What My Grandparents Knew About Money

By Emily Guy Birken

My background is somewhat mixed financially: my maternal grandmother Ruthie was an only child from a wealthy family when she married my grandfather, a prominent Baltimore lawyer, while my paternal grandmother Betta was raised by poor Kentucky farmers, and she and my grandfather made do throughout their lives on mostly blue-collar jobs.

Even though my widowed grandmothers had little in common when my parents married, they became friends and were both very involved in their granddaughters’ lives. And from each of them, I learned several important lessons about money, from both ends of the wealth spectrum:

1. Buy it right, buy it once.

Ruthie always had enough money to buy whatever she needed, but she did not condone spending unnecessary money. For example, she would do a great deal of research before she bought a new car, and made sure she got one that would last and work well until it died, at least a decade later, if not longer. She was lucky enough to be able to pay cash for her cars, but she never took that ability for granted and spent her money on quality automobiles that treated her well.

Seeing Grandma’s example, I now know that if I need to spend money, I should make sure I’m spending it on something that will last. Anything else is wasting my money.

2. Make a meal plan for the week.

Once a week, my entire family — including aunts and cousin — would gather at my Grandma Betta’s house for dinner. Betta always made enough food to feed an army — and always fretted that anyone might leave her table hungry. After dinner, she’d carefully package up the leftovers and eat them throughout the rest of the week. By cooking once a week, Grandma kept her food costs low and her cooking time to a minimum.

The weeks that I take the time to plan out what I’ll be cooking each day are the weeks when we don’t end up ordering pizza. Betta taught me that it’s always a good idea to know where your food is coming from.

3. Hand things down.

Ruthie loved to pass along her clothing, shoes and jewelry to her daughters and granddaughters, as well as any furniture, books and knick-knacks that she had accumulated throughout her life. There was no need to spend money on something new if she had the same item. As a teenager, it was tough for me to recognize the wisdom of her passing along her old things to me, but it finally clicked when I was a college student and she gave me a necklace that had belonged to my great-grandmother. That jewelry was both more meaningful and much more beautiful than the baubles I would have bought for myself.

I still try to remember to pass along my things to others in need, and I never turn my nose up at hand-me-downs. That way you get a story as well as a needed item.

4. Take pride in an honest day’s work.

When I first got out of college, I worked at a bookstore for not much above minimum wage. I was discouraged that my college degree had not translated into a high-powered or well-paying job, but both of my grandmothers were so very proud of me. They focused on the fact that I was working, taking care of myself and making my way in the world. According to them, not only was there nothing wrong with that, the job was also something to be proud of. It can be a tough old world out there, and finding a job that you can do well is worth something, even if that job is shelving books and running a cash register.

My grandmothers’ reaction to my first job helped me remember the importance of work. I know I’ll never refuse a job for being “beneath” me, because there is a great deal of dignity in working.

What money lessons did you learn from your grandparents?


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