By John Graves
Remember the fifties?
Roy Rogers, Lassie, Spin and Marty, Sky King, Rin Tin Tin, Captain Kangaroo.
Washing dad’s car for a quarter. Grandma’s spittoon. Mom’s icebox. A ride on the trolley to the amusement park.
Fishing. Sewing. Babysitting. Boy scouts. Brownies. The paper route.
Lunch boxes. Mud rooms. Hall monitors. Biking to school. Chores. Playing in the dunes.
We were raised by survivors. Our parents survived the Depression as children themselves. Our dads fought in the War. Saving string and tin was important to them, to the country.
They instilled in us certain qualities. These financial qualities were the most important aspect of our future career success – and now to our retirement. These lessons were four habits:
- Debt avoidance
We learned by example. You always lived within your means. That meant spending less than you made. It meant saving something from each paycheck. We saw our father do so; we knew our mother had a rainy day kitty in her drawer. it also meant avoiding debt. Great discussion was heard round the dinner table about buying the first car:
“$25 a month for a car? Why the streetcar is only 5 cents a ride. Why do we need a car? We’ll have to buy gas and oil and you’ll have to work on it to keep it up. Look at your brother’s jalopy! He spends more on it than on his kids!”
Who could afford such a luxury? When it came to a house, the discussion was similar, but shaded more to the possible:
“$82.50 a month and we can have a home of our own, at last. It will be paid for when we retire and the kids won’t have to support us. Think of the roots we will put down in this town.”
Debt was a major hurdle for a family in the 1950s. there were no credit cards until late in the decade – and those were rarely available to the working class. Paying on time was a term of distraction if not dishonor. Today it is a badge of honor to be able to do so!
When we got our first job babysitting or on a paper route, our parents quickly taught us the meaning of saving. If we made $5 a week, we had to save $1. We could spend the rest as we wished – if we didn’t have to give it all to the family budget. We started with little envelopes. We took them to the bank teller and deposited them, receiving back a hand written entry in our own pass book. We were then allowed to dream of something larger, a bike or a doll house. Once we had saved the money, we could buy it. $12 for a brand new Schwann three speed Racer. It took more than a year, but was worth it!
50 cents went in to the plate on Sunday morning. Saving and giving back were two sides of the same coin. If we could afford to save, we could afford to share. Those less fortunate (recall the phrase, ‘the starving children in Europe’?), were to be given something. It is just how it works. The greater good was our religious habit. We were all Luther on Sunday, living by good works for Salvation.
How did we teach our kids? Did we? We tried to give them what we didn’t have, certainly, but did we forget to give them what we did have? Frugality is a hard lesson to learn, one not easily forgotten. It is a lesson quite hard to teach, particularly if you are becoming successful, more so than your parents…
Now, as we are retired, we still apply these lessons. We save, we live within our means. We give back. We have little or no debt. The Boomer generation is the best prepared generation for a comfortable retirement. We have learned our lessons. We have applied them to our careers and now to our retirement. Maturity is a measure of our success, our willingness to listen to our folks. It is our ultimate tribute to their wisdom, their frugality.
As we enjoy the Strand during the winter months, we can recall for a few moments our youth. The cold sea wind makes for a stiff walk. The sand rattles beneath a blanket of cold air. We enjoy the comforts of our home these days. Friends and family visit. We read, sew, mend, cook. As we await the spring, we can settle into our comforts, knowing they are, to a large degree, a result of our parents’ – and their parents’ – lessons. Young kids once playing after school on the dunes, now walk the Strand with a confident air.