WE’RE ALL CAPTIVES of our own experiences. Want to behave more rationally? We should set aside our life’s anecdotal evidence and instead make decisions using the best information we can find. Yet our experiences—especially those during childhood and that involve family—tend to triumph, shaping our world view and potentially setting us up for costly financial mistakes.
What drives your behavior, financially and otherwise? A little introspection could help you better understand your financial choices—a crucial first step to behaving better. As I look back, here are some key influences on my thinking:
Boarding school. When I was age three, my parents moved from London to Washington, D.C., where my father joined the World Bank. Not long before my 10th birthday, he was posted to Bangladesh for four years, and I went from a coddling elementary school in an affluent D.C. suburb to a spartan English boarding school.
My time at boarding school could hardly have been more defining. In my first term, I found myself sleeping in a dormitory with 11 other kids. Later, there would be a dormitory with 34 others. The buildings were so chilly that students would park their backsides on the cast iron radiators to fend off the cold.
As for the food, I can still picture the huge chunks of slimy white fat dwarfing the accompanying slivers of beef, along with the cabbage cooked so long that the leaves had melded into a pungent, soupy sludge. One consequence: I was left with a lifelong appreciation of basic pleasures like warm showers and good food.
Bangladesh. This gratitude for basic comforts was reinforced by visits to my parents in Dhaka during the school holidays. Even now, I can vividly recall walking through shanty towns and refugee camps, passing the outstretched hands of maimed children and adults.
All this moving around early in life compounded my sense that I was from nowhere. Yes, a few areas of England have a special place in my heart, notably Richmond, Devon and Cambridge. Still, I don’t have deep roots anywhere, and I envy those who do.
By the time I was age 17, I was so used to solo international travel that my parents had few qualms about letting me spend a month traveling around Europe on my own, with $800 in American Express traveler’s checks stuffed in my backpack. I returned with $600.
Being from nowhere—or, to give it a more positive spin, being from “everywhere”—gives me, I believe, a different perspective. One result: I’m much more inclined to invest abroad than most Americans.
Divorce. In retrospect—and having gone through two divorces myself—I think my parents handled their divorce remarkably well, at least from a child’s perspective. I felt like we children were always a priority. Still, I remember the sense during this period that money was in short supply, and I’ve long wanted to avoid that in my own life.
Moving up. My paternal grandfather—whom everybody called Clem—grew up in poverty and left school at age 12. But he went to night school, passed the exam to become a clerical worker in the U.K. Civil Service and ended up solidly middle class. Along the way, he and my grandmother raised two children who both went to Cambridge University, no small achievement in the 1950s for two kids from state schools in the north of England. In fact, when my aunt got into Cambridge, it made the front page of Newcastle’s daily newspaper.
From my father and my paternal grandparents, I learned that education paid dividends. But I also learned that the measure of success wasn’t money, but achievement. Yes, I grew up wanting financial security. But I wanted professional success even more.
Moving down. While my paternal grandparents represented upward social mobility, the reverse was true for my maternal grandparents. My grandfather had come from great wealth. His grandfather was one of Britain’s richest men when he died in 1888. But years of overspending eviscerated the family fortune. When I was growing up, my mother often spoke of the financial mistakes that had been made over the generations, and those stories stayed with me.
By the end of their lives, my maternal grandparents struggled to keep up appearances. Most of their house—except the kitchen and living room—was almost unbearably cold in winter, and mold and water stains marked the ceiling and walls. After my grandmother’s death, the house was promptly torn down by the next owner. Is it any wonder I’m careful with money?
Lean years. As a child and college student, I don’t recall being especially frugal. But frugality became a necessity in my 20s, when I was a poorly paid reporter living in one of the world’s most expensive cities and trying to support a graduate-student wife and two young children.
I was engaged at age 23, married at 24 and a father at 25. Still, I have no regrets about this rush into adulthood, even though the marriage didn’t last. I have two wonderful children, plus the forced frugality meant I developed good money habits that saved me from a lifetime of money stress and put me on the fast track to financial independence.
My father’s retirement. My father was not only a fine athlete—even in his 60s, he could run a 5k at a seven-minute-mile pace—but also highly accomplished. After Cambridge, he spent a decade as a financial journalist in London, including working for the Financial Times and The Telegraph, followed by two decades with the World Bank. His influence on me could hardly be more obvious: I, too, fought to get into Cambridge and then went into journalism.
Despite my father’s impressive career, as soon as he had the chance to take early retirement, he retreated from the world. I came to realize how introverted he really was, and what a struggle it must have been to put on the public face needed to navigate the work world.
A few years after retiring, my father moved to Key West, Florida. It may be paradise to tourists—but it’s also a place where he found little social and intellectual stimulation, and it showed. At age 75, while riding his bicycle, he was struck and killed by a car. But even at that point, there were signs that the years of social isolation had taken their toll. For me, the lesson was clear: Even in retirement, it’s crucial to stay engaged with the world.