Recently I was asked: what is the single best financial advice you were ever given/found? At first I thought of some books, then some websites, spreadsheets and tidbits of wisdom/advice I have received over the years. None of these stuck out as the best single tool/advice that I had ever been given or found. And then it struck me that there wasn’t a single “thing” to point to but an experience of observation and learning during my formative years. The individual who has provided me with the best tools, knowledge and habits regarding personal financial advice, and subsequently sustainable living, is my Mom who taught me so much even if she didn’t know she was doing so at the time.
Some history is required to explain our circumstances. Our family was never wealthy but we were comfortable in the lower middle class, trending upwards. An event occurred when I was 10 years old that changed all of this – my parents separated and eventually divorced. Not only was there an abundance of emotional turmoil, our personal finances were also turned upside down. My sister and I decided we wanted to live with our Mom who was faced with some difficult decisions. First, we would have to sell our house quickly (a bungalow in the suburbs) and proceed to buy a home (1/2 of a duplex) in the downtown area. Second, my Mom had to give up her passion and trade as a artist to ensure she had stable income to support her family so took up administrative work. These were perhaps the two real financial advice lessons I learned:
1) Only pay for what you can afford (housing, using credit); and
2) A responsible person will do what they must to pay the bills and support their family.
Our new life was very different than the old one. To say money was tight is an understatement but somehow Mom made it work. As mentioned we lived in a duplex which my Mom not only bought – she managed to pay off. Not so remarkable until you consider this was the late 1980s and mortgage interest rates were through the roof. Here in Canada mortgage interest rates between 1986 and 1990 ranged from 11% to 13.5%. On a limited salary from her administrative position at the university, Mom single handedly paid for our house. This was accomplished by living a very frugal existence. Mom bought a lot of food in bulk and cooked a lot of food in bulk (now called monthly cooking). She would buy a side of beef to save money versus individual meat purchases and we ate a lot of rice, pasta and beans in various soups, stews and roast dinners. Where Mom saved on food she reinvested in our health by providing more expensive but essential fruits, vegetables and dairy products. There wasn’t a lot of prepackaged food in our home. Mom ensured we were healthy which enabled us to perform well in school and lead healthy lives.
During the cold Canadian winters the heat from the furnace was never set too high in our house. We wore extra layers and I don’t recall being cold, but I do recall we never set the heat above 18 Celsius or about 65 Fahrenheit. We also didn’t use our car too much aside from getting groceries and out of town trips to visit family. We walked (or biked, weather permitting) to work and school. Living this lifestyle I gleaned more valuable personal financial advice via observation:
3) Buying and cooking in bulk will save money in both the purchase and the energy use. There is also a reduction in packaging waste;
4) Processed foods cost a lot, produces a lot of waste and little nutrition;
5) Good health will lead to good educational and financial health;
6) An energy inefficient home will cost you a lot of money over time;
7) Vehicles are cash cows and exercise is good; and
8) Living a frugal lifestyle, albeit out of necessity, is not that hard to do.
Mom couldn’t afford to pay for school trips or sports or organized sports so I worked part time jobs. We understood this reality. Mom cared for our base needs and did a great job but the “extras” had to be funded in other ways. The rule was that as long as the job didn’t interfere with my grades I could have a job. This was a great job tip and a great piece of financial advice. At age 12 I was delivering newspapers and babysitting. At age 14 I worked for a fast food chain for a few years. At age 16 I worked in a grocery store and during my last few years of high school I scooped ice cream in the university cafeteria. Interspersed between these jobs I did some data entry, manned a fruit stand and spent a few summers working at summer camps. By working I was able to participate in high school athletics and do things teenagers like to do such as play billiards, go to movies and be able to afford to go on dates. While I am sure Mom would have liked to be able to pay for some of these things, they were wants, not needs. I learned two more valuable financial advice lessons:
9) Money management isn’t always easy but it is necessary. I made some mistakes but learned from them;
10) You need to learn to be self sufficient as there won’t always be someone there to support you financially.
The experiences of my youth with personal financial advice have carried forward into my adult life. I graduated from two university/college programs (paying off these loans without having to seek out bankruptcy information) and have a good job which allows us to live comfortably and even give out some financial advice to those interested. I hold the lessons about financial advice from observation that I learned from my Mom close to my heart and they drive my lifestyle and beliefs regarding Sustainable Personal Finance.