6 Nuggets Of Financial Wisdom From The Old School

My grandfather, young and handsome!

My grandparents could not take advantage of much education when they came to America as they had to go to work at a young age. But in many respects, my grandparents managed to acquire more financial intelligence than most of us, including me and you.

Makes little sense, right? How can someone’s grandparents possibly be smarter than they are? The older generation did not have access to all that we do. This is the information age. We have Google and Bing to search at the speed of light, and Twitter and Facebook to share any piece of information that we have in real time.

Most of us would also have an edge in education, as well. My grandparents never attended college. They went to work as soon as they possibly could, to aid in the support of their family. So, naturally, our intelligence must be more advanced too, right?

Look at me now, typing away, publishing my words on-line and competently stringing a few sentences together. You might say this talent makes me a little smarter than, say, my grandmother.

We may be able to gather information more quickly, that’s a given. More intelligent? The jury’s out on that one. As far as being common sense smart, the previous generations might have it all over us. I’d like to offer some of their “money handling” examples:

They spent their money wisely – Yeah, at times my grandfather would splurge on a lottery ticket (or two). And yes, my Nonna liked to buy a surplus of imported cheese that was fifteen dollars a pound. But most times, they were not crazy with their money. They went to stores infrequently, shopped sales when they did go, and they didn’t have any expensive hobbies like golf, boating, or weekends in Las Vegas. Things were pretty simple. And when your needs are simple, you tend to not spend money.

They saved the same way – Since there wasn’t a lot of spending going on, they saved a lot of money. As they worked hard and built their business, they were also able to build a house in 1969 without taking on a mortgage (that one still amazes me). They purchased another restaurant after operating their first one for several years. You’re able to do that by saving- not dropping all your cash.

Their house was not an investment – Very simply, they bought their house to live in. Period. They weren’t concerned about the house’s market value, if they could tap it for equity, or if they could retire if it was sold. They lived there. It was their home – not a piece of an investment portfolio.

Meals were prepared at home – There were very few trips to restaurants when my gram and her sisters were around and cooking at full throttle. Dinners out were special occasion only. For them, the term “take out” meant taking out the garbage. These girls made some of the greatest lunches and dinners to ever hit a table. It never occurred to them;

“Gee, why cook? Let’s go out for dinner tonight!” or “Honey, I’m tired from my day doing piece work at the factory…can we go out?”

Ridiculous. They knew they would never get a meal of the same quality at a restaurant as one they cooked themselves at home. I feel the same way.

They brewed their own coffee – Especially in my grandmother’s house, the coffee pot was ritual. Granted, in my grandparents’ prime, the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks of the world were not at all prevelant. But if they were around today, I’m sure they would probably think “Really?? People like paying seven dollars for a cup of coffee?” Myself, I’m not here to bash Starbucks. I love their coffee, and every six months or so, I’ll treat myself to one. But every day, like some people? Not me. That’ll really put a hole in your wallet.

And last but not least…

They were happy with what they had – Keeping up with everybody else was not in their playbook.  They didn’t give a shit about what the neighbors had. If there was ever any envy or jealousy, it was about who had a bigger fig tree or had the best spread on the Sunday dinner table. My grandmother’s one extravagance was a fur coat, and she wore it out. She wore the same dresses, and my grandfather wore the same flannel shirts, forever. And they were perfectly happy. They weren’t concerned with clothes, jewelry, fine wine, or exotic vacations. The only concern was whether or not you had enough to eat.

What say you? Should we adopt some of the financial principles of yesterday? Or should we continue guzzling Starbucks and lusting after BMWs while the economy falls further into the outhouse? Agree or disagree, comments please!

The Most Valuable Land on Earth

OakwoodStatueThere’s a concept about the most valuable land on earth being the graveyard: because with all of those people are buried unfulfilled dreams, unwritten novels, music not created, businesses not started, relationships not reconciled.

While difficult to quantify, you can be sure that it’s got a ring of truth. We all know people that are still alive that have all but abandoned any dream they once had. Going through life on their day to day, paying their bills, nothing more, nothing less.

We love the days of the week named Monday and Friday. As sure as the sun rises and sets each day, you can listen to your workmates curse the one day, and thank God for the other.

Why is one day of the week any different than the other? Because people want to escape their boring jobs, and on a grander scale, their monotonous lives.

And some pass away with having done just the chores of birth, school, work, and retirement with nothing else to show for it.

It’s a waste. Don’t we have more potential than that?

A couple of years ago, a good friend at work decided to fulfill a dream to join the military. She chose to face the rigors of boot camp and the chance of deployment to the Middle East than spend her life in a cubicle.

Most thought she was a little insane. The more accurate perception should be brave, smart, and unwilling to settle. Maybe the most sane out of everyone.

The situation reminded me of the Morgan Freeman quote from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, as follows:

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But, the place you live in is that much more grey.”

To fulfill a dream, no matter how small, should always be a focus of  life, in addition to all those “chores” to be completed to live in the moment and support your family.  We don’t do this because of the bugaboo of fear.

Fear Strikes Out

I break this kind of fear into two categories: the fear of failure, and the fear of rejection.

It’s OK to have these types of fears. Everyone does. But they need to be managed so they don’t stand in the way of your entire existence.

Strangers In A Strange Land

I can’t think of anyone that should have been more fearful than my grandmother, when she and her family emigrated from Sicily to come to this country, looking for opportunity. She:

  • was leaving the only home she ever knew
  • had limited education at that point
  • had a language barrier she struggled to overcome
  • didn’t know anyone in America
  • didn’t have an immediate place to live
  • had to endure processing with arrival here
  • was just a teenager, thrust into a strange land!

How did all those fears wind up affecting her throughout her life? She had her bumps in the road, and very painful experiences in later years, but she and my grandfather certainly lived their version of the American dream. They:

  • Got factory jobs and proved themselves to be quickest, most efficient workers
  • Ran successful businesses in not one, but two, restaurants
  • Built a house and paid cash for it
  • Put the house on an expanse of land that featured fruit trees and large gardens
  • Took a dream trip back to their homeland to visit family
  • Survived very hard times, starting with the Great Depression
  • Were married for over six decades
  • Were mentors and teachers for many (including myself)

Pretty impressive stuff, in my opinion. Fear can be a killer, but my grandparents refused to let it stand in their way.

Burning Clocks

With Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen set out to write a song about the demolition of the old Giants Stadium. He instead came up with an anthem about fighting back hard times and the ultimate decay of our lives.

In the song, the lyrics ring out “When your game has been decided, and you’re burning the clock down…”

Folks, life is short. The game has nearly been decided. Our clock is burning down. It’s hard to take action on the truly important because of the all of the little things that need to be done. As my cousin once said, “Life gets in the way.”

Make a point to push it out of the way.

Decades from now, none of us will be here. No one will remember, and no one will care whether you lived your life just paying the bills and watching reality television, or if you chased down your own version of the immigrant dream.

Historical greats of the past are now a blip on the radar screen, profiled in only books and memories. Unless you cure cancer or eradicate poverty, you will be too. So what’s stopping you?

Seriously, if my two little, tiny Italian grandparents can come to America and create their own world with all their obstacles, what excuse can the rest of us possibly have?

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This Is Not Your Grandfather’s “Job Security”

I can’t remember the last time I had a stunning day at work, but last week I had one of those days.

The stunner was the revelation that three people I had worked with, and come to know over the last five years,  lost their jobs. Just like that. In almost “mob hit” style, one minute we were talking, and the next they were gone.

Without a word.

Having been in the game for a long time now, I was less stunned than a lot of my workmates. But the fact that I felt this way at all showed just how complacent I’ve become.

This is not your grandfather’s world of “job security.” For all but a tiny percentage of workers, there is no longer the 40 year career at one company, retiring to collect a pension into your golden years.

Anyone that believes a corporation is going to “take care of them,” and is going to care about any more other than the concerns of its shareholders, is playing a dangerous game.

If you believe in such a thing as job security, you are doing yourself a disservice.

If you think there is a corporation that will take care of you more than you can take care of yourself, you’d better think again.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

My grandparents’ generation worked in factories, some their entire lives. They worked hard, and were rewarded them with a paycheck, pension and job security.

My own grandparents could have retired from jobs, from working for somebody else. They decided to run their own businesses instead, drawing success from their restaurants and providing for themselves the ultimate job security: As long as the doors were open, and sales were brisk, they could never get “fired.”

I never had a job until I was 35 years old. I worked in the family business, and I could always have that work as long as I wanted it.

There is no such thing as “job security,” no matter what you may tell yourself.  Whether you are just starting your career or are a little long in the tooth, look at that fact as an opportunity. It’s a new world, but you can take full advantage if you’re well armed.

One of my close friends made the comment if you have a strong support group, you can worry a little less. I tend to agree with him. The more connections, the more close friends and relatives you have that can cover your back, the better.

If you suddenly find yourself out of work, then let them go to work for you. Friends love helping each other out, right?

It can help if you have other skills beside your job as well. In my past life, I was a bartender in the family business. To make extra cash over the holidays this past year, I was a part time bartender again. It’s a skill that I’ll always have, and that people are willing to pay for.

Whether you realize it or not, you have a skill like that too. It is just up to you to find out what that is.

Speaking of friends, cash in the bank is a big ally too.  A cash cushion can keep you relaxed and stress free. It doesn’t have to be huge, but you better have something. You don’t want the situation of losing an income with your savings account dry as a bone.

I have no doubt the friends that I no longer work with will be OK, and land on their feet. They are a talented bunch, and one in particular already had a side business up and running.

But if there’s a lesson they can teach, it’s always be ready. Always be looking over your shoulder. And have your options in place if you ever need them. Chances are you will.

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My “Resolution?” Keep Tradition Alive and Kicking

The “New Year’s Resolution” is more popular than ever. I tend to not put a lot of faith into them, however. Always begun with the best of intentions, they soon crash, burn, and flame out quickly.14th Street - Tree

You see the same type of resolution, year in and year out. Many people pledge to lose weight, get back in shape, repair relationships, organize their lives, etc.

A couple of months later, that Christmas gift treadmill that was supposed to be your running partner serves as the prettiest and priciest clothes hanger you’ve ever owned.

My resolution would be to strengthen a habit I already have: keep traditions,  the ones I was fortunate enough to experience growing up, alive and kicking.

Ideally, I would be doing this just for my children, so they could get a taste of the very good life, but if I’m honest with myself… I’m doing it for my own benefit, as well. I never want to forget where I came from.

My old Italian ladies aren’t around anymore. The rituals and methods they practiced survive only if we keep them breathing by our active participation. That guardian of the old school traditions that I want to be? Playing at full strength here and now.

Everyone has cultural traditions that bring them closer to their roots, and to that warm, fuzzy feeling you had when you were a kid. I recommend they be part of your list of “resolutions.” Here’s just several ways I’m going to carry them out in the coming year:

In The Kitchen  My wife and I are no slouches in this area, but for Christmas we received some beautiful cookbooks from some very thoughtful people that are going to allow us to ratchet up our knowledge of traditional Italian peasant dishes. Many of these recipes are what I ate growing up, and are still a staple of our diet now.

At Table  Eating together as a family has always been a high priority after the kids came along, just like I did when I was young. The table is also where I shared great coffee with my immigrant grandparents in past years, and my wife and I still make espresso in a stainless steel pot every morning to continue the ritual. It’s the best.

14th Street GrapesIn The Vineyard  The house where my grandparents used to live has two ample grape arbors that yield the best grape jelly you will ever taste. Making the jelly from those grapes is hard work, but we love to do it to this day. We still have access to the grape vines, so we’re hoping 2012 brings another sweet batch.

At The Holidays  On Christmas Eve years ago, my family would always serve very traditional fish and seafood dishes to celebrate the holiday. It’s a tradition we’ve let slip recently. I felt insane jealousy (and hunger) when Vince posted pictures of a seafood feast at his house this past Christmas Eve. My wife Suzanne and I have pledged to bring this back home in 2012, and host a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner with our relatives.

In My Mind  With today’s need for instant updates and instant gratification and instant everything, it’s little wonder your mind races through the day. My girls (meaning my grandmother and my godmother) had a simple way to quiet their minds—they said prayers. And I think they were on to something, so I’m doing this more lately. Whether it’s prayers, meditation, or just five minutes in the day to sit and be quiet without interruption, the result is clear: it’s definitely good for body, mind, and soul.

Yes, I’m going to exercise more (Had a great workout before writing this) and eat my vegetables, but if I can keep a candle of tradition flickering within my family, 2012 will be a prosperous and very happy New Year.

Photographs of 14th Street courtesy of Gabrielle DeGiorgio

What are your resolutions this year? Is tradition a part of it? Start a discussion in the comment section, and feel free to tweet and/or share. You know someone that needs a little kick in the “traditions”!

Running Down A Dream: A Date With Coldplay in NYC

I’m convinced of this certain fact: that those with children in my age group are members of the “cool parent” generation.

When I was 16, my first concert experience was to see the then very huge (read: popular) Fleetwood Mac at the beautiful Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York (otherwise known as “the summer place to be). Part amphitheater and part outdoor venue, SPAC made sure my initial rock show was spent shoulder to shoulder with a sweaty crowd of about 30,000 people.

Stevie_Nicks_-_1977
Stevie Nicks, 1977 – Wikipedia

It was a fantastic night, and since my teenage crush at the time was singer Stevie Nicks, I would not have missed the experience, no matter the size of the crowd. I had to find a way to get there on my own, though, as my parents could not have brought me.

Fast forward to the modern day, for something a little different. My wife Suzie accompanied my daughter to see Coldplay perform in New York City, on a broadcast network morning show. That’s three hours from where we live. And just to make certain that my daughter could see the band well enough, they spent the night before the show in the city. Not in a hotel, mind you. But on the street. For the better part of 9-10 hours overnight.

Being October, it wasn’t exactly warm. And my wife didn’t get any sleep for about 36 hours. Initially, when she came up with the idea of taking the train to the city and doing this, I thought she was a little crazy. My thoughts of crazy eventually turned into thoughts of: well….why not?

Chris Martin
Coldplay’s Chris Martin, photo by Gabrielle DeGiorgio

She showed the sacrifices a parent can make to create a great experience for their child – and have some fun in the process. When I watched the concert from the comfort of my living room, I felt a little pang of jealousy. Seeing the massive crowd rock out to Coldplay hits like “Paradise” and “Viva La Vida, “I knew the effort the girls made was worth it, and that my daughter was having an experience she would never forget.

While taking me to a rock show was something that my parents wouldn’t have done (their ears would have bled), they provided for me in many other ways. But I like the fact that my wife and I are young at heart, and can do things with our kids that previous generations would have passed on. I give my wife a ton of credit. I’m not so sure I would have stayed out all night in chilly temps, without sleep, to see a live concert that was six songs long, at best.

In a way, it’s a great method to use to recapture those feelings of youth. Just after we first met over 20 years ago, Suzie hung out outside with a friend all night for the chance to score some Elton John tickets.  I was working in my parents’ restaurant at the time, which gave me the ability to bring them some wine to keep their spirits up while they made some new friends waiting in line.

In taking my daughter to New York, my wife showed Gabrielle that there is nothing like a great experience. While it’s typical for some of us to value material wealth first and foremost, our daughter already has an idea that your life experiences will always outweigh the accumulation of material things.

Unless one of those things happens to be a train ticket on the speed of sound express to see her music idols, and knock a goal off her “before college bucket list”…

Viva la vida (long live life) !!

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