‘Dad’s extravagant spending almost ruined me’

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Money flowed into my childhood home. It was the 1980s – era of the yuppie – and in our house in the Essex countryside, the supply seemed endless to me and my siblings. For my mum, I know now it wasn’t such fun.

Dad was a lawyer, the youngest partner in his West End firm, and a property developer. In our car, a Motorola brick phone appeared. In the playroom, a Betamax camera arrived. Dad ordered Diners Club feasts. At the weekend, music blared from the latest hi-fi. We even had a full-sized fruit machine, into which we rolled coins until we hit the jackpot. It wired me for the big win, where money and possessions come easily, without thought or effort.

In the 1990s, the crash wiped out Dad’s biggest property investment, then creditors came knocking. The bank forced a half-price sale of our house. Our family separated, my parents divorced and most of our material possessions disappeared, though I don’t remember where any of them went. I didn’t miss the stuff. What I missed was Dad, who had begun searching for work abroad. I didn’t see him for some time.

In the two decades that followed, I had no concept of tomorrow. I studied longer and harder than most of my peers, then moved between marketing jobs in London – with little interest in saving.

Partly, that was down to youth – the hedonism of living for the moment – but there was a thrill that came with getting rid of money fast, just as Dad had. I loved the feeling of spending without care, particularly in social settings; buying too much food, expensive drinks, unnecessary taxi rides, with Dad-style tips on top. Fuelling the nighttime economy did feel like living, but in the morning there was nothing to show for it.

My 30s broke the spell. Student debt, credit cards and loans caught up with me, amounting to over £30,000. I couldn’t meet the minimum payments. With help from Dad, I spoke to creditors and consolidated where I could. My mum and her new partner bailed me out over my graduate loan, my largest debt. It was a sobering moment, to look in the mirror and see an adult-child. A cashpoint refused me a £20 note when my rent was due. It was embarrassing, and when my partner had to sub me that month, I vowed to change. I contacted debt organisations and learnt how to manage my money. I began recording my spending in a notebook – every single penny, from buying a packet of crisps or a coffee through to major purchases. I wrote everything down, then tracked those figures in a monthly spending plan. I started to save for the first time, just £10 a month initially, which grew into a substantial reserve. I apportioned a manageable figure to debt repayment, too. Most importantly, I had monthly meetings with two people experienced in money management to look with them at my spending, debts, income and savings. Together, we decided on the actions for the month ahead.

Now in my 40s, I find value in stepping back from instant gratification. I won’t pretend it’s always easy. In times of stress, I can still find myself craving easy money from a lottery win or an unexpected windfall. It’s related to the false idea that money buys peace of mind and safety. Despite these occasional fears, however, there is great progress. Today’s wins include keeping clear financial records, owning a home with my partner, earning consistently in freelance communications roles and providing well for our four-year-old daughter. A big hurdle for me was beginning to save for retirement and in January, I opened a stocks and shares ISA.

Being able to hold on to money is also helping me realise a dream. Before my father died in 2019, he began sketching characters and writing stories for children. He was testing out his tales on my stepmum, the grandchildren and neighbours’ kids. Discovering this, I felt the fizz of Dad’s magic again. Since my teens, I’ve wanted to write for children and with a steadier attitude to money, I was able to focus on writing stories during the first lockdown, then setting up my company, Starlike Books. There are secret illustrated portraits of Dad in my first book, Glumbags.

Today, two and a half years on from Dad’s death, I am still coming to understand my relationship with him. Did we ever have a father-daughter conversation about the financial lessons he taught me? No. Dad was all about living and experiencing in the moment. He disliked with a passion any form of analysis of the past. He saw no point in looking back. What did make a massive impression on me was finding a forgotten letter from him after he died. It was a rare window into his life as a boy in post-war London, where fun and joy were stifled at every turn. He was expected to hold doors open for grown women, stand up straight and run errands. He wrote about having no car, never eating out or taking foreign holidays. As a teenager, listening to Radio Luxembourg in his bedroom, he just wanted more than that. And that’s something I could really understand and love – that craving in him, and in me, to live to the full.

Charlotte Tarrant is the founder of Starlike Books

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