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Lessons from my mother's envelope

When I was growing up, my dear old dad was the absolute monarch of the family finances.

Last week, I was the MC of the joint FCAC-OECD Partnering to turn Financial Literacy into Action conference held in Toronto. Attending were more than 400 delegates from all over the world.



As part of my introductory remarks, I told the story of growing up in the 1950s in Canada as the daughter of an air force officer and a stay-at-home housewife. My dear old dad was the absolute monarch of our family finances. He got his pay on the last Friday of every month and immediately deposited it in the bank.



He kept some cash for himself and placed some more in a plain white envelope, which he sealed and bestowed upon my mother as she mixed their Friday night Manhattans.



Mum guarded her housekeeping money zealously. I never knew how much he gave her, and that envelope was a source of endless mystery to me.



In those days, a woman was considered a poor housekeeper and wife if she couldn’t make the money last until the end of the month. If she was particularly careful, there would be some left over, and she could use that for herself. My mother was quite brilliant at squirrelling away nickels and dimes for an extra visit to the hairdresser.



Looking back, I told the delegates, I think that if all the world’s financial affairs had been turned over to women of the “housekeeping money” generation, there would have been no sovereign defaults, no asset-backed commercial paper debacle, no subprime mortgage meltdown.



And most certainly no budget overruns.



I have this image of a woman, like my late mother, passing out envelopes to government ministers, banks and other corporations and issuing a stern warning. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. Don’t bother coming back for more!”



Throughout the conference my mother’s envelope took on a life of its own. Numerous delegates came to tell me that it had been raised in their workshop and a number of presenters wove it into their speech.



I think the message is that something as tangible as cash in an envelope, designated for a certain purpose provides the kind of spending limit no debit or credit card can do. Maybe it is time to turn back the clock.

 
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