Money Lessons from the Greatest Generation

Throughout childhood our parents, family, friends, and teachers act as our role models and can pass down their beliefs and behaviors around money. As curious and eager observers, children tend to mimic and acquire these habits, carrying them into adulthood, for better or worse. Although this is not always the case, family influences most often do factor into our financial upbringing. 

Fortunately for me, I was raised by my baby boomer mother and my late grandfather who was of “The Greatest Generation” i.e., who came of age during the Great Depression. My grandpa Jack was a strong presence throughout my childhood and young adult years, and became especially influential when I lived as his in-house caretaker in exchange for rent and meals during college. During this time, I listened to my grandpa weave detailed stories about different decades of time, but they all had one central theme: money.

Clean Your Plate

When I was about seven or so, I’d been playing all afternoon with my neighbor when we suddenly realized that we were starving. I invited my friend in for lunch and we began to raid our fridge for provisions. After staring into the fridge for 10 minutes assessing the contents, we decided that sandwiches would be the pick of the day. To show how hungry I was, I began to make an elaborate sandwich skyscraper of bread, bologna, lettuce, pickles, mustard. My friend was impressed by my monstrous appetite - and for the first two or three bites I was as well - until my hunger dissipated and I still had more than half a sandwich to go. Guess I wasn’t “starving” after all… 

After realizing that my eyes were much bigger than my stomach, I proceeded to throw the perfectly good sandwich away. As I turned around, my friend’s face shot a look of ‘uh oh’ and I noticed my grandpa out of the corner of my eye. He fished the sandwich out of the trash and shook it in front of my face to scold me for wasted food. This was then followed by a firm spanking. The punishment made me cry more out of embarrassment than pain, and promptly ended my Sunday Funday.  

As I grew up, I began to hear stories of my grandpa’s resourcefulness during the Great Depression when lack of food was a real thing. Rather than depending on government food rations, he would pick up fallen fruit from a delivery truck, cut wild grown asparagus off the side of the road, and make dandelion salads. He told me about one childhood friend who asked if my grandpa could please share some of his cake with him. This greatly confused my grandpa because cake was a luxury no one could afford! He soon figured out that his friend was confusing “cake” with bread, of which his family had neither. (That same family was also known for shooting down sparrows for their supper.) 

Now when I look back at my childhood sandwich memory, I understand where grandpa was coming from. I’ve learned to always take my leftovers home as I detest wasting food. I do my best to make a grocery shopping list for meals I will actually eat rather than having perfectly good food go bad. Although saying grace before dinner was not a family tradition of ours, that doesn't mean we didn’t still give thanks for having a hot meal on the table.

If ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, then fix it!

As a car mechanic and multi-property landlord, manual dexterity and good old fashioned grit came natural to my grandpa. It was the norm to see my him installing ceiling fans and garbage disposals, sanding and staining hardwood floors, painting and even sewing curtains. To save money on remodeling costs, he took it upon himself to complete 90% of the work and would only call in professionals when absolutely necessary. 

To teach me self-sufficiency, the first housewarming gift I received when I moved into my first apartment was a purple toolbox from my grandpa. It had all the essential tools to make household repairs: Philips flat head, a hammer, leveler, stud finder (I still haven’t found one...), duct tape, etc. Throughout the years, this box came in handy quite frequently when things around the house fell apart. Granted not everyone is born with the same mechanical aptitude as my grandpa, but YouTube and your friendly Home Depot team are great resources to use if you don’t have a family handyman like I did.

You Spent How Much on That?

One time I remember wearing my newly ripped Abercrombie jeans that cost me $70, walking around feeling supermodel-status, that is, until my grandfather made a comment. “I used to have jeans just like that from Salvation Army during the Depression.”  My jaw dropped and I began to simultaneously become red with furry (I spent one week’s income on these jeans damn it!) and yet laugh uncontrollably. He always had a dry sense of humor and loved to make a quick joke that really put you back into reality. From then on, my view on overpriced designer clothing was never the same. 

While growing up, my mother became the queen of dropping in on open houses (and dragging me along after bribing me with hot chocolate,) then flipping houses we moved to and from throughout the years. She had an eye for how to revive a dated house which she also attempted to do with my grandfather’s home.  

Mom and Grandpa frequently butted heads about what old household items should stay and what should go; the fridge, coffee maker, dining dishes, or even the living room rug. He would always say, “Your mom, she’s always throwing things out. Most of it works perfectly fine!” During the last remodel near his death, my mother voted for stainless steel appliances and new kitchen cabinets for the back rental apartment. They compromised on stainless steel appliances and simply giving the old cabinets a fresh stain and new door knobs.

Frugality is a Virtue

Frugal always has gets a bad wrap, but my grandpa always said that there’s a difference between being “frugal” versus being “a miser.” A true survivor of the Great Depression, he was always leary of banks, mechanics and any salesmen that called or knocked at the door, certain they were out to make an unfair business proposition. If I told him the mechanic said I needed new tires, grandpa would ask me what he quoted me, and would then go out to inspect the tires himself. Prior to any purchase he would examine the quality of the product or service, read the fine print, and ask the price. If he found it to be overpriced, he would pass, whereas if he was confident he was getting good deal, would pay up to thousands of dollars at a time.   

No purchase made was ever made out of wild emotion or excess, but rather from basic need. And never on credit. When my grandmother suggested they buy their first dining table set on credit after moving into their first home, my grandpa insisted that they should wait until the money was fully saved.  In the meantime, they sat on milk crates until they had the cash to make the purchase. Even long after the dining table was on its last legs, my grandmother refused to part with it. Waiting made the purchase all the more precious because it was special and justly earned.

What Lessons Around Money Do You Want to Pass Down?

The time spent learning these important money lessons has been more valuable to me than any amount of inheritance a family member could pass down. Having a solid financial role model to show you the ropes is a great way to gain financial and generational knowledge, but if that wasn’t or isn’t readily available to you, don’t fret! 

There are dozens of financial podcasts, blogs and books that you can learn from. As a Financial Trainer, it’s my goal to not to simply plan my clients’ finances, but to also provide financial literacy to you during our one-on-one session, gym events, and suggested supplemental materials. If you’re ready to build your own generational knowledge and wealth, then I’m here to welcome you to our FinGym family! 

Crystal Martinez