My dad, George Van House, died in September, just days after my last post about our family doing a “frugal month” challenge. I was devastated. He was my last living parent, and the person who really taught me everything I know–and value–about family money.
We continued to have a pretty frugal September after his death, but there were a few extra grocery purchases and eating-out fests with family. Plus, I just didn’t have the energy to cook that month. But you know, that’s OK. Everything changes when someone dies. It should.
I’ve had lots of time to reflect on my dad these past few months. And I wanted to put down in “ink” some of what he taught me about family money. So here goes. If you follow me, you’re a trooper. If not, this one’s for Dad.My dad was a frugal guy, a kid of the Depression. Grew up in a rural part of Nebraska. Said Christmas was all about a big meal and getting a piece of fruit and candy in his holiday stocking. He loosened up a bit as he got older, but he never squandered money. He was a faithful subscriber to Consumer Reports. He read grocery ads and clipped coupons when my mom was too busy. He researched pretty much every purchase he ever made.
After my dad retired, he did taxes part-time. He also golfed with some folks who were more well-heeled than our family. From them, he started to learn about investing. I admired that about him: That he never stopped learning, that he always listened to people who were doing things differently to see if there was anything he could borrow from their wisdom.
And yes, my dad did have chats with me about money. But more than anything, I remember what he DID about money. I learned more from his examples than from his words:
He had a budget. He never explained it to me, but I often saw my dad entering figures onto green ledger paper. (This was in the days before computers). Dad always used a mechanical pencil (the kind with lead you twist down) so his point would always be sharp. One time I looked over his shoulder (he wasn’t into sharing his financial details, so I had to be quick!) and saw that he was putting things into categories on his ledger paper: Mortgage, Groceries, Restaurants. That sort of thing.
When I graduated from college and had a very tiny salary to manage, the first thing that occurred to me was to buy ledger paper and sort my sorry little dollars into categories so I knew I had enough to cover essentials. It wasn’t really even a conscious choice. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. Someday, I trust that my daughters will adopt some of my financial habits just from watching me (though they hear me talk about it, too, and are wildly bored right now!)
He comparison-shopped. Again, not something Dad ever really talked about. But I saw him look at the grocery store circulars each week and make a little list of what to buy (on sale) at two or three different stores. He was able to match the sales to coupons like no one I’ve ever seen! Me, I just use TheGroceryGame. They do the sale-and-coupon matching for me. But I definitely learned the concept from my dad.
He researched big purchases. Consumer Reports was his purchasing Bible. Not only did he want to buy things at a good price, he wanted them to LAST. I admit: I’m a CR subscriber, too. It just feels wrong to buy something moderately expensive without checking out the reviews first.
He avoided debt. And he tried to get me to do the same, though I didn’t always listen. I begged to open a credit card account in late high school. Dad spent many hours explaining to me how easy it was to run up a balance and pay unnecessary interest. I insisted that I needed to build my credit history. Dad eventually gave in and cosigned my credit card application.
I actually did fine with credit until my last year of college. By then, I was tired of living on the edge, with money only for essentials and perhaps one pizza a month. I’ll never forget the day I bought on my credit card a much-envied pair of black jeans from the Gap–$30 that I absolutely couldn’t afford to part with. I didn’t pay off that credit card bill right away, and the interest dinged me for MONTHS. I was too ashamed to tell my dad that he was right. But he was.
He let me make financial mistakes–after fair warning. Such as my credit card dilemma, above. An even bigger mistake: He let me buy a car I couldn’t afford, right before my senior year of college. It was much too expensive for someone with a less-than-part-time income. A slightly used Honda Prelude for $7500! That’s even a lot for a college student today. I actually wish he had talked me out of it. Not only did the payments sometimes overwhelm me ($150 a month for seemingly forever), I hadn’t anticipated repair costs. Nor did I know much about preventative maintenance for cars. A bad combo all around. I had some very stressful moments my last year of college, trying to negotiate repair costs with an auto shop. But I’m grateful he let me try my wings a little. Better to make mistakes early in life than later, when the stakes are bigger.
He was my family banker. Dad financed the purchase of my Prelude–I paid him back instead of a bank. He later did the same when my husband and I bought another car. But he was all business about it: He insisted on using a contract and charging interest. Terms were explicitly spelled out: The payment due date, the charge for paying late, etc. At the end of my loan term, my dad gave me back my final payment as a gift–a lovely surprise! He did the same for my husband and me on our later car. And we paid him faithfully: I would have rather paid another creditor late than disappoint my banker-dad!
He invested regularly but conservatively. Dad learned about bonds from his retired golf buddies. He liked them all: Local municipal bonds, government bonds and bond mutual funds. He wasn’t interested in investing in anything flashy. And to be fair, he didn’t start investing until later in life, so bonds were a good choice. He knew he probably didn’t have 30 or 40 years to watch his investments rise and fall. He wanted them to plod along, earning conservative amounts of consistent income.
For this one trait, I thank my lucky stars. When I took over my dad’s financial affairs after he developed dementia, I didn’t have to touch his investment choices. I just watched over them. And when the market crashed in 2008-09, Dad’s investments remained virtually unscathed. That gave me great peace of mind.
Finally, he was a giver. As frugal as he was, my dad (and my mom when she was alive) felt strongly about philanthropy. He always gave money to favorite causes, from his church to the Parkinson’s Disease Association to families he knew were going through some hardship. I see now that he really got as much out of those donations as he gave. He earned a great feeling of being useful, being part of his community, being grateful for what he had in life. I hope to be able to do the same.
For all you’ve taught me, Dad, I thank you. Life won’t be the same without you.