Daughter, Can You Spare a Dime?

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, July 30, 2006

I have warned the girl that if she takes too much money on the vacation to France her sisters will be jealous. But that is disingenuous. That is a lie. Daddy is worried about his own feelings. Daddy is worried that, throughout the trip, he'll be constantly begging her for cash.

"Daddy wants a crepe. Can Daddy have money for a crepe?"

I know what she'll say.

"You already owe me $20."

This daughter excels in math and somehow can calculate any row of numbers such that the sum at the bottom reveals that I owe her $20. Our relationship is one of daughter and debtor. She is constantly informing me that my case file has been referred to Collections.

Modern parents at some point must come to terms with the fact that we are of a lower socioeconomic class than that of our children. Economic inequality begins at home. My kids are always rolling their eyes when I talk about scrimping and saving and trying to do without. They get that look that says, "You can take Daddy out of the trailer park, but you can't take the trailer park out of Daddy."

I know all families aren't the same. Some are poor. Some are rich. And many are like mine -- elaborate processing facilities for money, the machinery humming away day and night, chewing through every last dollar. Affluence functions like a tax. There are all these little expense drains everywhere, the wallet-busting birthday parties and tennis lessons and iPods and, worst of all, orthodontia, which costs so much you'd think we were paying for the kids to get entirely new heads.

The problem with being affluent is that it's so damn expensive. The end result is that I never feel like I have any money, even as the kids appear to be flush with cash -- particularly the middle child, the tycoonette, the baroness, who at the age of 13 collects Andrew Jacksons the way kids used to collect stamps.

Give her credit: She works hard at baby-sitting, saves her earnings and sells her used American Girl doll accessories with ruthless efficiency. She has yet to develop any of the expensive vices that her father has, such as smoking cigars. And she has the gift of being the kind of person upon whom a parent or grandparent would want to dote. So often she'll do something sweet, and I'll be moved to give her a shiny quarter. She'll examine it in her palm, and her mouth will take on a slight twist, and she'll say, "Actually, the going rate now is a five-spot."

I'm proud of her. She is going to be the chief financial officer of a major corporation, and will wear Prada and pearls and shoes with heels so sharp they could remove a gall bladder, like Meryl Streep in that movie. What's unclear is how she got the talent for obtaining money and then hanging on to it. It can't be genetic on my side. My family is money-repellent. Go back in time, to caveman days, and my people were in the smallest, drippiest, most bat guano-infested caves that really weren't much more than a crawl space beneath a rock overhang.

Growing up, we always needed another $200 for something -- usually the car payment. We could go without nonessentials like food, but we had to scrape together the car payment to keep away the repo man. Adding insult to the matter was that the car was invariably a gasping, lurching old rust bucket for which you could not imagine anyone would still owe money. I remember in particular a white sedan, a Plymouth Canker I believe, that made ominous noises that only our innate family optimism prevented us from recognizing as a death rattle. (If you look at our family crest, you'll see a small emblem of a car with the hood open and the engine smoking.)

I've told the kids about those humbler times, thinking it will help them appreciate their good fortune, but it's clear that my stories are not having the desired effect. My children don't see me as a man who pulled himself up by the bootstraps. They see me as a credit risk.

Now we're going to France because somewhere along the way it became inconceivable to remain in our own country for vacation. So I'll spend the whole time trying to ignore the sound of the family machinery devouring our money and extruding it all over the French countryside.

But if I need a loan, at least I'll know where to go.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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