10 Money Lessons I Learned From My Depression-Era Dad

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My dad was a child of the Great Depression. And though there were many families worse off than his, he learned tough financial lessons that stayed with him for a lifetime.

The Great Depression sank its teeth into the American economy in 1929 and didn’t let go for a full decade. My father was born in 1917, and most of his childhood spanned this economic upheaval. It influenced his (and by infusion, my own) relationship with money and his spending habits for the rest of his life.

My dear old dad is gone now, and with the perspective of years I’ve come to appreciate the money lessons he taught so thoroughly. Here are 10 of the most valuable:

1. Forget the superficial clues; you never know what someone’s financial reality is like

It’s a phenomenon we seldom talk about: Easy credit allows people to separate (at least for a time) the condition of their bank accounts from how they present themselves to the world. This hasn’t always been the case. Now, for better or worse, with a little inspiration and some plastic, anyone can look like a million bucks.

As kids, Dad taught us that appearances can be deceiving and to avoid drawing conclusions about anyone’s financial life based on cosmetics. The guy driving the new car might be teetering on a tower of debt; the woman in worn-out coveralls might be sitting on a fortune.

2. With few exceptions, own instead of rent

Owning the essentials of life (house, car, land, etc.) can be ballast against inflation and economic downturns. And while ownership of these things isn’t always possible for everyone and every stage of life, the idea is still an important one. Ownership means assets and autonomy — two important benefits in the best and worst of times.

3. … Then take care of what you own

To protect the value of what you own, take care of it. Reflexively, I remember my dad in hunched position — obsessively repairing even the faintest rattle in his car, meticulously cleaning his tools, and sanding and polishing everything in his path. What he owned lasted for years. When they combined their talents, my mom and dad were the only foil I’ve ever known to a machine’s planned obsolescence.

4. A rise in income shouldn’t necessarily produce a bump in lifestyle

My dad had a knack for maintaining a relatively constant lifestyle in spite of upticks in income over the years. He was a firm believer in pocketing extra money from raises rather than embracing the much-celebrated option of buying a bigger house or later-model car.

As much as I disdained it in my youth, I have to tip my hat to a strategy that’s helped me easily adapt to all the economic turmoil of the last decade.

5. Saving is just as potent a force as earning

It seems like people devote a lot of energy and effort to maximizing income, but seldom give equal time to saving that income. Dad realized that salaries, to a certain degree, are out of most people’s control, but saving is an area where we can exert real influence. In our house, earning and saving were just two sides of the same coin and both were scrutinized carefully.

6. Prepare for the unexpected

If there’s a single, resounding lesson that the Great Depression taught an entire generation, it’s this: Be prepared for the unexpected.

He’d be labeled a chronic pessimist today, but my dad never automatically assumed that today’s economic success guaranteed tomorrow’s. He was always prepared for the “what-ifs” in very tactical ways — by saving, ruthlessly avoiding debt, keeping a huge garden, and having the know-how to make do.

7. Self-reliance is power

From mowing the lawn to replacing the brakes in his car, from growing a huge garden to patching an old garden hose, my dad demonstrated the value of self-reliance. Most of his skills were self-taught through what I’m sure were long hours of trial and error, but he must have saved thousands of dollars over the years. By the time I came along, his skills at fixing or building nearly anything seemed almost instinctive and something close to a super power.

8. When possible, let someone else take the hit of depreciation

Buying new inevitably results in almost immediate depreciation. My dad taught me that this value loss is easy to avoid simply by buying used whenever possible. With allowances for condition, expected lifespan, efficiency, warranties, and other factors, buying secondhand is a smart way to maximize money.

9. Little expenses add up

I have to confess, I kind of hate the fact that I can’t buy a cup of coffee without the faint echo of my dad’s voice admonishing me for such an indulgence. He was famous in our family for using bad math to prove a good point: “If you spend $1.50 a day on a cup of coffee, you’ve wasted $1,000 in a year!” (or some such statement that inspired a collective eye roll and mad dash for the nearest calculator).

Still, somehow we got the message: Little expenses can easily become big financial drags.

10. Consider your future self

Saving shouldn’t be an end in itself. Frugality, thrift and careful investing should be driven by clear goals and with an eye toward future security. My dad may not have verbalized it quite this way, but his efforts were driven by his retirement goals, our family’s future needs, and his desire to leave some sort of legacy. These modest goals fueled his efforts and defined him as one of the most financially vigilant people I’ve ever met.

To be sure, I didn’t always love my dad’s Depression-inspired ways, but I never rebelled against them either. Even as a kid, it didn’t take me long to connect the effort with the success and quell any lingering protests.

As an adult, I’m a financial red herring in my own generation (I came along late in my dad’s life and he was closer in age to most of my peers’ grandparents). And though my spending style marginalizes me a little, I love the freedom those early lessons have given me. Distilled, reinterpreted, and modernized just a bit, they serve as my own post-Great Recession road map.

Were you raised by frugal parents or grandparents? What lessons did they teach that have been the most valuable to you? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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