June 13, 2020

If It Worked For Our Parents

A walk in the country; not a video game in sight
I've heard more than one person say they feel like we are back in the 1950s. Extra time at home, fewer distractions, not nearly as many cars on the road, simpler pleasures and comfort food meals does sort of remind me of Leave it To Beaver. Of course technology was not part of our daily life back then. Three black & white TV channels, AM radio, and landline phones was as far as we had advanced. Streaming services, cell phones, and computers were still decades in the future. Yet, we somehow survived being so deprived. 

The 1950s were not the idyllic time we tend to remember: racism, sexism, homophobic thinking.....there were dark sides to the suburban dream that continue today. But, I can certainly understand the comments. The pandemic has pared our lives back to a more basic level. 

Can we draw any parallels between our lifestyle now and what our parents endured during the last time such a disruption to the norm existed: The Great Depression? Probably not. Even with a safety net as full of holes as what we have today, the plight of the 20% of Americans who were unemployed then was much bleaker than today. 

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 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. Food was not thrown away. Clothes were hand-me-downs.

Today the average American family throws away 250 pounds 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. Even during this time of shortages 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. The moved in together. 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 some respects we have lost this attitude. Too often we hear, "It's their fault," or "I don't want to work that hard." Covid-19 has forced many of us to solve more problems on our own. The inventiveness is obvious if you look at all the things people are making or re-purposing for others. But, when things go back to whatever the new normal is, will we return to the habit of outsourcing many things in our lives?

A penny saved is a penny earned. This idiom would have to be updated a bit. In the U.S. it costs 1.7 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.

I know the pandemic has had a very positive effect on my overall discretionary budget. Money spent on gas, dining out, movies, or other out-of-home entertainment is way down. My auto insurance company is giving me a bit of a rebate on my premium since I am driving much less. Two expensive vacations scheduled for this year have been cancelled. Food costs are up, but we are still ahead of the game.

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 60" TV is just plain silly. And, we all have heard horror stories of those who lent money to a friend and never see either again.

Of course, lending things to help a family member or friend is to be encouraged. If someone in your family has lost a job and is struggling, lending (or outright gifting) them money to get them through this emergency is not what the expression means. 

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" and seemingly everyone else. Is it right to gossip about others' misfortunes? Does it make our life better to know private, hurtful stuff about others? Don't we have enough of our own problems to worry about?

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. 

I will add one caveat to this saying: it is quite important that we analyze what has been done poorly (and well) in our response to the virus and everything it has affected. To ignore history is to repeat it...another saying that might might fir our current dilemma. 


I am quite sure no one wants to relive 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. 

24 comments:

  1. The Great Depression and the shortages caused by WWII plus growing up dirt poor really effected my parents their entire lives and they passed a lot of those fears onto me, which all got magnified in recent months because of the pandemic. Buying too many pantry goods was one result. Not wanting to let go of things I need to let go of to downsize and regretting some things I'd already sold like dog grooming tools I thought I'd never need again. I still have a dog but I have a good income to pay for the services. Who would have ever guessed a pandemic would shut down? Yes, I've cried over a lot of split milk, so to speak, in 2020.

    Except for a car and a mortgage that both got payed off early by making double payments as often as I could, I've never borrowed money for anything in my entire life. Neither did my parents ever borrow money. I don't hoard ten dollar bills inside books like my mom did, but the impulse is there to hold on to every dollar since the pandemic started, not hard to do since our stay-at-home orders. So, ya, never lend or borrow is so deeply ingrained in me it borderlines on being penny wise and pound foolish, another great idiom.

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    1. Your thoughts echo ones so many of us have, especially those who had parents from the GD era. My dad was never comfortable spending money on anything except for the family. He was worried his whole life, even though in later years he and my mom were very secure financially.

      I inherited that attitude and can be overly conservative with our resources. We don't skimp on important things, but both Betty and I have spent almost 44 years living well beneath our means, and understanding early the difference between wants and needs.

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  2. Having a frugal mind set in general has certainly helped me during these times. Embracing a slower pace is something that’s probably “good for us..” and having to dig deep into one’s own creative resources is unearthing qualities we may have forgotten we had: resilience,creativity, introspection,faith,patience... I know I am still working on some of those!! Since we are eating every meal at home I am meal planning and generally using up every morsel. Happy meal times are a highlight of the day for sure now! I have found I can “get by” with most of the art and craft supplies I already have.. no need to run to Tuesday Morning for MIchaels every other week. Just realizing that in our home, we have just about everything we need to be safe and secure, is a huge blessing I am not taking for granted! I do understand the Depression era folks I have known, much better,now.. Great post,Bob!!

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    1. My question to Betty right after finishing dinner is, "what's for dinner tomorrow?" She laughs and asks me to figure out something we can make together. In these days of sameness, deciding on dinner is one of the few things that changes everyday!

      I have had to order art supplies, but will only do curbside pickup. With more time for painting or sketching, those supplies don't last as long as they once did.

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  3. What a great rundown of how people used to handle both stress, change and the realities of daily life. And based upon how you outlined it, there were many similarities to what I call rightsizing. Not being wasteful, personal responsibility, working and doing what is necessary, persistence, frugality, freedom from debt, and staying positive all apply.

    The only one I couldn't make the connection on was "keeping your nose out of other people's business." While that's certainly SMART...I'm not certain it applies to rightsizing. It will be interesting if some of these behaviors become more prevalent in the days ahead. And yes, it is wise to learn what we can from what has gone before.

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    1. Since you have figured out how to spend two months at a cabin in the mountains, I'd say you have "rightsized" just about perfectly. While the Palm Springs area is beautiful, like Phoenix is is rather toasty in the summer. The very best to you and Thom.

      Oh, and I should add, that gossip has never been something I have would attractive in myself or others. It is a waste of life energy and usually leads to bad results.

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  4. My parents were born in 1916 and 1921, so they were children when the GD started. Daddy lived his whole life without a checking account and he was a contractor. He kept tens of thousands of dollars in an end table because he did not trust the banks. He paid in cash for workmen and everything. It seemed normal to me when I was a child. Mama figured withholding for employees with a pencil and paper at the kitchen table. Then and later, I realized the GD had greatly affected each of them to the good. And, I got a great education from them, including how important it was to get a formal education.

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    1. Fascinating look at the impact of the Depression on one couple and how it has affected you. All that cash for all those years and they made it work.

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    2. Dear Practical, your father didn't worry about getting robbed? Guess not, i'm old enough to remember when people didn't bother to lock their doors.

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  5. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be"--from Shakespeare

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  6. We may well be entering a new Great Depression though I certainly hope not. The world has changed in so many ways but the basic truths you highlight in this blog will always be with us, people are the same as they ever were. As Practical Parsimony posted above if "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" was around in Shakespeare's time there's obviously something in it.

    My grandparents were born just either side of 1900 and to their dying days never really trusted banks. As for investing in the stock market you might as well have asked them to set fire to their house. My parents were born in 1925 and 1930 so they were children, though with WW II starting in 1939 for us here in Canada my father was 20 before anything resembling normal conditions existed. My father watched every penny until the day he died (unnecessarily so) and my mother at 90 still keeps her fridge and cupboards jammed with food and supplies because "you never know". She remembers when you might have had to go hungry on some days.

    It's influenced me too though not as extreme as my parents. I stay out of debt but have invested, conservatively, in the stock market. I always worked hard and saved, my main fear until I was in my 40s was that I'd end up poor. Luckily that didn't happen and now in retirement I am determined to enjoy what I've worked for rather than die with substantial unused savings just sitting in a bank account like my father did. You only have one life.

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    1. I remember my mom would get frustrated at how much of a penny pincher dad was, but she left finances to him and never changed his ways. I didn't fall that far from the tree though I hope I am bit more responsive to both Betty's requests and living a life we enjoy.

      Just as the GD changed the mindset of a generation, I expect our Covid-19 to change come of the ways we go about our lives, both socially, and economically for some time into the future.

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  7. My parents were depression era kids, and it had a profound effect on they way they lived their lives. They built their own house, improving it over the years with cash payments to contractors. They saved and paid cash for their cars and other items. My father, who owned a trucking company, finally applied (at my urging) for a credit card to have when they traveled. He was denied because of "no credit history." He called his business banker, and the card arrived two days later (a bank employee delivered it). The card, of course, never carried a balance.

    My parents were extremely "risk averse," and it was only later in my life that I began to see how that had influenced me. I found myself reluctant to take risks, both professionally and personally. Although I have transcended that limitation in my later years, I find that I still, on occasion, can see its influence--for both good and bad outcomes.

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. Much like you, Rick, I am sure my basic conservative approach to investments and risk came from my parents. Mom did not experience nearly the economic shock that dad did. Her family was solidly middle class and professional. I don't get the sense that her household was greatly affected by the depression.

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  8. Thinking about it more... I also knew my maternal great-grandmother, born in 1878 (during the "Long Depression") and died in 1968 when I was 15. I have to say my great-grandmother seemed far less affected by the great depression of the 1930s than those of the following generations. Her daughter, my grandmother (married in the 1920s moved out and had my mother in 1930) and she talked all the time about the depression, about how hard it was while my great-grandmother never mentioned it.

    In a way the Great Depression turned out reasonably well for my great-grandparents who would have been in their 50s during the depression. They had always lived in rented housing Ralph Kramden style, which I believe was normal for a working man and his family back then. My great-grandfather operated a wrought-iron workshop, making stair railings and teller's cages for banks as well as chandeliers for hotels. I still have a small chandelier in our house that he made.

    The family story is that he was making stair railings for a builder when the depression hit. When the builder couldn't pay him for the railings the builder told my great-grandfather he could have a house as he couldn't sell them anyway. It was a small house by today's standards but lifelong renters, now home owners, they moved in with their 2 adult sons that still lived at home (my great-uncles) and so had 3 working aged men to pay the expenses on the house - not that there was much work to be had. I doubt there was any mortgage as I imagine trying to obtain one with the depression raging would have been close to impossible.

    During the depression no one moved out and while one of my great-uncles married, he just moved his wife in and raised his children there, it was a very crowded house. When WW II began the men all got jobs at the manufacturing plant building aircraft for the war, my great-grandfather worked there until the end of the war and retired after that (he would have been in his 70s or very close to it by then). By the time the war was over the children born in that house were close to marrying age.

    My great-grandparents lived in that house until the day they died as did my great-uncles. In the end my mother inherited the house through my grandmother (the last surviving child of my great-grandparents). A long story of how the same event affected the generations that lived through it differently. Perhaps, like my great-grandparents, those of us nearer the end than the beginning will adjust just fine to current circumstances.

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    1. Fascinating story! How wonderful your family had such a legacy!!

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    2. I agree with Madeline: that is an eye-opening glimpse of a lifestyle that is virtually non-existent today. That one house could contain so many lives and so many memories is the basis for a book!

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  9. My momma was born right at the beginning of the Great Depression. I was partially raised by my grandma, who was born in the late 1800's, and she talked about raising six kids on a farm during the Great Depression. She said it was, in essence, how she was raised in the late 1800's early 1900's, with cows for milk, mules to plow, cotton, the cash crop that she, her husband and kids picked, just like she did when she was a little girl, hogs to slaughter, chickens to raise, huge vegetable gardens, etc. She used to make flour sack dresses for my mom and aunt. Momma became a nurse, and it was big time, when momma moved to town and had a little brick house with a bathroom and electricity. My grandma came to live with us and she still canned everything she grew in her garden when she lived with us in the 1960's. Our vacations generally consisted of visiting my mother's brother four hours away, and going to the "big" city, where he lived. I also went to Memphis to visit my aunt, and that was very exciting! I actually try to live, sort of, like that anyway, except I buy my canned food, and keep the house well stocked with groceries. I am always sending my grown children groceries because food expresses love to me. My grandma didn't really approve of frozen food because she said electricity would go off and ruin it. I do freeze the mulberries from the tree in my yard, and I feel guilty for not canning them....lol. My mom always tried to help me, and I, in turn, try to help my kids when needed. Three of my four are very careful with their money. Cindy in the South

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    1. You have recounted a rather common lifestyle 100 years ago for many of our relatives. Being self-sufficient is really not possible anymore, even if you live on a farm. Too much of what modern life requires means depending on others for parts of it. Frankly, I think we have lost a lot of what life is really all about, things your family understood.

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  10. I appreciated your recognition that the Leave It To Beaver good ol' days were only good for certain people, most likely the people who had a TV and watched Leave It To Beaver on it.

    As for adjusting to some of the adages of the Depression, I have found that things I thought were important can wait. Or just be shelved indefinitely. I am more careful about wasting food, as you observed. Walking more, sitting in the back yard or by the creek at the cabin, doing jigsaw puzzles. Somehow I'm watching less TV, not more, which surprises me. More time oriented towards family. Everything slowed down in an already slowed down life.

    And speaking of going back to old times, certainly the protests and the root causes of the protests have taken me back to memories of growing up in the segregated South. Painful to be reliving that.

    A lot covered in the post and in the comments.

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    1. A new post that becomes available tomorrow (Tuesday) deals with the protests and racial mess we find ourselves in. The Leave it To Beaver world covered up the discrimination and hid away the harm it did for too many years. The 60's protests were important, but I sense that what we are experiencing today will result in more lasting change.

      Less TV? Good for you. Of course, we really can't use the backyard or creek at a cabin at this time of year. I keep myself busy inside during the day, but the television does come on at night.

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  11. One that you can still hear a lot in Maine: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without."

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  12. My mom repeated all of these sayings as I was growing up and used them as guidance for how to live her life. I have taken many of these core messages to heart as well (hopefully in a way that’s updated to fit with contemporary society). Perhaps it’s why I abhor the materialism and throw-away nature of our current culture. Some examples of the frugal ways I learned from my mom: I grow vegetables. I make jam, jelly, and pickles. I harvest wild foods (e.g., berries, fish, oysters). I avoid debt. I repair and reuse items rather than buying new things.

    Jude

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    1. Your way is the only way to protect our future and the earth.

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