Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Being born just eighteen months apart, my brother and I were fairly close, as far as siblings go. I wouldn’t use the word “inseparable,” but we did share the same friend groups, the same pastimes, the same general interests, and once, awkwardly, the same crush. While we had a lot in common, we also had our key differences: Michael was the athlete, the daredevil, and the boy scout while I was the thespian, the film buff, and the book nerd. Perhaps most striking of our differences was our approach to money. I was the saver; Michael was the spender.
When I describe myself as a “saver” I perhaps do not convey, strongly enough, the extent to which I approached the philosophy of saving. Picture an eight-year-old Ebenezer Scrooge scowling at Bob Cratchit while the coal-burning stove slowly dies from lack of fuel. Visualize the miserly Silas Marner huddled over his gold coins in the solitude of his single-bedroom cottage, afraid to part with a single penny. There was no altruism or higher purpose in my desire to save—it was, pure and simple, hoarding.
If I had to go back and psychoanalyze the young Stephen Carter in order to better understand his motivations to save, I’d hope to discover that it stemmed from a core survival instinct based around the need to preserve resources for future use. Or I might simply discover that he liked watching money accumulate. Either way, I saved. And saved. Every penny from every birthday check from my grandparents, every quarter from weekly allowance, and every crumpled dollar bill from Easter egg hunts (don’t worry, most of the eggs contained chocolate but I made a beeline for the lighter ones).
My brother, however, displayed the opposite characteristic. No matter the amount of money, he managed to spend it in record setting fashion. $50 birthday check? Several new Lego sets. $2 allowance? Four Snickers bars. $1 in an Easter egg? Actually, he never got these because I always traded him for the candy.
As we settled firmly into these diametrically opposed roles early in childhood, our financial states began to diverge as well. My savings account was opened at a Savings and Loan in our neighborhood by a friendly old teller who, I am sure, was so humored by my fervent desire to save that he was willing to treat my eight-year-old self, $35 dollars in hand, as if I was on par with a business executive. Week after week, month after month, I made deposits. Michael, meanwhile, spent.
I should take a moment to point out just how hard it is for an eight-year-old to watch his younger brother buy toys and candy on a regular basis without partaking himself. Perhaps this can further illustrate just how strong my desire to save truly was. Stronger, even, than my fondness for a classic French chew (strawberry flavor, of course) in all of its flour-dusted glory. There may be those out there who have never tasted a French chew and for those readers I can only say, you have my pity.
Yet my savings grew. By the time I was in 5th grade, my account had reached $425, and I felt like I had arrived at true greatness. I also decided at this time, after much deliberation, to make my first withdrawal—of $300. I had found a used Honda lawn mower at a local hardware store and had gotten it in my mind to start up a lawn mowing business in my neighborhood. To the reader questioning the truthfulness of these actions carried out by a fifth grader, please know that I have never been accused of being normal. Also know that by fifth grade, I had already been employed in two separate newspaper routes, one of which involved monthly bill collecting door to door in seedy apartment buildings that always seemed to smell of moldy furniture and cat urine. So, yeah, mowing yards was definitely a step up.
After pushing this mower up and down the street a few weeks, I was able to wrangle up seven clients who paid the whopping sum of $5 a week to have me mow their yard. By the end of the month, I was up to twelve clients and making $60 a week which, because my mother was willing to spring for the gas bill, was all going toward savings. Before long, the $300 was repaid and I had a flourishing business and a growing savings account.
Michael, meanwhile, continued to spend. Like me, he had tried his hand at the newspaper route and found it entertaining enough to justify. Once or twice, I even hired him to help me mow the yards and paid him accordingly. As fast as the money came in, it went back out. Part of this was due to the convenience and ease of shopping at The Villager—a mainstay business of our small town with an impressive collection of toys and an even more impressive collection of candy. Including, as you probably guessed, the infamous French chew.
Flash forward seven years and, through my dedicated savings, I’ve been able to purchase, at the age of seventeen, a slightly used Ford Explorer along with a trailer and a commercial walk-behind mower. The days of $5 a yard are over and my lawn business charges between $35 and $50 per yard. I’m servicing close to twenty clients a week in the height of the summer and, well, the money is good. In addition to this, I was holding down a twenty hour a week job at Hollywood Video (please, readers, tell me you are old enough to remember movie rental stores) for minimum wage. By this point, I’ve come into a comfortable rhythm of saving 60% of all the money coming in and setting some aside for necessary spending (I was in high school, after all, and had some spending needs).
Michael still worked for me from time to time. Most of his other jobs lasted for a few months before he moved on to a new experience. And try as he might, he still had a hard time building up that savings account. The money came in, and the money came out.
This is where, as a writer, I should begin to draw out the deeper meanings of the story for the financial community. I should, according to form, begin to clarify for you, dear reader, how it is necessary to save your money and not spend it foolishly. How you should be more like me and less like Michael. How, if you want to succeed in life, you need to apply hard work alongside patience and build your wealth slowly. Perhaps I could even throw in a point or two about delayed gratification and how happiness exists in, as Stephen Covey says, the “ability to sacrifice now for what we want eventually.”
But I can’t do that quite yet. What if I told you that there’s one more part to this story that I must share? What if I told you that’s there’s one more thing you must know about my brother?
Go back with me to that summer when I was opening my savings account and filling it with every penny in my possession while Michael was buying up every candy bar at The Villager. Now picture the scene later that day when, as I was sitting in my room reading a book, I hear a knock on my door.
“Come in,” I say with un-masked frustration in my voice while dog-earing the page I was currently reading.
“Hey,” Michael says, as he comes in and sits at my desk.
“Hey, yourself,” I say. “What do you want? I’m in the middle of a book.”
“Nothing,” says Michael. “Just wanted to give you this.”
He opens his hand and reveals a candy bar. And not just any candy bar, but a classic French chew. And not just any classic French chew, but a strawberry, flour-dusted, sent-from-heaven treat that, hours before I had desperately wanted but kept myself from buying for sake of building up my cherished savings account.
“Whatever, you’re just messing with me,” I say, shrugging him off.
“No, seriously, I bought it for you. I know how much you like them.”
With that he laid the candy on my bed and, without another word, left the room.
I was stunned into silence. My seven-year-old brother had just single-handedly demonstrated the most selfless action I had ever encountered up to that point in my life. And I was the recipient. Me, who had just snapped at him for interrupting my reading.
I realized, in that moment, that my brother was a more generous person than I could ever hope to be.
This was not an isolated incident between siblings. Throughout my life, Michael has bent over backwards to give, as much as he can and often more than he should, to others. While I would offer up a measly $25 gift for his annual birthday, he would, somehow or other, come up with enough money to buy me some spectacular item that I would never be willing to buy for myself. Perhaps the birthday that stands out the most is my twenty-first where Michael single-handedly purchased twenty-one gifts for me. He spent over four weeks salary at his newfound car valet job just to be able to say that the number of presents I received matched my total years alive.
And that’s the point—I’m not going to sit here and drag you through a moral lesson on why you should save rather than spend. Saving regularly has certainly brought about a lot of benefits in my life and enabled me to escape the trap of debt on more than one occasion. But I will forever live in my brother’s shadow when it comes to generosity. To Michael, money is just a means. To him, giving is the thing.
I guess, in the end, I would hope for a blend of the two. I would hope to feel the fervent desire to save and to build wealth all the while tempering that with the understanding that it is okay to spend and to live life and that if you spend in the service of another, you are embracing a generous spirit that is simultaneously contagious and joyous and that can have impact on others far more lasting than the gift itself.
I guess, in the end, I would hope to have a little bit more of Michael in myself.