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When the Buck Stops at Financial Responsiblity

We make decisions all day long. Wake up now or snuggle for another five minutes? Short or long sleeves? Cereal or toast? We start with a question and then gather criteria so we can make our move. Sometimes this process is automatic so we don’t even notice. Sometimes it isn’t so automatic. Either way, the buck stops with us.

The saying “The Buck Stops Here” was apparently made popular by U.S. President Harry Truman who had a sign with the saying on his desk in the White House. It reminded him of the ultimate responsibility of making decisions instead of “passing the buck” which was a common expression that meant absolving oneself of responsibility or concern by denying authority or jurisdiction over a given matter. In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept by asserting that, "The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can decide for him. That's his job.”

When it comes to financial responsibility, it can be easy to pass the buck.

  • We expect others to be ultimately responsible for our financial well-being.

  • We can blame others.

  • We can blame ourselves.

Whatever the reasons, it can feel much easier to pass the buck than to have it stop with us. This is why I included a section on financial responsibility in my book, “Positive Money - 7 Principles for Living a Rich Life.” My intent wasn’t to wag a finger. Rather, it was an honest effort to understand and share insights into how we learn about financial responsibility and what we can do to cultivate it in our lives.

How do we learn about financial responsibility?

Our relationship with financial responsibility can be traced to our childhood through general conditioning or specific events like a parent leaving or losing money you were given in trust. A friend once shared that, as the oldest, she was responsible for her and her younger sibling’s lunch money. One day it was stolen out of her backpack. She felt terrible because she wasn’t careful enough and they all had to go without lunch. To this day, she remembers that incident and believes it contributes to her financial vigilance.

Many women grow up thinking their Prince Charming will appear, sweep them off their feet, and be their sugar daddy for the rest of their happy lives. This is by no means a judgment. Such expectations can be traced back to cultural norms, media messaging, or both. Men can be saddled with the same expectations of being the provider and suffer when they don’t live up to those expectations.

If you grow up without expecting financial support or in a family where financial support was conditional, you may have decided that being financially responsible for everything is ultimately the easiest, safest, and most ethical thing to do. This is often the story of those who start their own businesses or work from a young age. It’s not uncommon to hear about someone stepping up as the breadwinner after growing up in a household put at risk because one parent left and failed to pay child support. This expectation of financial responsibility can be hard to lift off the shoulders of those who assume it is up to them to take care of others. In some cases, this burden is never lifted and can lead to burnout and resentment.

For those of us fortunate enough to have financial support growing up, the line between what we’re responsible for and what we’re not can be a moving target. As parents, we want our kids to be financially responsible adults, and yet we struggle to set and stick to money boundaries such as requiring our teens to pay for their clothes. We think we’re being mean, unreasonable, or creating unnecessary hardship for them, especially when we can afford to pick up the bill.

In The Opposite of Spoiled, Ron Leiber, a personal finance columnist for the New York Times, assesses the new world of money that families are navigating today. While we may still want to help our children pay for a wedding or buy their first home, that option may no longer be available, or it may put us in the tough spot of deciding between their needs and our own. Leiber recommends that rather than retreat from this tough conversation or lie about what’s going on, we should be factual as well as inclusive. For example, imagine saying, “As much as we want to help out, the funds would come out of a retirement account we’ve built so you aren’t financially responsible for us later.” Not only are you modeling how to navigate challenging situations, but your children also come away with the truth.

When you choose Positive Money, you decide that your relationship with money is driven by love rather than fear. Therefore, your decision to be financially responsible is an act of love. The following are other suggestions for exercising financial responsibility through the lens of Positive Money.


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