I talk with my Uncle Jon (who has almost the exact same voice as my father did) about what kind of money situation my dad grew up in.
Paulette: Hi Mom.
Mom: Hi Paulette.
Paulette: How are you doing?
Mom: How’s my girl doing?
Paulette: I am doing good. So I talked with Amanda Clayman, the financial therapist, and she wants me to do like a money genealogy, like family tree. Why is that funny?
Mom: Because I realize how crappy our genealogy is. Once you said that, I am like, oh shit!
Paulette: So, how would you describe the money family tree of which I am the seed? Did I fall from the tree or not?
Mom: Now, when you say family tree, how far back you want to go, just our family or do you want to go way back?
Paulette: I think way back, like how much do we know? I am so disconnected from my heritage. I mean, I don’t even know what percentage I am from what country.
Mom: You are English, German, Scottish and French, and that’s just on one side.
Paulette: What about dad’s side?
Mom: Russian is dad’s. If you do the DNA thing that will be exact.
Paulette: Let’s talk about your family first.
Mom: When I was a little girl, when I was about six, my dad was a truck driver and he decided somewhere along the lines to buy his own truck. So he did that and we did not have a lot of money. Our first house was $6,000 which would be equivalent to like a $100,000 house today. And my parents didn’t have any down payment. So they went to my uncle to borrow the down payment for the house and it was maybe a $500 or $1000. But that was a big deal, because they didn’t have any money. So my parents got married when they were 18, so they never had a chance to accumulate any money either individually or together because Randy came two years later and Kenny was born by the time my mom was 24.
Paulette: And what kind of financial situation had grandma and grandpa grown up in?
Mom: Now, we are going back another step. So my father’s father was a farmer and a miner, and they were very hardworking people, and my grandmother was sort of the farmer as well but also full-time care for the babies. She had four boys. And so they had chickens, they had a garden, they had cows, they had horses – a horse I think, and two farms, because my grandfather’s daughter owned a farm down the street. That was, I think, a couple hundred acres. And then grandpa bought the farm up the street that was about half a mile away, you could almost see it. And it had less acreage, it had like 10 acres. So my grandfather, when his father died, inherited the other farm. So he was able to farm both pieces of land.
Paulette: Who was the first person to come to America? I don’t know that. How far back does our family go?
Mom: I only know my grandmother Altman was the first in her family. She spoke German and refused to admit that there was any French at all. She would say, we are German. She was very adamant about that.
Paulette: I was listening to the Millionaire Next Door on tape, the book, and he talks about the ancestry groups with the highest number of millionaire and Russians are really high. I think Germans are high too. I remember grandpa having the story of when he was a little kid he tried to go ice skating but they attached – the ice skates at that time attached to your shoes, and his shoes were so old and worn that the ice skates wouldn’t stay on them.
Mom: And grandma would mend his – the style has come and gone but for a while when dad and I were in our 30s, it was a style to have swayed round ovals put on the elbows of your jacket, it was very stylish. And grandma would laugh at that and say, we only did that because we had to because there was our hole in the clothing. At one time, Uncle Kenny had jeans that looked like yours except they were bellbottoms, and she mended them…
Paulette: They were all ripped up.
Mom: And she sewed them all.
Paulette: And I remember grandma telling us like you only need a dime size of shampoo and that would annoy me. And I am like, I want to shower and I am going to use shampoo as I want, like put it all out.
Mom: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, they were very frugal, and grandma and grandpa went through the Depression as did my grandparents. So during the Depression, there was not enough food, there were no jobs, it was a really bad time for everybody and I think that affected the way they thought about things, and that’s why they were so frugal. Mom was driving because she wanted to go to town and nobody had a quarter for gas, and that really affected her that nobody could come up with a quarter for gas to get to town. Neither she, nor her parents nor none of her friends had a quarter. I think a quarter then would be like $5 today I guess, I am assuming.
Paulette: Yeah. So then what was it like for you growing up? In what ways, were they frugal or not frugal? What were your thoughts about money in your childhood home?
Mom: We always had enough to eat because grandpa had the cow, so they would buy a quarter of a cow and put it in the freezer. So there was always plenty, especially beef. There was always plenty to eat and my mom would have a garden. And they canned, so there was always plenty of food, there was never the hardship of food. But when it came to other things it was always very much doled out. My father used to say about some of his friends: he squeezes the coin so hard, the eagle squeaks to try to give up a quarter. I think that they were in a place where most people were the same way. I remember my grandmother bartering one time, she had eggs and she needed flour or something. She was trading somebody on another farm for what they had, that might be bartered. I am not sure. But I remember hearing her on the phone and I was thinking, oh my gosh, that’s bartering – which is cool but I am sure in her mind it was like maybe a little bit like begging in a sense, like too bad, I can’t go to town and buy some flour or whatever it was she needed. But you can see that most of what was covered were things like the cows got slaughtered, the milk from the cows, the pigs made the bacon, the garden fed us the vegetables. So she always made gigantic meals.
Paulette: So then Amanda asks – I was telling her the line you always say: You and dad balance each other out, except you are both bad with money. And she’s like, well, in what way is your mom bad with money? And I couldn’t really pinpoint it. How would you describe your habits with money?
Mom: When daddy and I were first married, it was one of those things where I think it was an entitlement that we were young, we thought we had the world by the tail, and we didn’t have a lot of money but what we did have we would go skiing, we would buy skis. There was never any awareness about saving for the future – that was just not on our radar at all. It was like live life to the fullest, every day for itself. That’s how we lived. And that’s how I was bad with money, because I didn’t foresee it. And then when dad did start making a nice salary, like we went from – in the beginning of my work year, 1972, I was making $7000, and dad was wealthier than me, because he was making $8000. But keep in mind I bought my first car for $4000, so it’s all relative. But, we thought nothing of like buying the refrigerator and paying it off, buying the cars, we didn’t have any car payment. There was never any talk of doing it any differently. But I did have some relatives who did and I thought they were a little crazy for being so – I don’t know, I thought their life was boring.
Paulette: It’s the fun beast, I feel like we are possessed by the fun beast and we like to have fun, and it’s good and it’s bad.
Mom: It’s good and it’s bad yeah.
Paulette: We just need to balance it. So it’s very similar to that.
Mom: Yeah. And dad was the same way, and then when he did start making money and he got nice bonuses and everything, I mean, we started moving up in the world, we were very happy. And then, I would go to the mall, god, every week, like three times and come back with packages. And if something was on sale for 20% off, I would buy it, never thinking the credit card was 18%. I never really had – I just didn’t have an awakening of all of that. It was like I was totally money stupid. It was the 80s and the advertising on TV was, you can go anywhere you want with Visa or MasterCard. We were bombarded with commercials that pulled us ; we were on the right track. We were living life to the fullest. We were duped.
Paulette: I was talking to Jeri about it and it’s like our family is the fun family. We had a lot of fun and that’s like a good thing. I forgive us for being irresponsible in the past because it came from this other thing that was really fun too, and now it’s like, okay, how do you find that balance?
Mom: Right, and for me, the whole balance and the whole education was when we went through bankruptcy. That was like a smack in the face to me of, oh my god, and then I realized what I had done, what I should have done differently, what I would forever do differently in the future. And from that point on, I never carried a balance on my credit card. I mean, I don’t know how bad, if you know how bad it really was.
Paulette: So what’s interesting to me is like grandma and grandpa’s family has worked so hard like they really understood the value of a dollar because they worked so freaking hard. And then I think life just got easier and then we went from physical laborers as a family to knowledge workers. We made more money using our minds, sitting in offices, and we just lost that connection. I mean, I think it’s probably fairly common family story; the older I get, the more I think I am so like dad, I mean, the way – I just remember, when he was trying to start that business and he was like, any day now, a sale is going to come through. And I remember thinking, oh my god, when I am an adult, I just want a day job, just give me a corporate, nice job with a steady paycheck, that’s all I want. And now I am totally in this freelancing crazy world, don’t want to have a boss, don’t want anyone telling me what to do. Sometimes I see a picture of myself with my hand on my hips just like dad and I am like, oh my god, I am so like my dad.
Mom: And daddy would want me to leave teaching and get something where I could make more money at and I never did, I never wanted to, I never wanted to take the risk, I always wanted to make sure I had a secure job. So, I mean, who’s right and who’s wrong, I don’t know. Because dad did very well, dad did have a really good last couple of years before the collapse.
Paulette: What do you see as a trajectory of our family money story?
Mom: Well, because grandma was so brave and brilliant in real estate and with money and grandpa was ultra conservative as well, I mean, when we went out to dinner anytime, it was understood that we did not order dessert, we did not order – at that point you still ordered a drink, but we ordered like, I guess, a soda, I can’t even remember, not a milkshake. We had to do like the minimum. We could never go – and dad was like that till the day he died. We were buying the early bird specials. And so I’d go out to dinner with him, I knew he would pay and I didn’t feel like I could order off the menu other than the early bird since he was. He just was a really conservative guy. He bought the Prius, he drove an old golf cart. He didn’t have to do that. He could have had anything he wanted, really.
Paulette: The thing that upsets me is when I think about undoing all the progress that they did for our family.
Mom: I don’t think we are undoing it.
Paulette: I know that grandpa would have wanted me to save the money I got when he died, and I intended to and I didn’t.
Mom: Okay, fair enough. There’s justification in that. You also got a life experience that you would possibly never again be able to afford, that will help you with your writing, that will further you as a writer and an independent person. But would he have done that? No. They would not have done that. Are you sorry you did it?
Paulette: No. I never am. And that’s the hard part. I mean, I think about now, being around Seattle and I don’t go up to the mountains as much as I used to, and every time we did go for the weekend and had a beautiful time in the snow, it was like we never regretted.
Mom: It sounded like the Disney weekend. The Disney weekends were $300 weekends, even with us having the “free passes”. We’d spend $300 in a weekend. That’s a lot of money. And we learned, don’t go for the weekend. We just started going like Saturday. We’d leave early in the morning and we’d come home late at night, because we just couldn’t afford that, too much money. Let me go back and just tell you, grandma and grandpa Altman real quick.
Paulette: Who’s grandma and grandpa Altman?
Mom: Grandma – Cameron’s mother and father.
Paulette: So your grandparents on your mother’s side.
Mom: My grandparents on my mother’s side. So, grandma would do things like sell Avon’s but she did that for her own little pocket money, as a lot of women did. She never drove. She never had a license. So her Avon was a way that she would go out to the people in the town, she was in this social life – that’s where I get it from. And grandpa was the most successful entrepreneur in our family, he had a lumber mill and a lumber yard, and he also owned a lot of land in town and he built the two-storey, two-family brick home. I don’t know if you ever remember seeing; you were there, but you were very young. They were one of the wealthiest families, they had the first phone, the first indoor plumbing, the first TV, whatever.
Paulette: Really? Grandma’s family, in which you’ve grown up?
Mom: Yeah. They didn’t live like flashy rich but they were able to afford things that other families could not. When grandpa was I am guessing 30-40, there was at the lumber yard and a man was killed, and grandpa lost everything at that point. So he lost the lumber yard. It shut down. It disappeared. And any money that came from that, he was sued, went to that family where the man was killed. There was no such thing as insurance. Grandpa Altman refused to ever buy insurance for car, for anything, nothing ever had insurance in his life. Believe me, I got a story about that one. So he paid that off, whatever they sued him for, which would be like in today’s world maybe $800,000. He paid that off. He sold the lumber, whatever, and he paid that family off. Then, I am guessing on some of this, I think he had built the home when the lumber yard – so he didn’t lose his home, he kept the home. And at the bottom of his house, you could fit like eight cars in the garage downstairs and he had a gas station, he had two gas pumps, and a place where you could change the oil. This was in the basement of his house, yes. It was like a walk, like a drive-in basement.
Paulette: Was that common?
Mom: It was sort of like he built the garage with a house on top. He built like a gas station garage with two houses on top. He had his office down there and he had his workshop and there were always men hanging around and stuff like that. He then started taking – I don’t know if he bought or just would haul away old cars. Then up in the field near his home became the junkyard, we called it the junkyard. There were all these old cars and then people would come and they would pull a piece off of a car that they needed for their car and they would pay him for it. He also fixed cars there. He did like mechanical fixing and changed the oil and pumped the gas and that kind of thing. I was a very young girl when all that was going on, and the fire had already taken place. He was an alcoholic as well.
Then grandpa started reopening the coal mines and he had an income from that. And then when I was like a young married woman, 1976, the government came in and they wanted to mine his mines. So he leased them the mines and he had a percentage of the coal out. He was making hand over fist. He bought a brand new Cadillac, he was going to buy a helicopter, things…
Mom: Yeah. He never did that. They were like out of his mind. But he was the kind of guy who really saw the glass half full. He was kind of like dad. In fact, he was like the dreamer, and he got a lot of done.
Paulette: And what was his life like during the Depression?
Mom: Grandpa? They went through it.
Paulette: Yeah, but what was he doing then? He had the mill?
Mom: Since mom didn’t have 25 cents, I don’t know what he was doing then; probably, the lumber yard I would think. And then he probably had to lay men off because it wasn’t money. If nobody is buying the lumber, you can’t have the men cutting it. So, the lumber yard, basically would take down the trees, haul the lumber in and then they would mill it. They would take the big machines and mill it into planks. And if construction stopped, then the lumber yard would slow way down, he’d have to lay people off and all that. So he had a lot of land and then the coal mines and then the house. These were all like three miles away from each other, all of those things.
Paulette: And so what do you think grandma learned from her family about money?
Mom: I think she learned the most from the Depression, because of the fact that she was so – there was no new clothing, there was no rides to town. That’s when they turned the ketchup bottle upside down which you saw grandma do, to catch the last drop. That’s when she learned that. You never threw anything away. I think she became an accumulator stuff because of the Depression. I think that was a reaction that happened to her. And I think because, she could afford it, she would buy it, because she could afford it now. And that’s all the jewelry, all the clothing, all the knickknacks.
Paulette: There’s been a lot of ups and downs in our family.
Paulette: How can we make ourselves be frugal? Why don’t we care about that? Where did that connection get lost from your parents and how, I am sure, they wanted you to be with money and how we turned out with money?
Mom: Well, let me think. When I married your father – I need to keep blaming daddy – I had $2000 in the bank, a brand new car and I was putting savings away every – I had some kind of IRA or something, where money was going out of my checking account to be saved. Now, after my first year of work, I had $1500 saved in this whatever. I cashed it in to go to Europe for the summer and I was fine with that. I looked at that as a savings account more than a future thing. When I met your father, I again had $2000, so that was like our honeymoon money, but he came to the table with zero. He went to Vegas before we got married and he missed his plane and he called me and he said, can I borrow $600 and I was like I don’t have $600. I said, it’s in an IRA, I couldn’t get it. And the next day, he had to get home for work or whatever, so he went to somebody else and borrowed it. But he never really had to struggle through college; where I was sent off to college, no car and mom would send me $5 a week, the gals in the dorm would get pizza and it was like a $1 a slice if you wanted in on the pizza and I couldn’t do it, because I had to use my $5 for shampoo or detergent or whatever else I was doing. So I started making leather belts and sewing them.
Paulette: In college?
Mom: Mm-hmm. Because it was hippie time, so I would braid these leather shoelaces like men’s work shoelaces, braid them and then tie them off and then the leather hung down, the shoelaces hung down. And I did all those for eight bucks or something. So I did that to make some extra money. And then my sophomore year, I wanted to go to Florida at Easter with my friends who were driving down and my mother said no way, and that’s when I got a job. And by that time I had talked them into giving me my car, and I was living off campus. So I had a car and I could drive myself and I worked at Dan Burgers. And I was at the mall and I would work five to nine, and I saved up enough money so that I could go to Florida with my friends.
And the same thing happened in high school. I wanted a suede jacket and my parents said they didn’t have enough money for it. So I went and got a job at like a Walgreens and saved that money up and bought a leather jacket. So we had love and we had everything we needed. There was just never a feeling of opulence.
Paulette: What’s the richest you ever felt?
Mom: When we sold the – dad left Vegas and came back and there wasn’t a job available for him at the play station anymore, and so he worked at the bar and then for $3000 he bought a van and some machines. Pacman was big then, but he bought some pinball machines that came with – we had like 10 pinball machines. And this was a big trend because, remember, no computers. So, kids would go after school and they played these pinball machines for a quarter or 50 cents whatever they put in. And so, we then borrowed money, we bought a Pacman, it was like a $10,000 machine, maybe we put a $1000 down on it, but we were pulling in $450 a week from these machines, which was sweet money in 1980. And when we sold that business, we sold it for $60,000 cash. And the guy worked at the bank and we spread that money out and we took pictures of ourselves, $60,000. That was the cat’s meow.
This is incredible, your father was so smart, he would put those pinball machines in the basement if they stopped working and he would fix them without any internet, without any directions, without any guidance whatsoever. He figured out how to make it work again. I was always amazed by that. In today’s world, we just Google it. And he would get it working again. So the Pacman machines were the ones that really were – people were nuts. We got a new Pacman machine and he couldn’t deliver it to the store till Monday or something, we had a party, and we just put it on free play. Our friends came and they were going crazy over it. One guy told us, he was an executive at some J&J or something, and he said, every lunch time he goes and plays Pacman, the entire lunch time, and doesn’t even eat.
Paulette: What was then the poorest you ever felt?
Mom: Oh my god, probably in the house on the water at the end when we knew we couldn’t hold onto it, I guess, maybe the day I walked out and the van was gone and I thought somebody stole my car and daddy had to tell me that he had made a payment a couple of months, so it got repo’ed.
Paulette: What are your hopes for your grandchildren as far as money goes?
Mom: And my children.
Paulette: And your children.
Mom: I have a lot of hopes and I have a lot of fears. My hopes are that you, although you struggle and you kind of are pretty tough on yourself about money, you probably are the most knowledgeable of all three in terms of what do you want, what’s going to get you there, what do you have to give up to get there. And I know it’s not an easy journey. It’s a lot of weight on you I think. So, for you, I hope that your book will be successful and you can get to a place where you can breathe easy. That’s my hope for you. But I think you will look back at this journey now with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Paulette: I want to respect my place in the world and not ask for more than I deserve. There’s this line in a song that I really like and it says, take only what you need, and I hate that; even with all that I have, I keep grabbing for more than I’ve earned. It’s like why can’t I learn to live within my means when my means are already more than 95% of the people on this earth have…
Mom: Maybe part of the reason is because you love to travel, and you love to eat and you love to have a good time, and you put all that together, and those are all very expensive things.
Paulette: I love you.
Mom: Okay. Bye-bye.