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Five lessons my father taught me about the value of money

My dad walked his own path, in work, in life, and in retirement.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a dad like mine to teach them the value of money without opening their wallets, let alone at a stockbrokers.

And even fewer are lucky enough to realise their good fortune when they’re still able to thank him.

Some people’s parents teach them how to choose their first shares, or the power of compound interest. But when it came to money, my dad taught me more subtle lessons by his example.

My dad passed away 18 months ago after some upsetting medical problems, which means he’ll never now read this article that he inspired with his low-spending ways.

Instead, I hope sharing with you some of the things he taught me goes someway to thanking the fates for my good fortune.

1. You are not what you wear

In his own way, my dad would dress up for what he’d consider a special occasion.

Unfortunately for the more dress-conscious members of my extended family, almost no occasion was special enough.

True, Monday-Friday, 9-5 he wore the worn-in tie and jacket uniform of his generation of white collar workers.

But in the evenings or at weekends he’d don jeans with holes in them, jumpers with holes in the holes, and sometimes half in irony something awful on his head.

That didn’t matter when he was mending things, working in the garage or making furniture on demand for my mother – which was most of the time and exactly why he wore them.

And it didn’t really matter when he drove to collect my teenage cousin from her ballet classes in ever more comically awful clothes, just to embarrass her.

I grew up knowing that superficial appearances didn’t matter – it was what the person wearing the clothes did that was important.

And my cousin would now agree. The childhood horror has become an amusing anecdote.

It’s the memory of an uncle who went out of his way to keep her attending her ballet classes that endures.

2. Little moments matter most

Occasionally my dad claimed he’d quite like to spend money on a sports car but my mother “wouldn’t let him”.

I think just the idea of blowing money on something material was satisfaction enough.

In reality what mattered for him most throughout his life were tiny moments of experience – often with my mother, always with the family – and they very rarely cost much at all.

For instance, in their late 50s they got into hiking, and towards the end of this phase when both he and my mum had retired I got more insight into this mindset when he began using his newfangled mobile phone to send me text messages:

“Facing the Atlantic with the sun on our back and half our tea left. It doesn’t get better than this.”

or

“Eating fish and chips from the best takeaway in the world. Mum only ate half hers. Had to finish it off. It doesn’t get better than that.”

In the early days I questioned his verdict, and more than once wondered why he insisted on sharing these insights during hours when he knew I was at work.

Even typing that sentence – and knowing my dad – the answer is obvious.

The older I get, the surer I am of his judgement.

3. Nothing is ever broken

As a child of World War 2 – he was literally born amid the bombs of the Blitz – my father was raised against a backdrop of rationing and ruins.

Like many of his generation, he’d therefore been instilled with a ‘make do and mend’ mentality that in his case persisted after the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s that he shared in, too.

It helped that he was very handy – furniture repairs were easy, for instance, and he grew up fixing cars.

But he went further than that, recycling delivery palettes into garden fences, or turning the broken down brick wall the fence replaced into a rust-red paving for a BBQ area.

I might be giving the impression here that my parents lived in some sort of rural ruin held together by bits of string.

It’s true that some visitors were surprised to see old sinks recycled into plant pots or doors made into work benches in the 1980s. (In his later years my dad would claim he was green years before it was fashionable, rather than a tightwad, and that he was ahead of Gardener’s World in making this sort of thing trendy!)

But overall my parents lived better than they otherwise would have, in always lovingly cared for and (generally) pretty homes, by spending less money and instead being creative and finding a use for anything.

I can’t say I follow this maxim religiously. My own spin is more “make sure nothing is broken, then you won’t need to buy it again”. I’m notorious for showing a decade-old photograph to someone while wearing the same once-trendy T-shirt as in the picture.

I’m also clumsy with a screw driver, and I believe in the efficient division of labour in human society. I think it’s better for me to buy a rattan basket from IKEA for £3 rather than to learn how to weave one from reeds.

But I’ve eaten the big takeaway. Stuff has a value. Look after it.

4. Keep money in perspective

Given that I write a blog about money and investing, you might say that I’ve failed miserably to learn this lesson.

But the very fact that I’m writing right now is a testament to my dad’s example.

If I’d followed the path trod by many of my peers from college, I’d probably be being too busy in the corporate world doing something I hated to even dash off an email to my girlfriend, let alone wax lyrical about my father’s dubious jeans at 3pm on a Friday afternoon.

Indeed, I wasn’t even 30 before I downshifted and got out of the rat race to work as a freelance at hours and in places that suited me.

Often that’s meant longer hours for a time, and sometimes for less money.

But I’m my own boss, nobody can tell me what to do, and I make my own rules without the peer pressure of the typical office (one reason perhaps why I’ve found it easy to salt away 30% or more of my annual income).

It’s true I’ve probably capped my earning potential by deciding not to follow the carrot of an ever-higher salary up the career ladder.

But money is just money. Our days are too short to be ruled by it.

5. You must control your financial future

Hang on, didn’t I just say money was over-rated?

I did.

Of course I realise that money can mean almost everything if you haven’t got it, whereas in contrast having a lot of it can give you all kinds of possibilities.

But if you don’t put money in its place, you’ll never enjoy any of the riches you do make.

Equally, if you don’t realise that money is just a means and not an end, then when you’ve only got a little money you might be too distracted to appreciate the better things you want it for – to feed your family or to give your beautiful daughter new shoes. Don’t miss those unrepeatable moments.

It’s all too easy to see the candle and not the flame. We don’t live for money, we don’t remember it when we’re old, and we’d be better off in a world without it.

But that isn’t the world we live in – which is why I’m dedicated to saving and investing my way to financial freedom, while trying to keep a sense of perspective along the way.

And here my final lesson from my father was an unfortunate one.

The last lesson

Dad did exactly what he was supposed to – he shunned debt, paid off his mortgage, built up a relatively large pension, and ensured his family and my mother were adequately covered should the worst happen.

Yet when the worst did come calling – in a doctors’ surgery, in the form of a diagnosis that gave him less years than he expected but more than he wanted to spend at work – he didn’t feel able to immediately quit his day job because of the rules around his company pension.

As a result he had to work for more years than he wanted to, just to avoid big cuts to his retirement entitlements. (Even then he did retire before his time, and at some significant financial cost).

Happily my dad did get to enjoy some of the retirement he so looked forward to, although it was just a handful of years and nothing like enough. (A lesson delivered late in his life – take nothing for granted).

But what struck me about the entire experience was the lack of control he had over all the money he’d paid into his pension over the years. It was as big an investment as his house, yet he felt he had very little control over it.1

I decided that it wouldn’t be the same for me.

Explaining the different route I’ve taking would require more posts – an entire website – and my dad will never now see the results of the lessons I’ve learned from him, or know how grateful I am that I didn’t have the terrible role models other kids have for parents.

That’s one of my few regrets when I think about him.

Blame us for being British, but it never seemed right, when I could, to tell him in concrete terms about the extent of my investment portfolio, say, whereas I’d have had no problem showing him an expansive graveled driveway had I bought the house we so often debated (not that he’d have thought it was worth the money!)

I don’t think he worried about my financial future – but he never really understood it.

Still, I hope some day to be sitting on a cliff top somewhere, in the sun, financially independent and with someone I care about, and I’ll remember my frugal dad in his frayed jeans tucking into a slice of my mum’s cake like it was caviar on a blini, and I’ll toast him and everything he’s taught me.

  1. I say he felt he had little control, because it was never totally clear to me what he couldn’t do, and what he didn’t feel he could responsibly do and so blamed on the pension rules. []

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • 1 The Shoestring Investor August 30, 2013, 12:44 pm

    Quite a touching article, I wasn’t expecting to be deeply reflecting on my family relationships over lunch! Thanks for sharing.

  • 2 dean August 30, 2013, 1:11 pm

    My growing personal view about money is that maybe it’s best to keep it moving through the system. People sometimes ask me why I never spend any money. I say I do, just not on Rolexes, cars, fancy clothes and I-gadgets. I spend it on new business ventures, most of which fail and I spend it on stocks most of which go down, (except the trackers)! And I enjoy spending money on those things. If I ever win with stocks I’ll probably take the profits and put it into some new nuts business idea. But I do make jobs for people.
    A few night ago I walked out of my humble shed in the dimly lit area where I live and couldn’t help noticing the brilliance of the milky way. I stared up for a good 20 minutes at this wonder and let my mind wander. Cost me nothing but gave me something I’m sure. Like your papa said it’s the small things that really matter. And we all have access to those if we want them.

  • 3 Kali @CommonSenseMillennial August 30, 2013, 1:49 pm

    This is an amazing post, well-written and touching. Thanks for sharing – it’s gotten me thinking about the important lessons my own parents taught me. I’m feeling awfully appreciative right now. Thanks again!

  • 4 ermine August 30, 2013, 1:55 pm

    A super article, thank you for the inspiration. And congratulations on taking control, early in life!

    I’m with you and your dad. After a certain point, it’s much more about the who is in your life and when that makes life special, and less about the what is in your life.

    When you look back over 10 years, what you remember is who you were with and what you got up to. You don’t remember the model of iPhone you had or which TV you watched the footy on. Sometimes even which car you owned – it’s about the moment and the love. It’s too easy to lose sight of that.

  • 5 Kurt @ Money Counselor August 30, 2013, 4:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, I appreciate it. Makes me wistful about my Dad, who’s 80 and beginning to decline in health.

  • 6 Rob August 30, 2013, 4:22 pm

    A touching post, thanks for sharing your thoughts and the years you’ve spent writing, I don’t comment often but I’ve been reading Monevator for years. I wonder what has prompted you to write this now, some significant milestone maybe?

  • 7 dearieme August 30, 2013, 4:45 pm

    When I started playing cricket my father gave me the box he’d worn in his cricketing days in the thirties. Waste not, want not.

  • 8 maria@moneyprinciple August 30, 2013, 8:41 pm

    What a lovely, lovely tribute. Your Dad sounds like someone I would have loved to have coffee with. Sorry for your loss but at least he left you a legacy that you can pass on!

  • 9 Jim August 30, 2013, 9:14 pm

    Nice post! My late dad’s favourite maxim about money was Never a Borrower Nor a Lender Be. I haven’t always followed that maxim, but once when I lent a good friend money (and never got it back) it was useful to remember the advice as I handed over the cash. It kind of prepared me for not seeing it paid back, it was my risk, and friendship was more important than cash as far as I was concerned.
    For my own son, I have indoctrinated him with “pay yourself first” and asked him to bank the first 10% of his first pay cheque and then continue to do so with every subsequent one. I so wish someone had given me that advice when I started in the world of the wage slave!

  • 10 William August 31, 2013, 10:39 am

    Another great article – thanks for sharing. I suspect your father was very proud of you, as well he should have been. Those of us who follow your blog regularly are very grateful to you for it so please keep up the excellent work.

  • 11 Grumpy Old Paul September 1, 2013, 9:24 pm

    @Monevator,

    A very moving article in what for me has been an emotional roller coaster of a week which included both the funeral for a dear friend from school days who died suddenly in his early 60’s and the joyous, left-field wedding of a young friend whom I’ve known for all of her life.

    Our days are indeed too short to be ruled by money and this week has also rammed home to me how much more important friendships and shared experiences are than filthy lucre.

    Your father and my late friend both possessed something priceless which can’t be purchased: wisdom.

  • 12 Moneyobserver September 2, 2013, 9:55 am

    “You are not what you wear” – this is about most of the people nowadays. Great article, really interesting to read.

  • 13 Evan September 16, 2013, 8:55 pm

    Amazing article about a man you obviously care deeply about. Did your mom have the opportunity to read the post?

    My dad has taught me some amazing lessons from both his successes and some terrible fails imo

  • 14 The Investor September 17, 2013, 1:09 am

    Thanks Evan, much appreciated. I have discussed that I wrote the article in general and what it was about with my mum, but she hasn’t yet read it. She’s not really the Internet sort, and it would mean explaining what Monevator is to her, and why I was anonymous, and so on. Could be a long night! 🙂

  • 15 Evan September 18, 2013, 5:00 pm

    If she is like my mom no where near worth the hassle lol

  • 16 Foxy June 25, 2014, 4:48 pm

    All about striking a balance in life. Seen some people be frugal and careful with money etc, working hard, paying into a pension, making do etc and boom gone all of a sudden at just starting retirement.

  • 17 Gary May 12, 2018, 10:35 am

    A very touching post with heaps of sensible thoughts that provides a timely reminder to keep everything in perspective. Thanks for writing.

  • 18 barny July 15, 2018, 6:12 pm

    Very touching and thank you for sharing those gems. You must be very proud of him, and fortunate too

  • 19 The Investor July 15, 2018, 10:48 pm

    Cheers guys. Every year I realize more what a star he was. I’m always mildly gutted now when I consider/start a new relationship that she’d never meet him. Oh well, if you’re going to feel gutted it’s one of the best reasons I suppose.

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