Gramma’s fiscal lessons prove good advice today

  • By Linda Bryant Smith Herald Columnist
  • Friday, October 10, 2008 7:43am
  • Life

My son Dave is channeling his great-grandmother’s money habits these days.

Dave, his wife and his three children moved to North Carolina this summer so he could accept a promotion from his employer.

Financially, he said, they’re doing fine, but they put off a backyard patio in favor of keeping the money in savings. They’re also staying on a carefully planned budget.

“Anytime we run out of grocery-envelope money or the restaurant envelope is empty, the kids think we’re poor,” he said.

Not so, of course. They’re just learning the lessons of budgeting for what you need and saving for what you want.

That’s what Gramma did as long as I knew her.

Those habits were learned quickly on a western Colorado “stump’ farm with a couple of cows, chickens, one plow horse and six kids.

In the winter of 1916, her first-grader came home from school with what she thought was the flu.

She fed him soup and juice and kept him in bed.

Two week passed. He was delirious, running a high fever, unable to move.

Desperate, she had her older son hitch the plow horse to the buckboard while she swaddled my father in blankets for the nine-hour journey to the hospital in Grand Junction.

There was no way she could pay the hospital cash, but she promised to send a little each month from selling eggs in town.

Gramma slept in a chair by my father’s bed for days. Polio left one of his legs paralyzed and his entire body weakened. When he was out of danger, she took him home.

It was 15 years before he walked without crutches, his withered leg six inches shorter than his “good” leg.

Wall Street’s crash in 1929 was just another news story on the farm where poverty was a daily companion. At least, she told me once, the children didn’t go hungry thanks to her garden and the chickens.

Eventually Gramma left the farm, remarried and moved to Portland, where we lived.

We always had Sunday breakfast at Gramma’s place. She made pancakes or waffles from scratch. It was an inexpensive meal that stretched to feed a passel of grandchildren and their parents.

Gramma’s fiscal habits, honed over a lifetime, clearly apply to the financial situation we find ourselves in today. Pay cash for what you need. Save for what you want.

When she lived in Portland, I watched her divide the cash from her paycheck among envelopes marked groceries, clothing, household supplies, church, bus fare and “extras.”

“Extras” was the last envelope filled. Sometimes it only got a coin or two, but it was from this envelope she managed to buy birthday cards for 15 grandchildren. In the lean years, she’d enclose a bookmark she crocheted. In good times, we got a dollar.

Widowed at 73, she could not live on what she earned as a part-time store clerk and a pittance from her Social Security. So she became a “traveling” gramma, living six months with her daughter in Oregon, and then moving on to the homes of her two sons in Colorado.

Her last big purchase was a white dress she’d placed on layaway at JC Penney. She sent monthly payments until the bill was paid in full.

It was the dress she’d chosen for her burial.

In the affluence of the last half century, Americans have moved away from the core values our parents and grandparents used to survive before, during and after the Great Depression: work hard, buy what you can afford, save a little each month for emergencies, be grateful for your blessings.

None of us are sure who’ll really benefit from the $700 billion bailout, so the best way to move forward is with those same values and teach them to our children and grandchildren.

It wouldn’t hurt to have some of Gramma’s envelopes on hand either.

Linda Bryant Smith writes about life as a senior citizen and the issues that concern, annoy and often irritate the heck out of her now that she lives in a world where nothing is ever truly fixed but her income. You can e-mail her at

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