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.

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 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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