First Impressions

Dennis Friedman

WHEN I WAS AGE SIX or seven, an older man came to our house. My mother answered the door. I couldn’t hear what the man was saying, but my mother mentioned the word “garage.” I then followed her to the kitchen and watched her make a sandwich with white bread, sliced bananas and mayonnaise. She then poured a glass of milk and went to the garage.

There, sitting in a lawn chair in our tiny garage, was that man. She gave him the sandwich and milk. As I stared at this man, it was the first time I realized that people went hungry in our country.

I think the reason I have such a sympathetic view of the homeless is because I remember how my mother treated that man. Maybe, if she had been hostile toward him, I might have a different view today.

As a young adult, one of my first investments was a company that went bankrupt. I lost almost all my money. Since that early, failed investment, I have been a conservative investor with a lower-than-recommended percentage of my portfolio in stocks.

Just as my initial investment experience influenced my lifetime behavior, it seems today’s young adults have been scarred by the 2007-09 bear market. According to Barron’s, “An average of just 31% of people ages 18 to 29 held stocks from 2009 to 2017, versus 42% in that age cohort in the years from 2001 to 2008, according to Gallup.”

Jamie Cox, managing partner of Harris Financial Group, commented for the article: “I think the younger people have a more emotional hesitance toward investing than the older people. Your behavior is shaped early in your career.”

First impressions or experiences are hard to dispel, especially those that occur at a young age. They can affect you for the rest of your life. They can withstand the test of time, as if etched and burned into your brain.

I remember the combination of my first lock in the seventh grade: 36, 18, 8. Ask me about my first car? It was a two-tone 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air with a big steering wheel, two-speed automatic powerglide transmission, V8  265-cubic-inch engine, radio with vacuum tubes, gas cap in the rear tail light, back seat with a tear on the right side, glasspack muffler, air shocks on the rear suspension, oversized tires at the back and undersized tires on the front end. I can go on and on describing that car. Ask me about my other cars and I wouldn’t have much to say.

One reason first impressions or experiences are tough to shake: Most people get their information from news outlets and people who reaffirm their beliefs. If you watch Fox News, you probably also read a conservative newspaper and listen to a conservative radio station. If you watch MSNBC, you probably read a progressive newspaper and listen to a progressive radio station. Most of us are essentially getting our information from the same source. Result: We aren’t challenging our first impressions or experiences.

Why is all of this important? If you want your children to have a secure financial life, it starts with you as a parent. The most influential finance teacher your children will have is not their high school or college instructor, it’s you—mom and dad. Your children are watching your financial behavior, just as I watched my mother help that man in our garage. What you teach your children about saving and investing through your actions could be with them for their entire life. Tempted to overspend on a luxury item? Just remember, your children are watching.

Dennis Friedman retired at age 58 from Boeing Aerospace Company. He enjoys reading and writing about personal finance. His previous articles include Family Inc.Creative DestructionTaking Inventory and A Word of Advice.

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