The 5 Money Lessons I Learned From My Father
Dad wasn’t frugal — and for that, I’m grateful. But his rules for living have helped me enormously
Photo courtesy of the author
Not many years later, his dream came true. In 1968, Mom and Dad built a home where they raised four children and kept up to six horses in the stables.
Father's Day Reflections About Dad
With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot. His money advice helped me see the importance of becoming a personal finance journalist, the career I’ve loved for decades. In a minute, I’ll pass along five lessons I learned from him.
(MORE: From Dad to Grad: A Few Words of Advice)
Dad was the quintessential self-made man. A child of Irish immigrants, he began working at age 12, during the Depression. After high school in Pittsburgh, he rose from a clerical job at an engineering and consulting firm to owning the company, with global clients and offices around the country.
Not the Perfect Money Role Model, but ...
Was he the perfect, frugal financial role model? Absolutely not. After all, horses aren’t cheap. And he rarely said no to his children’s requests. When you asked Dad for something expensive, he never said, "We can't." It was always, "How can we?" Dad was all about finding solutions.
My dad was a great example of how to balance your wants and needs and invest in your life.
His values inspired me to learn the meaning of money; determine what (and what not) to spend it on and understand how to save, which generally required working hard along the way.
Dad's 5 Money Lessons That Have Stuck With Me
Here are five of his financial insights that resonate with me today. I believe they’ll help you, too.
1. Support yourself. From an early age, Dad instructed my older sister, Pat, and me never to be dependent financially on anyone – not our parents, not our spouses, no one.
“It’s essential that you support yourselves,” he told us. “That will give you the freedom to do the things you want to in life without having to ask permission.”
And he was right. Back in the '60s and '70s, I don’t think many dads were passing along this message to their young daughters. None of my friends’ fathers were – I know that.
To this day, I still maintain my own bank and credit card accounts separate from my husband, Cliff, even after more than 20 years of marriage. If you’re married or have a partner, I advise you to do the same.
I love Cliff and have nothing to hide; we discuss our finances all the time. But I think Dad was right about being financially independent.
2. A big paycheck can’t buy happiness. Yes, your salary is important, he’d say, but not at the expense of your soul.
That’s why I’ve followed my passion and have my dream job (technically, jobs) as a retirement/personal finance/jobs and career transitions expert; author (my new book is Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy ... and Pays the Bills); speaker and journalist, writing columns and blogs for a wide range of national publications, from Next Avenue to Forbes to AARP.
I work hard and enjoy being my own boss as well as making a difference in people’s lives by helping them manage their finances or find a job.
Am I making the sort of income I might in a lucrative field where I could use my same skills, like writing research reports for a consulting or financial services firm? Probably not. But I’m OK with that.
I encourage you to do the type of work you love, too – if possible, with autonomy. That holds true for part-time work in retirement. You’ll get paid in less tangible, non-monetary ways that will bring joy to your life.
(MORE: Why You Need to Love Your Job More)
3. Educate yourself throughout your life. Dad was a big believer in learning. “Invest in knowledge, so you can keep growing into your future,” he urged. “You can’t stand still.” Another one of his gems: “They can never take away from you what you have between your ears.”
Dad paid for all four of his kids’ college educations, plus private school for my older brother, Mike and me. I, in turn, am a loyal alum and board member of both institutions.
When I tally up the sum of money Dad spent on tuition, I blanch. But to him, a college degree was nonnegotiable. Excelling with top grades was all he asked of us. Pat and Mike went on to add prestigious graduate degrees – much to Dad’s delight and pride.
Some of his obsession with education may have been because his family couldn’t afford to send him to college and he regularly worked with colleagues and clients who had impressive degrees.
To Dad, education was more than just getting a diploma, though. He kept up with the latest trends and technology by serving on boards, reading voraciously and attending lectures. He was a self-directed scholar of the highest order: a recipient of the Society for Advancement of Management’s Gilbreth Medal and a contributing author of numerous management handbooks and publications.
Dad felt you should continually improve what you have to offer by learning new things and building on your skill set. Even into his 70s and early 80s, Dad was studying up on robotics, wind power, aviation and medicine.
I’m always looking for ways to keep educating myself, whether it’s through reading, attending lectures or taking online courses. You should, too.
4. Give back. Dad showed by example the importance of assisting those less fortunate and aiding causes you care about with your financial resources and time. He was a tireless volunteer, particularly for the blind (a concern of his because he battled vision issues), and regularly tithed to his church and other nonprofits.
Thanks to Dad, I learned that you don’t need a fortune to make an impact on your favorite charities.
Every year, I earmark a percentage of my income for my designated charities, like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a women’s shelter in Washington, D.C., and causes that directly impact my life, like breast cancer and Alzheimer’s research.
Perhaps you’ll want to try giving strategically, too, and help a group that makes a difference in your community, like a hospice or homeless shelter.
(MORE: How More Women Can Become Philanthropists)
5. You can't take it with you. I loved this expression of his about spending money. Dad would shrug and out would come those words when he was faced with writing a check for a new car, a horse or a dress for Mom.
I admit it: Dad didn’t teach me to live beneath my means. “Spend on what you love,” he’d say.
While I do follow Dad’s spend from the heart advice, I’ve also learned there are limits to freewheeling it, as I recently wrote in my blog, “11 Essential Money Tips for New College Grads.”
You must have the discipline to save if you really want to spend without worrying.
What I Remember Most About Dad
Money and wealth don’t make the character of a man or a woman.
While it’s true that Dad taught me some valuable financial truths, frankly, that’s not what I remember about him today.
Instead, I think of some of the words my three siblings and I, plus his eight grandchildren, used to describe Dad in a brightly colored book we made for his 80th birthday in 2000: “Encouraging, compassionate, religious, intelligent, family-oriented, supportive, joyful, loyal, confident, nonjudgmental, and of course, chocolate-lover, dog-lover, horseman and Irishman.”
Dad died May 29, 2008, at 88, after a long illness with Alzheimer’s.
If your father is still alive, I hope you have the chance to say Happy Father’s Day! I wish I did.