Essay: A Lesson Well Learned

Feb 15, 2018

Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler on how he came to understand the value of a dollar:

"They say we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. And if the failure is really painful, the lesson is never forgotten. Maybe that’s why I can still recall the pain from an incident in 1950 when I was all of about eight years old.

Back then Dad decided it was time for me to get my first allowance, two dimes a week, one to spend and the other to save. Well, I heard the spend part but ignored the save part blowing the whole 20 cents on candy. When Dad found out I spent the dime to be saved, he made me take 10 cents’ worth of candy back to the store, then get my dime back and put it in my piggy bank. Wow! Cruel, mean, heartless, right? At the time, you bet! Talk about pain!

But with age comes understanding, if not wisdom, and that was a lesson necessary to be taught and necessary to be learned. You see, Dad and Mom both came of age at the bottom of the Great Depression. They were forced to deal with the economic wreckage that was the 1930’s as the reckless money habits of the 1920’s came home to roost. Buying stock with 10% down and 90% debt, spending every dollar one made because boom times would last forever.

Well, the boom busted in the 1930’s. Many formerly middle-class families walked away from their heavily mortgaged and foreclosed homes with little more than the shirt on their back. There were plenty of sellers for everything but no buyers for anything. I remember a picture I saw somewhere of a sign in a car window. It said “1928 Cadillac for sale, make me an offer.” Under the block letters was a hand-written scrawl: "make me any offer,” it pleaded.

Dad graduated from high school in 1931 just as the unemployment rate hit 25%. He then began looking for his first job, a much more painful experience than taking back 10 cents’ worth of candy. At one company the owner pointed to his staff and said to Dad, “Here are my five employees, all married men with families. Which one should I fire so I can hire you, kid?” How’s that for painful! Finally, of course, he got a job, a wife and a house and by the late 1930’s things began to improve.

But the lessons of those years stayed with him all his life. Every car was a cash deal. Buy on time? Never. “A dollar down, a dollar when you catch me,” he called it. Dad was deathly afraid of debt. He never owned a share of stock or a corporate bond, preferring only U.S. government backed CDs. All his overtime pay during World War II went to pay off the mortgage early or to U.S. Government War Bonds. Now can we see why that dime had to go into my piggy bank?

If you’re like me and are on the older side of 65 or so, we join together as the last of the kids of the depression era parents. Yes, our kids and grandkids probably think our money habits are a little strange. And they are right. I don’t know about you, but for me the lessons of thrift, the danger of too much debt, and the need to save for the inevitable rainy day started with 10 cents’ worth of candy and it never left. And Dad, that is a debt, a debt that I can never repay."

Jim Spangler is a retired newspaperman who lives in Brookfield.