The Values of a Dollar: Talk Isn’t Cheap

A look at our very personal relationships with money

From a very young age, Wrenn had a sense of empowerment.

Andi Wrenn, 46, of Arlington, Va., learned early on that breaking taboos and talking about money is critical to any kind of financial success. She shares her story here with Emma Johnson, who has been reporting on how the lessons we learned about money, debt and budgeting in childhood play out in our adult lives.

I always say that people would rather talk about sex than money. But I’ve always been very open about my finances. I get that from my grandparents and mother. We always discussed money in our house.

My parents divorced when I was seven, and we didn’t see a whole lot of my dad. I saw my mom struggle, working two jobs. Sometimes, as a teenager, I’d help her with money. I didn’t want to go through that.

My younger sister and I were close with both sets of our grandparents. They were of the war generation, as both grandfathers served in the Navy, and then had careers in the printing industry. My paternal grandfather, a successful salesman, spent a lot of time teaching me about value.

On a Saturday, he might take us shopping for appliances at the local Sears, pointing out the original price compared to the discounted one to find the best deal. Keep in mind — this man was very well off, but lived frugally in a modest home — allowing himself only a Cadillac as an extravagance. There was a firm family belief that debt was bad, and good credit was important.

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Early on I saw all of my relatives working hard and getting ahead. From a very young age, I had a sense of empowerment — that I really could do whatever I wanted. When I was ten or so, I had a paper route, and at 13, I began a gymnastics coaching business, which I eventually sold when I was 40. I was always very frugal with money, negotiating a lower rent on my first home and paying off my undergraduate student debt within two years. I hate paying interest!

Since 2007, I’ve had a business as a financial educator for military families — my husband Chris is a colonel in the Air Force — and we talk very openly with each other and our five kids (we were each married previously) about how much is coming in, how much is going out and what we want to accomplish.

Over the years, that strategy and the lessons from my grandfather have paid off. The first house I bought for $60,000 and sold a few years later for $116,00. With those profits, I bought another house outright for $76,000, then resold for $125,000 shortly after. Today my husband and I own three properties worth more than $1 million, which we paid cash for. One of them is 129 wooded acres in North Carolina, which will be very valuable for its lumber when we’re ready to retire.

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We’ve always kept the money conversation going with our kids. From a very young age, shopping trips included discussions about how much things cost, or whether a child preferred to save up their Christmas money for a bigger purchase or spend on smaller items. In so many families I counsel, kids don’t have any idea that a debit card is attached to a bank account because their parents never broach the subject.

When they were growing up, we paid our children for their grades (an “F” canceled out any earnings from an “A”) and did not pay for chores, though the kids could earn extra cash for shoveling snow and mowing the lawn. When the kids went to college, Chris and I paid for four years of the equivalent of the in-state tuition and fees for North Carolina State University. Depending on where each child chose to go to school and what scholarships they received, some were able to graduate debt-free, while others applied some funds to graduate school.

It’s remarkable now to see how money savvy my entire family is — even my grandkids. I was recently discussing an upcoming family trip to Disney World, and my 8-year-old grandson said that he had $33 to spend. His 11-year-old sister said, “That’s because you never spend any of your money!” Already, they’re identifying as a spender and a saver.

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

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