As a child, I imagined that I would grow up to become the kind of savvy financial wizard who traded stocks and bonds from his top-floor corner office with a swagger that could be mistaken for arrogance. I didn’t necessarily want to be rich, or even affluent, so much as I wanted to behave and act like someone who could be or would be someday. I watched the market reports on the evening news and modeled myself after Alex P. Keaton, the central character in the sitcom “Family Ties” who, unlike his liberal-minded parents, loved nothing more than money, sweater vests and Ronald Reagan. When my local newspaper asked me in fifth grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, without reservation, that I wanted to have my own oil company, like J.R. Ewing — the ruthless, bourbon-swilling oilman on the television series “Dallas.”
Unlike my TV role models, however, there were no oil barons or well-educated liberal professionals in my family. There were no family-owned stocks or corporate shares that I could trade or even follow from our living room in the suburbs of Chicago. We were immigrants, with one, but often two jobs, on a hard move up from a series of two-bedroom apartments to a single-family brick home in a working-class town a few miles outside the city. When we argued, we argued — like most American families — fiercely and frequently about money, which was often in short supply and which I learned at a young age could vanish with a letter or phone call announcing a bill that had to be paid or a contract that wouldn’t be renewed.
By the time I was old enough to work, I didn’t dream of or even aspire to great wealth. I had nothing but contempt for money, which is to say I feared and often resented it. I gave away or spent what I earned as quickly as possible, although rarely on things other than books. As I grew older, I developed a habit of paying my credit-card bills without looking at what was owed and avoided, for days or sometimes weeks at a time, looking at the balance of my checking account, even when I was certain there was enough to live on.
One of Alex P. Keaton’s signature character traits was his love of the business section in The Wall Street Journal, which he carried around as proof of his precocious financial maturity. I thought of that image recently when I opened a brokerage account that I could control with an app on my phone, a small but important step toward the financial skill I once imagined for myself. As an adult, with a family of my own, I watched us stretched thin for years with rent, student loans, legal bills and tuition for a special-needs school that we struggled to afford. The stress of cobbling together enough money week to week, month to month, had nearly undone us financially and emotionally. What we needed, however, wasn’t necessarily more money but courage, or strength, or perhaps just practice in taking stock of our lives without the persistent fear that at any moment we were going to lose everything we had. Reading market reports and then buying and occasionally selling a small portfolio of blue-chip stocks on my way to work wouldn’t make us rich or cover the costs of our son’s tuition, but it would, I realized, force me to act against my hard-grained instincts that said the best way to avoid calamity was to shut my eyes. I couldn’t trade what we didn’t have, which meant I would have to examine — carefully, honestly — what we earned along with what we owed.
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