things I learned from my grandparents about money, part 2

In an earlier post, I covered some lessons I learned from my maternal grandparents. To continue, I am going to cover some of the lessons I learned from my father’s parents. They have both passed on, but I certainly have learned from some of what I perceive to be their mistakes and successes in planning my own financial life.

As I said in my earlier post, I realized a long time ago that it is very easy to pick out the flaws in other people’s philosophies or actions while failing to recognize them in your own thoughts and actions. However, I still find it a useful exercise to try to determine where people make good decisions and bad decisions. Even more important is trying to understand the ‘why’ behind those decisions.

My father’s parents (my grandparents, both now deceased) were never terribly frugal. My grandfather had a limited formal education. He fought in Europe – against Germans – in World War II, which must have been wrenching for someone from a Germanic culture like the Pennsylvania Dutch. He went on to work as a sign painter. My grandmother was a kindergarten teacher. They were never rich by any stretch of the imagination but from spending time with them in my youth I never perceived them as poor, either. They owned a home in Tennessee and lived a lifestyle that would not classify them as anything but a typical middle class American family – cars, a yard, two children, a TV, meat and potatoes.

Here are some of their views towards money that I think are interesting, both good and bad, and my take on them.

  • Traveling, good and bad. My grandparents loved to travel. Their favorite destination was to return to Pennsylvania for my grandfather’s Army reunions. He remained extremely close to his fellow soldiers his whole life, although he seldom spoke about the war. They traveled frequently throughout their lives, and often seemed to spend more on their vacations than most people would think prudent. I have some mixed feelings about this, because the point of life is to live it, of course. If traveling is an important aspect of your life, then it may not always be an indulgence.
  • Moving to Florida, bad. When I was approximately 11 years old, my grandparents very suddenly announced to the family that they were moving to Florida. I am not sure of the details of the adults’ conversations at the time but my impression was always that this took everyone completely by surprise and I think they had already sold their house when they announced this move. They bought a condominium and moved a long way away from my father and his brother, as well as most of their friends and family, with the exception of the few who lived in Florida who had persuaded them to move. This meant that very abruptly I went from spending 50% of my grandparent-visiting-time with both sets of grandparents (since they all lived in the same town) I suddenly saw my maternal grandparents about 20 times for every one time I saw my paternal grandparents. My maternal grandparents were a few hours’ drive away, while my paternal grandparents were a plane flight away.
  • Entrepreneurial approach, good. Almost all of my extended family is made up of ‘good company men.’ I do not mean to say this in a disparaging way. My grandparents on both sides were children of people who worked the land and saw careers in education or government service as large steps up in life. Few of them, coming from farming backgrounds, ever expressed much interest in ‘going it alone’ as an entrepreneur. They might have had a warped view of the risks and rewards, since a farmer’s work is exceptionally hard and the returns minimal. My father’s father was really the only person I had much close contact with as I was growing up who had not been a lifelong employee. I never talked to him much about his business, and now that I’m older I regret that. The small amount of exposure I got to that lifestyle, though, taught me that entrepreneurs are able to work, save and retire just like an employee. He wasn’t able to turn his business into a fortune, but he still did well enough.

Those points are just highlights. The important lesson to remember is that anything your family or your friends teach you about finance is valuable. Sometimes you may learn by avoiding their mistakes, sometimes you may learn by taking their advice to heart – but it is all learning. From my maternal grandparents, I learned to save and to avoid debt. From my paternal grandparents I learned to spend some money, at least consider working for myself and also to be wary of moving too far from my family. In fairness, the latter lesson is something I still struggle with, since without my own parents’ willingness to move closer to me I likely would still be far away from most of my family (albeit close to my wife’s). As I get older, I realize that this is a critical component of happiness.

I think it’s healthy to look at your family’s views on money. We are just a collection and a refraction of the sum of our ancestors in many ways. I will cover other friends’ and family members’ views towards money in the future.