Family Economics

The following post is excerpted from a chapter in my book, A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns. The parts included contain the financial values that have guided my life.

My husband Joel and I came from large families with blue-collar budgets and parents who insisted we wear it out, save for a rainy day, turn out the lights. If everyone had learned such thrifty ways when young, I wouldn’t worry about our nation’s ability to weather fiscal storms; but many folks weren’t raised by graduates of the Great Depression, as Joel and I were.

When I was twelve, the sound of my parents’ voices pushed through the kitchen floor to the top bunk of the bedroom below, where I rolled over and stretched. I liked waking to their drifting conversations, but felt uneasy when their voices were loud enough that I could distinguish words, because that meant they were discussing money.

Piggy BankThough they agreed on the governing fiscal policy for our household—buy only what you can afford, stay out of debt, save as much as possible—they sometimes disagreed on its application.

In a good month when Dad had worked long, hot hours of overtime at the steel plant, Mom might suggest they spend the extra earnings on something frivolous, perhaps a vacuum that sucked more than it spewed. Dad would argue for making a double house payment. Usually the debate ended with Dad’s oft-repeated sentiment, “I’m just trying to keep a roof over our heads. We’ll be lucky if we don’t all end up in the poorhouse.”

I imagined the poorhouse as our neighbor’s ramshackle barn, full of people dressed in grain sacks with signs saying “the poor” hanging from their necks, huddling in empty stalls, and chewing on turnips. This image guaranteed my cooperation during the family meetings held when Dad was on strike or laid off. First, Mom would explain the situation; she’d then say that while Dad looked for work, we would need to cut back on spending. Her seven children, knowing the routine, would look solemn, but feel no anxiety.

She next announced the non-debatable reductions: despite recent promises, we would continue to be one of the few families in our rural area without a TV. We would stop the newspaper, quit going to the Dairy Queen, and do without drive-in movies. When told my piano lessons would be cancelled, I managed to hide my joy. After we heard the mandatory cuts, we were asked for other suggestions, but usually couldn’t think of any, though I remember one of us suggesting that perhaps we could save money if we bathed less often.

Aging well is a mix of attitudes and habits we begin developing as children; and financial fitness—having enough money for basic needs and small pleasures—is imperative. But families need not suffer in order to be fiscally sound.

I worry about those who use their credit cards to immediately fulfill every wish of their children and themselves, rather than saving and anticipating. I wish they could discover, as I did when young, that economizing doesn’t mean the absence of family fun and that paring a budget can be a beneficial lesson when children are allowed to participate.

Have some thoughts
about a family approach to financial fitness?
Please comment below.

Summary of Comments on “Battling the Holiday Bulge”
My thanks to those who responded. T.D. Davis mentioned the essential component of weight control my column didn’t address: exercise. Absolutely right. Mercy pointed out the difficulty of following good advice, which we all experience. And Kathleen blamed her junk food habits on her snack-loving great grandmother. We share the gene.

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6 thoughts on “Family Economics

  1. “…I imagine the poorhouse…chewing on turnips…” Why is the lowly turnip so maligned? I have seen more than one reference linking it with being poor… I find them quite tasty.

    Growing up, my parents shielded me from financials. I had no idea what a good salary was, had no idea what my father made per year. While their intent was to protect me from problems, as I feel most parents want to do, what actually happened was that my financial growth was a little stunted. This is true with most of my friends as well. At home, no one talked about money. But with almost no classes on managing money in school, it is left to parents to show their children how to take care of their financial house. Giving them everything they want will only turn them into selfish people who spend all they have.

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    • Good question about turnips, mrs1500. We grew them in our garden and quite happily ate them raw. I don’t know why I transferred them to my visual of a poorhouse. You’re so right about the importance of parents in installing economic sense in their children. This, of course, is difficult to do if the parents lack financial skills.

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  2. Both JL & I were raised by Depression-era parents. When my folks divorced, my Mother and I went down the economic ladder even further. But, I went to work, found a 101 things to do for free and have fun and followed the financial advise of my Mother, Grandfather, and Step-Mother. The 1st challenge I had in my marriage, was to take over the finances. JL told me later that he was so relieved. He has since learned sound budgeting! When the recession hit our house was paid for, we had no credit card debt and we were getting the 3rd child through college without loans. Our folks gave us a great gift. To live within our means meant independence in a lot of ways. I am so thankful for that.

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    • Great response, Janice, and the end of your story is that because you lived within your means, you have raised independent children and now have money to spend on things the two of you enjoy like traveling.

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  3. Feeling the strain, while trying to pay for an adoption- I sat quinn down today and told her she was going to have to wear the hand-me-down shoes from her cousin. She looked at me and said “I don’t want to. I don’t like them.” I explained that sometimes, it’s less about what we like, and more about what works. I completely agree that frugality is a much-needed lesson.

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