11 Money Lessons I Learned From My Depression-era Dad

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The Great Depression sank its teeth into the American economy in 1929 and did not let go for an entire decade. My father was born in 1917, and most of his childhood was marked by this economic upheaval. This influenced his spending habits and his relationship with money for the rest of his life.

Dear old dad is gone now, and with the prospect of years, I have come to appreciate the money lessons he learned – and taught – so well. The following were the most valuable to me.

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

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It’s a phenomenon that’s rarely talked about: easy credit allows people to separate (at least temporarily) the state 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 looks can be deceiving and that you shouldn’t draw 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 jumpsuits could be sitting on a fortune.

2. With few exceptions, owning instead of renting

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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 and at every stage of life, the idea is still important. Ownership means assets and autonomy – two crucial benefits in the best and worst of times.

3. Take care of what you own

The woman repairs scratches and chips on the car
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Protect the value of what you own by taking care of it. My dad obsessively studied every weak rattle in his car, kept every tool in his workshop meticulously clean, and sanded and polished everything in his path. He made sure that what he had lasted for years. When they combined their talents, my mother and my father were a powerful foil to the planned obsolescence of any machine.

4. Boosts don’t have to boost your lifestyle

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Dad had a knack for maintaining a relatively constant lifestyle despite increases in income over the years. He was a firm believer in investing the extra money from raises and bonuses instead of moving to a bigger house or a newer car.

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

5. Savings are an equally powerful force as income

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It seems that people put a lot of energy into maximizing their income, but rarely put the same time into saving.

Dad realized that, to some extent, wages are beyond most people’s control. But we can influence how and how much we save each day. In our house, earning and saving were two sides of the same coin, and both were carefully considered.

6. Prepare for the unexpected

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If there’s one resounding lesson the Great Depression taught an entire generation, it’s this: Be prepared for the unexpected.

He would be called a chronic pessimist today, but my father never assumed that today’s economic success guaranteed tomorrow’s. He always prepared for the “what ifs” in a very tactical way – by saving money, ruthlessly avoiding debt, tending a huge garden and having the know-how to get by.

7. Be independent

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From changing the brakes on his car to tending 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 has likely saved him tens of thousands of dollars over the years. To me, Dad’s skills to fix or build almost anything almost felt like a superpower.

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

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Buying new usually results in immediate depreciation. Dad taught me that it is easy to avoid this loss in value simply by buying used as much as possible. Considering condition, efficiency, expected life, and warranties, buying used is a smart way to maximize money.

9. Small expenses add up

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I can’t buy a $4 cup of coffee without the faint echo of Dad’s voice chiding me for such 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 lost $1,000 in a year!” (or a similar statement that inspired a collective gaze and a mad dash for the nearest calculator).

Yet we got the message: small expenses can easily become big financial drags.

10. Patience is power

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to need or want something right now can be expensive. Dad’s approach was much more zen. He anticipated his purchases months in advance, shopped around, and hopefully found a quality used option.

Today, online shopping has turned that lesson into an endurance test. While this simplifies price comparison, it also makes instant gratification incredibly easy. My middle ground is usually to use the internet as a product and price research tool first and a shopping tool second.

11. Think about your future yourself

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Saving should not be an end in itself. Frugality and careful investing are tactics that lead to a larger life strategy. My dad may not have said it quite that way, but his efforts were shaped by our family’s results, my parents’ retirement goals, and the desire to leave a legacy. These modest goals fueled his efforts and defined him as one of the most financially savvy people I have ever met.

Sure, I didn’t always appreciate my father’s Depression-era ways, but I never rebelled against them either. Even as a child, I was able to relate effort to result. This simple observation snuffed out any budding protest.

Raised by a father closer in age to most of my peers’ grandfathers, I am a financial anomaly – far more frugal and debt averse than most of my friends. Although my spending style somewhat marginalizes me, I love the freedom these early lessons gave me. Distilled and modernized a bit, they have served me well so far.

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