You can become a peer to your parents, but you can never catch up to your grandparents. Their perspective is exponential, with experience measured in generations.
Our grandparents have watched the economy crash and rebound several times. Through it all, they’ve raised kids, managed housing, dealt with bills, and maybe even retired.
Some grandparents instinctively seem to understand money. However, it’s just as likely they learned many lessons the hard way.
Below, the Tiller Money team reflects on the financial lessons learned from our grandparents. Some are good, some are of hardship - but they’re all useful and shared with affection and gratitude. Send the financial lessons you learned from your grandparents to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edward Shepard - Marketing
My grandmother inherited her financial skills and money ethos from her father. He was born literally dirt poor, in a dirt-floor shack in Rhode Island. By the time he died, he owned a large and nationally prominent silver refinery and smithery in Providence. ("If it's Manchester, It's sterling.”)
He was very careful with his money. Indeed, he delighted in the stereotype of being a “cheap Scotsman.”
However, he did spend money selectively on things that brought him joy. And what brought him the most joy was family time - investing in family travel and homes for gatherings.
My grandmother, who primarily raised me, inherited her father’s money skills and pride at being considered a bit cheap. Before it was considered cool or savvy, she was a slow investor. She abhorred waste and considered conspicuous consumption tacky.
She only enjoyed spending money on great deals and (like her father) family experiences. Her version of peak happiness was getting a great deal on a family trip.
My grandmother was also a committed and active philanthropist. She didn’t make a big deal out of it, but by the time she died she had funded a perpetual scholarship for URI students in need, funded multiple hospital campaigns, and donated over 1000 acres to the Rhode Island Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy. Again, without fanfare, but simply for the peace of leaving the world a better place.
Jon Orlin - Contributor
My grandfather taught me the value of investing in the stock market. He would sit in front of the TV watching FNN (the precursor to CNBC) tracking his stocks and net worth in pencil on a handmade spreadsheet. He also created colorful charts. He would have been amazed by the power of Google Sheets and Tiller. It would have been like magic to him, but I’m not sure he would have given up his paper and pencil method.
Peter Polson - Founder
My great grandfather operated a timber company back in the days when old growth was endless and they tried to cut it all. At one point when the economy was strong, my grandfather worked for the family business, and my grandparents were building a new house. A big house.
Then the great depression hit. They timber company folded. They couldn’t afford to furnish the house, and they lived in it empty for years before selling it.
When my grandmother died, I remember she had drawers of extra rubber bands and various length strings and buttons and little pieces that she saved in case she might need them. The great depression changed their outlook forever, and even a small piece thread was never again wasted.
I think about that these days when I reflect on how much the world as we know it can change with a war, a depression, a personal, national, or global tragedy. We can use money to better our lives and work toward our goals. Used poorly, money can ruin our lives, but it’s just money, and our lives are so much more than that.
We should never get too comfortable with our material possessions, nor take anything for granted. My grandparents lived great lives despite their financial rollercoaster. They raised a great son who is my dad.
Heather Phillips - Customer Success
I didn't have a relationship with my father for most of my life so I didn't learn much about money from that side of the family.
My grandmother has always lived at or below the poverty line, and the money lessons I learned from her were that you get maybe $10 or $20 in a birthday card.
My mother's father was the real teacher. He worked hard. He started as a machine worker at International Paper and moved his way up to Maintenance Supervisor. He worked there for more than 30 years after serving in the Vietnam War. He was the only person in my family who had money (that I knew). I know my aunt (who raised me) picked up his work ethic, and by proxy, I did too. I mean he really worked hard. He was never late and hardly ever missed a day of work. He had money.
I was born on Christmas so it was always a challenging time for me as a kid and young adult because less attention was given to my birthday, and more to Christmas, except from Papaw. Our family knew he had money because he would dole out cash on Christmas night as we were wrapping up the festivities.
He didn't have time for gift shopping and money was always an easy pleaser. My brother and cousins would get a $20. The adults would each get a $50. I would get a $100 dollar bill. I was so stoked to get the most money. I was special. I was a Christmas baby. He got me excited about money because I knew he had it, and was generous with it, at least on that one day. I admired him because I knew he worked hard for that money, and that if I worked hard I could have a lot of money one day too. I was appreciative that he shared it with us when the rest of the year we lived in a money scarcity mindset. At that time in my life, money seemed like something really really important, and I wanted to follow his example. I knew if I worked hard like him, I’d have a lot of money one day too.
Both sets of my Grandparents on my father's side and mother's side were born in the very late 1800's. (1885-1895). They lived through the Roaring 20's and the Great Depression. Because of that, many of the lessons come out of that era.
Waste not, want not - everything you have should be used - "always clear your plate" - don't let anything be wasted - reuse as much as you can, focus on fixing things and not throwing them away - don't buy things you don't need - buy just enough or maybe less than that - if you get more than you need share it or store it away.
You should save "for a rainy day" - there are ups and downs in life, so be prepared and save for those times - always be prepared, don't be surprised (Boy Scout motto - Be prepared) - and if you are prepared, you can help others when the rainy day comes. My grandmother on my mother's side would look at our great big backyard and see corn growing, peas planted, pears on the tree. And that's what happened - even living in rural Renton, WA we grew a lot of food in our backyard and canned it for the winter.
If you are saving, banks are great, but Gold is better - there was a focus on putting money into "real property" - physical land - precious metals/stones - something you can put under your bed or place your bed on (a house) - but land, purchasing land was important, where you could grow your own food, subsist and survive.
Both sets of grandparents were inventive and creative - they made their own furniture, built their own houses, made their own clothes.
They also made it through hard times by just making due with what they had. They weren't always looking for the next watch, or next computer - "keeping up with the Joneses" was not something they worried about.
Their influence made me a saver early on in my life, and I take after them and my father. I love fixing things, so we don't throw things out too soon. If we needed it, and bought it, then we should get as much "life" out of it as we can. Saving has put us in a position to help others when needed, which was a core value taught by both sets of grandparents (Love God, Love your neighbor).
Tim Johns - Engineering
My paternal grandfather passed when my father was only seven, and so my grandmother raised her family of six on a teacher's salary and what she made working at a liquor store. This situation required a legendary level of frugality that I've not experienced firsthand, but have certainly experienced second-hand through some of the habits of my own father.
We lived by a fiscal strategy that I'll label "Buy The Cheapest Thing That Could Possibly Work And Repair It Indefinitely". This applied to many aspects of our lives, but the most memorable I can recall are the multiple hours (yes, hours) my father and I spent trying to salvage this incredibly cheap (and I don't just mean inexpensive here) leaf rake.
Rather than spend a few extra bucks on a solid rake, or even a replacement equivalently cheap-ass rake, we repeatedly duck taped, wired, screwed, and welded (yes, welded) this $5 garden rake for YEARS. Just about every time I would try to go rake the pine needles in our front yard, it would break, and we'd have to fix it again. He wouldn't let me throw it away. I 'accidentally' completely burned the handle one Saturday afternoon (if you're reading this: sorry, Dad!). Pretty sure he still has the charred rake head stashed in his garage today. Maybe even has a new handle for it.
I love my Dad dearly and learned a great many much more valuable things from him. This is just one little thing I learned from him in terms of personal finance -- many times it's just not worth it to try to save a buck. Splurge on the damn rake. It's a rake. It needs to rake.
My maternal grandfather passed when I was a baby, and my grandmother was retired since I can remember, so I didn't have much visibility into that side of the family, either. She lived off of social security and somehow made that work until her health declined near the end of her life. Luckily, however, by that time she'd had six wonderful children and about 15 bajillion of us grown grandchildren.
As her health declined, those of us that were earning chipped in to try to keep her quality of life in a workable place. I certainly didn't mind, and I don't think too many (if any) of us did -- but I definitely got the feeling she felt some guilt or remorse about 'being a burden' to her family. That's where the learning comes in.
When it's my time, I want to be super-active to the very last moment, then go out fast and painlessly. And if I DO get to a place where I can't be as active as I'd like, I want to spend my remaining time sitting pretty on a tropical island. I don't want to have that same worry about being a burden to my family, and I figure if I get setup in some amazing place, they'll also be inspired to come hang out in my general vicinity as much as possible. The personal finance lesson here is striking and simple: Save.