10 Money Lessons I Learned From My Depression-Era Dad

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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  • Tom

    I remember my depression era mom saying “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” and “if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.” Both excellent pieces of advice in good times and bad.

  • KPS

    The line about “making a good point with bad math” made me laugh out loud – great writing

  • grandmaguest

    My goodness, are you a brother I didn’t know about???? This sounds exactly like growing up in my family. As a young adult with little money, I remember that when one pair of shoes became too scuffed and worn to be considered my “good pair of shoes” they were assigned to my goof around shoes….then as they got even worse, they were my work in the yard and garden shoes until they fell apart and the rotation began again. Usually bought one pair a year. The family motto was “Use it up, make it do, or do without”. They instilled the value of a dollar and I used that my entire life. I loved my work, although it was never something that was going to make me rich, but because of my life lessons in saving I was able to retire early with no debts and a comfortable income. Thanks mom and dad!

  • Frederick Flintstoneisgreat

    I lived with that man. I respected him, but my kids don’t understand it until they reach well into adulthood. It is why I am who I am and why I do some of the things I do. Good piece and great advice for any time in history.

  • Sheila

    Great advice, esp. about expect the unexpected! Thanks! Sheila

  • Maggie

    As for leaving a legacy, leaving money to anyone is the biggest waste of money there is. No one appreciates your hard-earned money as much as you. It’ll probably be squandered.

  • Kerry Aggen

    My parents literally had 2 families, and I am part of the 2nd round… My Dad was born in 1920, and he’s still kicking a$$ just having turned 94! Although he made a good living as an engineer, he was what would be called “thrifty” and “frugal” – growing up, I hated it!!! I hated wearing clothes that were still wearable but out of style! Of course, I wanted to part of the “cool crowd” growing up, but never was. And, I’m still not now – but, now I don’t mind that at all. In fact, I’m often glad I’m not, as I don’t feel the pressure to “keep up with the Jones’s.” The older I get, the more I value the lessons that he tried to instill in us – they were the same ones you, and “grandmaguest” (commenter) wrote about – “use it up, make it do, or do without.” Wise words, whether in “good” financial times or “bad.”

    I have a tendency to “hoard” certain things – I don’t blame this on my parents, though. Although, I believe a healthy (or, unhealthy?) percentage of the children of the “children of the Great Depression” behave similarly – although you’ve managed very well to not get into that behavior, good for you! – but, before I get too deeply into psychology… I just wanted to say that I’m learning to more fully embrace “letting things go” – things that no longer meet my needs, things that I never needed but felt I had to have “just in case.” A good friend helps with this with her “someone else might need it” reminders – which makes me think back to Dad and Mom, and always having had plenty, but not to excess. And if they found we didn’t need some thing any more, sold it, or gave it away, or traded it for something we did need. And, I’m doing likewise, and feeling freer and lighter as I do so. There comes a point with having stuff that it starts owning you, and actually starts hindering you!

    Life is a journey of self-discovery – discovery of who you are, what you’re about, and what you need. What you TRULY need, not what you THINK you need. And understanding what you need comes from understanding who you are and what you’re about… Things are just things – and things are important, you should take good care of them, as that’s a reflection on you and your values. But also, so that they can take good care of you, which is what they’re here for – it’s the “you” that’s it all about, and what’s truly important in life.

    Thanks for a great article!

  • Blue

    I agree with & practice everything you’ve written here! Only #7, I’ve never been the handywoman and cringe at the cost of home repairs after having become a homeowner. I’m waiting for my knight in shining armor to come along who without a doubt will be handyman. Anyone who knows me, knows me as frugal (I call it cost-conscious) and I catch a lot of flak for it. Lately, my silent response to them has been “let’s look at your bank balance and my balance and we’ll see who’s the better decision maker …”

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