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.
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 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.