Last year at this time we featured a very special article. It was my grandfather’s 90th birthday and in his honor we were able to share his 9 top money lessons, one for each decade on Earth.
Tawnya here, and this year I’m extremely blessed to be able to share yet another set of lessons in celebration of another milestone in my family.
This Monday my grandma, the grandma who’s been married to my 90-year-old grandpa for 72 years, is turning 90 herself.
Last year, my grandpa and I collaborated to come up with his money lessons, then I wrote the article and posted it with his stamp of approval.
This year, we’re doing things a little differently. While I’ll be giving you some background to my grandma’s life and adding a blurb about her lessons in each section, the majority of this article was written by my grandma herself.
So, sit back and enjoy these 9 money lessons from my 90-year-old grandma. We hope her story and these lessons inspire you and you’re able to take something away for your own life.
My grandma was born in January of 1930 in Illinois and was one of five children.
For the non-history buffs, my grandma was born in the midst of the Great Depression, a few months after the stock market crash that sparked it. The Depression had a major impact on her family, as it did for most in the United States.
Her mother was from a wealthy family but had been disowned for marrying her father. Not only was her father much older than her mother, but he was from a lower class, had already been divorced (a major no-no), and had a reputation as a “bad boy.” He was not seen as an acceptable match. She married him anyway.
My grandma’s father was a very skilled musician, which was incredible considering he’d lost his right hand as a child through an accident with a corn picker on the family farm. He wore a hook attachment and was able to play almost any instrument he could pluck or hold with the pinchers of the hook. His main instruments were violin and Hawaiian style guitar (you hold the guitar flat on your lap). He was also versed in piano although he was limited in playing it.
Growing up, my grandma was given the nickname Sugar, a name she’s still known by today. In fact, one of her brothers liked the name so much he named a daughter Sugar after my grandma.
Here are 9 money lessons from my 90-year-old grandma, in her own words (italicized).
Lesson 1 – Nature Makes the Best Playground
My first memories take me back to the age of about three and my family took a trip to Florida. Don’t know how we managed to do that being as it was the end of the Depression era and I’m sure we didn’t have any money. After that I remember living in a homemade trailer on the banks of Sangamon Creek. That was a great time, running all over the place like wild animals. I’m sure my mother wouldn’t agree with that, having five children she couldn’t keep tabs on. We supplemented our diet with gooseberries and a Pawpaw tree, not having much else to eat. My dad probably caught fish to help out with the meals. We also were given milk by the farmer on whose land we were squatting.
Kids today spend more time inside than they do outside, and parents work hard to buy expensive gadgets to entertain them. My grandma’s first lesson is that nature is the best, and cheapest, playground. Encourage your kids to run, climb, play, and explore. Not only will they be healthier, but they’ll learn to appreciate things that don’t have a battery life.
Lesson 2 – Anything Can Be a Toy, and Any Toy Should Teach
After that period, we moved into town to a vacant lot in Lincoln, Illinois. I turned five years old while there and started first grade in school. I was not happy being in school as the carefree days of living on the creek were gone. We weren’t in that trailer very long on that lot before we moved into town to an apartment, where my parents could have a music studio (our living room!) to teach music. We didn’t have any toys, so we made our own. I remember my brother Dick carving statues of heroes, while I drew paper dolls and other things. I was learning to sew at the time, plus learning embroidery and to cook.
Building off lesson 1, lesson 2 is about encouraging creativity, family bonding, and learning. Being a poor family, they didn’t have money for toys, so they made their own. They also created toys while learning practical skills like sewing and carving. The times meant that many of the skills taught were highly gendered (sewing and cooking for the girls, carving and fixing things for the boys), but these were also an opportunity for the family to spend time together and to learn skills that would serve them later in life. The heart of the family was music and all the children learned at least the basics of an instrument. Music even became a career for one of my grandma’s brothers.
Lesson 3 – Have a “Never Give Up” Attitude
My dad tried his best to provide for all of us. He would drive the countryside in search of anyone needing pianos tuned or possible music lessons. Music wasn’t the best occupation in those days as it wasn’t a high priority on peoples list. Somehow, he always found some way to provide, even if it was only a chicken for dinner. Sometimes that’s all the farmer had to give as payment for having their piano tuned. But we survived.
Often our lives are hard, and it may feel hopeless. There are many systematic issues in our country and barriers to success for many. No matter what card you’ve been dealt, it’s important to have a “never give up” attitude and to persist. My grandma has described her dad as someone who would have died trying rather than accept that he couldn’t do something, especially if he was told he couldn’t. Keep doing the best you can for yourself and your family.
Lesson 4 – If It’s Not Worn Out, Use It
We didn’t have the money to buy much clothing, including shoes. So clothing was passed down from the oldest child. I got my sister Mary’s clothes and then they were passed on down to my younger sister. Shoes were always a problem, as the soles would come loose. My dad spent a lot of time trying to glue them on, however, they never stayed on very long. So, you would walk to school with the sole flipping up and down.
If it’s not broken then don’t fix it, or more accurately, buy another one. Obviously, times were more extreme in the Depression, but the point my grandma is trying to make is that people should use items they have to the fullest extent before getting a new one. People are constantly looking to upgrade their items in today’s world just because they want the newest and best. They’re also indebting themselves to do it in many cases. Save yourself some money by using items until they’re worn or no longer serve their purpose, then upgrade.
Lesson 5 – Always Be Looking For Ways To Save
Acquiring schoolbooks every year was expensive. But if you took very good care of your books, you could trade them in for used books for that year. My sister Mary would make covers for the books out of paper bags to keep them clean. We never wrote in the books so we could trade them in.
It was necessary for my grandma’s family to save every penny they could growing up, and it’s still that way for many families. However, people that have surplus cash often aren’t careful with how they spend it and may be spending unnecessarily out of convenience. You must decide what is important to you but being mindful about your spending and going the extra mile to save money will allow you to spend more of it in ways that you want.
Lesson 6 – Always Look To Improve
Times were beginning to ease a bit and the economy was improving but not my dad’s profession. So, he decided to take some courses at the college and earn a teaching degree. Which he did and began teaching in local schools that had music programs, like bands. He still drove the countryside, tuning pianos or giving lessons. He also always grew a garden, talking someone out of a plot of land to use. All of us had to help with those gardens, weeding, picking the results from the garden. Then came the canning, and either stringing beans or shelling peas. I never liked skinning tomatoes! But we certainly enjoyed the results. If we wanted a snack it would be something like a potato or another vegetable. My sister loved a big onion! Ugh, I couldn’t go for that. There wasn’t money for any of today’s snacks.
Music was my grandma’s dad’s passion, but it didn’t pay well, at least how he was trying to go about it. Realizing that, he went back to school to become a music teacher, which allowed him to better provide for his family. Unfortunately, our passions may not pay the bills. No matter where you are in life, if you’re not satisfied or your job isn’t cutting it try and look for ways to gain skills and move up. Identify skills and interests you already have and see how you can use them to better yourself. Look for community resources to help you. Don’t forget to indulge in hobbies and things that make you happy along the way.
Lesson 7 – New Isn’t Always Best
By this time, I was making my own clothes from any scrap of material I could find. I remember one time my brother Dick bought me some lime green corduroy as a surprise. I was so happy with the purchase and made what was known as a jumper. My mother only had a couple of patterns I could use, so I would have to improvise to make them my own. My husband bought me my first store-bought dress when we married. I no longer need to sew my clothes but did until arthritis made it difficult. However, I prefer shopping thrift stores, not wanting to spend money for retail.
Homemade items are often just as good as store-bought, and secondhand items are often as good as new. You can save a ton of money making things on your own or buying secondhand. Clothes, furniture, and décor are some of the best things to look for used. With social media and secondhand sites like Craigslist and OfferUp, it’s easier than ever to find nice used items. You can even make some money selling your unwanted items!
Lesson 8 – Always Pay Your Debts
We didn’t have birthday parties or presents. We were lucky to get one present for all five of us at Christmas, which, believe it or not, we understood and didn’t mind. I don’t remember having the holiday feasts we have today. Welfare never helped us or any other charities, mainly because we had a car and welfare didn’t help you if you had a car. You were deemed able to find work if you had a car. After my husband and I married, he lost his job working at the Wren Log Mill when it shut down. Times were in a recession and he had a difficult time finding a job. On top of that, he suffered an appendicitis attack, and after leaving the hospital with no money, we moved in with his parents till he recovered. We decided to move to Bend to see if the job market was any better, it wasn’t, so he applied for unemployment and received that. It wasn’t very much so we asked a store owner in Bend for credit. He graciously told us yes, so we made it a priority to be sure that bill was paid diligently every week. We were very grateful for that store owner’s generosity and will never forget it. Later, after my husband did find a job, we asked another hardware store for credit to buy several things, which we also made it a priority to pay. At that time, we lost our car due to not being able to make the payments. That was truly embarrassing. We were finally able to save enough when he finally had a job to buy another car.
There are really two lessons here. The first is to be thankful for what you have, and for all the good things in your life whatever they are. The second is to always pay your debts. Things happen and your situation may take a turn for the worse, but you don’t want to find yourself in a position where you can’t adjust accordingly. My grandparents have always been diligent in paying off debts and not overstretching themselves. That way, if something did happen they were able to handle it.
Lesson 9 – Make the Most of Any Situation and Plan for the Future
Around that time, my husband was drafted into the Army, something he was very distressed about. In talking to a recruitment officer from the Navy and telling him his situation, the recruitment officer managed to recruit him into the Navy instead. Not good but better. So, we ended up living in Hawaii for three years. Military pay wasn’t much in those days, but we decided we were going to need a car when his tour of duty was over, so we started saving for that. As a result, we didn’t buy anything we didn’t need, including clothes, and returned to the states rather threadbare. But we did buy a rather nice 1954 Ford Fairlane with the money we saved.
As the saying goes, sometimes life gives you lemons so make lemonade. It’s important to try and make the most of a bad or not ideal situation. Don’t spend too long dwelling on the bad, and instead look for any way to improve things. If he had to be in the military the Navy was a much better option than the Army for my grandpa. At the same time, my grandparents were looking to the future and realized they needed to save money for a car, so they reduced expenses to the absolute necessities to do so. You can’t plan for everything, but planning for as much as you can will help you to avoid many money problems.
Moral of the Story
In the words of my grandma:
All our lives we have tried to be frugal and never buy anything we couldn’t afford to pay for.
Lessons from our lives have served us well over the years. Mainly to stay out of debt, not buy unless you can pay for it, but if you do, to pay it off as quickly as possible. We don’t really like to use credit cards and do so sparingly. Credit cards are an unseen figure that is easy to lose track with.
We like feeling comfortable in our old age.
These were 9 money lessons from my 90-year-old grandma. If you are blessed to make it to 90, what lessons will your life teach?
Talk about Money Learned.