I recently had the privilege of meeting a man whom I immediately began to respect and admire. Albert (not his real name) is an 89-year-old widower who lives alone, drives his own car, and possesses a quick smile, a warm handshake, and a love of life. Each visit with Albert always leaves me looking forward to the next one, and I am proud to call him my friend.
Albert is quite transparent about his age; in fact, although it won’t occur until next June, he enjoys saying, “I will be 90 on my next birthday.”
The Great Depression
During a recent visit – being the math nerd that I am – I ran the numbers in my head and said, “So you must have been born in 1923. Right?” As he was nodding his head, I realized that he was a child during the Great Depression. ”Albert,” I ventured, “what was it like growing up during the Depression?”
“Well, Joe,” he smiled looking briefly at the ceiling, and continued, “I’ll tell you. We had a roof over our heads, but little else. I was nearly grown before we had running water, and, of course, I knew what it was like to visit the outhouse in the dead of winter.”
“Did you have enough food?”
“Oh yes. We kept livestock and a milk cow, and we always canned vegetables from the garden. Thinking back, I don’t believe we realized just how poor we were . . . probably because everyone else was going through the same thing.”
Not Knowing How to Spend
Albert eventually moved away from the farm, found work and earned a college degree. He made a good living, but his childhood memories implanted the life command of saving nearly every penny. He said, rather wistfully, “I knew how to save, but no one ever taught me how to spend.”
“Albert, let me ask . . . do you have regrets about not spending?”
He sat back in his easy chair and closed his eyes for a few seconds before responding, “Yes, Joe . . . I wish I would have learned to dance. I could easily have afforded to take dance lessons, but I never did.”
Wow. I am still digesting this. Albert wasn’t sorry about not buying a bigger house or driving newer cars. He had no regrets that he didn’t join the elite country clubs or wear designer clothes. He simply wished he could have learned to dance. When I asked him why, he seemed surprised: “Joe, my wife would have loved it.” Perhaps I should mention that Albert’s wife spent the last five years of her life in an Alzheimer’s care facility. You should also know that he was there to feed her every single meal for those five years.
Albert, a man who was never taught how to spend, is a rarity in today’s consumer-crazed world of spend, spend, and spend even more. But I see an irony here: 21st Century Americans may know how to buy stuff, but I question whether we know – really know – how to spend.
Will we reach the end of our lives regretting that we didn’t dance enough? I hope not.
Do you have friends or relatives who lived during the Great Depression? What do you learn from them? In what way will Albert’s story help you be a better spender?