Family, Money, Travel: Part I

Last week in The Frugal Girl, a question was posed: “How did your family of origin affect your financial habits?” As I read through Kristin’s response and the comments from other readers, most said they had been raised in frugal households, and learned their frugal ways there. I was also raised in a frugal home, but didn’t really figure out about living simply and frugally until somewhat later in life. I’ve been thinking about the question the past few days, and it’s brought many memories and deep feelings to the surface. I’ve thought carefully about how things were and how they’ve turned out. This post ended up as something rather long-ish, so I’ve broken it into two pieces – Part II will be up on Thursday.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression, and both came of age and served during WWII. Neither of their families were poor, but they weren’t well-to-do either, and both my mother and father were raised in homes that practiced frugality even before the Depression arrived. My mother’s father owned an independent insurance agency, and my dad’s father managed the Department of Motor Vehicles in Indiana, and both remained employed during the Depression. My mom grew up in an exclusive suburb of Los Angeles, San Marino, and my dad was raised on a farm in Westfield, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis, where they grew crops for sale as well as their own vegetables, and also raised chickens and cows. My parents met at a sorority-fraternity dance at the University of Arizona following World War II, got married a few months later, and eventually ended up back in San Marino where they raised four children. My mom taught biology and math in the San Marino school district, and my dad became the Los Angeles area credit manager for GMAC. Their two incomes put our family in the middle of the middle class.

When I think about the messages and lessons I received about money growing up, the best I can say now is that they were mixed. We always had enough to eat (although always the cheapest of everything – I didn’t know until I was in my teens that there was a cut of beef other than chuck), decent enough clothes to wear, and we took a vacation or traveled almost every summer. We had good health and dental care. We lived close enough to Disneyland that we visited somewhat often (usually depending on who came to visit), and my grandparents owned a beach house in San Clemente that our family used frequently because we were just a little over an hour and a half’s drive away.

However, money or finances was never a topic for conversation at our house unless it was to tell us we couldn’t have or do something. My siblings may have different memories, but I have no recollection of any positive financial discussions on any topic, ever. I’m not sure why that was – either my parents thought it unseemly or that family finances was one of those things children didn’t need to know. They never talked about why they chose to live so frugally or about the lessons they had learned growing up in the Depression (except about the hardships), or what they were saving for or why.  Neither my siblings nor I ever received an allowance or any instruction on money management. Although my parents provided for us, we were also expected to figure out how to earn our own money for the things that they considered “extras.” I began babysitting when I was 11 or 12 years old (for 25¢ an hour), and saved my money to buy many of my clothes, or at least the fabric and notions to make them – I bought or made most of my own clothes beginning in middle school and all through high school. Christmas was miserable for me, and I always dreaded going back to school to hear about all the wonderful times my friends had had and the gifts they received, or see the new clothes they were wearing. My mom set up a Christmas Club savings account every year but it always felt like my parents begrudged having to spend anything on Christmas, and the gifts my mom purchased for us were for the most part cheap, often with little to no thought put into them. My dad always gave us a little money before Christmas so we could shop, but it was usually barely enough to buy everyone a bar of soap.

I understand now that besides raising four kids my parents were also saving to be able to put each of us through college (no student loans or grants back then), and have funds for emergencies when they arose (and they did). They did not use credit cards or borrow beyond their mortgage, but that was more something I sensed then rather than heard from them. The result though was that their frugality came across as stingy, cheap, and uncaring – frugality was never a positive. One of my strongest memories of my parents was when I think I was 13 or 14, and they bought our family a color TV. It was meant to be a surprise, and the day it was delivered my sister and I were home from school, but we sent the delivery man away, not because it wasn’t safe to let him in the house but because we knew that even in our wildest imaginations there was no way our parents would ever spend their money on a new, let alone a color, TV and he must have gotten the name mixed up with someone else.

Of all the factors that affected my early views on money, probably the most influential was my parents’ choice to settle in San Marino. To this day I don’t understand why we lived there, and I didn’t understand it at the time either. I know my mom wanted to live in San Marino because her parents** did, because the neighborhoods were close-knit, and because it was a beautiful city with amazing schools, but the cost of living there was well out of my parents’ league in spite of their two incomes (the city was also lily white at the time, and I’m ashamed to admit that aspect must have appealed to my parents as well). San Marino was (and still is) a very expensive place to live and it was often difficult and discouraging for me to live in a place where everyone else seemed to have not just everything but so much of it, and where it felt like money never seemed to be an object except for our family. We certainly weren’t destitute, but I know now we could have lived just as close to our grandparents and had an easier time of things financially if my parents had chosen to live in South Pasadena, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Pasadena or any number of other neighboring cities. We would have gotten a good education too.

In hindsight though, things might not have been as different as I imagine. Later in life, when my mom had a solid amount in savings and a steady income, she was still always moaning about being “broke” and not having enough money, the same complaint I heard all the time growing up. I wonder if us living less expensive location would have or could have changed those perceptions. Both of my parents were good savers but they never seemed to have figured how to invest, or make their money work for them so that they could someday follow their dreams. For years my dad, who had been a navigation officer in the navy and loved being out on the ocean, talked about buying a “tuna boat” and taking us around the world, but he never did anything to make his dream or anything resembling it a reality. He slogged along in a 9-5 environment his whole career, never rising very high up the chain and becoming more bitter and resentful as he went along. His bitterness and failure to go after his dream deeply affected me and my later views about money and dreams.

Drill team girl (what surprises me in this picture is not that I was ever this young and thin, but that you can see the mountains in the background – usually they were completely obscured by smog)

It also always seemed in our family that boys were more valued than girls when it came to how our family’s money was allocated. The favoritism could be blatantly overt at times too. For example, my parents bought all of my older brother’s clothing from a top men’s shop in Pasadena, and his expensive shoes from a high-end local store. The clothes my parents bought for my sister and me, on the other hand, came from cheap discount stores (and we didn’t get any more clothes than my brother), and I sometimes had to use my babysitting earnings to buy shoes when I got to high school. Both my brothers also played hockey for years, and new skates and other equipment was purchased without complaint or question for them every year, sometimes more than once a year if they grew out of things. My parents also spent time and $$$$ driving them to games and practices around L.A. County or to send them to exclusive hockey camps. I had two years of private clarinet lessons, and got my teeth straightened, but my sister and I were often refused things we asked to do, told they were too expensive or my parents didn’t have the time. I earned a place on the high school’s school drill team in my sophomore year, but instead of receiving congratulations the first thing my dad did was yell at me about having to buy the uniform (which cost the same as a pair of hockey skates).

Anyway, at age 18 I headed off to college not knowing the first thing about money or how to manage it, or if as a female I was even worthy of managing it. I just dreamed of having it. I was not afraid to work, and knew how to save for things I wanted in the short term, but I was pretty much a confirmed spender at that point in my life, always desiring, and buying the things my friends or others had, believing that when I had those things life would be better. I was considered a goofy, immature, frivolous person by my family, and if I’m honest, when it came to my finances back then I lived up to that reputation.

My grandparents’ house (on the right) was a very special place for me. My grandmother planted the (now very big) ginko tree in front when I was a little girl.

**My grandparents were also solidly middle middle-class, but they were able to buy a beautiful Mediterranean-style house in San Marino in 1925 at a bargain basement price when the builder went broke and couldn’t pay my grandfather his insurance premiums. My grandparents were always very frugal, and they were careful, dedicated savers who invested in property throughout Southern California whenever possible (they even owned an orange grove at one time). They always took good care of their home and possessions. My mom once said her parents were actually quite stingy, but they were always very generous to me and my siblings. I think my grandmother (my grandfather died when I was seven) turned out to be a stronger positive role model, financial and otherwise, than my parents ever were.

12 thoughts on “Family, Money, Travel: Part I

  1. Juhli Hall Newkirk says:

    How interesting. I was just having a discussion with my younger son this weekend about the different approaches he and his wife have to money (they are in the process of buying a more expensive house and budgets, priorities, etc. for money were a big topic of discussion while I was visiting). We talked about family influence, birth order impact as we had more discretionary income for his childhood than we did for his much older brother. I knew money was tight for my parents but they never made me feel they were stingy but rather that they had priorities for what money they did have. I knew they made sacrifices to provide my brother and I with not only what we needed but many of our wants. They looked for how to meet our wants less expensively or asked us to wait as they didn’t have the money right now. No actual money instruction but we did get an allowance and my Dad made a deal with me that he would buy as much fabric as I wanted if I made my clothing so I was able to have nicer clothes than they could afford. I’m very glad both my sons and DILs talk about money very openly and thoroughly discuss big financial decisions. Didn’t mean to write an essay!

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    • Laura says:

      Thank you for sharing! There are so many influences to how each family deals with financial issues – birth order is definitely one of them, but in my family gender played a role as well (and not just financially – it played a role in just about everything). I know now my parents had priorities as well, but growing up those were not communicated and were a mystery to me. I never felt like “we were all in this together.” One thing my parents did occasionally communicate were the sacrifices they were making, or what they were going without – not sure why other than to maybe make us feel guilty? Anyway, this was a good exercise for me to think about these things, and the baggage I’ve carried along and maybe inflicted on my own children, although we’ve tried to be more open with our kids when it comes to family finances.

      Like you, I sewed my own clothes because I could have nicer things that way – back then it was less expensive to make your own than buy, something that’s not always the case now. I have no memories of my mom or dad buying fabric for me though – maybe they did sometimes but there’s no memories of shopping with my mom.

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  2. Cindy in the South says:

    That is interesting. I grew up in North Alabama, as an only child, of a single mother who worked as an RN. Her mom lived with us, and took care of me. We lived in a three bedroom two bath brick home, and were middle class for the small town where I grew up. I never felt deprived, but most folks went to visit relatives on vacation, and a few went to the beach in Florida, or to the Smokey Mountains. I had decent clothes. I think the area where I lived is the reason I have felt no pressure to keep up with the Jones, because no one flaunted anything in my small town. Most folks lived in reasonable, brick style ranch homes built in the early 60’s. My mom said my grandma could squeeze a dollar out of a dime, and that came from raising six kids on a farm during the Depression. I had four kids and, unfortunately, ended up being divorced. Some of my children have done really well, some have struggled mightily. Their father is a spendthrift, in my opinion, as was his mom, and I am the opposite. I raised my kids to be fairly responsible financially, I think. It sounds like you were raised in a much wealthier area.

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    • Laura says:

      Growing up in San Marino had the greatest affect of all on how I grew up understanding money and finances, hands down. It was and still is a very wealthy community, a protected bubble. I am grateful in many ways for being able to live so close to my grandparents, for the opportunities that going to school there provided, and the good friends I had growing up, but it also meant constantly living in an environment where everyone else seemed to financially “have it all” and we didn’t, no matter what. And that can be hard for kids to deal with, understand and absorb – it was for me. There is nothing bad about not having the financial resources that others have (and I’ve since learned there were others in San Marino with less than we had), but I believe that’s when parents need to step up and be open about finances, and to support and encourage kids in other ways, something that didn’t happen in our family. My parents always seemed to be chasing a “San Marino life-style” (big house, etc.) and coming up short, when in hindsight smaller and/or a different location would have probably benefited all of us better.

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  3. Vivian says:

    I don’t remember my parents discussing their finances. I just know if I asked for something and they didn’t have the money I didn’t get it. I was paid a $1 for every A on my report card and school was considered to be my job. One thing they did which made a big impression was taking me to the bank when I was eleven and setting up my own saving account. I got my social security card at the same time. Saving was emphasized. I still remember buying my piano for $125. (the family was posted overseas) Over the years, my parents have borrowed from me and I have borrowed from them and we always pay each other back. They led more by example instead of talking financial matters. I do know my father was the first to mention a new thing called an IRA and we started accounts about the same time. I remember growing up I wanted to be rich and retired by 30. Don’t know where the idea came from but it helped shape my views on the importance of saving. Did not learn investing from them as they were both children of the depression and did not and still don’t trust the stock market. I did know that after I was born mama went down to 89 lbs because they paid their bills before they ate. I believe Daddy was making $80 a month at that time. The most important things were Save, Save, Save and pay your bills.

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    • Laura says:

      I don’t know that I ever really expected my parents to discuss the nuts and bolts of their finances (income, how much the mortgage was, what was in the bank, etc.) but it would have been helpful to have an idea of their goals, dreams, etc. and what they saved for so diligently and an effort to make us “part of the team” – I didn’t understand all of that though until I was older and out of the house. It’s something we’ve always tried to do for our own children. My grandparents couldn’t qualify for either health or life insurance, and had to have savings to cover health care and to make sure there was money for my grandmother if my grandfather died before her (she lived 18 years longer than my grandfather, on the savings they had accumulated and the property investments they had made). But that was something their children knew – outside of having to live through the Depression, my mom, aunt and uncle were given an understanding of why my grandparents saved as much as they did, and why they invested. My grandparents still made sure their kids had everything they needed, and fulfilled many wants for them as well. They had a beautiful, well-cared for home with quality furnishings, nice clothes, books, etc. Different times, but from what I knew my mom grew up much better off than we did.

      I remember having savings account opened for us in elementary school, but we never had money after that to deposit so I’m not sure what the point was – I certainly didn’t learn anything about saving. We didn’t get paid for grades although my grandmother gave me $1 – $5 if I got straight As.

      My grandparents and parents also avoided the stock market for the most part because of the Depression.

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  4. tpol1 says:

    Money was always tight in my family. Both my parents sacrificed quiet a lot to give me and my sister a real good education. They would put their salaries together, work out numbers and decide how much money can be spent on wants rather than needs in a given month. However, they were not too keen on saving which is partially due the fact that, during the 70s,80s and even 90s, the inflation was so high in this country that spending always made more sense. In my case, I think I am born frugal. I have always made a budget ever since I started reading, writing and doing basic arithmetics. I am also luckier than my parents since I have been able to make a lot more money than they did even at the beginning of my career thanks to the education they provided. I always contributed to the family budget as soon as I started working. Helped them buy a new car, make payments on the mortgage and did a lot of grocery shopping and bought my sister stuff that would be normally considered expensive wants like brand name shoes and such.
    My grandmother on my mom’s side was very frugal due to having to raise three kids solely on my grandpa’s salary and I always looked up to her. So, may be my frugality is coming from her frugal genes. I always paid myself first, always saved money to buy something big instead of borrowing money and always set aside money for fun. I am also lucky to have access to many resources on personal finance thanks to the Internet.

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    • Laura says:

      Sometimes I’ve wondered if there is a “frugal gene;” that is, why some kids take right to savings and good money management, and others struggle with it. When I think back on my own childhood and after raising children, I believe now that it’s a combination of many factors including family circumstances, parent involvement, birth order, a child’s temperament, and other things. All of these come together for some kids and they discover frugality and the power of saving early; for others, like me, it’s more of a journey and sometimes a struggle. Anyway, I think if we think back on our past and on these factors we can find many of the reasons for our frugality or lack of it. In your case, your liking to do basic arithmetic combined with a love of reading and writing, when added to other things going on in your, was something that encouraged you to enjoy keeping a budget and saving.

      I agree that the Internet resources for personal finance that are available today are amazing – I have learned so much from others’ stories and journeys.

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  5. Jan says:

    Two different stories show how I was formed.
    1) When we had been married about seven months my husband came home. I announced that we were broke and we could not spend anything for the next 10 days. My husband complied- but on the sixth day was looking for change in the couch for the bus to the Pentagon. I told him to take the money out of the bank and rolled my eyes. He was livid. He had no idea that “being broke” meant we were down to the last $500 liquid dollars—only used for emergencies.
    2) About two months before my dad passed he went to the Church and wrote a very large check. He told me about it. I went into the pastor’s office and asked for the money back because my mother thought they had nothing left for her to live on. When he passed, she inherited well into the seven figures. She knew, absolutely, nothing about the family finances. And she never gave the money back to the Church….
    I was brought up middle of five. We never worried about money. We always had ways to make money. Still, I was brought up with the “bag lady syndrome”. The number of divorces soared in the 1970’s and so many of the well off ladies were left with kids for “trophy wives”. They all did fine in 10 or more years—but it was always there—you COULD be poor. This “bag lady” learned to save (and always attempts to help the poor).

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  6. Laura says:

    Thank you for sharing these. I recognize them both – we also had an emergency fund which sadly sometimes disappeared because . . . stuff happened.

    Growing up, my mom often told me that women should always be able to support themselves, that they should never be dependent on a man’s income or count on it being there for them, and she scoffed at women who didn’t work. But, my mom still never shared anything with me about money management, or that even if you worked there were still things like rent, food, etc. to pay for and how you created a budget and managed those things. Also, she and my dad were stuck in the old-fashioned notion that the only “proper” jobs for women were teacher, nurse, or secretary (maybe social worker but it could be problematic because you might have to deal with “strange” people). There was no encouragement to pursue science, or engineering, or something like architecture, or anything that might provide an income enough to support yourself. All the teachers I knew, men or women, if they weren’t married they lived in near poverty so I initially chose to go into nursing. But, I ended up teaching.

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  7. Laurel Hill says:

    Great topic. My parents were both raised in the Depression but had different reactions to it. My dad worried about money until the day he died. We were raised poor, but he did well once he bought his own business. He had a money in/money out mentality and did all kinds of weird jobs after he sold his business and retired to make pin money. He also didn’t believe in life insurance (why buy something you have to die to collect?) and had an accountant that mimimized his income on paper, so his social security was much lower than it could have been. Strange money strategies IMO.

    My mom grew up dirt poor on a farm during the Depression and they grew their own food and raised a cow and chickens for milk and eggs. My grandad (besides hunting and fishing) rode th train to the nearest town for day work, and my mom remembers him walking home along the tracks one day (10+ miles) because he spent the train fare on bananas, which he loved. Needless to say, if she had a nickel, she bought an ice cream cone.

    These mixed messages produced strange money attitudes in my siblings and me, and money is a pretty loaded topic in our family. We all knew we had to “paddle our own canoe”, as my dad said, and we are all success on different levels in different careers.

    Being the oldest of six, I was a solid babysitter, and at 12, I started babysitting for five kids all summer while their mom and dad worked. Over the years, I also picked strawberries, washed windows, and played the church organ for spending money. The highlight of our summers was a trip to Duluth, MN, where I could buy clothes (at one of the first Target stores) and spend the clothing money I saved all summer.

    I’ve always had money anxiety, and particularly after my divorce and before my retirement, I feared becoming a bag lady under an overpass in an appliance box. But on some level, I think watching my parents showed me I needed to mix his anxiety and her ability to enjoy money. Not a bad outcome. Those money messages run deep!

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    • Laura says:

      My siblings and I all have different attitudes about money as well, another reason I think birth order is an important factor in how people from the same family view and spend money. Every child has a different childhood in the same family, and that’s true for money as well.

      I wonder how your dad remembered those bananas, whether he wished he’d saved the money for his train fare, or if they were worth every step he took on the way home? There are things I regret spending money on but other things that I still have and love or things I still savor the memory of – they were worth every penny because I enjoyed them at the time and were worth the short term financial suffering I/we had to experience at the time.

      I love your comment about being able to mix anxiety about money with the ability to enjoy it. That is the sweet spot to keep working toward.

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