The Best — and Worst — Money Lessons We Learned from Our Grandparents

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Older Americans Month
Jack Houser, grandfather to Christie Post, Social Media Video Producer at The Penny Hoarder. Photo by Christie Post

May is Older Americans Month, a time to celebrate the elders in our lives.

Since we’re all about finding the best ways to earn, spend and save money here at The Penny Hoarder, we thought it would only be fitting to share the money lessons we’ve learned from our grandparents over the years.

Our grandparents have been through a lot of major changes that affected the nation’s economic landscape: the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and affirmative action.

And they’ve learned a ton personally over their decades of life experience. So whether it’s astute financial advice given directly, gems we gleaned from watching them live out their lives or downright bad habits we don’t want to have repeated in future generations, here are the money lessons we’ve learned from our grandparents.

Note: Some stories have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Nicole Dow, Staff Writer

My granny once told me, quite frankly, that I need to marry someone with money, like a doctor or a lawyer. She always championed her granddaughters to support themselves independently, but if we did couple up, she wanted us with someone who would add to our lives financially, not bring us down.

Nicole Dow (center right) pictured with her grandparents Marian (left) and Robert Dow (right).

The money lesson I learned from my grandfather was less direct. My grandfather worked very hard throughout his life.

Of his indulgences, he really valued travel. I feel like he instilled in all his grandkids how important it was to see the world and gain new experiences. Investing in experiences versus stuff is a lesson I’ve picked up from him.

Angelica Wagner, Social Media Editor

My grandma used to give all us grandkids a dollar every time we visited. We always slyly gave it back, as there were over 25 of us. But it taught me that saving a dollar here or there really would add up after time. I probably would have been a millionaire from the giving of my grandma. It really showed me that even if you don’t have a lot, the kindness of giving to others shows a lot about a person.

For school fundraisers, I used to sell chocolate bars and candy for school fundraisers, but once they switched it up and had us sell batteries.

My grandpa thought this was the smartest fundraiser ever. He said people throughout life will create these new toys, technology advances or elaborate products, but they will always need batteries to run. So if I wanted to be rich, I should sell batteries. I thought that was so weird at the time, but here I am changing the batteries in my mouse and keyboard at my desk…

Dana Sitar, Senior Writer

Both of my grandmas taught me frugality inadvertently. One would save even the tiniest amount of leftovers — I’m talking a couple of bits of mac ‘n’ cheese in little containers in her refrigerator.

Alice “Sally” Resop, grandmother to Dana Sitar.

The other was liberal with “freebies.” She would pocket jelly packets and creamers from diners and snag extra rolls from a salad bar to stick in her purse. That mindset came in handy for me when I was living paycheck to paycheck and staying in a lot of hotels! (The towels are complimentary, right?)

Lizabeth Cole, Head of PR

My Grammy Cole always told me (and taught me by example) to make what I want or need instead of buy it if possible.

Together we made countless Barbie clothes, blankets, keepsakes and toys. She designed and made her own wedding gown, and sustained a living raising eight kids as an art teacher and crafter.

Young Lizabeth Cole pictured with her “Grammy Cole”.

When widowed in her 50s, selling her wares, drawings and watercolors helped her make ends meet. I learned a lot and can even navigate my way around a sewing machine!

Carson Kohler, Junior Writer

My grandad was born a few months before the start of the Great Depression. His dad lost all of his savings, and the family struggled to get by. They’d travel across Florida, from job to job.

When my grandad was old enough (like in third grade, which in today’s society isn’t old enough), he started working. He’d deliver newspapers for the (formerly) St. Petersburg Times. He told me he wasn’t able to buy his own pair of shoes until he was 12.

After he graduated high school, he headed up north, where he worked on boats. Eventually, he found his niche and started his own business in the electrical powerline industry. It boomed, and now he’s living a financially comfortable life and has been able to help my brother and me through school — because he was never able to go.

He’s taught me your circumstances don’t determine who you become or how successful you are. It’s how you pull yourself out of those hard times that proves who you are. A little luck is nice, too.

Carrie Nowlin, Web Producer

My grandmother always insisted that we view school with the same level of responsibility that we would an actual job.

To help with this, she would pay my sister and me at the end of the quarter when report cards came out. We would get one dollar for every A, fifty cents for every B and nothing for Cs. If we got a D or F, we had to pay her. Money is a powerful motivator.

Carrie Nowlin (center) pictured with her grandparents Judy (left) and Bruce Nowlin (right).

My dad’s parents did everything right. They lived well below their means, saved and invested wisely and didn’t splurge on the biggest and best just because they could afford to.

Now that they’re both older and retired, they still get to live the life they were used to because of their frugality and wise investments when they were younger.

Jacquelyn Pica, Editorial Intern

My grandmother always takes full advantage of everything offered at restaurants. Her purse is always full of sugar packets she’s amassed from various restaurants. She also will ask for extra rolls if we’re out at dinner just so she can take them home with her.

My grandmother reuses paper towels. Instead of throwing them away after one use, she sets them out to dry and uses them again later.

Also, instead of ordering lemonade, she’ll order water and ask for a few lemon wedges and make her own lemonade with lemon slices and sugar packets. Not sure if it tastes the same, but I guess it beats paying for a drink?

Kathleen Garvin, Editor & Marketing Strategist

I had good money examples on both sides of my family.

My dad’s mom grew up during the Great Depression, and her father died when she was a young kid. So, her mother and young brothers had to work to support the family. They barely had enough for the essentials, let alone any extras; she would maybe get a piece of fruit for her birthday. And you know what? Most of her stories about growing up sounded joyful. She was close with her mom and siblings and seemed to really value those relationships over things.

Regina Dowds (left) and Jack Dowds (right) pictured with their grandchildren.

My mom’s father still has a couch from the 1960s in his living room! Why replace something that works fine just because it’s old?

On that note, my boyfriend’s grandmother has had the same television for over three decades, never owned a VCR or DVD player and doesn’t have call-waiting on her landline phone (or have a cell phone, for that matter). They didn’t worry about “keeping up with the Joneses” and don’t seem any less happy for it.

Heather Comparetto, Visual Editor & Photographer

My grandmother has always told to me to “marry rich” since I am the artist type. And while I wouldn’t mind some extra wealth, “gold digger” is just not my style (but like… if you’re a down-to-earth doctor type…heyyyyyyy).

Anyways, what I’ve really learned is that I need to save my damn money. My grandmother is a wonderful, amazing, beautiful woman, and it breaks my heart that she still has to work. She should be relaxing in the Caribbean or some other tropical paradise — which is what I want to do in my retirement.

Christie Post, Social Media Video Producer

My grandparents, Jack and Pat Houser, aka Papa and Nini, grew up during the Great Depression, so they saved money all their lives. If they made $1, they put five to 10 cents in their savings account.

Jack and Pat Houser, grandparents to Christie Post.

Ever since I can remember, they have never bought anything full price. When they can, they use coupons. Basically, they’re the original deal stackers. Both are huge advocates of retiring early and they made it happen.

My grandpa owned several jean and women’s shoe stores, so he taught me how to shop right. He showed me how much stores mark prices up and what’s a good deal. This is how I get high fashion at low prices.

Not only did saving allow my grandpa to retire comfortably early, living a healthy lifestyle kept him from spending money unnecessarily. This is something that has been engrained in my life as well as all my family members. My grandpa is 92 and can do more pull-ups than the average person.

He told me, “A lot of people work hard all their lives to try to make money to retire. Then they lose their health doing that. So when they retire they spend all their money trying to get their health back. One of the most important things people can do in their lifetime is live a healthy lifestyle.”

Lessons from a Penny Hoarder Who Preferred Not to Be Named

My stepdad’s mom used to engage in some Depression-era penny hoarding that just seemed unnecessarily stringent. She washed and dried paper plates, for instance. I can see doing that with plastic plates but with paper?

The only toys in their house were at least 40 years old, which would have been fine were they not also broken. There was literally no point in having them around. Having no toys in your house is better — and safer — than having, say, a rocking horse suspended from springs with only three of the springs intact.

From them, I learned early on that there’s such a thing as being too thrifty. While it’s important to live within one’s means, you can take it to extremes that are pointless. It made me really think about what it means to be frugal and how that can mean being OK with spending your money on things you really need or even really want instead of pinching every penny until it screams for mercy.

On the other side, we have my mom’s mom, who had a very glamorous lifestyle working in the movie industry and living in Los Angeles. She spent like it, too — closets of gorgeous clothes, a vanity full of expensive skincare and makeup, Christmas gifts that were quite extravagant (like $100 in dollar bills for my sister and me when we were 8 or 9 years old).

She seemed as though she was well-off — and I’m sure for a while she was — but the spending eventually caught up to her. She would make terrible choices, like order a rug she thought cost $1,500, but when the rug arrived and she realized it actually cost $15,000, she kept it because she was too embarrassed to admit she couldn’t afford it.

She spent extravagantly on everyone in her circle and was very generous with her money, but she was exploited at the end of her life when she became friends with a guy who scammed her out of a lot of her money.

She died with nearly seven figures worth worth of debt and her beautiful house in foreclosure; none of her friends who had been the recipients of her largesse were around when she was sick and dying. Her long-time partner was the only one by her side through all that time.

From her, I saw the worst of conspicuous consumerism. I inherited her tastes for certain expensive things, but I also know there are more important things in life, like being financially secure and capable of taking care of yourself for the long haul and having relationships with people that are built on trust and respect and not exploitation.

I think in many ways, growing up during the Great Depression may have influenced her as well, albeit in a different way than my stepdad’s parents. Whereas they were always stressing about waste and preparing for a potential disaster, she refused to go without ever again.

I like to think I’ve found a middle path between the two. I am frugal and cost-conscious when it comes to most of my expenses and I make an effort to be financially responsible, but I also am willing to spend on things I deem worthy of my money. Having the examples of two very extreme styles of handling money really helped with that.

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.