11 Money Lessons I Learned From My Depression-Era Dad

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A senior father watches TV on a laptop computer with his son while eating popcorn on a sofa at home
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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 spending habits and relationship with money for the rest of his life.

Dear old Dad is gone now, and with the perspective of years, I’ve come to appreciate the money lessons he learned — and taught — so thoroughly. The following have been the most valuable to me.

1. You never know what someone’s financial reality is like

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It’s a phenomenon we seldom talk about: Easy credit allows people to separate (at least temporarily) the condition of their bank accounts from how they present themselves to the world. For better or worse, with a little inspiration and some plastic, anyone can look like a million bucks.

Dad taught me that appearances can be deceiving and to avoid drawing conclusions about anyone’s financial life based on cosmetics. The guy driving the expensive new car might be teetering on a tower of debt; the woman wearing patched coveralls might be sitting on a fortune.

2. With few exceptions, own instead of rent

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

3. Take care of what you own

Woman repairs scratches and chips on car
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Protect the value of what you own by taking care of it. My dad obsessively investigated every faint rattle in his car, kept every tool in his workshop meticulously clean, and sanded and polished everything in his path. He made sure what he owned lasted for years. When they combined their talents, my mom and dad were a powerful foil to any machine’s planned obsolescence.

4. Raises don’t have to raise your lifestyle

Woman eating a healthy meal
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Dad had a knack for maintaining a relatively consistent lifestyle in spite of upticks in income over the years. He was a firm believer in investing the extra money from raises and bonuses instead of upgrading to a bigger house or newer car.

As much as it annoyed me in my youth, this strategy has helped me easily adapt to the economic ups and downs of this millennium.

5. Saving is just as potent a force as earning

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It seems like people devote a lot of energy to maximizing income but rarely give equal time to saving that income.

Dad realized that, to a certain degree, salaries are out of most people’s control. But we can influence how and how much we save every day. In our house, earning and saving were two sides of the same coin, and both were scrutinized carefully.

6. Prepare for the unexpected

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If there’s one 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 assumed that today’s economic success guaranteed tomorrow’s. He always prepared for the what-ifs in very tactical ways — by saving, ruthlessly avoiding debt, maintaining a huge garden and having the know-how to make do.

7. Be self-reliant

Man and his dog working on a home construction or renovation project
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From replacing the brakes in his car to growing a huge garden, 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 all that effort probably saved him tens of thousands of dollars over the years. To me, Dad’s skills at fixing or building nearly anything seemed almost like a superpower.

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

Woman holding the key to her new car
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Buying new usually results in immediate depreciation. Dad taught me that this value loss is easy to avoid simply by buying used whenever possible. With allowances for condition, efficiency, expected lifespan and warranties, buying secondhand is a smart way to maximize money.

9. Little expenses add up

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I can’t buy a $4 cup of coffee without the faint echo of 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 $2 a day on a cup of coffee, you’ve wasted $1,000 in a year!” (or a similar statement that inspired a collective eye-roll and mad dash for the nearest calculator).

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

10. Patience is power

Man about to overspend on his computer
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Needing or wanting something right now can be expensive. Dad’s approach was much more zen-like. He anticipated purchases months in advance, shopped around and, with a little luck, found a quality secondhand option.

Today, online shopping has turned this lesson into an endurance test. While it makes comparing prices simpler, it also makes immediate gratification incredibly easy. My happy medium usually involves using the internet as a product and price research tool first and a purchasing tool second.

11. Consider your future self

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Saving shouldn’t be an end in itself. Frugality and careful investing are tactics that drive a larger life strategy. My dad may not have verbalized it quite this way, but his efforts were shaped by our family’s bottom line, my parents’ retirement goals and a desire to leave some sort of legacy. These modest objectives fueled his efforts and defined him as one of the most financially vigilant people I’ve ever met.

Sure, I didn’t always appreciate my dad’s Depression-era ways, but I never rebelled against them either. Even as a kid, I was able to connect the effort with the outcome. That simple observation quelled any budding protests.

Raised by a father closer in age to most of my peers’ grandfathers, I’m a financial anomaly — far more frugal and debt-averse than most of my friends. Though my spending style marginalizes me somewhat, I love the freedom those early lessons have given me. Distilled and modernized just a bit, they’ve served me well so far.

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