This week, I delivered a luncheon address to a group of credit counselors, attorneys, bankers and social workers at a conference called "Focus on Financial Education: Proven Strategies that Work."
Wait! Is that snickering I hear? Could it be that you sense the side-splitting irony here? Did you somehow guess that my fiscal I.Q. is lower than the average primate?
Let me put it this way: Inviting me to speak to a group of financial experts at a conference on money management is like asking Britney Spears to inspire a group of Girls State delegates on the joys of civic responsibility. It's akin to having Dina Lohan address a meeting of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers on parental guidance. Or booking Bill Clinton to discuss the virtues of marital fidelity with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In other words, it's a tad incongruent.
In my free-spending single days, I once faked an appendicitis attack when the landlord came calling for rent. My performance was so stellar, I got a two-week extension AND she refunded my damage deposit early to help pay the hospital bill.
Whenever I attempted to balance my checkbook, my mantra was "close enough," even when the bank and I were considerably more than a few dollars apart. Once married, I delegated all accounting duties to my exacting husband. (I know. That scary Suze Orman with the big white teeth says that's a no-no for women. Sorry, Scary Suze, but a girl's gotta do ...)
And, try as I might to control my impulses, I can't resist plunking down a dollar or two, or 10 (OK, sometimes 20) on Powerball tickets, but only when the jackpot climbs over $100 million, when it would REALLY make a difference.
But my assignment, thankfully, was not to inform, advise or inspire. My mission was to talk about the "lighter side" of one of the worst economic downturns in my lifetime. To provide "a moment of levity" for people toiling in the dank trenches of the mortgage crisis, unprecedented consumer debt and bankruptcy.
No pressure or anything.
I racked my brain and wondered what I could bring to this depressing, bountyless table. What on earth could I possibly say to make these people feel better about themselves, the unfortunate souls they serve and the dismal economic forecast?
And then it hit me. I decided to do what baby boomers have done since coining the phrase "never trust anyone over 30." I decided to blame the whole stinkin' economic mess on our parents.
Think about it. From the time we were born, we were raised to have an unrealistic, if not fantastical, view of money.
Take the tooth fairy, for instance. The message she delivered, along with the coin, was "lose a tooth, earn a quarter." (Granted, that was the 1962 rate. These days, she probably leaves a C-note.) But the lesson I learned was this: Why work at some thankless job when all you have to do for cash is give up a body part?
My family never talked about money. It was considered gauche, uncouth. Once, I innocently asked my dad how much he made in a year. My mother shrieked, "What kind of a question is that to ask your father at the dinner table?!" as if I'd demanded to know how babies were made, with full-color illustrations.
And what about that Monopoly game Santa gave me? Two hundred dollars just for passing "Go"? What does that teach a kid about the work ethic?
Mixed messages were everywhere. Dad would complain about my failure to save my babysitting money, then slip me a ten spot as I flew out the door on a Saturday night. Mom would gripe about the tight family budget, then blow an entire week's grocery money on my first prom dress. And when they reminded me, on a daily basis, that "money doesn't grow on trees," did they stop to explain the concept of compounded daily interest? Noooo!
In the end, I don't think my attempt at "levity" did much to lighten the credit counselors' moods. After all, the future looks grim. Less than half of US workers under age 65 currently have any kind of retirement account. Half of those who do have balances less than $33.000.
My retirement strategy? Well, if I do say so myself, it's genius. I'm saving just enough money to hold me until my teeth start falling out. After that, I'm on the Tooth Fairy plan.