10 Money Lessons I Learned From My Depression-Era Dad

Photo (cc) by Michael 1952

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.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
14 Uses for WD-40 That Save Money, Time or Headaches

WD-40 is handy in a lot more situations than you likely realize.

15 of the Fastest-Growing Jobs Today

Times are tough, but these career fields are thriving.

19 Things You Should Never Buy at a Grocery Store

These household necessities are overpriced at the grocery store. Get them cheaper at these places instead.

7 Effortless Ways to Make Extra Money

In the digital age, new ways of earning cash crop up all the time — and some require next to no effort on your part.

11 Secret Uses for Everyday Items That Save Money

These are simple solutions for life’s irritations.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

8 Tips for Retiring Comfortably on Social Security Alone

It’s never too early to start learning how to live well while living on less.

Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?

Can an adult daughter tap into her late mother’s benefit?

11 Generic Products You Should Buy at Costco

Not all generics are worthwhile, but these are among the best from Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand.

This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia

Nearly half of U.S. residents may face this threat.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers

For the second straight year, a growing number of Americans believe they’ve fallen prey to this scam.

Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds

Resolve to be clutter-free in 2021 with these secondhand purchases.

11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It

Seriously? Fibbing about the weather is a crime? This and other little-known legal traps await the unwary.

6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have

Few retirees have all of these documents that are crucial to their golden years — especially during a pandemic.

These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy

These vehicles boast reliability, safety and long-lasting value.

Can a Divorced Widow Claim Her First Husband’s Social Security Benefits?

The rules are complicated when it comes to eligibility for survivors benefits.

27 Things You Should Never Pay For — and How to Get Them for Free

When you know the tricks, you can save big on all kinds of useful things that others pay for.

15 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

10 Things I Always Buy at Trader Joe’s

From snacks to sweets to side dishes, stock your cart with these time-tested favorites on your next TJ’s run.

9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry

Keep more of future paychecks by eliminating these budget-busting unnecessary expenses.

13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free

There are many ways to get cheap or free services and goods after reaching a certain age.

Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore

Starting this month, your ISP no longer can bill you for this fee.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.