6 Lessons I Learned Growing Up With My Grandparents – And Great-Grandparents
By Kathleen M. Rehl
Americans live in a household with three or more generations under one roof, according to Generations United’s 2021 report. The number of people living in these multigenerational households has risen sharply over the past decade, from 7% in 2011 to 26% in 2021. Although “multigen” households come in many shapes and sizes, the type most rarer is a household at four or five years old. generation family living together.
For most of my preteen years, I lived in a four-generation household. It all started in 1947, during a violent blizzard when my great-grandfather drove my very pregnant mother and my father to the hospital. He didn’t trust Dad to steer his DeSoto on icy roads. When my parents took me home, my great-grandparents and grandparents took me in.
The seven of us lived as a multi-generational family in a large country house built in the late 1800s. When Dad returned from Europe after WWII he was a student at GI Bill University with no income. Mom quickly became pregnant and remained a housewife for several years as the babies arrived quickly. Living with family was a matter of economy and affordability.
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I thought our housing situation was normal, although I later realized that most of our neighbors lived in multigenerational family homes. Except for a short stint where my parents and I stayed with my great-aunt and uncle on their farm, we lived with both of my grandparents until we were almost 13 years old.
I believe my parents’ financial problems were the main reason they lived with the grown-ups. My great-grandmother provided childcare, which allowed Mom to earn an income by working outside the home. When my great-grandmother and grandmother were widowed, living with extended family helped them emotionally and financially.
Growing up with all these parents taught me several money messages. “You can’t take big shortcuts and expect to get paid,” my exasperated grandmother once told me. When I was eight, I had to pick a row of green beans from the backyard garden before I received my compensation – the chance to play with friends. Rushing to finish, I only offered a half-full bowl. Reprimanding me for missing many green beans still on the vine, Grandma sent me back for another round. It wasn’t until I came back with an overflowing bowl that I was rewarded with game time.
Along with this lesson on how to do a job well, there were six other lessons I learned from my multi-generational family:
1. Live frugally, resourcefully, and spend money intentionally. Both sets of grandparents lived through the Great Depression and knew how to stretch a dollar. They kept everything and reused it until further repair was impossible. Times were tight for all of us, so money was spent in a meaningful way. Today, I always find bargains at vintage thrift stores, use coupons, and prefer to spend money on experiences rather than stuff.
S&H Green Stamps has purchased many kitchen accessories. Vacations were rare and usually involved visiting family. Seven of us drove from Wisconsin to California and came back stuck in our Rambler station wagon with overload springs. We probably looked like the Beverly Hillbillies. Going to the state fair in late summer every year was a special family treat.
2. Start a small business. It’s what my grandmother did with her commercial bakery, and where I helped out after school. A related lesson I learned from Grandma is that it takes dedicated and demanding work to make your business successful, and even then things might not work out. My first business as a 10-year-old entrepreneur was a lemonade stand, followed by door-to-door greeting card sales. My babysitting job exploded when I was 11. At 49, I started my own financial planning business, which I continued for 18 years before moving into a six-year consulting business.
3. You will never go hungry if you grow your own food. I helped my family grow bountiful crops, which filled our freezer and basement shelves with canned goods. All this generosity fed us during the winter. Today, I continue to harvest a wide variety of healthy vegetables and succulent blueberries from our garden, even though I no longer pack a full-size freezer.
4. Don’t eat your money. Dining at McDonald’s was a rare treat for us in the 1950s. Today I’m not comfortable paying $50 for lunch when I can easily eat a healthy meal at home, put it in a brown bag or choose an inexpensive alternative if I’m away.
5. Do well in school. Scholarships and a college degree can be your ticket to a better life. Having watched my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents struggle financially, I hoped to break the cycle by continuing my education. My great-grandmother and my grandmother were briefly one-room teachers before their marriage. I’m glad they encouraged me to get a college degree and start my professional career as a public school teacher.
6. We take care of each other as we get older and save money that way too. After the death of my great-grandfather and later my grandfather, their widows continued to live in our multi-generational home for decades. Prior to his death, my stepfather moved in with my husband, children, and me for several years. It was much cheaper than a nursing home, and it was meaningful for his grandchildren to get to know this gentle soul better. I believe living with us gave Grandpa a better quality of life in his later years.
I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish. Yes, I also remember the negative messages about money from my childhood. My parents often argued about their finances. There never seemed to be enough money, especially one Christmas when Mom bought many gifts from the General Merchandise catalog on credit.
My grandparents settled their financial disputes away from us kids, but sometimes I heard their arguments too. I remember adults screaming, slamming on doors and sulking. These memories turned me 180 degrees in the opposite direction. My husband and I discuss money matters openly and keep no financial secrets.
Will the trend of increasing multi-generational housing continue? I believe him.
During the pandemic, a friend of mine and her husband combined households with their adult daughter, son-in-law and two toddlers. With no childcare available, their telecommuting daughter and husband were desperate for help. Now that the critical phase of the pandemic has passed, this three-generation family has decided to stay together for financial and other benefits. In effect, they pooled their money and bought a bigger house to provide more space for everyone, including a semi-private in-law suite.
For many years I enjoyed living only with my husband, often inviting extended relatives to visit me. Two summers ago, my son and his family stayed with us in our spacious home for almost two months. Years ago, when my mother was a widow, she was with me before choosing to live in a nearby nursing home.
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I intend to maintain my independent lifestyle for many years to come. But who knows? Maybe one day I’ll go back to a multi-generational family, but this time I’ll be the elderly grandparent.
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This column first appeared on Humble Dollar. It has been republished with permission.
Kathleen M. Rehl is retired from a career in financial planning and a “still career” as a speaker and researching widows. She wrote the award-winning book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.
-Kathleen M. Rehl
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