Financial Futures

Two tragedies, two views on money

Marketplace Staff Oct 30, 2009
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Financial Futures

Two tragedies, two views on money

Marketplace Staff Oct 30, 2009
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: When Liz and Diana Welch lost their dad, they discovered a secret about the family finances. They were broke. When mom died just a few years later, all the siblings — four in all — were sent to live with different family friends. Now adults, Liz and Diana look back and see how their different approaches to money were shaped by this tumultuous time.

Liz Welch: My father wore Brooks Brothers suits and Izod Lacoste shirts on the weekends. He only ever drove a Mercedes-Benz. Now whenever I see that good looking German car, I wonder, “What are they hiding?”

That’s because my dad died in a car accident when I was 13 and left my mother with more than $1 million in debt that she never knew existed.

I was used to the country club and pony club rallies and looked the part in Ralph Lauren clothes. That all changed. My mom wisely sold our house and the family moved into the caretaker’s cottage on the estate grounds. Mom had been a famous soap opera star. She started auditioning in earnest for a gig that would put food on the table. And she was thrilled to be cast in the soap opera “Loving,” as June Slater, the alcoholic wife of a university dean.

Instead of facing our new life, I took after my dad and put appearance above reality. I started stealing designer clothes from department stores. Guess Jeans, Kenneth Cole shoes, Esprit sweaters. No one at school knew how drastically my life had changed. But my younger sister, Diana, barely knew the difference between our family’s old life and the new one.

Diana Welch: I was four years old when my father died and left us in all that debt. So unlike my siblings, I didn’t live a fairy tale childhood of luxury or excess.

The loss Liz recalls so vividly went unnoticed by me. When we couldn’t afford the country club dues, I didn’t care. I was happy playing with dirt, literally. I spent hours playing king of the mountain, alone on a big earth pile next to our house.

It was our mother’s diagnosis with cancer, one month after dad’s death that really changed things for me. When mom got really sick, I moved in with a local family. I was seven and stayed with them after she died. They had a huge house, dressed me fancy and took me to the Bahamas. But I was miserable. I wanted to be with my real family, in our messy house filled with worn antiques, where I went days without brushing my hair and cherished my siblings’ ratty hand-me-down teenager clothes.

As soon as I could, I returned to a life, where wealth was not the center. As a teenager, I wanted to distance myself from the uptight, rich scene I’d been around. At one point, that meant living in a van and vowing never to buy anything new.

Meanwhile, Liz kept trying to live the life she had before they died.

Liz: A few months after mom died, I was accepted to Georgetown University. There I kept up my ruse — spending all the Social Security checks from my parents’ death and my waitressing money on clothes. After school, I went to New York, where most of my meager salary as an editorial assistant was spent on clothes.

When I became a freelance writer, I resorted to credit cards to keep my wardrobe up to date. My financial strategy? Pay off interest, buy new shoes. I was living a lie like my father. It took several years to dig myself out of that debt.

Diana: It turns out, I take after our mother. She was the frugal one, the one who forced us to eat homemade, soggy tuna fish, instead of McDonald’s on road trips. I’ve spent my adult life thinking I’m taking a stand again consumerism. But who knows? Maybe I’m just cheap like my mom.

We worked on this book in Italy and stayed rent-free at a friend’s villa. But the trip was still expensive. And as my euros dwindled, I got stressed. One night, Liz suggested dinner at a chic restaurant in Rome. When the check came, I freaked.

“We can’t keep doing this,” I said. “I just can’t afford it.”

“It’s OK,” Liz said. “It was my idea. I’ll pay.”

Liz is always shown love by buying me things. And I love being treated by her, but that night in Rome, as Liz pulled the AmEx from her Prada wallet with the broken zipper, I realized her generosity extended well beyond her means.

“You can’t afford it either,” I told her. She nodded.

We split the bill and made the rest of our dinners at home.

Liz: Diana morphed from my little sister, who I always wanted to spoil, to my best friend and peer. I didn’t have to pretend for her or for anyone, anymore.

Chiotakis: Liz and Diana Welch. Their new memoir is called “The Kids Are All Right” and it’s in bookstores now.

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