Lesson Unlearned

Richard Quinn

IF YOU LIVED through the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the Second World War, your view of money was likely molded by those traumatic back-to-back experiences. You might respond by trying to build wealth, so you’re better prepared for the future, whatever it brings. Alternatively, you might hunker down and become ultraconservative for fear of losing everything.

My parents, born in 1910 and 1918, took the hunker down approach. When I was born, my father was a tower man on the railroad, helping to direct trains. But for decades after, he was a car salesman. He sold Packard, Studebaker, Edsel and, in his final years, Mercedes. He worked from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., seven days a week, until the law prevented Sunday sales. For most of his sales career, he worked strictly on commission. No sales, no pay—though he could draw an advance on future sales.

I recall one year he was especially proud of his income, hitting an all-time high of $25,000. I used to think how pathetic that was until I adjusted it for inflation. In today’s dollars, that $25,000 would be equal to some $220,000. He had a right to be proud.

My mother controlled the money, with an emphasis on control. Spending was a major event. In 1968, my parents gave my new wife and me a wedding present of $12. I never knew if there wasn’t enough money or my mother was simply terrified of spending. When I was growing up, we were the only ones in our extended family who didn’t own their home. Finally, when my father was 60, they bought a house to share with my sister and her family—eight people, one tiny bathroom.

What money my parents had was in the bank, most of it in a checking account. Investing was out of the question. I did convince my mother to buy 75 shares of the utility where I worked. I was never able to convince her to enroll in the dividend reinvestment plan so, when she died many years later, I inherited the 75 shares. Instead, she used the meager dividends to buy birthday presents.

How did my parents’ view of money impact me? I inherited the frugal gene. Fortunately, my wife and I are on the same page when it comes to spending. We don’t buy until we have the cash to cover the cost. We’ve never paid a penny in credit card interest. If necessary, we do without. Our standard of living today is above average, because we lived below our means for the first 40 years of our marriage.

But while my parents influenced my spending, I never stuffed my savings in the local bank. For better or worse, I’ve been investing since I was 18. I was quite naive in the early years. Over time, I got better and more patient, but I was far from being an expert. My 401(k) grew steadily and still does. My IRAs are okay. Over the years, as I acquired my employer’s stock, it was all placed in the dividend reinvestment plan. To help with a good night’s sleep, I also invested in municipal bond mutual funds, where the tax-free interest is—for now—also reinvested.

And as I’ve learned how to manage money, I’ve tried to pass on the knowledge. My work designing and managing employee benefit plans included communications. I became obsessed with trying to educate employees and their families on all things related to their 401(k), pension plan and health benefits. To be sure, it could be frustrating. But nearly 10 years after I retired, I occasionally receive a “thank you” from an employee or a retiree—and that means a lot.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Making It WorkRighting Wrongs and Basket Case. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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