What my childhood treehouse taught me about money

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What my childhood treehouse taught me about money

What child doesn’t dream of a treehouse? A private fort, a castle, a ship, a place to imagine and explore. I certainly did. I wanted a green, leafy haven to read and daydream in, a place to have sleepovers with my friends and to plot surprise water balloon attacks on my little sister.

Fortunately, I have a grandfather, father and uncle who are all well-versed in carpentry, and there was a willow tree on my grandparent’s land that had to have several large branches removed to combat a fungus. The result was three perfectly flat ‘stumps’ about 15 feet up, screened in with living branches. It seemed to be made for a treehouse, and we had a long, slow summer ahead of us to work.

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Marissa, her father and grandfather putting down the floor of the treehouse. Photo courtesy of Marissa Heffernan.

Of course, as an 11-year-old, I ‘helped’ plan the treehouse by submitting grandiose ideas (A catapult! A secret escape hatch!), bringing everyone nails and holding down boards as we (OK, the adults) cut them. I used a nail gun to put some fairly crooked lines of nails in the walls and helped paint and stain whatever I could.

It was more than building a treehouse

I had another job, too. When we decided to build this treehouse, my grandfather gave me a manila envelope and a little notebook with a pen tied to it with colored string. He told me that I would be keeping the financial books for the project, and had to make sure we didn’t spend more than a given amount per week and overall.

For a child who made an average of $20 a month mowing lawns, this was big. I took my job very seriously, writing down every cent we spent and what we spent it on. My childish handwriting filled that notebook. I arranged everything by date, and numbered the entries to correspond with the receipts I kept and placed in the manila envelope. At the end of each day, I would total up how much we'd spent that day, week and then, finally, the grand running total.

I would sit down with my grandfather and discuss what we had spent and how to be more economical. That included going to secondhand lumber shops and scrapyards. We went to transfer stations and found free metal roofing, as well as rope for the porch rails. He taught me to be meticulous and thrifty, but not to the point of compromising safety.

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Marissa and her younger sister standing in front of the completed treehouse. Photo courtesy of Marissa Heffernan.

3 critical money lessons from my grandfather

Those memories stuck with me longer than the years I used the treehouse. I loved the long car rides to get supplies, with the windows down and Grandpa’s classical music playing. I remember how proud I felt, sitting 15 feet off the ground with my family, working together to bring a dream to life. The smell of warm, dusty wood and the metallic tang of nails at the hardware shop always brings me back to that summer. But above all, I remember the lessons I learned about money.

Always keep track of what you spend, and never enter a project without an idea of how much you want to spend. That summer, the project was a treehouse, but today, that project is my life. I set a budget for myself every year, deciding how much I must spend on rent, utilities and groceries, then extrapolating to what I am comfortable spending on going out to eat and buying coffee. I always ask for my receipt, and I keep them all in a box. Every few months, I go through those receipts and make sure they match my credit card history. I reassess my budget, adjusting where I need.

Be careful, be precise, be economical, but don’t compromise quality for a lower cost. Sure, we would get what we could used to save money, but the floor beams and roof joists were brand new. Today, when it comes to healthcare, I don’t skimp, but when I’m at the grocery store and choosing between store brand and name brand, I always choose store brand.

Know what you have. My grandfather was always quite clear about how much we had to spend. He didn’t tiptoe around it, but rather was honest, up front and unabashed. I have many friends who choose to put everything on a credit card and then close their eyes while making minimum payments. I choose to face everything head-on, making sure I know my debt and am honest with myself. In a larger sense, he showed me that money is just money, and while you can do things with it, it’s not at all connected to the worth of a family or the worth of a person.

That treehouse still stands in my grandparent’s backyard, a testament to how sturdy we build it. The notebook and manila envelope are still in my desk drawer, a testament to the lessons of that summer.

This essay was written by the fall 2018 Policygenius scholarship winner, Marissa Heffernan, a senior at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The prompt this essay was based on is: Write an original essay describing an accomplishment, event or realization that changed your understanding of money. You can find out more about the Policygenius scholarship here.

Image: CasarsaGuru