I was raised by parents who had been raised in the Great Depression. My mother’s family was lucky. Her dad owned a grocery store and even in the Great Depression people had to eat. But through her whole life my mother carried the memory of neighbors coming into the store with government coupons for food and the look of humiliation on their faces as they quietly slipped the papers to her dad.
My dad’s mom responded to the Great Depression by pulling him out of school and putting him to work. The excuse she used then, and the excuse still repeated as gospel by the family, is that the doctors told her he would go blind if he stayed in school any longer because he eyes were so weak. So she had him quit school and got him a job as a butcher. Just the thing for a kid going blind – hand him sharp knives.
Such was the fear and respect my grandmother engendered in her progeny that to this day they swear by that story even though my father died well into his seventies with his eyesight intact. The reality is that this move kept the family out of debt.
Because of this background, my parents had a horror of debt. If we needed something – whether it was Christmas presents or new winter coats – we either had the money for them or we didn’t. There was no in-between. My brother and I grew up understanding that the words “We can’t afford it” literally meant we didn’t have the money for it.
I recently went to the bank for a small loan. As I reviewed my financials with the banker, he was impressed with the fact that I had so little debt – a mortgage and one credit card that I paid off monthly. Old habits die hard.
Even as I filled out the paper work for the loan, I felt the presence of my parents on my shoulders, shaking their heads and reminding me that if I couldn’t pay for it, then I couldn’t afford it. I went ahead with the loan but have felt guilty about it ever since.
America is a nation in debt from the federal government’s hemorrhaging red ink budget to families living off their credit cards. If we want something, we assume we have some god given right to obtain it. We have second cars, vacation homes, TV’s the size of movie screens, kitchen gadgets that gather dust next to take out menus – whatever we desire, we buy and worry about paying for later.
Imagine what it must have been like in our parents’ day when impulse buying meant putting it on layaway or starting a Christmas club account in the hope of being able to buy it by Christmas. There was no plastic to whip out, and going to the bank for a loan was a step taken only for the greatest of emergencies. In all my childhood, I don’t ever remember us having an emergency that great.
I think that’s why our parents dressed up to go to the bank. It was a special occasion. My mother was in her finest, as was I, the day she brought me to the bank to open my first savings account for the tip money customers gave me when I delivered their orders. I still have the plastic coin bank with the name Guarantee Bank and Trust Company in gold letters given to me as a gift for my business.
Banks don’t give out gifts for your business anymore. We don’t get all dressed up to go there because it’s no longer a special occasion, and because most bank buildings no longer inspire awe when you enter. We drop in for a signature loan as casually as we make plans for dinner next week.
I wonder what it would be like to try – if only for a little while – to live within our means and not whip out our credit card every time the urge for a four-dollar latte hit? I wonder how many of us could do what our parents did and actually live within our means? I wonder how many of us would have the courage, or desire, to find out?
And now you’ll have to excuse me. My loan came through and I need to go spend the money.