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A tribute to dads’ money lessons

Marketplace Staff Jun 19, 2009

A tribute to dads’ money lessons

Marketplace Staff Jun 19, 2009


TESS VIGELAND:It’s Dad’s Day this weekend. That means lots of ties being opened, new barbecue tools making their debut, maybe some sweet seats at a ball game. Or perhaps you have one of those dads.

The kind where the best gift you could give is finding the cheapest gas station in town or remembering to turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth. We learn a lot from our parents, including our views about money.

Lauren Weber’s dad had a big impact on her financial life. He taught economics at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and man, did he bring those lessons home.

Lauren Weber: It gets really cold in New England in January. But that didn’t stop my father from tyrannically setting the heat up at 50 degrees during the winters of my Connecticut childhood. It was so chilly I had to wear a hat and gloves in the house just to stay warm. There was no point in whining about the cold.

“Put on another sweater,” my dad would say, in his native New York accent.

You see my father is cheap. Really cheap. When I was growing up, he was always dashing around the house, turning off lights and monitoring thermostats. He insisted on washing dishes with cold water and no soap, so our knives and forks were usually encrusted with the remains of recent meals.

He used hand signals out the window of his car to preserve the turning lights. And he still tries to avoid using the brakes on the car, by coasting to red lights or using a tap-and-thrust system that he thinks is easier on the brake pads.

He even tried to ration toilet paper, telling my brother and sister and me how much we can use for each bodily function. Thank goodness these rules were too hard to enforce and were never mentioned again.

But whenever we’re all visiting, he still shouts out, as he turns in for the night, “Please don’t flush until the last person goes to bed!”

I complained bitterly about all of this when I was young. But when I grew up and found myself walking 30 blocks to save $2 on the subway, I realized I had turned into a version of my father.

What surprised me most was how grateful I felt. My father did pass on some of his compulsive behavior, but he also taught me an essential lesson: how to live within my means. He taught me to distinguish between needs and desires and to deprive myself of ephemeral things in favor of more meaningful ones. Thanks to these lessons, I’ve never been in debt, I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve chosen work that I love.

Most importantly, he taught me to be generous when it matters. Dad maybe a little crazy when it comes to turn signals and toilet paper, but he would give anything to a friend or a stranger in need. He showed me that self-denial is a virtue only when coupled with compassion and an open hand. So thanks Dad and Happy Father’s Day.

Vigeland: Lauren Weber’s book “In Cheap We Trust” will be published in September. Weber was inspired to write the book based on her father’s example.

We asked a few listeners to tell us some other money lessons they learned — and perhaps didn’t — from dear ol’ dad.

Colin Shaw: I didn’t get direct advice from my father; he led by example. And the biggest example was, you marry someone who’s very good with the money and get out of their way.

My mother got an MBA when I was eight years old. But the beginning years of my life, my dad was the sole breadwinner and he came and told my mother how much the paycheck was and then she did the budget and said, “OK, you can have lunch at work two days this week. The rest of the time you have to bring in your own lunch.” And he just followed her advice.

Once I met my wife, on one of our first dates, she mentioned she a coupon for a particular restaurant to go to. There was no “We have to pull out all the stops and don’t be cheap,” she was money conscious from the very first day I met her.

Keith Nealy: My father didn’t give me any advice on personal finance. It was considered a private matter. Almost like you don’t talk about sex, you don’t talk about family finance.

We never knew what was spent on anything, on the mortgage or cars. About the only thing I knew was how much a popsicle cost.

The only contact I recall about financial matters is when I was going to college and my father presented me with loan papers and told me to sign at the bottom if I wanted to go to college.

I’d gotten out of school and just gone on my merry way and eventually got letters from the people that loaned the money demanding their money.

Martha Catt: My father really believed in cash that he could see and touch. So, rather than invest his money in the markets, he literally stuffed them into checkbook boxes, wrapped them in freezer paper, wrote the word “beans” on the outside and stuck them in the freezer.

My father called the money “beans,” because accountants are called “bean counters.” So that was his code, because he thought maybe “simoleons” was a little too obvious.

I learned from my father that financial acumen was not connected to the Y chromosome.

Vigeland: Our thanks to Colin Shaw of Morgan, Utah, Keith Nealy of Alameda, California, and Martha Catt of Charlotte, North Carolina, for sharing their stories with us.

And thanks, also, to the most generous, wise and kind-hearted father a gal could ask for. Love you, Dad!

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