"We have to make money now, while we can," my 8-year-old daughter, Lael, explained to her 8-year-old cousin, Hannah, "or one day we will both be out on the streets."
Lael, who had always had an interest in money, now seemed to have developed an obsession. On the advice of a mutual accountant friend here in South Africa, she had decided to open a 2,000 rand ($250) long-term investment with PSG Consultants. She had 800 rand left to save before she could do it. "Can I Google on the computer: 'Quickest, easiest way to make money'?" she asked one evening.
Lael had an entrepreneurial spirit and good self-esteem – the combination of which could get a mom into trouble. She had been known to fill old perfume bottles with water and market them as perfume, and to charge her granddad for his Sunday lunch. Who knows what schemes she could find on the Internet? I laughed nervously in response. "Do you have any other ideas?"
She took that as a green light. That evening Lael drew up a chore roster, and by the next morning I was paying 10 rand (about $1.25) per 5 chores completed. The next day she e-mailed my crafting friends for crafting ideas, and that evening I was stuffing felt Christmas decorations while she worked out her potential costs and profits. Every cent of money that came in went into a money tin, and once a week she counted it out and even offered my husband and me the pleasure of counting it. "Do you want to see how much money I have, Dad?" she tapped him on the legs as he teetered on a ladder. "Do you want to worship at the feet of Lael's money box?" I translated for him.
While her younger brother spent his irregular earnings on soda, all Lael did was make money and save it. "When people ask what I want for my birthday," she said, lying on her bed staring dreamily out the window, "just tell them 'money.' "
"You might need to watch that," my sister, Hannah's mother, warned me one day. Does she just find money interesting, or does she see money as her protector against the uncertainties of the future? "Hannah said that she can't get Lael to do things for fun; it always has to be for money."
I had spent the afternoon at the hospital watching very rich people go the same way as very poor people. One thing had become clear: Money is no protection. "You spend your whole life making money and then it's over," I said at the dinner table that night. "What's the point? It's easy for rich people to think that money's going to save them."
"But I'm rich and I don't think that," Lael replied.
"Well, that's a relief," I said. My sister's warning had been troubling me. "But then why do you like making money so much, Lael?" I asked.
"Well, I like doing the sums," she replied.
"And I like making business deals with people," she mused.
"But most of all I just like the feeling of having lots and lots of money."
Nothing wrong with that, I thought. Accountants and stockbrokers and investors love making and saving lots and lots of money. But it doesn't mean they trust in it any more than the rest of us do.
"But then," I asked, "why did you tell Hannah that she'd be out on the streets if she didn't help you make money?"
"Oh, you know Hannah," she replied, flicking her hair, "I just can't get her to take anything seriously – everything always has to be for fun."