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Setting an Example

Richard Quinn

THIS PAST FATHER’S Day, I was listening to a financial talk show. The host asked listeners to phone in and describe how their father influenced their thinking about money.

Callers related that their fathers told them to save early, to not waste money, to avoid debt and a few other basic ideas like “don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses.”

I told my wife I couldn’t recall my father ever talking to me about money. Sadly, the same was true about college and getting a job.

“Maybe he gave you the best advice by setting an example,” my wife said.

My father didn’t have a career. He had a job. In fact, several jobs, including station master for a railroad and car salesman. He had little time for much other than work, seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., until the law prevented Sunday car sales. Vacations were rare and short. For many years, he worked strictly on commission—no sale, no pay, just an advance. He sold several different car makes early on, but the last 20 years or so he sold Mercedes.

I often wonder how he felt the day a customer purchased a 300SL for cash—literally—while he couldn’t afford a car. That cash was equal to about $108,000 in today’s dollars. While other family members all had houses, we lived in a small, rented apartment. When my dad was 63, he and my mother jointly bought a house with my sister and her family.

My father continued to work six days a week until the day in 1977 when his boss simply said that, at age 67, he wasn’t needed anymore. My parents never had credit cards. They didn’t have any investments, either.

I doubt retirement planning ever crossed their minds. You just kept working until you couldn’t. After his forced retirement, my parents did what they did all their lives—pretty much nothing. My mother was a homemaker until the day she died. They had no special activities, no desire to travel and no money to do so. They lived on Social Security and, I suspect, would have struggled except they lived and shared expenses with my sister. My parents were not unique for their generation. Their experience living through the Great Depression and Second World War not only made them financially frugal, but also it prevented them from taking any risk. What little money they did accumulate was in a checking account.

I once talked my mother into buying 75 shares of the utility where I worked. Frankly, I can’t recall how I did that, but I do know she would never enroll in the dividend reinvestment plan. For some reason, that was too much risk, while the tiny dividend checks were real money.

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Did my dad set a poor example? I don’t think of it that way. But I grew up knowing I wanted more security. I don’t think of myself as materialistic, but there were a few goals I set. When I was 18, I told my father someday I would own a Mercedes. That took me another 52 years. On one of our rare six-day driving vacations, when I was age 12, we visited Cape Cod. My father expressed the fleeting dream of a house there. I bought one 32 years later. He never saw the car or the house. I did bring my mother to our Cape Cod house once. She wasn’t impressed and couldn’t wait to get home. She never visited again.

We are all shaped by our life experiences, both good and bad. Sometimes, we receive sage advice and ignore it. Sometimes, we just observe others and learn. And sometimes, we learn from making mistakes.

My experience showed me retirement can be more than sitting on the front porch, that saving is not the same as investing and that living on Social Security alone isn’t enjoyable for most people. I also learned that just rambling through life without goals is both boring and risky.

By example, Dad did teach me many good things, although I doubt he knew it. My feelings about work, money and responsibility, and the importance I attach to goals and perseverance in the face of obstacles, have served me well. And I learned all that by observing him.

Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.com. Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
2 months ago

Looking back, I was very lucky. I grew up in the house my parents bought for $8,000 (I mention that to give you an idea of our level of affluence). My dad worked at the local insurance company and my mom was a housewife. She was also an investor. Any money saved from using coupons or garage sales was invested. She also encouraged me to buy stocks at a young age, around 8, and then matched the dividends that were paid out and when they had accumulated to enough she bought more shares for me. It seemed like a normal thing to do at the time. Now I realize how lucky I was to have that kind of “training.”

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
2 months ago

Richard, thanks for sharing with us. Your parents remind me of my grandparents.

My dad was a good model for reasonable frugality. He was also a terrible investor in every respect except the one that counted most. He maxed his 401K, and made sure us kids knew it.

I have him to thank for my determination to start a 401K as soon as feasible, and to fund it as fully as I could.

My kids are both around 20, & have tax-advantaged savings accounts.

medhat
medhat
2 months ago

As always appreciate the great insights Richard. While not directly pertinent to me, my wife’s grandparents lived a life similar to how you describe your parents. You don’t mention it, but what I observed for my wife’s GPs was something that seems challenging in today’s “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality: contentment. After her grandfather passed, my wife’s grandma continued to live off of her Social Security and the interest from her late husband’s pension, and that was more than enough to cover expenses. We obviously covered any random things like the rare dinner at the supper club, and any assorted transportation, but I never got the impression that her grandma felt like she was “missing out” on life. In fact, she was quite open about simply biding her time until she could join her husband. While we absolutely don’t live that way within our household, I sometimes wonder if there are merits to a live of modest contentment that we’ve missed in this work first, relax later lifestyle. While my own situation is clearly buffered by financial security, my current station in life is governed by the ability to pursue rewarding intellectual and emotional engagement, and as you mention, the contrary, to ramble through life without goals, seems not only boring, but wasteful. Perhaps to each his own as to an individual best balance, but all in all I’m grateful that I can set the rules that work for me and my family.

Jack Hannam
Jack Hannam
2 months ago

A “picture is worth a thousand words”. And similarly, so too were the examples set by my parents and other influential figures in my life. I must keep this in mind as I am now setting an example for my children and grandchildren.

bentleyj1
bentleyj1
2 months ago

Your story is familiar to mine, though I’m a few years younger. My dad didn’t tell me much about money and finances, but both he and my mother set exemplary examples by taking responsibility for their lives and working hard. Dad worked as a car salesman on commission for many years and starting about ’64 had his own used car lot for many years. We never kept up with the Jonses but always drove a cool (used) car.

I spent the 70s in the Army and went to college on the GI bill in the early 80s. After graduating and working a couple years as a contract worker, I got my first salary job. I was sooo proud. “I’m a salary man”, I told dad. His response was immediate: “Bad move… they don’t pay you overtime.” For years after, when I was putting in 50-60+ hours a week, I’d hear his voice.

Mike
Mike
2 months ago

Sounds just the way I grew up!

Helpful Neighbor
Helpful Neighbor
2 months ago

Richard- Great article. Thanks for your candidness. I can relate.

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