HOME ECONOMICS

I. What did you learn about money when you young? Did you have an allowance? Did you have a piggy bank? A savings account? What did you spend money on? Early lessons follow us through life. The topic here is what you learned about money and management of a household in your family. How well prepared were you when you finally left the nest and stepped out into the world? Tell some stories. Remember some important details that are lodged in your memory.

To get started, talk about one of your parents and his/her approach to earning, spending, saving, and managing money. Did this parent work outside the home? How did work figure in the rhythms of your family life? What did your family spend money on? What did they regard as waste? as excess? as luxury?

What’s for supper? 

When I was growing up, we called the evening meal supper in our house. At mid-day we ate our dinner. This was Midwestern parlance, perhaps typical of farm families, from which both of my parents came. At mid-day we didn’t eat “lunch.” A lunch was minimalist, more substantial than a snack, less substantial than dinner. It was a mini-meal. You ate lunch at school, out of a lunch bucket or lunch pail. (The more delicate term “lunch box” took a while to arrive.) North of town was a little restaurant called Lynn’s Lunch. On rare occasions we ate supper at Lynn’s Lunch. I don’t think I ever had dinner at Lynn’s Lunch.   

II. Now, the other parent. Or an older sibling. Talk about their work. And how you began to understand money issues. Recall a crisis, a big event related to work or money. What lessons did you learn? Was that learning difficult? pleasant? challenging?

This regime of thrift endured through my entire upbringing. It touched just about every aspect of my life. My parents said to my brother and me, “We want you boys to have a better life than we had.” They said, “We want you to have more.”  

More. What did that mean? 

They grew up with next to nothing, so perhaps a little more seemed like a lot. What we learned about “more” was how you acquired it: through sacrifice, through hard work and continuous application, through self control. 

Mornings we sat at the breakfast table at our house on 280 South Main Street, a house my parents had somehow been able to buy. My dad pulled on his clean light blue work shirt with the Standard Oil insignia just above the left pocket. He shoved a balled-up fist through the right sleeve and said to me or my brother, as that fist shot out of the other end of the sleeve, “Wanna see stars?” He would give us a little cuff on the chin.

III. Recall a family outing or vacation. Where did you go? What was it like? Was it fun? What did you do? Was thrift an issue? Was there a “splurge factor” or did thrift and economy come into play?

In the spring of 1962 my father bought a new Chevy pickup. He bought it for work purposes. He could load 55 gallon oil drums onto the bed in the back, or a furnace he was going to install, or tools he needed when he went out at 2:00 a.m. on cold weeknights to fix a customer’s furnace, or the five-gallon cans of Atrazine and Malathion he needed for farm spraying. The pickup had a hitch on the back, so he could also pull his utility trailer loaded with trash to the township dump or drop a 300 gallon tank off at a farm. It had a three-speed transmission, on the column, and a bench seat where three adults could sit uncomfortably. Pity the guy squashed in the middle. 

When he bought it, I don’t know if he bought it thinking it would also serve as a camper. He probably did.

Camper–in the most spartan sense of the word. 

IV. Think about home economics in your adult life. To what extent have you been guided by what you learned as a kid? Did you ever come to question what you learned? When and why? Tell a story or two that captures you attitudes and earning, saving, and spending.

“These should be okay,” I said.

“You’re sure?” the sales guy said.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

That was me a few years later. It was driving by then. I was working–my brother and I always worked, our dad saw to that–and managing my own money. At the time I was snow skiing on a pair of skis that my parents had bought me that no longer fit. Rather, I was no longer skiing on them. The skis were too short, the boots didn’t fit. I had some money in the bank, money I did not touch. Saving, I had learned, meant not saving for something. It simply meant squirreling away the money you earned and leaving it there–for the future, for future need, future desire. 

Although desire, that was complicated. How much desire was okay? You put your desire in the bank too.