Money Lessons From A Race In Elementary School

It was 20 some odd years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday.

My first cross-country regional race and the weather was perfect for running—brisk and cool.  The morning was overcast like it was about to rain, but the air wasn’t heavy with moisture, so you knew it wouldn’t.  The sun peeked out occasionally from behind grey clouds. 

Every kid participating in this race was high up in their respective school rankings, and there were approximately 50 of us.  

The starting pistol cracked and we all bolted like startled deer!

I was nearsighted at the time and had to wear glasses, but was embarrassed enough that I only wore them in classrooms to see the chalkboard.  Thinking back about it now seems silly as glasses have become quite fashionable these days.  (Some don’t even have corrective lenses!)  Needless to say, I didn’t have them on during the race.  But having my vision a little blurry helped with my running.  I was able to concentrate solely on my breathing and pacing.

3/4 into the race I started to hit my stride.  Passing and weaving through other runners felt exhilirating, especially knowing I still had gas in the tank for my finishing kick.  I’m not saying I was an exceptional athlete, but running always seemed to come naturally to me, and I excelled at it.

“Now you’re probably assuming that my relationship with money came as naturally to me as running; that I’ve achieved enormous success by prudently saving and investing; and that I’m here to lecture everyone else not capable of reaching the same level of prosperity.

Sadly, you’d be mistaken.”

Rounding a baseball diamond, I was about to whizz past two kids when the one closest to me suddenly reached out and tried to push me into the fence towards home plate!  My body reacted instinctively—narrowly avoiding him and the fence.  In fact, the sudden momentum actually slingshotted me out of that near miss and closer to the front of the pack.  I never even checked to see what school uniform he had on.  I was more shocked than angry, but pushed all emotions aside as I charged towards the finish line.

I gave it my all, but unfortunately came in second.  The kid that finished ahead of me had about a 300 metre lead and there was just no way I was catching him that day!  I wish great things have happened for him.

I collapsed on the dewy grass, panting and spent.  I gave myself a silent congratulatory pat on the back and enjoyed the rest of the day watching other athletes participating in different events.

Now you’re probably assuming that my relationship with money came as naturally to me as running; that I’ve achieved enormous success by prudently saving and investing; and that I’m here to lecture everyone else not capable of reaching the same level of prosperity.

Sadly, you’d be mistaken.  

My family grew up poor, slowly clawing our way out over the decades to identify as lower middle class.  My parents (though loving and supportive), never taught me anything about money.  All I knew was that my mother loved to spend it, and my father loved to save it.  Naturally, this drove a wedge inbetween them, and the majority of their fighting correlated to whatever circumstances we were currently in.

“Regrettably, too many are trapped in the vicous cycle of poverty without ever learning the basics of financial education.”

Because my father was such a prodigious saver, you’d think that he would want to pass some philosophy down to me in those regards, but he never did.  Over the years, I’ve realized he’s always had a negative perspective towards money.  He saved it not to become rich, but just to adequately sustain himself.  Anything more was considered evil.  

My mother, on the other hand, is a devoted consumer.  She continues to seek out products and services as a way of fueling her happiness, which has trapped her in an endless cycle of work, spend, repeat.  I suppose coping with a significant other who was such a miser would eventually warp your own views of money as well. 

Throughout my adulthood, compassion and maturity have helped to not judge either of my parents too critically.  It’s a tremendous struggle for any first generation immigrant family trying to make ends meet, and ours was no different.  I’m indebted to the sacrifices they’ve made in order to raise three young children in a new country while learning an unfamiliar language.

Fortunately, some good has come out of the bad.  

Branches on the family tree have slowly begun extending towards the light that is personal finance.  It’s worth to note that these new developments happened as a result of the roots that formed from our impoverished upbringing.  With continued nourishment, my hopes are that money matters will never be a frowned upon subject in our family again.  

Regrettably, too many are trapped in the vicous cycle of poverty without ever learning the basics of financial education.

“What’s most important is being in the race itself.  Luckily, life is not as stringent as elementary school regional race standards when it comes to participating; everyone’s invited!”

Perfect Weather

Like the morning of the race, I consider the times we are living in now as the “perfect weather” for saving and investing.  With the abundance of free information and technology available to us, there has never been a greater opportunity to achieve financial success than right now.  Any subsequent generations will only have their possibilities enhanced even further.  Such is the wonder of civilization’s eternal progress.

Running Without Glasses

Growing up poor was like “running without my glasses”; it made me focus on the fundamentals of money, and the reasons why our family never seemed to have enough of it.  Being raised in a wealthier social class would not have stirred the same passion to change my fortunes unless it was instilled by family, friends, or mentors.  Thus, I’ve learned to live frugally, spend less than I earn, and not become dependant on debt.  Even now, I continue to pay myself first, maximize all retirement vehicles, and differentiate between needs and wants.  

Extra Gas In The Tank

Individually, these money habits didn’t come naturally to me.  I had to practice each one over and over again until they became second nature.  What came more easily was the acceptance that these methods would eventually benefit my wealth if I followed through with them.  I wasn’t an expert with money, but I knew I could adapt and outrival those in similar and even more priviliged circumstances.  This confidence was like the “extra gas in the tank” I could always rely on.

Slingshotting

Although I never did find out what school the kid who tried to push me into the fence went to, I use that example today to ensure that I always recognize my money mistakes.  In retrospect, I’ve used the unplanned momentum from many near misses and severe stumbles to “slingshot myself closer to the front of the pack.”  The lessons learned and the actions taken moving forward creates this boosting effect.

20/20

I also “wear my glasses” now to best avoid any potential threats to my finances.  Doing so well in advance prevents having to react reflexively, which may not always work out.  In other words, I continue to educate myself and never invest in things I don’t quite fully understand.  

Giving It My All

Lastly, deciding to get in control of my finances well into the mature years of my life never discouraged me from continuing to “give it my all”.  There will always be people who saved and invested earlier, have a higher net worth, or earn a salary that is inconceivable from my own.  It’s okay not to finish first, second, or the possibility of even coming in at dead last for that matter.  What’s most important is being in the race itself.  Luckily, life is not as stringent as elementary school regional standards when it comes to participating; everyone’s invited!

So whether you just heard the crack of the starter gun or you’re rounding the corner preparing for your finishing kick, know that we all have to hang up our runners one day and watch others race from the sidelines, as we reminisce on our own glory days.

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