My grandfather and grandmother came of age during the Great Depression. They both passed away when I was a young child (not all that much older than my own son now), but many of my memories of them revolved around their extreme frugality. They would buy bottles of the most inexpensive wine they could buy, drink it slowly, then fill it with water to get those last drops of flavor. They hand-painted their car with house paint and a brush (seriously).
One of the most vivid memories, though, is that they kept their money in tin cans in their home, hidden in different places. To put it simply, they did not trust the banks to keep their money for them.
They grew up in the 1930s, where banks failed by the hundreds. The only difference between now and then is that they didn’t have FDIC insurance. If their bank failed, their money was gone.
Their coming-of-age experience was filled with inherent distrust of financial institutions and a well-ingrained idea that they had to protect what they had. This usually meant living as inexpensively as possible – making modest choices again and again throughout their lives.
Since then, three generations have passed. Most of us living today in the United States have never experienced a true economic meltdown. Losing some of your retirement money in your 401(k) one year and then gaining most of it back the next year is not a meltdown. Losing your job and finding a new one – partially supported by unemployment along the way – is not a meltdown.
Without this kind of life-altering experience, it’s unsurprising that later generations are unable to match the frugality of my grandparents’ generation. The idea that a third of the nation can be unemployed, that the bank where you keep your money can just take that money and run, and that if you don’t have a job you don’t get any benefits or support from the government seems completely alien to how we live our lives today.
We inherently rely on these institutions and they allow us to live less frugally and carefully than we otherwise would have.
Yet they had the things that mattered. They had people to love – and people who loved them. They had food on the table. They had the entertainment that they needed. They had a roof over their heads.
In the end, what else do we really need? Whenever we go beyond that, we’re simply chasing more of the same – and risking the security of everything we hold dear to do so.
Lately, I’ve been looking at a picture of my grandfather quite often. He’s sitting on the couch in his home with an old banjo in his hand and a big grin on his face. He didn’t have much spit and polish to him, but he was surrounded with what really mattered to him – his home, comfortable clothes, friends and family, a fishing net on the wall behind him, a musical instrument in his hands. He was happy and he didn’t need much to get there.
He knew what was important. He knew what made him happy. He also knew how easily it can be lost – something that’s very difficult for us to see most of the time. So, he made choices that might seem outrageous to others. So what?
Grandpa, almost twenty five years after you left this earth, you’re still inspiring your grandson.