My father was right — though it took me a while to realize it.
He was born in 1933, when 25 percent of Americans were out of work. His father died when he was only 3, leaving his mother to raise him and his older sister alone.
The young family moved from a comfortable house into a cramped apartment. There was little money to spare.
My father learned from his mother how to stretch a dollar — skills that would serve him well.
He married in 1956 when he was 23 — an optimistic time for America. The Depression had ended, the economy was blossoming.
He took a job with the telephone company. He supported six children by working overtime every chance he could. As he generated income, my mother clipped coupons, sewed clothing and worked her mastery at reducing costs.
Though my father was a master at saving money, too.
When it came time to buy a new (or used) car, he had a more polished act than a veteran actor. Wearing his torn “car-buying” coat, he told the salesman and manager about the braces his daughters just got, the private-school tuition, the cost of milk for a family of eight…
A few hours later, he’d drive off in the new vehicle, the dealership people eager to never see this man again. If any man claims to have bought a car more cheaply than my father, he’s a liar.
My father’s chief skill was never spending more than he could afford — a skill he struggled to instill in me.
Whereas my father’s world view was shaped by struggle and financial worry, mine was shaped by security and optimism.
He and my mother provided us a comfortable home. We were never rich in a material sense but we had an abundance of wealth in every other sense. So strong was my parents’ love and devotion to their children, optimism came naturally to all of us.
When I cut the neighbor’s grass and earned my first $4, my inclination was to spend, not save.
I spent all of it on baseball cards and bubble gum.
“When you earn money,” he told me, agitated by my spendthrift ways, “put at least half in the bank. You need to save for a rainy day.”
I thought of him then, and for years afterward, as a pessimist, a relic from the Depression era.
I was relatively young, after all, when the economy hit the skids in the ’70s. I was unaffected by its lessons.
I graduated from Penn State in 1984 — just as an economic boom was under way. I took work with a high-tech company and marveled at its growth.
Restless to make real money, I got into sales. I soon jumped to another job, then another.
At 28, I joined with an older, established advertising executive. We did very well initially and quickly invested our earnings into a high-tech venture — both of us were ready for big riches so we could retire to the good life.
The venture failed. My savings were gone. The rainy day my father had warned me about had arrived.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 28, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in 14 years.”
I have plenty to celebrate this Father’s Day. I’m 48 already. My father will be 77 next month. I’m blessed to still have him in my life.
I’m grateful he has lived long enough to see his son — and other Americans lucky enough to still have jobs — finally saving for a rainy day.
©2010 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or email [email protected]. Visit Tom on the web at www.TomPurcell.com or e-mail him at [email protected].