Songs of My Past That Shaped My Financial Future

Some of my earliest financial lessons came from pop songs of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Mo Money Mo Problems, The Notorious B.I.G. (1996)

“It’s like the more money we come across, the more problems we see”

No disrespect to Biggie, but more money has never brought me more problems. Biggie’s anthem played on the background in carpools to gymnastics practice, and at parties in college and in the bars of my early 20s. But “Mo Money Mo Problems” never crept in to my psyche, and its message was lost on me.

I didn’t have to talk about finances as a kid and likely didn’t think much about money at all, or what problems it might cause. I was fortunate in not having those worries or conversations — I grew up with enough money for me to not have to worry about who was going to pay the bills. Though my parents were eager teachers of how to be financially responsible, I wasn’t always eager to hear them, and their messages were lost on me, too. Instead, some of my earliest financial lessons came from something I couldn’t stop listening to: pop songs of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The messages that stuck with me from the music of my youth came from boy bands and pop divas. These songs told me that money keeps you free from scrubs, that getting paid on Friday is a way to have fun on the weekend, and that everyone’s got to make a living. Instead of Biggie, I live by the words of Beyoncé: “The shoes on my feet, I’ve bought it/ because I depend on me.”

Bills Bills Bills, Destiny’s Child (1999)

“Can you pay my bills?”

Of course, the financial lessons I learned from the pop songs of my past start with Destiny’s Child’s “Bills Bills Bills.” I first listened to The Writing’s on the Wall in the back of a car with my friend as her mother drove us around — probably to the mall to spend our parents’ money, but who can say for sure. I was hooked by track three, and the next chance I had, I got my hands on my very own copy of the CD.

I still get bashful talking about money and grew up with the idea that it’s rude to ask people about their personal finances. Hearing Beyoncé, LeToya, LaTavia, and Kelly sing about what your money should be handling was a big part of my financial responsibility awakening—and hearing a group of young women talk about paying bills in a pop culture world that told me men handled the money was eye-opening. As an adult, I believe more transparency around the way people handle money can only bring more fortune upon us. The more I know about the bills I have to pay, and the more I see how other people handle their money, the more prepared and well-off I’ll be.

No Scrubs, TLC (1999)

“A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me”

I was a late bloomer on the dating scene, but that didn’t mean my 12-year-old self didn’t have grand ideas about what it would be like to get swept away at school dances. “No Scrubs” set me straight on what to watch out for to protect my heart and my pocketbook. “No Scrubs” made it clear that — contrary to fairy tales that told me otherwise — money did matter. If you weren’t willing to work hard and be responsible for your own expenses, then you weren’t worth spending time with. For my adult self, the amount of money my boyfriend has doesn’t matter at all — but the fact that he is willing to work hard and be responsible does matter. It matters a lot.

Just Got Paid, ’N Sync (2000)

“Check is in the mail I got it made”

It’s easier to pay the bills, of course, if you are getting paid in the first place. ’N Sync taught me that this happens on Friday, right before you go out to get down on the weekend. The songs I gravitated toward as a teen weren’t songs about being extravagant with money — they were about making money and learning how to live with it. I aspired to get paid on Fridays and pay my bills. To me, “Just Got Paid” is a blue-collar jam. It’s about working hard and collecting your paycheck before spending it all on the weekend recovering from the work you did that week. This song came out in 2000, and it wasn’t until several years later that I realized my paychecks would not necessarily come on Fridays. But I still have a smile like Kool-Aid every time that money hits my bank account.

That Don’t Impress Me Much, Shania Twain (1997)

“Okay, so you’ve got a car”

And if I got too focused on making that paper, Shania reminded me that money isn’t everything when it comes to your relationships. Shania Twain sings that she doesn’t care if you have a fancy car — that don’t impress her much. “No Scrubs” and “Bills Bills Bills” warned me against a man with no money. “That Don’t Impress Me Much” — which came out in 1997 but was played repeatedly in my P.E. class in 2000 — warned me about men who used their money to buy fancy things. Both scenarios indicate someone who isn’t responsible with their money, and who values spending over saving. I’m much more impressed by a savings account and high credit score than any flashy purchase.

Independent Women, Pt. I., Destiny’s Child (2001)

“Pay my own fun, and I pay my own bills”

Not to say that material things aren’t important, just that I prefer to buy my own. The first marriage advice my parents ever gave me — that I remember actually hearing — was to make sure you keep your own bank account. So I learned young that I need to have my own money so I wouldn’t have to ask permission to spend, and so I could leave in a hurry if I had to. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but being dependent on someone else’s money is a quick way for a woman to get herself trapped at best somewhere she doesn’t want to be, and at worst somewhere dangerous. As Destiny’s Child says, “Try to control me, boy, you get dismissed.” Having my own money gives me the power to leave if I had to. It also gives me freedom to stay if I want to, and not because I’m beholden financially to someone else.

When I decided to move in with my boyfriend, I struggled with how to combine our finances in a way that worked for us but still allowed me some of that financial freedom. We decided to put a portion of our paychecks into a joint account and to each keep our individual bank accounts. I currently make more money than he does in grad school, so it’s not always 50/50 in our relationship (sorry, Bey). But it works for us by allowing us to have shared money we can spend on our household or when we’re out together, and also giving us the independence to spend on ourselves freely. We aren’t married and don’t have children, so things are likely to change financially. But for now, I still I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings.

Jenny from the Block, Jennifer Lopez (2002)

“Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still Jenny from the block”

I am fiercely proud of my financial independence, and just as grateful for the life that allowed me to live in a house where the bills were paid and be free from debt when I left college. That upbringing and some luck in finding a job when the market crashed is a huge reason I have the money I do today. My parents did not grow up with a lot of money — my grandfathers worked as a truck driver and an inspector at a railroad, respectively. My parents didn’t go without, but they had to work hard to build their own financial life for themselves. When Jennifer Lopez sings about knowing where she came from despite the rocks that she’s got, this is what I think of.

I grew up with considerably more money than my parents did. But when I left college, I moved to New York, where I worked internships and retail before I got a full time job. I made enough money to pay the rent, but only barely, and only after working two jobs seven days a week. The month I was about to run out of money and not be able to pay the rent for real, I got a job offer that saved me. I have worked hard, saved, invested, done my research, and made good financial choices (and a few definitely not so good financial choices). A few years ago I moved to a cheaper city (it was for love, but also for money), and now I have more savings than I have had the last five years combined. It’s still way below where I’d like to be — I’m working on that fuck off fund — but I’m proud of my progress all the same.

Like J. Lo, I used to have a little and now I have a lot. I work as hard as I do to save money so that I’ll never have to wonder where the rent money will come from. Earlier this week, my boyfriend sent me an email thanking me for paying the gas bill that said, “You’re the best at bills bills bills!” Damn right I am.

Rae Nudson is a freelance writer and editor. She knows exactly which Taylor Swift songs are about which of her boyfriends. Follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.

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