Early on, I internalized a lot of things about money...and most of them weren’t great.
Mom was a dedicated robber of Peter to pay Paul, even if “Paul” was actually going on vacation for two entire weeks to Florida during Easter break, and “Peter” was the Niagara Mohawk, who shut off our heat just in time for our arrival home. Springtime in Buffalo, NY isn’t exactly balmy so for a few days until she had enough cash to pay the bill, we sufficed with a kitchen warmed up in the morning by the open oven door.
My parents were divorced when Molly and I were very little and for his part, and despite a fair amount of wealth, our Dad never gave us anything, Mom having to fight and fight for mere pennies from him. When even a court order granting her a significant amount of child support (though by that time we were actually teens) couldn’t seem to force him - or force anyone to force him - to pay anything toward our education, she finally gave up out of pride.
“We’ve got this, girls,” she said firmly.
And we did….to some degree. Mom loved beautiful clothes and shoes, cultural excursions (Molly and I were definitely the only kids from South Buffalo taking art lessons at the freaking Albright Knox), trips to beachy places, eating out at the best restaurants, and was determined that we would experience those things, as well as have all of the books in the world we wanted to read and attend an elite high school and colleges.
Meanwhile, we’d go to Wegmans for groceries or to the mall for school shoes or to pick up some art supplies for a school project, and her credit card would (regularly) get declined. She’d simply root around in her large purse, pluck out another one, and hand it over to the clerk with a smile.
“This one should work,” she’d say confidently. Molly and I always knew to make ourselves busy looking at magazines down the aisle when it came time to pay. Looking back, I wonder if Mom was also sweating it out, hoping that second - or third - card worked. What if it didn’t?
The crazy thing is, we weren’t poor. My grandparents, of the Greatest Generation, whom we grew up next door to, were savers and extra careful with money - Nana worked at Guttman's department store (admittedly more for fun than anything) and Papa worked three jobs to provide a nice life for his family and savings for the future. Mom herself had a great job with the federal government and made a decent living, even without our Dad’s help.
She told Molly and me recently that some of her seemingly frivolous spending was because she determined to show our provincial Irish Catholic community that we were thriving even with just a single Mom, a rarity in our neighborhood, running the show.
So as much as I myself regret not having a financial education and learning financial responsibility, I certainly don’t blame Mom. She was doing the best she could with the information and emotional intelligence she had at the time.
And I do thank her for our financial upbringing in other ways. It created an interesting alchemy in me that was a blend of not knowing about money, not really caring about it, and especially when I got to Penn, not being impressed with people who had tons of disposable cash, huge (and multiple) houses and brand new wardrobes for every season, whereas my job at the law library wasn’t even enough to afford to buy myself a new sneakers (a slight problem considering I was on the track team). While other kids at Penn were getting cell phones, Mom decided we had to switch to email to communicate because the bill for Molly and my long-distance calls to her (on our calling cards!) was far too high.
Then again, maybe I was subconsciously aware, and cared, because it was also at Penn, there on Locust Walk, that I obtained my very first credit card.
I had no idea what the interest rate was (narrator: it was a whopping 30%), but from then on, I never missed a spring break or a new outfit for every date party or fraternity formal. I had officially adopted our familial You Only Live Once mentality.
In my post-college adult life, I have made so much money over the years: In the heydays of the early 2000s when bartending - and definitely tipping - was primarily a cash business, I made it hand-over-fist for a number of years. But while my bestie and bartending partner Tracey was hoarding it in shoeboxes under her bed and logging every dollar she made into a marble Composition Book, brunch was always “on me!”
Then when she and I got a six-figure book deal, instead of paying off my student loans, I paid a 23% broker fee for my very own studio apartment in the heart of the West Village, so I would never have to have a roommate again.
This mindset definitely bled right into my business Uplift, permeating the entire experience.
My biggest mistake and regret (translation now: learning experience) is that from day 1, I didn’t immerse myself in an education around building a business via financial modeling.
In fact, I didn’t even bother to understand the basics of our P&L and what we were spending and making our money on. I had the exact opposite of the growth mindset, saying, “Oh I hate math and numbers - that’s not my cup of tea - I can’t do it.”
Once I took over the business from my former partners and started gaining a little bit more agency, I shifted into saying, “I just want to help women, I don’t care about making money.”
I give so much credit to Mom (who herself has evolved so fast in just one lifetime) for when she said to me, “Leanne, you need to stop saying that. You can do WELL with your companies, and in business, and also so GOOD in the world. In fact, the more WELL you do, the more GOOD you can do.”
Those words did resonate and deeply impact my life now, but then, it was just too late - when I single-handedly shut it all down, I simultaneously uncovered and really understood for the first time all of the inefficiencies and missed opportunities my lack of understanding the numbers in depth had caused.
Maybe it was meant to be for the business to close down and for me to move on, but maybe my money mentality was too far gone, too shrunken, too “lack” oriented for any continued success with Uplift. I don’t know the answer, and I’ve felt guilty about all of it.
Covid hit, though, and I suddenly had more urgent concerns. At first I was in total disbelief that something I thought would be an inconvenient and annoying two- or three-week shutdown of the city morphed into months upon months with no end in sight, but it had turned out to have some real upsides for me:
*I still cannot believe I closed Uplift down last year - if I had kept it going, miserably cattle-prodding it along but still barely going anywhere, and then found myself in the quicksand of Covid, I honestly would be a wreck of a human being right now.
*Instead, I was free. I no longer had to tear all over the city doing personal training sessions because my amazing clients stayed with me...on Zoom in my living room. Then consulting jobs started coming in. Then a full-time position at one of them thanks to the need to spend PPP money. Speaking engagements and renewed love for and practice of my writing.
*Couple that with no travel, no going out, no buying clothes, no manicures and pedicures, no rambling Sunday Fundays where I end up spending a couple hundred bucks, no Joe and the Juice ($18 a pop for a tea and small sandwich)...
Suddenly for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I could comfortably pay my bills. And then, even in the midst of this horribly dark time for humanity, the glimmer of hope got stronger and stronger for me: I might be able to actually pay things off and become financially stable, I said to myself, filled with awe. I had literally never thought this would ever be possible for me.
When I worked at Wegmans in high school, we were selling $1 “Check Out Hunger” tickets that customers in our checkout lines could buy to support our local food bank during the holidays.
“Tough sell on those tickets, huh, Leanne?” observed my manager one day, casually and in passing after he’d glanced at the full stack still sitting untouched next to my cash register.
I looked up, blinking. They had been a mere suggestion by the Wegmans management team, and hadn’t really registered to me as a challenge and goal to be achieved.
But suddenly they did, and from that moment forward and for the entire two months the program ran, with a determined sparkle in my eye, I sold thousands upon thousands of those tickets, setting a store, and maybe even a citywide, record.
The realization that I could take control of my finances and become debt-free, and, in fact, wealthy in my own right, has taken on the same dazzle of determination.
For me, the secret sauce is channeling my hard work and actually making it count instead of spinning my wheels and burning out and opening another credit card to fruitlessly fight against a need(s) for...stuff...that, thanks to Covid, I no longer feel pulled toward. I am willing. I am willing to sacrifice but it doesn't feel like sacrifice because I am simply committed. I am willing to work my ass off (like I always have done) and at the same time, for the first time, I am willing to be strategic about what the fuck I do with every dollar.
Yes, I’m still on the hook for a lot of debt related to my business. Yes, I am still in a lot of student loan and other debt personally. But something clicked and I see the way out, just going dollar by dollar, or, as Ann Lamott describes it, “bird by bird.”
I cannot put too fine a point on what it has meant that this past week, I took a tiny bit of money (and I do mean tiny), opened a Fidelity account, did a lot of research, and made my very first investment
Financial empowerment, just like female empowerment in general, is in so many ways simply a perspective shift. I create my own reality and nothing is impossible.
The creation of generational wealth is important (to me) and self-perpetuating: that’s why there’s a 1% in this society. I’m proud that all on my own, I broke the cycle of mom’s deficit spending...and I have big plans for myself.