An Appreciation of My Father

I’m pretty sure that my father will read this sometime today or tomorrow, or else my mother will read it aloud to him. In either case, I’ll start off with the most important thing: thank you, dad, for everything I’ve written about below and so much more.

My father is in his mid seventies now, and simply typing that is almost unbelievable to me. I have a lifetime of memories and experiences and lessons from him, but an awful lot of them come from my memories of him when he was approximately the same age I am now, so I guess that realizing this lately – that my earlier memories of him are from when he was roughly the same age that I am now – has caused me to think a lot about him, the kind of person he’s been, the life he’s led, and the lessons that I’ve learned from him.

My most vibrant memories of him from when I was young was that he was pretty much constantly busy with something. He had a factory job where he seemed to be constantly switching shifts and alternating between working overtime and having periods where he was laid off. Almost every moment when he was at home and not sleeping, he was doing something. He was a part-time commercial fisherman. He had multiple very large gardens, some summers having four or more that were several hundred square feet each. At various times in my childhood, we had a goat, several pigs, a chicken pen and shed full of hens and a rooster, and a bunch of rabbits, all raised for our own food, and he was largely responsible (outside of specific chores he handed down to myself and my brothers) for keeping those systems going. He knew how to handle a lot of different repairs on older cars and would often handle those repairs in our driveway or our garage. He was a pretty good welder. He was really good at foraging for berries and mushrooms in the woods. That’s just a partial list of the things he had going and could do.

Part of the reason he was able to pull all of this off is that he typically worked an evening shift at his factory job, which he did most of the time when I was growing up. This meant that he would go to work each day around 2 in the afternoon, work a roughly 3 PM to 11:30 PM shift, and get home slightly after midnight each night. He’d collapse in bed and then wake up around 7 or 8, spending the morning tackling a seemingly endless list of chores from all of those side gigs, eat lunch, take a brief nap, and then head to work again.

What did I learn from all of that? Work ethic. He kept busy until he was genuinely tired, and then he would rest at the end of the day for a while. There was never much downtime with him; he was constantly doing something, whether it was going to work or working on some project.

Of course, this meant that during the school year, I’d usually only see my father for perhaps a brief moment in the morning each day if he happened to wake up before the bus got there, but usually I wouldn’t see him from Sunday evening until Saturday morning when he was working a full week. My mother was often the only parent around during the week when I was in school through all of elementary school and well into high school when he had enough seniority to consistently get on the day shift.

I knew that he was always working hard for us in an incredibly reliable way. He’d get up, go into work, never be late, and do his job well. He always had plenty of overtime opportunities, too. He never missed work unless he seemed to be on death’s door due to illness. He taught me, through his actions, that a big part of success was showing up reliably and doing what you’re supposed to reliably. When I look at life through that lens, it’s pretty apparent that simply showing up and being reliable in terms of what you say you’ll do is an enormous part of being valued and trusted by others.

When I was younger, I understood why my father wasn’t always there, but I didn’t like it. Whenever I had some sort of event after school or something like that, he was almost always working; the person in the crowd was always my mother and sometimes my maternal grandmother. I recognize now that this experience was part of my motivation to find a flexible career path.

This does not mean my father was absent, oh no. What it meant was that weekends and summers tended to be a giant blur of activity. My childhood involved a lot of mushroom hunting, a lot of fishing, a lot of gardening, and all kinds of things of that nature. On the weekends, I would often tag along with him on whatever he might be doing that day, and I saw the number of things he always had going on.

What really stuck with me about all of this was that my father was really just balancing a number of streams of income for our family all the time. He made a blue collar income from the factory, but when things were good (particularly in the summer), that was supplemented by his fishing income, by having a ton of fresh produce for “free” from the garden (and some of the excess would be sold), and by a few dollars here and a few dollars there from all kinds of things, from collecting aluminum cans to doing a bit of spot welding.

This really inspired me to have a lot of side gigs of my own for just that purpose – to diversify my own income to provide further stability for me and for my family, regardless of what may come. The Simple Dollar started as a side gig. I had (and still occasionally have) a side gig of repairing computers for people in my community. I’ve written books and freelance articles as a side gig. My wife and I have a decent vegetable garden that keeps our food costs low in the middle to late summer. I’ve dabbled in many other side gigs over the years as well, with varying degrees of success. If I suddenly were out of work, my family would not have to suffer without an income for very long, as there are lots of ways I can immediately amp up a different income stream.

At the same time, having a lot of side gigs means developing a lot of useful skills. You have to develop some time management skills. You have to develop some personal interaction skills. You have to develop technical skills for whatever your specific side gig happens to entail. I watched these skills at work all the time as I watched my father growing up, and I’d like to think that, at my best moments, I possess a lot of these skills, too. I can design a website. I can catch a fish. I can grow pretty much anything from seed. I can write a treatise. I can write complex computer code. I can fix a ton of different devices. I can converse with all kinds of people and get along with them. I’m good at managing my time. I’m good at solving the problems life has put before me. I’m good at learning things quickly. Much of that is due to side gigs, and the inspiration for all of that is my father.

My father was very careful with his money in many ways. He was a bit of a collector of random items that he found for free, and he could find uses for all kinds of stuff. He never liked to throw anything away and sometimes that meant an overly cluttered garage and shed, but when something needed doing or fixing, he usually had a tool or an item that would fit the bill. We always used stuff until it broke, and even when it broke, we’d often fix it up and keep on going with it.

I particularly remember my old Nintendo Game Boy, which was a faithful companion of mine on road trips. I used and abused that thing and, over the years, it broke in several different ways. Many families wold have just tossed it out after the first breakage, but not us. My old man would go out in the garage, find some super glue, and get the thing back in working order, or he’d mess around in the battery compartment until the batteries would again stay in place and deliver a charge. It wasn’t junk until it broke and he couldn’t fix it, and even then, we might hold onto the item for spare parts.

Another thing that my father did that didn’t really click with me until I was older was that he boxed out time for genuine leisure. He didn’t like to just sit around doing nothing, but he made sure there was time for doing things that he genuinely enjoyed doing. He would go squirrel hunting. He would go fishing (for fun with a pole, not commercially). He absolutely loved puzzles, both then and now; jigsaw puzzles and logic puzzles like sudoku are his wheelhouse (I actually think this scratches a mental itch for him similar to how strategic board games scratch an itch for me). Camping was a consistent part of growing up; most summers involved at least one camping trip of some length at least until I approached high school age. The important thing to note is that he really blocked off time for these things. There might be things left undone, but if he was planning to spend a few hours fishing one day, that time was sacrosanct and we went fishing.

Perhaps more than anything, though, his love for reading and learning new things has rubbed off on me. He’d read the newspaper virtually every morning, and still does. He’d dive into articles and editorials on things he knew little about just to learn what they were about. Most evenings, when he was physically tired but his mind wasn’t ready for bed yet, he’d kick back with a book of some kind for half an hour or so – often it was a western, but it could be some nonfiction book about gardening or, sometimes, a magazine on any sort of topic.

What do I do when I get up each morning? I usually read for a while, usually for the purpose of learning something, to get my mind going. What do I do before I go to bed basically every night? I read for a while, usually a novel of some kind. Those kinds of patterns rub off, and it’s why I make it a point to read where my kids can see me reading. Now, all three of my kids often read in the last half an hour or so before they go to sleep – usually a novel of some kind.

There’s no denying that we didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but my parents always made sure that there was enough to go around for the things we needed. There were always nutritious meals on the table and clothes on our backs. We didn’t travel much; most of our summer “vacations” were camping trips not too terribly far from home. I only remember two real “vacations” in my childhood, and they were both just two or three day affairs. When I was young, my mother was a stay-at-home mom that made the most out of the money that my father earned, meaning that together they found ways to transform even the leanest money moments into meals and clothing and security and togetherness, the things I most needed as a child.

That doesn’t mean I went without things that I wanted. They made absolutely sure that I always had books to read and things to occupy my mind, as I was an endlessly curious kid.

I also remember a few moments of unexpected splurges and surprises, but it was the rarity and surprise of those moments that really make them stand out. I remember that when I was very young, around six or seven years old, I was very into Masters of the Universe action figures. A local five-and-dime store was going out of business and my father and I went to see what was on sale there. They had a bin that had a whole bunch of Masters of the Universe figures in it and a sign that said $1 each. I didn’t even ask for any – I was just looking through them a bit while my father looked at some other items, but when he came back, he just stood there for a minute, probably figuring out what he could afford in his head, and said, “Get five of ’em.” You never saw a happier seven year old toting around bags with his new action figures in them.

I remember vividly one winter when my father’s factory almost went out of business and they had to lay off almost everyone for several months. Wintertime was really hard on my father’s side gigs, too, so there wasn’t much money to go around. Christmas was really lean that year, without many presents, and I remember sensing that my parents were really worried. I know my father was doing everything he could to bring in money, including doing some rather dangerous ice fishing where he would cut large holes in the ice and dredge for fish. He was using virtually every trick he could think of to keep enough money coming in so that there was food on the table and the mortgage got paid.

When the factory finally started up again, I actually didn’t know about it at first because my father started working a really unusual overnight shift; he would actually leave for work after I went to bed and get home just after I went to school and sleep during the day, getting up about the time I got home from school. From my perspective, things hadn’t really changed at all.

What I do remember is that after about two weeks of this, my father came home from being out and about on some errand and he came into the room with a huge grin on his face and pulled out from under his coat a video game that I had wanted for several months and had hoped to get for Christmas but didn’t.

When I was younger, I just remember the utter surprise of the gift and how excited I was. Now that I’m older, I see how much care went into it. My parents obviously knew what I wanted for Christmas and they couldn’t afford it, but they didn’t forget. They just made Christmas perfectly wonderful anyway, even though they had little money and couldn’t afford the video game I wanted, and then when they could afford it, they remembered and surprised me with it. It wasn’t the video game that mattered, it was the care and thought and love behind it. They loved me deeply, wanted me to be happy, thought about me, and made tough choices in the background so I wouldn’t have to think about them at all. I was loved and cared for even when we didn’t have much, and that’s really what the memory of that video game was all about.

My dad is older now; as I mentioned earlier, he’s in his mid seventies and, like everyone, he doesn’t get around with the speed and vigor that he’s used to. He’s still there for me, though, offering little bits of advice to me here and there and being a wonderful grandpa to my kids. I love watching him sort through coins with my oldest son (the child I have who has an interest in coin collecting), marveling at the growing artistic skill of my daughter (who I firmly believe has the potential to be a professional fantasy artist), having surprisingly deep conversations with my youngest son, and laughing at all of their shenanigans. He won’t always be here, and the thought of my life without him around is just a little sadder, but I know from my own life routines that there will still be a lot of him in the world when he’s not here any more.

There are so many threads from all of these stories that tie directly into the life that I’m leading right now. There are so many great examples and lessons that he gave me that I put to use literally every single day in my life, from how to be a good father to how to keep our spending low, from keeping up a lot of side gigs and projects and hobbies to using stuff until it wears out, from never getting tired of reading and learning new things to being a good husband, much of what I am today comes from him, to knowing how to love and care for your children and your wife without much money by putting care and thought first, and many of the lessons and ideas I’ve shared on The Simple Dollar comes from a awkward little kid with glasses making muddy trenches in the garden with his father or riding alongside him in a pickup truck.

Thanks, Dad, for everything.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.