How Grandparents Do Money

4 generationsMy grandma is 101-and-a-half. (With centenarians, like toddlers, you have to be exact.) Most likely, she is NYU’s oldest living alumnus. She graduated with a degree in Journalism during the Depression, back when Journalism was an actual career people had. Born in what’s now Bed Stuy, she has lived in the same cushy DC two-bedroom high-rise condo for several decades, with a view out onto the pool. From the time my grandpa died in the early aughts until this past October, she had only MSNBC for company. Now she has a live-in nurse. Still, she reads, and knits, and does her exercises, and she could teach me lots of lessons about life and finances, if only she remembered things anymore.

My grandpa handled the money over their 55+ years of marriage. Once he was gone, my mother had to teach my grandma how to use an ATM. Money in the abstract makes her nervous: she has very little sense of what things cost anymore, prefers to spend as little as possible, frets about whether she has enough. She does. Though my grandpa was born in a tenement building on the Lower East Side, in a family so large and poor he didn’t have a bed to sleep in let alone a bedroom, he too went to college — CCNY, baby! — and then to war and to work, hoisting his own family into the middle class, and then further up, because why stop there?

What he made, he invested, and the stock market treated him well. Though there was that one time he had the opportunity to buy a plot of land next to what was going to be Disney World and he was like, “A movie-themed amusement park? Why would anyone think that crazy idea is going to take off?” But the same gene that kept him from making the occasional good risky investment kept him from making lots of bad ones, too. 

He and my grandma bought a second home in southern Vermont, so instead of going south for the winters, they went north, where they ate salads made with local vegetables and adorned with tofu, and crunched their way through the snowbanks on long morning walks. They prioritized travel and hobbies: photography for him (he had his own darkroom), watercolors for her (she had her own studio). They hung their own art on the walls, so thankfully it was good. They shopped at outlets and garage sales. But they didn’t buy much.

I never saw them fight over money. In fact, I never saw them fight. They seemed pleased with each other, low-key, content. One time, while he and I were in the backyard in Vermont, he confessed to me that he didn’t like the patio furniture my grandma had bought. “Why don’t you say something?” I asked. “Because it doesn’t matter,” he said, “and that’s how you stay married.”

They raised two kids, who each had three kids, so they were pretty happy about that. On Friday nights, he used to make us challah by hand and then bless my brothers and me in the gravelly voice he was left with, post-throat cancer. For dessert, we ate my grandma’s sugar-free brownies, which were not exactly delicious but traditional. They tasted like what she stood for, the animating principle of her life with my grandpa: moderation. I’ve learned a lot from my grandparents, and I tell her that now, whenever I visit, and she glows at me, squeezing my hand, as though she’s hearing the compliment for the first time.

What financial lessons did you learn from your grandparents?


14 Comments / Post A Comment

LookUponMyWorks (#2,616)

Four generations in one photo? Lovely. :-)

Let’s see, most prominent money lesson I learned from one granny was never to go to the bingo hall or the slot machines with more than I would happily give away to a stranger for no reason (so about $10 in my case). She loved gambling and sometimes did quite well but more often than not lost the money she walked in with. It left me very skeptical about gambling…

Kate (#1,408)

“One time, while he and I were in the backyard in Vermont, he confessed to me that he didn’t like the patio furniture my grandma had bought. “Why don’t you say something?” I asked. “Because it doesn’t matter,” he said, “and that’s how you stay married.””

This is so so true and I love it. The whole article was fantastic, but that was my favorite.

janicek (#612)

Hmmm I don’t know how billfold friendly my lessons were but here goes:

1. Spend your money now instead of saving it all for later, because you never know where life will take you and someday you might get in a horrific car accident that leaves you completely unable to travel for the rest of your life. (Both of my grandparents died young after hoarding all their money. They never did travel, unless you count traveling to Germany in World War 2!)

2. You can either be abandon your children until they’re adults OR refuse to save for retirement, not both.

PicNic (#3,760)

my grandmother once pushed my mom into oncoming traffic because she saw a quarter on the ground and thought my mom was going for it. Apparently it’s everyone for themselves in my family. (no one was hurt in the making or telling of this story)

this story is way more adorable though! :)

Beans (#1,111)

My grandmother is amazingly generous with her us, her grandchildren, but has always been very stingy with herself. She always seems to think she doesn’t deserve nice things. So I hope to hold onto the spirit of generosity but also maybe have a more balanced outlook than she does…

Allison (#4,509)

well, I learned to expect to live into my 90s! which is terrifying.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

One grandma taught me that every time I go into the store, I get a treat. The other grandma taught me that you buy one candy bar, put it in the freezer, and slowly break off chunks to eat so it lasts longer.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

(Also — this is a lovely story and your grandparents sound awesome!)

NoName (#3,509)

My grandparents taught me:

1) You can grow a little bit of food anywhere. Sunny windowsill, apartment balcony, vacant lot. Grow your own food and you will always eat like royalty.

2) Drinks make a party – don’t kill yourself handcrafting food when you can just have a couple of bottles of top-shelf booze/sodas, hummus and chips, and a Costco lasagne and everyone will have a ball.

3) Buy quality and pay cash.

Lily Rowan (#70)

Your grandparents sound great!

My one grandmother taught me to buy quality on sale.

ATF (#4,229)

Oh my goodness. I could write a tawdry novel about what my mother’s parents taught me about money.

Long story short – my grandfather was likely born wealthy (this is disputed) but everything was lost in the depression. He dropped out of school and eventually became $$$ through various businesses with some of his brothers. At some point there was a massive family fight and my grandfather made off with most of the money/businesses/yacht/pony farm and stopped talking to most of the people in his family. My mother is one of 8 (7 girls (two adopted in what is its own fascinating story regarding Catholic Charities orphanages and their polices allowing the teenage volunteers to take kids home for weekends) and 1 boy). My grandfather never treated anything equal, vastly favored the boy, his death + poorly thought out estate planning + long simmering jealousy issues + shitty behavior by the son = lots of law firms in Boston got extremely wealthy off of this in the late 90s and now we don’t talk to much of my mother’s family, although she does still talk to her brother.

So the moral of the story is don’t do money like my grandfather did. Ever.

Elsajeni (#1,763)

My grandfather grew up poor and (according to family legend, anyway) swore a vow to himself that, if he ever made it, he would have ice cream with dinner every night. He did make it; I don’t think he stuck to the letter of the vow, but he did have some kind of dessert with dinner every night, and always had a tub of his favorite ice cream in the freezer. He was a notorious cheapskate in every other respect, and I’m sure he would hate to think that this was the main financial lesson I learned from his life, but he taught me that money exists to be used — that, if you have enough money to spend a little on the things that make you happy, you should, because otherwise what’s the use of having it at all.

My grandparents, taught me to make it, grow it, and make it last, reinforced by my mother who can make or fix anything.

andnowlights (#2,902)

My grandmother’s most recent piece of advice was “don’t marry an alcoholic because he’ll drink all the savings away”… a little bleak (she was talking about my grandfather), but on a larger scale, it actually makes sense to not marry someone with an addiction problem. The problem in her case is that he developed the problem later in life and got really bad when he retired. Can’t see that one coming.

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