My 87-year-old grandfather is unusually honest with me about money, mostly about the fact that he has very little. I found out last year that Grandpa has about five years left before he’s completely broke, meaning if he and my 82-year-old Gram hit their late eighties and nineties, they won’t have anything left to live on.
He doesn’t tell me because he expects my help. If anything, he’s too proud to accept it. Gram doesn’t know how close they are to broke, can’t know. Instead, Grandpa shares his financial concerns with me because we have a fairly honest and open relationship. I call at least once a week and tell them both about my work, my marriage, my life. I send them postcards when I travel. Gram sends me typed letters when she feels well enough to write.
Like a lot of senior citizens in this country, Gram and Grandpa live on an extremely fixed income. He’s a veteran and retired minister, so he gets military and church pension on top of Social Security. Gram worked intermittently for the church over the years between bouts of health trouble but never earned a pension. None of that adds up to very much end-of-life savings. Because they always lived in parsonage and never their own home, they didn’t have decades worth of income from owning real estate. They have a lot of health problems, which runs up quite a bill too, even with Medicare and Medicaid kicking in.
The Walmart 15 miles down the road from their rural central Florida trailer park is the closest—and by far the cheapest—market my grandparents have. They buy everything there: eggs, bread, Cool Whip, air freshener. Last time I visited, I did their shopping so Grandpa wouldn’t have to leave Gram alone at home.
For the past decade, I’ve lived in cities where local residents won’t even allow a Walmart to move in—and there are lots of good reasons why: Walmart is bad for small businesses, they’re often bad for workers. But for me, the self-righteous politicizing about Walmart stops mattering when it’s the only place the people I love can shop. After I grabbed everything on Grandpa’s short list, I paid the $20-something bill myself, knowing he could do nothing but protest later, far too late for it to matter. When I got back to their place, I slipped the money he’d given me for the trip back into his wallet, along with a $100 gift card.
I wouldn’t have mentioned it to him except that I could predict his reaction. About two weeks later, I called after 8 p.m., knowing Gram would be asleep and we could talk without her getting on the second phone to join in. “Did you find anything in your wallet recently?” I asked.
“I did!” Grandpa practically shouted. “I went back over my notes again and again, trying to figure out where it came from. I was sure I forgot to thank someone!” He’d thought it was a holiday gift of some sort, that he’d forgotten to call some poor unthanked friend.
“I’m not telling you because I want you to thank me,” I said. “I’m telling you so you don’t worry.” Obviously, I should have told him sooner, but I first had to get back home to California so we didn’t get into a ridiculous in-person back-and-forth about how he thinks I can’t afford it. We repeat ourselves a lot, him increasingly concerned that I’m not saving for old age, me reassuring him, “We have it under control. We love you. It’s our turn to help.”
My grandparents have always been extremely generous, to the point of giving away small sums of money when they don’t have it to spare. Since I was a child, they’ve sent anywhere from $25 to $75 for birthdays and holidays. Now that I’m married, my husband also gets $25—one large check covers my Christmas Eve birthday and Christmas for us both, itemized in the memo field. When I finished my master’s degree and was packing to move to Copenhagen, they sent me $300 toward a new bike. Giving is a point of pride for them and especially important to my Gram, maybe because she has no idea that the $25 she just sent to one of her upwardly mobile grandson-in-laws would have paid for her biweekly grocery bill.
A couple of years ago, they sent me $40 on my birthday. I was in northern Denmark, spending the holidays with my lovely Danish in-laws, financially comfortable retired librarians who have always lived with little need or want for anything. When I opened the envelope that contained two twenty-dollar bills, unusable overseas but yet another more generous gift than my grandparents could actually afford to send, my eyes clouded up, and I hurriedly excused myself. Behind closed doors, I cried about poverty and inequality. My in-laws probably spent $40 on chocolates to serve during the holidays that year, and I cried about the economic state of the world that suddenly felt like it was resting on my shoulders.
Even before I knew how dire their financial situation had become, that unspendable $40 came to represent everything about how my financial relationship with my grandparents would work going forward. In my most supposedly “broke” state, I always have $40. Relatively speaking, I always have $400 or even $4,000. So now, when Grandpa tells me his microwave has stopped working, I wonder how quickly I can send him a new one. When their cordless phone went on the fritz earlier this year, I sent a mid-range replacement via Amazon before Grandpa even had time to head to Walmart to price the cheap ones. If I could figure out what kind of typewriter ribbon Gram uses in her electric Smith Corona, I’d send her a case of it.
A couple of months ago, I sent Grandpa another gift card—a $500 one. Frankly, I didn’t buy one worth $1,000 because I worry about stressing all those stents supporting his heart. And, he’s a proud man, so he isn’t always thrilled that I do this stuff. He’s appreciative, sure. But he worries that I’m somehow frittering away my retirement savings on him, forgetting that I learned to live modestly from his example. This time, I gave him a heads up and called late at night to warn him that two envelopes were on the way: one, a holiday card addressed to him and Gram that they could open together, and another, a nondescript envelope addressed only to him with a note written on an index card that he could quickly toss out before she saw it. The actual gift card would fit snugly in his shirt pocket. By the time he got back from his walk to the mailbox, I knew he’d have it tucked away.
We’ve never spoken about the amount, though I might get an earful when I visit later this spring. Knowing Grandpa, he’ll make this card last the better part of this year. But I know how to check the account balance. As soon as it dips below $40—or whenever I visit next, whichever comes sooner—he’ll get another one.
Brittany Shoot’s grandparents read her articles in Time, Mental Floss, and Sojourners when she mails them a copy. // photo of Grandpa by Brittany Shoot.