On Retirement: Lessons in frugality pay dividends today

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Were they brave or foolish? More likely, just normal young adults. Yet at times, I’ve marveled that my parents started a family in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression.

Then again, they didn’t have newspapers, radio, television and social media informing them that a national committee had determined the official status of the dire economy.

We do, of course. Our current recession began in February, a committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research announced last week.

Certainly my parents were aware of the then-current events. In April before her college graduation in 1933, Mom wrote in the limited space of her five-year diary, “The States have gone off the Gold Standard today.” She was concerned. “What next! I wonder?”

She and my father were experienced in living with limited resources, having grown up with them. After their marriage in the fall of 1933, considered the height of the Great Depression, they did wait more than two years to start a family. Whether the delay was purposeful or by chance, I don’t know. My brother was born in June 1936, in a still very depressed economy.

In what has been considered the final official year of the Great Depression, though I doubt anyone had determined that at the time, they had a second child — me.

While neither of my parents came from well-to-do families, both managed to graduate from college. They knew how to plan and account for every penny. From the time they married until Alzheimer’s robbed him of his natural mathematical skills, Dad tracked to the penny their income and expenses.

Every time they made a purchase, any purchase, they wrote it on a piece of recycled paper — often the back of envelopes, held by a clip in the top desk drawer next to the pencil section. If my brother or I made a purchase for them, we knew to record it there. About once a month, Dad calculated totals by category. By hand. Years later, I gave him a calculator.

I still have his extra large three-ring notebook of income and expenses, all recorded in his precise printing and summarized in his year-end calculations.

There, when I was born in April 1939, he recorded the $25 bill for the doctor and $35 paid to the hospital for a five-to-seven day stay, with the notation “Evadna.” That $60 total would be the equivalent of about $1,100 in purchasing power now, online calculations suggest.

The 1939 year-end totals Dad recorded show an salary of $1,897.50, plus $91.20 for overtime. He was employed as an electrical engineer with the utility company where he worked until his retirement. In today’s buying power, that 1939 salary would be worth about $36,000.

Still, with only one wage-earner, a car, a house they had purchased and renovated, life insurance and savings, and two children by then, it appears they did not have a lot to spare. His 1939 year-end calculations show they had a balance of $59.09 (about $1,085 today).

In later years I came to appreciate even more the lessons in frugality my parents taught. Their savings and investments (primarily certificates of deposit that paid good interest into their declining years) provided them with enough to travel in the early years of retirement.

Then, when dementias required moving them into a care home, there was enough for their final years.

Perhaps equally important, their example served their offspring well.

My brother, until his untimely death in his 30s, and I were frugal as students and adults.

As a result, my also-careful husband and I are have a comfortable if not luxurious retirement. And, yes, we are still frugal.

That seems to put us at odds with the hopes for emerging from the current recession, as the economy, we are told, is consumer driven. The habits my parents embodied appear to counter the current thinking.

I wonder if others who still hold to frugality have a sense that we are guilty of sabotaging the recovery by with our aversion to spending freely.

Regardless, we will continue to be cautious consumers, buying only what we perceive as necessary and reserving restaurant meals for special occasions. Air travel is very unlikely.

We may be in the minority, for better or worse.

Reach Evadna Bartlett

at evadnab07@gmail.com.

Funerals for Thursday, July 9, 2020

Ankrom, Vada - 1 p.m., Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Dillard, Helen - 11 a.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Greenlee, Margaret - 10 a.m., Bellemead United Methodist Church.

Harper, Carl - 10 a.m., Matics Funeral Home, Clendenin.

Humphrey, Connie - Noon, Restlawn Memory Gardens, Victor.  

Justice, Thelma - 1 p.m., Evans Funeral Home, Chapmanville.

Lanham, Kathy - 1 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.

McDerment, Randall - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Russell, Michael - 4 p.m., Morris Funeral Home, Cowen.

White, Thomas - 11 a.m., St. Anthony Catholic Church, Charleston.