had a spoon.  That boy, still in existence somewhere, is at the bottom of our ladder and “Rock Star” is at the top. We are a few rungs above the middle, but make no mistake, I assured him, we are rich.

I had to swallow my pride here for this true lesson about money. It’s hard to look at your life, the way you’re spoiling your kid and yourself, and then talk about the kid with the spoon as you eat your Totino’s frozen pizza dinner. But what’s the alternative answer?

“Do we have more money than so and so?”

“I don’t know.  Money’s not important.”

“Are we rich?”

“We have what we need and that’s all that matters.”

The minute something is taboo (I believe kids will see taboo right through these fluffy answers), it becomes inflated in importance. Besides, money is important, and when we refuse to talk about it, we give it more power than it deserves.


  1. You’re someone else Jamie! What do you think? Do we have a lot of money? 😉 Indy wants to know.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story Mishpaha. It sounds like you’re doing a great job teaching your children. I suspect it’s mostly about modeling good behavior for them and it sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing now. Financial stress is so awful. That’s one of the things I consider when people say money is not important. But oh it is! However, we are in control of our relationship with it and just need to put it in its place (as you said “responsible wealth”), where it belongs, just as you have done. Thanks again for your wonderful story.

  3. I get this question more and more often as my son reaches adolescence. Initially, I thought he was asking because of the changes he experienced pre and post divorce. Now, I’m not so sure. I’m coming to believe it is a life-long question, an evaluation and on-going lesson.

    Admittedly, I’m a bit cerebral, so I started out explaining the concept of lower-middle-upper class, providing annual income figures of each and explaining the relativity of wealth.

    My conscious (or guilt) compelled me to be transparent and expose my (our) weakness and lack of discipline in financial matters in hopes of providing a real life lesson… in essence, stating how frivolous and irresponsible we were which led us to a place of losing everything – our home, our marriage, our family, our retirement funds.

    While he respects ‘my’ new values and doesn’t press for more, he is highly cognizant of the gap. At a young age he had everything he dreamed of / wished for (as DINKs with 6 figure salaries each, we had plenty to share – read ‘waste’). He is now limited to his allowance ($5/bi-monthly).

    My son saves his allowance which is something I didn’t learn to do until my 40’s. He’s saved up to $300 at this point. So, I think he is learning how to be wealthy – spend less than you have! That’s a new concept for me in the last 3 years and I highly recommend it!

    Yet again, last weekend he asked how much money we had… Bottom line… he wants an egg chair ($2k) and that’s all there is to it! So, what is the next lesson to live/teach?

    I want little these days, but the things I do want are tested. If they pass the test they are not only worthy, they are more highly valued & respected… My new guiding principles as a single mother with 1/8th of the income of previous years are:
    1) Spend less than you have
    2) Save (two-fold) for things you REALLY want before purchasing
    3) If you’ve saved doubly for it, if you’ve given it that much time and effort, only then does it deserve your hard-earned money
    4) Give the other half saved to charity

    Only after the horrific tragedy of divorce and a drastic change of income did I come to a new understanding of wealth…

    A new concept, to me, is responsible wealth – wealth of generosity and prosperity in balance.

    I hope to instill in my children (and not because I preach it, but because I live it) a sense of responsibility, accountability, generosity & community that is in check with a sense of passion, desire and power. In the end, these are the thoughts & desires that influence us daily. Finances seem to be the ideal topic/forum to demonstrate balance and character to our children.

    With that said, I believe finances are far from taboo. Rather, I believe it is imperative that we openly discuss the topic. Honesty and openness and responsibility are per-requisites to financial health. Couples should put their cards on the table; discuss their debt openly and work together to resolve. Families are units. We should all understand (to varying degrees based on age) our situation and work to improve or live within.

    Consider 90% of divorced couples experienced a financial change within 1 year of their divorce. Difficult financial circumstances cause stress… When you are out of balance, it will be reflected in your finances which will cause additional stress… Financial stress causes the most dooming sense of being and lack of control so as to overshadow all else… Any fault line within a relationship will be pressured into a chasm… A faulty relationship will not survive.

    I only hope the reverse is true… A balanced life will restore peace, harmony and family. Perhaps it will not be the family that I envisioned, but a family nonetheless, with fortified values and enduring love.


  4. Yes, but the question remains, do you have a lot of money? 🙂

    I think one of the reasons money remains taboo is because people use it so differently. Expectations and perception are such big players. It’s easy to answer the question of whether or not you are rich. That is a value judgment you make. Whether or not you have a lot of money is a value judgment someone else makes.

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