Friday, November 25, 2005

Financial Genetics: My Dad

I'm not home for the holidays this year, but since family is always front of mind at this time of year, I thought I would post the first of my planned series about the financial lives of some of my family. It's actually quite difficult to tackle writing about my parents, but I'm just diving right in here with a profile of my father.
Growing up, Dad had total control over the family budget. He was the one who worked, paid the bills, and doled out money for individual or household expenses. He was very old-fashioned and traditional about it, obviously seeing himself as the man of the house who had sole responsibility for supporting the family. My dad did not expose the inner workings of our finances to anyone. He would never clearly say how much money he made or what we could afford, only that in general we were fortunate in what we had, but we couldn't afford most things we wanted. I grew up constantly hearing him complain about how much money my mother spent.
My father is an engineer, very numbers oriented, and very rational and logical in how he approaches all things-- well, most things. His passion is music. In my lifetime, music and books were the only real extravagances he allowed himself. He would never buy himself new clothes unless my mother insisted. He was reluctant to make improvements to the house-- the "starter house" they bought when I was born, that they could never afford to move out of. He liked having good pieces of furniture and rugs in the house, but they were bought bit by bit, over the years, his frugality occasionally giving way to my mother's desire to redecorate. He was always reminding us to turn the lights out to save on electricity, and kept the thermostat set low. Our new cars were never actually new and they were few and far between. But he didn't skimp on subscribing to the symphony and ballet, and always had a decent stereo. He didn't skimp on education either-- we always got plenty of books for Xmas and birthdays. And when I was choosing among colleges, he told me not to let their varying financial aid packages be the thing to sway my decision, but to choose the school I really wanted to go to. (This was significant, as I could have gone to the state university and almost made a profit on scholarships, but he was happier to send me to an Ivy League school that forced him to borrow an enormous amount of money.) I somehow knew from a young age that saving for retirement and saving for college were two very important things to do.
My father has always had very leftist tendencies, reading The Nation and other progressive publications, and never hesitating to express his disgust towards Republican fiscal policies. (He's not happy with the Democrats these days either.) I don't think he's ever invested in stocks, due to a deep distrust of the whole corporate system, and pessimism about impending economic doom. (He grew up with parents who never quite shook off their Depression-survival mentality.) I think his savings always consisted of bonds, an employee credit union and some combination of pension and 401k plans, and I think it frustrates him that he could have done better by investing in stocks and watching them soar in value due to pro-business, anti-regulation policies that he despises. He worked for a gigantic conglomerate most of his life, and was involved in various aerospace and defense projects at various times. I think he always hated his job-- he certainly hated his company's "chainsaw" CEO, and gave himself ulcers watching rounds of layoffs, plants closed and thousands of jobs eliminated around him over the years. He himself was always spared, and worked until he was well past 65, when he decided to take a "voluntary job elimination" package. Now he is retired but still works part time, and his anxieties about money are closer to the surface. He has huge health care expenses and worries that he can't afford to take some of the prescription medicines he's supposed to take. He has no dental insurance anymore. After a lifetime of trying to save, he doesn't have a sense of security, partially for reasons I'll detail in the next post in this series.
What has my Dad taught me about money? A sense of anxiety about it, mostly. To believe that it won't always be there, that you have to save, and plan for a rainy day. He taught me that you can spend money on the things you really care about but that you have to always keep the goal of saving in mind. He taught me that you never tell anyone how much money you make (I don't think the blog concept ever crossed his mind!) He taught me to be conservative in how you invest, that "the market" is not necessarily the great thing it's cracked up to be. He taught me to be self-sufficient, not to expect handouts or count on bailouts. He didn't really teach me these things by sitting me down and telling me what to do-- it was more than I absorbed from him a sense of what one should worry about, and that being middle class meant always having to worry. The only explicit financial advice he's ever given me was to pay off my student loans early if I could, and, basically, my Rule #1, to charge everything on credit cards as long as you pay the whole balance every month.
It's kind of sad-- people like my dad have worked hard all their lives to support a family in the traditional one-income mode. They have educational advantages, and hope to improve their lives, but find that they can never quite reach a level of security. They spend their lives paying into the system and then at retirement, feel they aren't getting their share back, and instead are resentfully watching life seem to get ever easier for rich people. They haven't really attained a better lifestyle than their parents had, and their children don't necessarily do any better. It's not a bad life, it's just, perhaps, a bit disappointing.
If anything, that is the other side of what I've learned from my Dad-- the things about him that I DON'T want to emulate at all. I don't want to be pessimistic, negative, and disappointed by life. I might take a few more risks than he did in terms of how I invest. And I would never want to be in a relationship where financial information and decisions weren't shared. But I realize that my Dad's decisions were made in a different context than my life now: I don't have a family to support. Here's the other aspect to my Dad that is easy to forget when you look at him now-- he didn't get married until he was in his early 30s, and before that, he lived quite the bachelor life. He was a young guy with a good job. He had his own apartment with nice furniture and a wall full of books, he had a car, even two cars at one point, and one of them was a Porsche, albeit a Porsche that was in the shop half the time. He skied, played tennis, bought a boat and vacationed in the Caribbean. He wined and dined a girlfriend or two, and then my mom... and that's when everything changed.

I'll return to this topic soon, with a profile of my mom.


mbhunter said...

Fascinating. Thanks for telling about this. Our attitudes about money are affected by how we saw it growing up -- no doubt. And there are always things to take with that experience and things to overcome from that experience, too.

Anonymous said...

Your father sounds like a good man, and one who saved well for the important things in life (family & education).

It's unfortunate, however, that his association literally with failed theories of how the economy "should" run kept him from achieving the wealth that likely could have been his. It sounds like he grew up in a world that thought that socialism could actually function... more importantly that it really is about the "workers" against "management".

Even at this point, you phrase his disappointment as he could have done better by investing in stocks and watching them soar in value due to pro-business, anti-regulation policies that he despises. It's as if he doesn't realize that the anti-business, pro-regulation policies he probably supported in his unionized environment have led to the death and anti-competitiveness of so many countries and industries.

More importantly though, by not understanding and appreciating the capital markets, he likely avoided obtaining the financial security that his otherwise exceptional savings habits would have indicated.

Caitlin said...

thanks for posting in this is fascinating to read how we form our relationship with money and wealth/abundance. I have been realizing lately that I have had to *unlearn* quite a lot over the years in order to establish a new - and healthier IMO - relationship. There are definitely things I learned from my mother that I'll be keeping, like self-reliance and determination. Sometimes I don't know how she got through certain times.

Miguel said...


Loved hearing about your Dad. He reminds me of my FIL quite a bit. They diverge on politics, but have the same conservative approach to money.

Fortunately, for my in-laws, their pensions and 401K distributions seem to provide a very nice retirement - apparently one in which they don't even need to touch the principal of their nestegg according to my FIL (information revealed during a mano-a-mano fireside chat after he'd had a bit to drink).

I am happy for them. Other than the usual health-related issues of people in their 70's, they have a good life. Plenty of grandkids nearby, two homes, one in New England, the other on the water in Miami Beach, they split their time 50/50 seasonally. And despite some rough starts, their three children (one of whom is my wife) are all economically productive adults with household incomes well above average.

Anyhow, my FIL, like your dad was an engineer in the defense industry. And like you described, he somehow survived wave after wave of lay-offs. But, it's my MIL who runs the family finances - and with a stern, frugal hand, I might add. They were not aggressive investors either, but certainly did well enough and made out extremely well on their homes. Plus, they have zero debt since they burned the mortgage several years ago.

My wife inherited the propensity for thrift from both her parents, in stark contrast to me, who on the other hand, has had to unlearn a propensity to live hand to mouth and run up debt, which I inherited from my parents. Fortunately, my parents did give me the tools to earn a substantially above average living, and thankfully, I have a wife who prods me into saving/investing (in no uncertain terms).

What I learned from my in-laws is the value of thrift and saving, and the value of a family-oriented lifestyle. It served them well. The downside is they are kinda dullsville, risk-averse types, who've probably missed a lot of great opportunities in life.

And what I learned from my parents, is the value of education as a means to advancement, the value of taking risks, of going for the gold medal, and the value of pursuing your dreams. The downside, is that if you don't have a safety-net underneath you, failure can be brutal.

Somehow, my wife and I would like to chart a course between the two styles.

Anyhow, looking forward to learning more about your family!