The most important money lessons my dad taught me

By Dana George

Reviewed by Kimberly Rotter

Jun 07, 2024

Read time: 3 min

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My father was two years old when the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. By the time the U.S. managed to work its way out into times of greater prosperity, Dad was 12, old enough to understand and remember how economic downturns could rock ordinary families. I'm not sure if that experience was responsible for my dad's views of financial responsibility, or if he would have developed conservative money views no matter when he was born. In either case, he certainly tried to teach me and my siblings about careful money management—most of which took me many years to fully appreciate. 

Fortunately for me, what I learned about money management from my dad was passed along in a casual and often comical way. There were no lectures or sermons about personal finances, just good common-sense advice that eventually manifested in my everyday habits. 

Here's some of what I learned (whether I wanted to or not). 

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Rain will come. Save for it.

My father spent several decades in the Marine Corps, never becoming a titan of industry or living the high life, and yet, we always had everything we needed. I can't recall any highs or lows in our family finances, mostly because my father was so good about sticking with a household budget that involved saving.  

When inflation was sky-high, and news reports covered the soaring cost of groceries, our pantry and refrigerator were full. When the Iranian Revolution led to a shortage of crude oil and the cost of gasoline shot into the stratosphere, we always had the fuel we needed to get around. 

Dad was big on planning for economic downturns. He taught us to regularly put money away to cover household expenses when circumstances outside our control got wonky. Although "wonky" wasn't a word he would have used, he made his point. Because he systematically put money away each month during times of plenty, we also had enough to get us through when times got tough. 

As an adult, I can look back and imagine how little he probably enjoyed having to tap the household's emergency fund to cover everyday bills. Still, I also imagine how glad he must have been to have the funds available. Having money in the bank to draw from on a rainy day is one thing that made him financially savvy

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Focus on your financial priorities. Not on the Joneses.

My parents were famous for carefully maintaining their vehicles and driving a car until it was clear it wouldn’t make it another mile. The only time I remember them buying new home furnishings was when their house burned to the ground and they were forced to. To be honest, I remember being a little embarrassed by their dated home and basic cars. 

As I entered junior high, I became convinced that all my friends' parents had nicer homes and cooler cars. I couldn't figure out why my parents were so willing to settle. Neither of them even had a radio or air conditioning in their cars, for Pete’s sake! 

When I asked my dad why, he told me that those things would have cost extra, and he wasn’t willing to take on more debt. I cannot begin to tell you how frustrated I was with that answer. 

What I didn’t know then was how much my parents paid each month to keep my younger brother in a school that could address his special needs. I found out later that it was more than three times the cost of their monthly mortgage. They were practically crushed by that expense, and yet they found small ways to manage, knowing the expense wouldn't last forever. 

Of all the lessons my dad taught me about money, this one probably had the biggest impact. We are all more than our financial situation. Mom and Dad carried an enormous financial burden yet never allowed it to impact their sense of self. Their self-esteem wasn't tied up in how much they owed or how much was in their bank account, or how we compared to the neighbors.

Related: Why you shouldn’t strive to be rich

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You'll grow old one day. Be financially ready.

The amount of time my father spent talking about growing old drove me batty. As a soldier, he could never imagine himself becoming an old man, but he wanted to make sure the rest of us would be okay if he died. I guess you could say he planned for my mother's old age. 

Much to my dad's surprise, he did grow old, and when he did, he and Mom had money to do all the things they couldn’t do when they were younger. They took a dream trip to India, the continent on which they first met decades earlier. They took day trips to historical sites, enjoyed a weekly art class together, and added a sunroom to their home. 

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Just last week, I had a conversation with my niece about money. She expressed how worried she is about "doing it wrong." Once again, I was grateful for Dad's insights. When it comes to personal finances, we do our best to make good choices but also acknowledge that we're sometimes going to find ourselves in uncomfortable situations. We’re all more than the things we own or the debt we carry. Our circumstances are temporary and don't define us. 

The truth is, not a day goes by that I don't miss my dad. That said, I think he'd be glad to know that I was listening when he talked about money, and the lessons he shared took root. 

Related: 4 debt lessons we should all learn early in life

Dana George

Dana is an Achieve writer. She has been covering breaking financial news for nearly 30 years and is most interested in how financial news impacts everyday people. Dana is a personal loan, insurance, and brokerage expert for The Motley Fool.

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Kimberly is Achieve’s senior editor. She is a financial counselor accredited by the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education®, and a mortgage expert for The Motley Fool. She owns and manages a 350-writer content agency.

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