What My Grandparents Knew About Money

by Emily Guy Birken · 5 comments

grandparents and money
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:

grandparents and money1. 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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  • Mike says:

    It says that there is to be “5 money lessons only grandparents can give.”

    But I only see 4. I would hate to lose 20% on my money as well as 20% moneyning advice .

  • I loved reading this and I loved how opposite your grandparents were but both were still very smart about their money.

  • Gerald Filardi says:

    Lots of wisdom in those grandparents! Good point that not having extraordinary means does not mean you can’t live a happy and productive life. Also, having extraordinary means does not always result in being a spendthrift and not having values. The one common thread that both grandmothers had was that of “family.” I am still trying to comprehend how my parents and grandparents (all blue collar workers) enabled five children to go to college and post-graduate schools, but, as I look back, I can see that we had that common thread as well. Sadly, today that seems to be going the way of the dinosaur.

  • Susan McPherson says:

    My mother- single mom of 9! – wrote down every penny she received or spent. When we got our first jobs (very young) we were expected to give her 1/3, bank 1/3 and have available to spend 1/3. When I wanted to take that trip, I had the money and later, she returned the money we paid her in mortgage down payments. She never made much but we wanted for nothing important.

  • Caroline Bowman says:

    my grandparents were also very different in terms of financial situation, but both of them were very wise and extremely generous. My paternal granny was the most amazing budgeter. They had very little extra money and lots of children and yet she managed to accumulate a healthy and decent savings, pension and property in her later years. She was not a fan of credit and loved simple family gatherings with good food, self-catering casual trips rather than any fancy anything, be it holidays, cars or whatever. She was very supportive emotionally and practically and as a result was dearly-loved.
    My other granny was an example of dealing with very scary realities head-on and doing it with such grace and kindness, never losing her generosity or becoming bitter. She came from quite wealthy people but the war threw a huge grenade into her comfortable life plans and overnight she had to take over running a business, with her husband gone for years, a small child, a house that got bombed… then a very hard and unhappy few years until an acrimonious divorce where she was left with almost nothing. But she loved to work and welcomed the chance to get a career going and was very careful with her money, but also seized opportunities that came up; the chance to come from England to South Africa to live and work for example. She grabbed that and had a ball for several years. She was so loving and kind to all comers and extremely honest and trusting, despite some fairly hard circumstances that came along.

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