Janet Sheridan: Family economics 101

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My husband and I recently joined the fixed-income set.

With impeccable timing, we retired as the economy shattered. We’ll be fine. We came from large families with blue-collar budgets and parents who insisted we wear it out, save for a rainy day, turn out the lights.

I would be more confident about our country weathering the current economic situation if everyone had learned these frugalities when young. But, not everybody was raised by graduates of the Great Depression, as Joel and I were.

When I was 12, the sound of my parents’ voices pushed through the kitchen floor to the top bunk of the bedroom below, where I rolled over and stretched. I liked waking to their drifting conversations but felt uneasy when their voices were loud enough that I could distinguish words, because that meant they were discussing money.

Although they agreed on the governing fiscal policy for our household — buy only what you can afford, stay out of debt, save as much as possible — they sometimes disagreed on its application.

In a good month, when Dad had worked long, hot hours of overtime at the steel plant, Mom might suggest they spend the extra earnings on something frivolous, perhaps a vacuum that sucked more than it spewed.

Dad would argue for making a double house payment. Usually the debate ended with Dad’s oft-repeated sentiment, “I’m just trying to keep a roof over our heads. We’ll be lucky if we don’t all end up in the poorhouse.”

When young, I imagined the poorhouse as our neighbor’s pitiful barn, full of people dressed in grain sacks with signs reading “the poor” hung around their necks. They huddled in empty stalls and chewed on turnips when not wailing.

This image guaranteed my cooperation during the family meetings held when Dad was on strike or laid off.

First, Mom would explain there had been another lay-off, and while Dad looked for work, we would need to cut back on spending. Her seven children, knowing the routine, would look solemn, but feel no anxiety.

She next announced the non-debatable reductions: We would stop the newspaper and quit going to the Dairy Queen.

There would be no birthday presents.

Despite recent promises, we would continue to be one of the few families in our rural area without a TV. I hid my joy when told that I would have to stop piano lessons but felt sad that we could no longer go swimming at Arrowhead, a local indoor pool where I loved watching the sleekness with which my Dad swam.

After we heard the mandatory cuts, we were asked for other suggestions, but usually could think of none, though I remember one of us once suggesting that perhaps we could save money if we bathed less often.

Now, during the holiday season of 2009, I fret about the unemployed and uninsured, about foreclosures and mounting credit-card debt.

I think about my loved ones. I would like to share my parents’ wisdom with them, without seeming to deliver a lecture. I wish they would discover, as I did when young, that economizing doesn’t mean the absence of fun and that paring a budget can be a beneficial lesson when shared with children.

I hope that across our country, in response to the economic upheaval this Christmas, family meetings are being held.

An earlier version of this column was published June 17, 2009, in the Denver Post.

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