Updated on 09.19.14

Personal Finance Lessons My Childhood Taught Me

Trent Hamm

When I was a child, I lived with my parents and two older brothers in a very rural area. To put this in perspective to your own timeline, this was the 1980s, in which many homes were wired with cable television, a dedicated phone line, and even such modern amenities as consistent electrical power, which were all things that were absent where I grew up. My parents were both strong believers in self-reliance, and this belief floated through every aspect of our lives. Here are a few brief tales from those days and the lessons I learned from them.

Three Important Things I Learned from My Childhood

1. The more you rely on things, the more helpless you are when they go away

Companies are therefore able to get away with charging you more for the things you depend on. A regular part of our life was dealing with an absence of electricity, particularly in my early childhood. The power would go out and the electric company could take days to fix it. I remember more than once when I slept in the living room for warmth with my brothers and the electricity just suddenly coming on at seven in the morning, all the lights in the house flashing on and the radio coming on very loudly all of a sudden, waking us all up.

Once, we visited my mother’s grandparents, who were still living and lived in a large city. While we were there, the electricity turned off, and so we calmly did the things we usually do when this occurs: get out flashights and candles, warn everyone to not open the fridge for twelve hours, do a brief inventory of the pantry, and so forth. Meanwhile, my great-grandmother (who actually lived her childhood in a pre-electrical grid era) was completely panicked and almost hysterical over this.

To this day, whenever I rely on a service, I make it a point to occasionally reflect on how I would survive without it, and if life without that service doesn’t seem to be much of a loss, I seriously look at removing it. The lesson here is to consider what you really need and what you really don’t, and live life accordingly.

2. Want free food? Grow and catch your own

My family was able to survive over long periods of neither parent having employment because we all knew how to grow food in our enormous garden (multiple acres, literally), catch fish in abundance, hunt, do small-scale farming, and even more importantly, how to prepare the food and store it long-term even without the use of electricity. I know how to can vegetables and meats without much effort, I can hunt for various types of wild game, I can skin and prepare for eating pretty much any type of wild game and fish, I can quickly prepare a trot line for catching a lot of fish at once, and I can forage in any local wooded area for all sorts of things that are edible (I’m even going to do a photo diary of this in the somewhat near future). This is what I did growing up.

These skills might seem trivial to you, but it’s easy for me to envision scenarios where all of these skills could be huge money savers and even life savers. If someone set off a low-grade nuclear weapon over the area where you live, killing the electrical grid in a two hundred mile radius and rendering your automobiles unable to run, what would you do? To me, knowing what to do then is a personal finance skill.

Let’s get more realistic – what do you do if you have no money and need to put food on the table? Many people would seek out a charity or maybe even steal? Me? I’d head to the vegetable garden or, lacking that, head to the woods or to a pond. The lesson here is to practice basic skills when you have the chance, because they come in handy when you need them most.

3. You really don’t need much for entertainment

When I think back to those days, almost all of the fun things we did cost nothing at all. My most enjoyable childhood memories were all free things: building complex irrigation systems in the mud in the garden, jumping off the garage roof and learning how to roll when I hit the ground, sitting on the porch and talking to my grandfather about his bootlegging days, reading books from the nearest library (my mother used to drop me off there during her shopping runs), and so on.

This was true for the adults as well. My father spent his time mostly discovering ways to fish creatively with almost no equipment (homemade trot lines, using garbage as bait (which worked surprisingly well), and so forth) and making his garden the envy of everyone around. My mother absolutely loved to prepare and store foods that we grew, caught, and found; now that it’s just my mother and father living at home alone, she cans more food each year than they could ever possibly eat (and I catch some of the overflow, actually).

In my early adult life, I got caught up in some very expensive entertainment, simply because I had more money than I had ever even comprehended in my life to that point. Now that I’m older, I realize that most of the things I really truly enjoy have very little cost – reading, preparing food, and so on. I guess the lesson here is to appreciate hobbies and entertainment that have little expense.

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  1. Seth Miller says:

    I really enjoyed this post, it is something I’ve been thinking about since over a million people lost power for a couple days near Christmas on the west side of Washington state. If you don’t have a wood burning stove or fireplace it seems like it could be quite difficult to survive.

  2. Laura says:

    I just found it funny that you would eat up those animals that would have been soaked in radio-active substances if there were no electricity because of the nuclear weapon. I wouldn’t eat those three-headed fish in Tsernobyl.

    Other than that, a good post! :)

  3. Mark says:

    Great write-up, thank you. I think the most important point you made here is:

    “The more you rely on things, the more helpless you are when they go away – and the more companies can get away with charging you for it.”

    Of course, you made it bold for a reason, but it is worth writing again. It is ridiculous what some people actually pay for today (and pay a lot!).

  4. Patti says:

    This is a fascinating post, thank you. I agree that the simple things in life are best, and your advice re: not taking things such as electricity for granted is valuable. I currently grow herbs and have my own lemon tree (always producing more than I can possibly use) and I am now considering planting some vegetables that we like to eat. We are currently a one wage family and all these small things add up to greater savings and a greater appreciation of all that we have.

  5. Ronnie Bond says:

    This post really touched a nerve with me. I grew up the same way,only twenty years before you. No elect.at all, no plumbing ,and a hand pump on the well. Wood cooking stove in the kitchen and heater in the living room. God I hate spliting wood to this day! Twenty-one miles from the nearest paved road.Thank you for the memory boost! Those were good days!

  6. Scott says:

    Great Post – the reality is thought that go back 50 years and this was the norm.

    Now we talk about it like it is some ancient civilization. We have short memories.

  7. Wendy says:

    I, too, have thought about how helpless we would be if the society we depend on to produce everything for us malfunctioned.

    It would be great if you would write a book with detailed instructions about these survival skills you developed. I would buy your book and study it well.

  8. draco says:

    So simple yet so true; a great read! Will have to start practising them soon enough ;-)

  9. Scott says:

    Great post. Is there a how to book you would recommend on the subject of survival?

  10. Morgan Allen says:

    The essential problem with the hunter-gatherer/farmer nuclear-holocaust scenario is that, regardless of how skilled you are, the earth simply couldn’t sustain it’s present population without the use of intensive industrial agriculture, refrigerated transport, and so forth. Like it or not, for the most part we’re stuck with modern technology.

    I mean, exactly how useful would this advice be to the 50% plus of the human species that inhabit urban areas?

  11. ian says:

    Awesome post…I look forward to the photos!

  12. elmer fud says:

    well it’s not fair you had the most precious commodity in today’s overpopulated world: acres of land for a single family!!!!

  13. Hannah says:

    What you wrote is so true! I raised my children this way, too, back in the 80’s, partly because we lived in a poor rural area, but also because we liked being self-sufficient. It’s a healthy lifestyle, and teaches appreciation for what you have.

    I also agree with Scott’s comment; a much leaner lifestyle was normal only 50 years ago.

  14. nate says:

    Morgan is right. There simply isn’t enough arable land on this earth to support 6 billion people using the techniques you describe.

    I don’t agree with your entertainment comment at all. I’m gainfully employed and that allows me to spend money on hobbies I enjoy, like woodworking, automobile restoration, and photography… all things that require money. I was raised on a small family farm and I never entertained myself by “jumping off the garage roof.” That’s just stupid.

    To me it sounds like you’re trying to make a case for living in poverty. Survival skills are important, but there’s no excuse for being unemployed for years at a time.

  15. Jason says:

    Thanks for the great article/story, Trent.

    I remember growing up in Wyoming in a similar scenario (chopping wood, hunting animals, using an outhouse)…

    I look around me today at all the “city-slickers” (of which I am now too).. and wonder how many of them would completely lose it if they were forced to survive on their own.

  16. Eric says:

    I agree, the less we rely, the more freedom we gain. I’ve found it very useful to ‘practice’ similar types of skills on the side. For example, at one point i pared down my life so much that I ended up living out of my car for a year. While this is an extreme scenario, learning and refining these skills provides us with a greater sense of autonomy, as well as the confidence of knowing that we can survive if certain things that we have grown dependent on suddenly disappear.

  17. I read a pretty good article a few years back written by a scientist studying the impact of the lack of discoveries of any new oil fields in recent years. She wrote suggesting to those in their teens not to look for corporate type careers in their future, rather, she suggested that they learn how to use a plow. She put forth that society was in the stage of denial which was the first stage of grief or of loss. Our loss being the idea that the use of fossil fuels to continue our large industrial agricultural complex will last forever.

    She pointed out the second stage will be society getting “angry” at anyone who suggests that we have to change the way we live in order to survive.

    In the third stage would begin our “bargaining” – our attempt to keep our lifestyle by bargaining away our rights or willing to pay whatever price.

    The final two stages are depression and then acceptance.

    The article explained that large cities will be abandoned because they no longer have the local farms or nearby land to grow the food that will be necessary to sustain their large populations.

    She goes on to suggest that young people consider the move to small rural communities and begin life there, because in the future that will be the only place where there is enough food.

    Becoming self-sustaining through self-reliance, learning the skills to survive working with nature and looking for ways to remove yourself, your family, and your community from the grid is a good idea – no matter where you live – it’s all about how you live.

  18. Elle says:

    I can’t imagine a more horrible life than manual labor when it comes to preparing and cooking your own food. For someone who has multiple interests, I’d be devastated if I lost my access to global travel, films, the Internet, sushi, wines, etc. AND then had to live like Little House on the Prarie —

    No way would that make me content. Not even its ‘romantic notion’ as presented here.

    The only thing that would be good about the life you describe is the time to read, but I imagine that would be a child’s luxury as evidenced by your mom having dropped you off at the library and not gone herself.

    Adults would have to be up early to can beans. No electricity at night by which to read. Ugh.

  19. Edie says:

    I grew up in a similar household in the 1980s, with my parents and four brothers. I recall my mother being extremely overburdened, miserable, and unhealthy, even though my father worked very hard as well. I don’t think this type of family arrangement can make for equity among men and women, parents and children, sickly and strong.

  20. Nathaniel says:

    This makes me want to move out of the urban area I currently live in. It would be nice to get away from all the people just looking to accumulate more possessions.

  21. Penny says:

    As if access to multiple acres of property to grow a garden is not a financial asset?

    I am always amused that rural people who own a house, often a farm, and acres of land think they are poor.

    Real poverty: try living on social security in an inner city as a renter.

  22. Penny says:

    He also had a car, since he had a garage, and his mom made shopping runs.

    And he used the public library–as if that is not a ( very valuable) service.

    Still, it is important to be self-reliant and to know how to fish etc. Good luck, in modern times, when the pollutants in those pond fish and forest animals give you cancer or brain damage. You may not have electricity but make sure you have access to a doctor.

    Fish in the OCEAN! Grow your food in hydroponic vats–where you have some control.

    p.s. A perception of poverty as a child is not uncommon. I too was raised ( in the Bronx NY) to think that I was dirt poor—with two cars, a summer home, and a decent place to live: but in a
    “slum”. In fact, we were middle class.

  23. crankywench says:

    If you’re new to what Trent writes above, go to your local library and check out “When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance & Planetary Survival” by Matthew Stein. I’ve found it to be a nice primer on things to consider in case of extreme emergency.

    [I am not the author nor work for the publisher]

  24. Charles E says:

    I really like this post, and the others about your grandfather. I also have many memories of my grand pa.Our beginning sound the same, and the older I get, the more I miss him, and the way things were then.

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