The Choice to Thrive

I learned my deepest lessons about money as a kid. Our family of eight did OK, but we struggled to make it through several recessions. We went from what seemed like flush times, when all eight of us would dress up on Sunday nights to try the new restaurant in town, to what seemed like overnight taking donations from our church for Thanksgiving dinner.

By my teens, post-1987 market crash, I carried with me some young, hard-earned, hard-learned wisdom when it comes to money: It's no fun to have your quality of life determined by something so outside of your control. I learned that if you lived too large when times were good, you lost out on the chance to be the 'ant' rather than the 'grasshopper' when the winter of a recession comes. I decided early on that I'd rather make sacrifices to live a smaller, more moderate life than risk my financial future on living it up when times were good and then letting an economy completely determine my fate when times were bad.

Granted, there's a limit to what we have control over when it comes to life and money, and I've taken on some major risks that have thankfully paid off, such as loading up on student loans to get through graduate school. But I took advantage of a gift to see the patterns in life (and the economy) and realize how it's not how much money you have or make, but what you do with it that determines the life you lead.

I'm thrilled to have a platform to share hundreds of stories and questions in times like these and to hopefully spread the word on the importance of taking control of your money. But my true fear is this: Have we really learned our lesson as a nation? Will we forget all this when times get good again?

When the market shot past 13,000 points, I was filled with anxiety while others celebrated. I knew what was coming. My book editors told me I was too conservative. That there was nothing wrong with spending more than 40% of your take-home income on a mortgage. I held my ground (it's no more than 30% and that includes taxes and insurance). And I still do. Because everything is cyclical. So as we start to recover in 2009, take all these lessons and tips and changes in how you spend and save to heart, no matter what lenders, Wall St. or credit card companies say. It's the difference between surviving and thriving.

Carmen Wong Ulrich is the host of CNBC's "On the Money" which airs weeknights at 10PM ET on CNBC. You can also read her CNBC blog at