Father’s Son: Financial Lessons Last More Than Half a Century
Ever since my father died of a heart attack at age 41 in 1965 when I was 9, I’ve been drawn to things that connect with him. My mom gave me his high school yearbook and the wallet he carried on the day he died with most of the contents intact. They provide snapshots taken a quarter of a century apart, capturing him as both a teenager and a man entering his fifties.
More than half a century later, the article that intrigues me the most is a slightly worn mustard-colored notebook that he used as his financial journal from January 1959 to May 1965. He carefully recorded what he did. was earning every two weeks as a lab technician at DuPont’s Chambers Works in Deepwater, NJ, and how he spent his money.
Not all expenses are recorded. He took special care in tracking how much he paid for gasoline and car repairs. He bought gas at 24.9 cents a gallon for a dollar on June 1, 1959 and spent $ 1.50 to have a flat tire repaired on April 12, 1965. My parents bought a 1959 Ford for $ 900 on the 13th. February 1963.
Other expenses show how times have changed. He and my mother paid the milkman $ 5.60 for weekly deliveries to our home on October 24, 1960. On March 12, 1959, he paid his barber $ 1.50 for his regular haircut.
There are occasional entries that have nothing to do with money and seem humorous in retrospect. In early 1963 he started recording weekly weights for himself and my mom. On February 26, he noted that my mother, who died in 2015 at age 90, weighed 158 pounds. This would be the first and last entry for her, which leads me to believe that she considered it to be classified information.
I don’t know why he kept such detailed records, but I have a theory. Born in 1923, he was one of four children and was 6 when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929. I am sure his working class parents closely watched their income and expenses during the period. Great Depression, a practice he would continue as an adult.
At 65, I have a clearer idea of how my father’s financial practices affected me and my older sister, Barbara, who was 12 when our father passed away. She majored in accounting in college and was an auditor for the State of New Jersey for over 30 years. It’s a career choice he would have approved.
As for me, I can see its influence on my own financial habits in several ways.
1. Be on time when paying what you owe
Ever since I got my first credit card in the early 1980s, I’ve adopted a simple philosophy: pay every bill in full well in advance of every monthly installment. I never carried over a balance.
2. If possible, pay your bills early
My wife Elizabeth and I bought our first house with a 30 year mortgage in December 1989. When we got too big after our daughters were born in 1994 and 1997, we had to sell it at a loss. This led to a change in strategy. We bought our current house in April 2000 with a 15 year mortgage and refinanced it in 2002 and made it into a 10 year mortgage. With the help of saving money, tracking our expenses, and earning extra income when possible, we paid it off in January 2011, almost two years ahead of schedule. There was no burnt mortgage, just the satisfaction of doing what we set out to do.
3. Try to make big purchases last.
We bought my current car (a 2003 Toyota Corolla) in August 2002 and it still drives well with almost 190,000 miles. I provide the required maintenance and have repairs carried out as needed. A service representative at our dealership says he knows a Toyota owner who has serviced his vehicle and drives his car over half a million miles. How things are going, this car might outlive me.
4. Cut costs with coupons
Like many families, Elizabeth and I use coupons to reduce our weekly grocery bills. Cutting coupons that come with the Sunday newspaper or in the mail is a weekly ritual in our house that we passed on to our two daughters. We check the supermarket flyers for the current week and the following week to see what’s going on on sale and if a purchase can be delayed for a week when an item is cheaper.
5. Saving is a virtue
Benjamin Franklin perhaps put it better: “For age and needs, save as much as you can. No morning sun lasts all day. The money from each paycheck is set aside to save and donate to charity. Even in semi-retirement, I still deposit a portion of every freelance check into a savings account.
Financial diligence aside, my dad recognized that there is a time to spend and reap the rewards of what money can provide. At the end of 1964, my parents had to make a decision: redevelop the cramped kitchen in our home or take a family trip to Florida and escape the Northeast winter?
My parents took the latter option and we drove to St. Augustine and Miami Beach in February 1965 with my aunt, uncle and cousin in a separate car. Three months after our return, on May 26, my father passed away, two weeks before his 42nd birthday. My mom, sister and I were always happy to have made this last trip together as a family. Memories were priceless. Ultimately, some things cannot be measured in money.
My mother remarried and sold our house in the summer of 1966, with a kitchen that had not been renovated.
Tom Wilk, a retired copy editor, is an occasional freelance writer in Pitman, NJ
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