August 12, 2012

Were Our Parents On to Something?

As we navigate our satisfying retirement journey we are living through the effects of The Great Recession. To us, it has been pretty bad. Our parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression. That was a serious kick in the financial head. Even with our relatively high unemployment and anemic growth, I don't see many people selling apples on the street corners or broke businessmen leaping from tall buildings. Frayed as it may be, we do have a safety net to help the most destitute among us.

I was thinking about stories my dad has told me about being a young teen during the 1930's and how tight everything really was: a chicken for dinner as a special treat a few times a year, having to hunt rabbits and deer for many meals, fruit as a special treat....it is hard for us to imagine. If we could maybe there would be a little less complaining about how "bad" things are now.

In any case, I was hunting around the Internet for approaches to life that folks used to help them through the depression and phrases or idioms to describe their experiences. That brought to mind some of those expressions  that might help us today. See if any of these resonate with you:

Waste Not, Want Not. The terms minimalist or voluntary simplicity didn't exit. Many people were living that lifestyle, though not necessarily by choice. But, they did learn to make the most of everything they had. Things were used up, re-purposed, or done without.

Today the average American family throws away $1,600 of food every year - food that sits unused in a refrigerator or on a shelf until it is no longer edible. I know how easy this is: Betty and I throw away $10-$15 worth of produce each week. We have plans to use everything, then something changes and we end up tossing stuff before shopping again. It galls me and we are better than we used to be. But still.....

Pull Yourself Up by Your own Bootstraps and Keep your Nose to the Grindstone. These phrases speaks to personal responsibility. Obviously, there are situations when outside help is needed. Hopefully we are still a society that takes care of those that need aid. But, during the GD, those who could did what they had to do to provide for their families and themselves. They found a way. They worked several jobs. My dad raised vegetables to sell and peddled magazine subscriptions door-to-door to raise money for college. People sold their own furniture or crafts they had created. In many respects we have lost some of this attitude. Too often we hear, "They did it," or "I don't want to work that hard."


A penny saved is a penny earned. This idiom would have to be updated a bit. Countries, including Canada, have plans to eliminate the penny because it costs more to produce one than it is worth. In the U.S. it costs 2.4 cents to produce a 1 cent coin.

But, the point is clear: what you don't spend you have saved. Contrary to the advertisements that claim "the more you spend the more you save," not spending is the best savings plan there is. Our parents and grandparents understood the difference between a want and a need. Too often, today we think those words mean the same thing.

Don't borrow or lend. This is another phrase that would have to be adjusted. It is quite difficult to be part of our society without borrowing money for housing or cars, educations, or even health care emergencies. But, like the "penny saved" idea, borrowing to go on vacation or for the 90" TV is just plain silly. And, we all have heard horror stories of those who lent money to a friend and never saw either again.

Keep your nose out of other's business. Obviously, this was well before the media and people became obsessed with the lives of the "rich and famous." Do we really need to know who will get custody of Tom Cruise's daughter? Is it right to gossip about others' misfortunes? Is your life any better by knowing who the Batchlorette chose?

Don't Cry Over Split Milk. The past is past. Complaining or looking for someone to blame doesn't solve a problem or provide a solution. Correct what you can, repair the damage to the best of your abilities, change your attitude and move on. We spend much too much time and energy rehashing what went wrong or who messed up. It is better to analyze what went wrong and try to prevent it from happening again. Then, move on. Your satisfying retirement requires it.

I am quite sure no one wants to re-live the Great Depression type lifestyle. But, like all of history, there are lessons to be learned. Some can come from simple phrases or idioms, like those above. Can you remember any from your parents or grandparents that I missed?


30 comments:

  1. My parents were the Great Depression/ World War II generation. They went through things that I never came close too. They just did what had to be done and got on with it. They didn't dwell on what had happened to them and certainly never complained. I wrote the following about my father last Memorial Day.
    This Memorial Day I am remembering my Father and his service in World War II. He was a Merchant Mariner. He made the North Atlantic run to supply the British when they stood alone against Nazi Germany. He also made at least one run to Mermansk to supply the Soviets with tanks. They sailed in convoys to minimize the risk of being torpedoed by submarines. At least once, ships in his convoy were hit by torpedoes and he rescued men in the water by going around in a lifeboat and pulling them out. He received a Presidential citation for heroism. I never knew any of this until after his death. He never said a word about it. They really were the greatest generation.

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    1. A great story about your dad. Thank you, Florence. His quiet heroism was a characteristic of that generation.

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  2. Those attitudes are in stark contrast to the "entitlement" mentality of today. While many of the social programs that were born as a result of the Great Depression have been tremendously helpful and have provided support to many in need, I fear they have also fueled an attitude of complacency in others. Not to pick on entitlement programs...

    We as a society have our own set of problems, especially when our "basic needs" include lap top computers and cell phones.

    Don't get me started...

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    1. We have these guidelines right in front of us...if only we would follow them. We are owed nothing, but as you note there is a sense of entitlement that creates a continuing problem.

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  3. My father in law was my inspiration for many of these sayings. He was the youngest of thirteen who came to age in the middle of the depression. Served in the Pacific, but never told us because his mission was top secret. Worked in the first nuclear plants in the US often taking the riskier positions from the younger men.
    His word was his bond. He knew his sons would do better than him, because he believed in them. He died in the house he bought in 1956 for $8,000. One bathroom, four kids. He did not attend church, but did the Church's books. With my mother in law they fed a number of widows from his garden. "half a samwich (his word) and a cup of milk, what else does.a man need?"
    They always made a small wage, but he accumulated $250,000 that he did not touch so that his wife would be taken care of when he passed (he was almost ten years older).
    I know there is a special place in heaven for him. He and my own father are my heroes.

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    1. Be sure to tell this story to your new students. It teaches a very important life lesson that is not often heard today.

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  4. A good lesson. As long as we're comfortable we shouldn't let money worries rule our retirement.

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  5. My dad used to ask me one question (or a variation) which I still use today on just about everything.

    After I do something I use the original version: "was it worth it"

    The longer revised is: "will what I am about to do hold up to making it worth the effort or cost"

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    1. That is a long-term question. Today, we are more likely to only think short-term. Great addition, Stan.

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  6. One thing you missed: our grandparents didn't have television. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" weren't in their faces every day. Commercials for the next shiny "must have" bauble didn't invade their living rooms (and kitchens and bedrooms and basements and wherever else there's a TV today). It was, I think, easier to be happy with what you had when there wasn't a constant voice urging you to go out and get the latest and greatest thing and promoting envy of those who already have it. I'm pretty sure we'd be happier and wealthier (and likely skinnier) if we decided not to watch television commercials.

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    1. You are absolutely right, Jean. TV commercials are designed to get us to do something we don't need to do and sometimes can't afford to do.

      Of course, our parents and grandparents did have radio as a constant companion and it sold stuff too. But, the power of visual advertising to motivate is much more powerful.

      The real problem: 70% of our economy is based on us buying stuff. When we don't buy all sorts of stuff "bad" things happen. When we do buy we get into credit problems and often a financial hole.

      As long as our economy is built on consumption advertising will be there wherever you turn.

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  7. The biggest thing my parents, who lived through the Great Depression and my father's years fighting in the Pacific, imparted to me was a work ethic. As others have written, they went about their business, made lives for themselves and their families, and did not look to take from others what they should have done for themselves. Today, with half the population paying no federal taxes, and many in that group and outside of it clamoring for more and more from government, we have gone 180 degrees away from their attitudes in 1+ generations. Perhaps we do need another Great Depression to show Americans what real hardship is truly like.

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    1. I am sure you are using hyperbole, Chuck. While another Great Depression would teach some valuable lessons, the costs in human life and suffering make it a poor choice to make a point. We tend to not learn and grow until we face trials and problems. But, there has to be a better way.

      The loss of importance of the work ethic that you note is central to identifying the change between the generation you are referring to and our world today. I know a lot of hard working people, young and old. But, they don't seem to be the majority.

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    2. Bob, I agree with your points around the costs of a Great Depression. I wish there was someway to force people to acknowledge how badly we have slipped, and in a very short period of time. I am not sure what that "someway" would be to jolt Americans enough. And I agree that even in today's younger people, there are a number of truly hardworking men and women, but they do seem to be in the minority. I hope I am wrong and like many of us, will grow up with time and responsibility.

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  8. Thanks for making me think again, Bob. I just spent two+ weeks immersed in the Olympics, which I personally enjoyed greatly. I relished the fact that I did not have to go to work so I could watch whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. It was a wonderful adventure, but I noticed how many of the commercials were aired & agree with the idea that those folks are "spell-casters" --- saying whatever necessary to get us to buy whatever they are selling. I shut up the TV cabinet last night & will do without that stimulation for awhile. It was a counterpoint to my life, not my life.

    I hope there is some way to balance personal responsibility with helping those who really need it.....Like Bob, I see many young folks working hard & donating much time to charitable causes. I haven't quantified it to see if they are a majority or not, but I wonder if the continual "reality" information we get makes it easier to see all the flaws, the horrible things humans do to each other. Although I notice more programs like CNN Heroes on occasionally, it seems that folks, just doing their best to make their corner of the world better (no matter what age) do not get the publicity that killing folks in a Colorado movie theater, or a Wisconsin mosque receive.

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    1. Unfortunately, the old newspaper adage, "blood leads" is very much in force. Good news doesn't draw viewers...disasters, bloodshed, accidents, or TV news "Your world could end tomorrow...film at Eleven" are the approaches that draw people.

      Your point is a good one. There is much more good in the world than we hear about. Watching TV news or reading most newspapers gives us a distorted view.

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  9. Your last two points resonate with me. I can't abide reality tv. I don't pay much attention to what goes on with celebrities either. Forgiveness is a big deal in my book (literally) and gratitude comes with that. You can't change the past but you can learn from it.
    b

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    1. Forgiveness probably does more for the person giving the forgiveness than the one receiving it. It allows the forgiver the chance to put something behind him or her and move on.

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  10. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." This was something I heard from my grandparents. My parents were born during the early 30's and remember the GD very well...both were from very meager means. I laughed when I was younger and scoffed at their miserly ways. But the message was planted. And as I have gotten older...they seem wiser all the time. Hopefully, I will see the same in my children and they will enventually pass these truths on to our grandchildren. Seems we all tend to be "slow learners" at times. I read once that when you are young, you look up to your parents. When you are a teen you down on your parents and when you mature, you look them in the eye and accept them for the special person they are. I digress, but the point I want to make is that hopefully, some of the younger generation will mature into less materialistic people as time passes. Otherwise, it is kind of scary. There are so many "things" to tempt the younger generation that we never had to deal with at their age. I keep telling both of our children to "plant good seed to reap a good harvest". I worry that if things were to go to GD conditions that neither of the children's families would know how to cope. Hopefully, my husband and I have equipped them with saving skills that would be useful. Gee, I hope I would have the tenacity to cope with GD conditions....but hope I never have to find out!

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    1. Let's all hope we don't have to repeat it.

      I tend to believe that maturity does bring a better sense of balance and what is really important. Of course, that supposes the person involved actually matures not just chronologically but also emotionally. Those are two very different processes. As parents all we can do is teach the lessons and hope they stick.

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  11. One point I wanted to make was something that my mother told me about the GD. They lived on a farm that was remote, and she told me they never really knew that they did not have much; it was just the way it was. No TV and no Internet to show them what others had and they were missing. Going without new shoes for long periods of time was normal, and they did not regret not going to McDonald's and other trappings of today's world. Much to be said how the media and Madison Ave is causing so much angst in the world today, by portraying how much people are "missing".

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    1. You don't know what you are missing until someone points it out. The entitlement attitude that our culture sells at every level to everyone of us is the problem. Frankly, I don't know if there is a way to turn it off, except one person at a time.

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  12. Diane from Long Beach, CAMon Aug 13, 03:16:00 PM MST

    Bob - thanks for making your e-book available for free. I have already purchased a copy and it contains very vlauable information! Thanks for all of your assistance with this upcoming (Dec. 2012) adventure.

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    1. You are very welcome! AS you get closer to your retirement date, feel free to drop me an e-mail and tell me how things are going.

      I am giving away Building a Satisfying Retirement as both a thank you to readers and to kind of clear the demand before my new book becomes available later this fall!

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  13. I used to say that the Great Depression was a big hoax, perpetrated by our parents to try to keep us in line, do our chores, and appreciate the fact that our family had a car (even though the people down the street had TWO cars).

    When we were kids, my mother used to tell us that there was a time when she didn't have a washing machine, and had to wash clothes by hand using a washboard. We even had an old washboard, with its rippled glass surface, that she kept down in the basement, to "prove" to us the hardships she endured. But . . . I really think she picked up that washboard at a tag sale at some point.

    Anyway, the point is, growing up in the affluent 50s and 60s, the Depression seemed very remote to me. But now . . . I'm finally beginning to believe.

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    1. Our perspective does chance as we see more of what life is really all about. My dad lived through the GD and it affected him. Mom's family didn't seem to be affected at all. But neither ever used the GD has a "stick" to teach us...we just lived beneath our means, watched very little TV and wore hand-me-down clothing as a matter of course. My brothers and I assumed that was normal for everyone. Later we learned it wasn't.

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  14. This is a good one Bob. It helps us understand why the campaign promise that there would be "a chicken in every pot" was so powerful. I was very interested in Tom's comment that we grew up during an affluent time in the 50's and 60's...we did not live as though we were well off during that time. My father worked very hard long hours at a dangerous job. He was the "essential father" in that without him we would have been lost.

    I am glad that my background took me through worries and that I saw what "want" really was. This last dry spell didn't even really get my attention. I feel very lucky in that regard.

    Be well,

    Barbara

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    1. Betty and I have always lived as if we are in a recession: underspending and keeping needs and wants in their proper order. We lost several hundred thousands of dollars between 2008-2010 but because it was on paper and has since come back we didn't have to change much of our live either. I credit mom & dad with giving me a very firm foundation in staying balanced regardless of the circumstances.

      I also credit my strong faith in keeping me from worrying too much.

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  15. Loved this piece of history being handed down! I got stories and values handed down from grandparents who I adored and learned a ton from.We use to go berry picking on saturdays, Grama packed a picnic and I thought it was a FUN day like going to the county fair.We had so much fun and I was learning at the time although I did not know it.I wish I could say I did not fall into material trappings but I can not.Fortunately my husband and I regained our senses in late 80's and went on to pay off our house/kid thru college/wedding etc.We go to our local public market every saturday morning,I bring home and clean up goodies for the week.I cook from scratch, grow a few things in pots like tomatos/peppers/herbs adding more each year.I wish I could adopt your theory on worry Bob that could be something I strive for in the future.

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    1. I've got a post coming up soon on childhood memories. One of the most important involves summer vacations spent with my grandparents on a "farm" they owned north of Pittsburgh. There was no electricity, no running water, and no indoor plumbing.....it was glorious for a young boy who spent his day exploring the woods and his grandfather's tool shed.

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