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.