Back in the 1950s, my grandmother raised seven kids on one income. My grandpa was an Army general, and the family’s only perk, since they moved often, was that they had low rent. Nevertheless, money was frequently tight for my grandparents.
My grandfather remembers that after everything was budgeted for, he had a meager allowance for himself — generally just enough for a comic book and a haircut. The rest of the money was for my grandmother to manage. And when I look back at how she did it, there are quite a few things my grandma taught me by example.
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How My Grandma Managed Family Money
After World War II, inflation was rampant, so she would dig through the bags of sliced bread at the supermarket to find the one that still had the pre-hike price tag.
At home, no food was wasted, ever. Stale bread became pudding and French toast, while old fruit was preserved for the winter.
To this day, my grandparents never waste food — something I avoid as well, as it feels equivalent to throwing away cash.
They cooked everything from scratch, from birthday cakes to Christmas turkey, and they never went out to eat.
Being from a family of seven herself, Grandma got a lot of hand-me-downs from her siblings, like cots, clothes, and other baby accessories. The rest she often sewed herself.
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My mum was the eldest, and I remember pictures of my uncle, the second oldest, with clothes that were a bit girly, as if for the first few months he wore my mother’s clothes. Knee and elbow holes in their clothes were patched, and socks were mended. Sixty years later, when I visit home, I still sleep in the same bed my mother grew up in.
To take care of herself, Grandma also had a few tricks. A bottle of perfume or nail polish would last her 10 times longer than other women. She would make her own dresses with old fabric, and had only a few quality pairs of shoes of which she took good care.
My grandfather would also keep an impeccably detailed log of car and house maintenance to avoid costly breakdowns and repairs. If something wasn’t broken, it wasn’t replaced. They kept TVs and ovens for decades.
What’s Worth Spending Money On?
Ways to save money weren’t the only things my grandma taught me, though.
The two items my grandparents did spend money on were in line with their values: education and holidays.
The kids attended private school, where each sibling got a steeper discount than the previous. And come summer, the lack of seatbelt regulations allowed my grandparents to pack all seven kids into a car for a drive to the countryside.
Now don’t imagine some fancy resort vacation. Everyone packed a sandwich, they took the scenic route to avoid tolls, and they spent a month at their parents’ place. Still, the kids got to play with their cousins and be around animals and nature.
Just Say “No” to Debt
Another important thing my grandma taught me? If debt isn’t necessary, don’t mess with it. My grandparents never took on any debt except for their mortgage. There was simply no money for interest. If a kid wanted something, he could either work for it or wait until there was money — that is, if my grandparents deemed the expense worthy.
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I admire that mentality: “What we have is what there is.”
You don’t take a loan to buy something unless it’s an investment. When times were tough, they kept their can-do attitude.
Other Things My Grandma Taught Me
Sure, my grandma could have found a job, but paying for day care alone would have taken most if not all of her earnings. Plus, there would have been less time for her thrifty endeavors.
They really only lived as a family of nine for eight years, from the time their last child was born until my mom got married. And as each kid left the house, things got easier.
Thankfully, with such a tight budget, they never faced any big emergency.
My grandparents often talk about sleepless nights spent thinking there was no room for a mistake.
An emergency fund would have definitely been useful! But because they never gave in to lifestyle inflation, most of the newfound room in the budget went into savings. This allowed them to have a comfortable retirement to this day.
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Fiscal Grandparents Sound Off
Pauline’s grandma isn’t the only cash-savvy grandparent out there. We asked around to see what other money lessons people remembered from their parents’ parents.
The Importance of Entrepreneurship
“My grandfather had his own business to provide for his family,” says financial motivational speaker Damisha Ricks, author of How to Move Out and Not Be Broke. “He did not want to work for anyone else as a minority in the Jim Crow South. This instilled a hard work ethic in all of his kids and grandkids.”
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New Experiences > New Stuff
Pay It Forward
“My grandfather was a steelworker and made financial sacrifices to send his son and daughter, my mother, to college so they could earn a bachelor's degree,” parent educator Susan Santoro says. “Each generation of my family recognizes our responsibility to the next one and passes that lesson onward.”
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.