Money

The Values of a Dollar: There's No Free Lunch

A look at our very personal relationships with money

Meredith Liepelt of Columbus, Ohio, 44, had to get over her guilt for wanting to be successful. Liepelt is a married mom of two and an executive at Rich Life Marketing. She shares her story here with Emma Johnson, who has been reporting on how the lessons we learned about wealth, debt and budgeting in childhood play out in our adult lives.

Growing up in a small Midwestern town with a father who was a college professor and a mom who was a secretary, we were always upper-middle class. We lived in a large home and had everything that we needed.

But instead of shopping, my parents emphasized activities — I grew up as a competitive figure skater, and everyone in my family is musical. My parents were committed to giving back to the community — through our church or people they knew. Once there was a woman at my father’s college who was in a physically abusive marriage and came to live with us for a while. She cried a lot and wore dark glasses indoors.

I attended a middle school that was zoned for the more affluent communities in the area, and became painfully aware that I didn’t have all the best things. When I was a teen, there were many times I felt badly because we didn’t live in the best neighborhood, or that my friends wore Jordache and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. Meanwhile, my jeans were Lee brand and my collared shirt was from J.C. Penney while the other kids wore Izod.

I told my parents how I felt — and they listened. One year, I got a very nice stereo for Christmas, and another year my older sister and I finally received Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans and Nikes. “Wow!” I thought, “Now I’ll fit in!”

Just a few years later, when I was in my early 20s, I had a much different perspective and thanked my parents not only for everything they gave me growing up, but for all the great lessons they taught me about money and most importantly, giving.

And then when I launched my business 15 years ago, I found — to my surprise — feeling resentful for all the people I was helping. Potential clients would tell me they couldn’t afford my fees, so I’d offer them a better deal — or not charge them at all. In fact, a lot of people were coming to me for free advice — asking for 20 minutes on the phone or to meet for lunch to pick my brain. My business is my brain; that’s what I usually charge for.

Soon after, I happened to meet a money coach at a professional event and, in a few minutes of chatting, she helped me see my “money story” — a self-created identity around my finances. While I don’t have a dramatic narrative like, “I lived in a trailer down by the river …” I realized that my story is that I always feel like I have enough, that it’s important to give back and that I should feel guilty if I want more.

Once I was aware of this pattern, I started to see that it was not wrong or greedy to want more money. Money gives me the freedom not to just buy stuff, but rather to create a life that I want and to give back in ways that are important to me.

I immediately started making changes in my business. When someone asked for free advice, I launched an “Adventures in Brainstorming and Creativity” program for $179 per hour. I did a bunch of those sessions and some led to bigger contracts. After a while I stopped, but people got the message that I don’t work for free.

I also upped my rates and stopped taking it personally if a potential client said they couldn’t afford my services. In the past, I would have thought, “Oh, Meredith, be a good person and help them!” But now I accept that they’re just not the right customer for me. My revenue has more than doubled in the past five years.

My new income has also helped me create the family life I’ve always wanted. I now have the flexibility to do pickup and drop-off for our daughters, ages 9 and 11, and I spend a lot of time and money giving back to our schools, church and community.

Despite the fact we live in a very nice area and can afford to buy our kids many things, we’ve chosen to instill in them many of my parents’ values. For example, our oldest daughter’s friends all got a new iPhone 5 as soon as it came out — which didn’t happen in our family. Just like when I was a kid, special things come at Christmas or birthdays — not just because.

Eventually, when she entered junior high, we decided to buy our daughter an older iPhone for emergencies, since she now walks to school. But before she got it, she had to earn it by doing household chores and by generally showing good judgment. I’m teaching my kids that it’s OK to strive for nice things, but you do have to work for it.

Emma Johnson blogs at WealthySingleMommy and hosts “The Emma Johnson Show” syndicated nationwide on AM radio. She is a freelance business and personal finance journalist, and mom of two. Send her your questions at emma@emma-johnson.net.

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