Money, self and family stories
Blokland (2005) has argued that it is helpful to understand identity not as a fixed achievement by which one arrives at a place where one knows the kind of person one is forever after, but as a process which has no real end point and which is not linear (i. e. from a weak person to a strong one) but which goes through different identities in different contexts and at different times. This flexible process of ‘identifications’ (as she calls it) does not necessarily sit easily with how people speak about themselves and how they project an image of themselves into social interactions. This is not to dispute Blokland’s thesis, but it is to recognise that the contemporary drive of narratives about one’s self – given that narratives are provided at one moment in time (viz. the interview) – tend to fix identity at the moment of speaking. In this narrative. there is an appreciation that change may have occurred (e. g. I was that kind of a person then), but typically the person speaking tends to assume they have arrived at the sort of person they will remain at the time of speaking (e. g. I am now this kind of person and will remain so). To suggest in a narrative that one is a different kind of person in different contexts, or even that one will be different again soon, could imply a kind of inauthenticity or a shallowness of character even if this is all entirely probable.
Speaking of money seems, par excellence, to be a moment when people fix their identity. But our interviews revealed more than a process of fixing the individual because so many of our young couples explained their identity vis-a-vis money in the context of their family of origin. So, talking of money also led quickly to what are referred to as ‘family stories’ which are also a part of the process of fixing identity. John Gillis (1996; 2004) has pointed to the significance of family stories as a kind of cultural and personal currency which families generate as ways of both bonding together and as ways of reflecting themselves outwardly to others (Smart, 2007). These may be stories of special events or holidays, or they may be stories about particular ‘characters’ in families who show the kind of calibre of the family members. Family stories do not have to be stories of goodness or heroism but they encapsulate aspects of families which can be passed down to next generations or can be used to explain different family members’ attitudes and practices. Family stories can take material form in such things as family photograph albums which can be brought out on special occasions – often when a new partner is introduced into the family. Or they can take a ritual form, for example in the shape of ways of celebrating birthdays, religious festivals, and summer holidays and so on. Sharing family stories is also part of becoming friends with a new person or becoming a couple, where people swap such stories as ways of indicating in a short-hand way, some of the facets of a person’s character.
These are not new insights, of course; however, we did not anticipate in starting our study of young same-sex couples that the focus on money and money management would also reveal a rich seam of these family stories. As we note above, our first question to respondents was to ask about their relationship to money, but very often what followed was a narrative about families of origin. In the first quotations we reproduce above, Louise and Ivan both segue rapidly into thumbnail sketches of their fathers. Louise says that to borrow money from her dad virtually entailed signing a legal document, while Ivan refers to his dad as ‘quite tight’. The incorporation of snippets of family stories into explanations about their own relationships with money is fascinating because they say as much about the person speaking as they do about the person interpolated in the narrative. Louise uses her story about her father to substantiate her claim to being sensible about money, and she regards her father’s practice not as admirable in itself, but as giving rise to a good outcome in terms of how she had to react to him. Ivan’s account is more complicated because he is bemoaning the fact that his family was rather middling, which is to say neither rich enough to spoil him nor poor enough to let him endure hardship. He feels that this very averageness has robbed him of motivation to earn money, but the one good thing in the story is the fact that his dad is tight with money. His account contains apparent inconsistencies, but this is not as important as the fact that, like Louise’s, his character as it relates to money can be laid at the door of his family of origin. This facet of identity was formed in the milieu of parental practice and familial culture.
Other accounts we received stressed the existence of bridges across generations in terms of attitudes towards money. Hence, one person might account for their poor money management skills by explaining that their mother had been hopeless too. Equally, another might say they were good with managing money because their mother had been so hopeless with it. These narratives are not sources of literal truths about why people come to be (or come to see themselves as) competent or incompetent with money, rather they are tropes. By this we mean that bringing in the family story or snippet into an explanation is a metaphorical way of invoking all that needs to be known about a person’s circumstances. Thus, invoking the scrooge-like father, the debt – ridden mother, the anal household, the lavish childhood – all culturally familial characters and settings – works to explain ‘everything’ in just a few words. Thus, talk about money appears to be a very parsimonious way of identifying one’s self comprehensively to others. What was also interesting in the ways in which individuals spoke was that when asked why their approach to money might be the same or different to their partners’, most would reach for exactly the same tropes. So respondents were not only explaining themselves to us in these terms, it is clear that they explained themselves to their partners in these terms, too, and their partners could recite the very same family stories on their behalf. In the account below, Maria (104b) meshes accounts of her family with accounts of Doris’s (104a) family to explain the kind of combination they make, and also the kinds of difficulties they can find themselves in:
Yeah, I think she’s just, they, she’s never been aware of her family wanting for money certainly not until she was an adult, and so I think she’s much more relaxed about it and I think she’s more securely middle class in that sense, whereas I come from a background which was working class. I was the first person in two generations of my family, so about sixty people, to go to university, so I kind of, yeah, come from a different place and I always still feel it now, that kind of I’m never sure how I would be classified, whether it’s middle class or working class and sometimes you get caught between the two with trying to do more than, really you can afford.
This short account is packed with meanings and also emotions, as well as comparisons and evaluations. Maria seeks to explain their different attitudes to money through the trope of family background. It is as if, at the point that individuals have to negotiate over money management, their entire extended families (sometimes several generations) enter into the negotiations with them. Doris is not just dealing with Maria but also with Maria’s mum and dad, possibly a few aunts and uncles and also even grandparents.
Of course, a complicating factor can be that once mothers and fathers are introduced into the process, it becomes clear that parents themselves have conflicting approaches to money. The following quotation from Olga (125b) is interesting in this regard because although she talks about her ‘family’ as having a particular approach to money, it is clear that the approach she admires is that of her father while her mother is something of an irritant.
My parents have very opposite attitudes to money. My father won’t buy anything unless it’s a house, and my mum buys stuff. She has stuff everywhere. It drives me crazy. I couldn’t live with her. Her house is just full of things. And this house has quite a lot of material possessions in it, but it does get very firmly scrutinised very often as to which ones are necessary, whereas I prefer to save my money and spend it on things like Apple computers, but I don’t tend to buy a lot of junk […]. So I think we’re both quite similar in that respect. I think our families are both savers and risk moderators in terms of money. Neither of us comes from families where credit cards are an acceptable way to pay for things that you can’t afford – and both of them are very strong work ethic or view, pay your bills before you go out and have fun and this sort of thing.
Later in the interview, Olga expresses distaste for the way in which her father required her mother to produce receipts for everything she buys, including the food shopping. This she regards as a prehistoric way of organising their finances, and she reflects upon the importance of women having jobs and thus some financial independence. She therefore wants herself and her partner to have both joint money and independent money which they can spend on themselves without consulting. The significance of this is that in Olga’s story she holds up her family as a beacon of probity with money (e. g. the Protestant ethic) while at the same time rejecting the terms on which her parents actually negotiated (if that is the appropriate term) their money management between themselves.
Seen in this light, it becomes possible to see a different direction of travel between early childhood experiences and later attitudes towards and practices with money. These stories reveal the extent to which people can reach back into the past to select family stories (or memories) which explain current events and choices rather than providing factual accounts of family relationships (Misztal, 2003; Radstone, 2000).
Money management therefore was far more than a simple or practical arrangement between cohabitees in a household. It was also far more than an objective index on equality, even though the management of money has important links with how equality works in practice. Rather, we found that in talking about money, these young people spoke about their ontological positioning and sense of self in relation to significant others. Tracing money was less a way of summarising a dyadic relationship which is played out in the present, and more a way of comprehending the workings of past and present biographical relatedness formed in kinship and friendship networks.