Personal Finance

My Parents’ Saving and Investing Lessons Set Me up for Life

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  • My mother was a smart economizer — she knew her financial priorities and focused on them.
  • Following her example, I have never deprived myself but also don’t waste money on big-ticket items.
  • My father taught me about investing. His example helped be build a $530,000 retirement portfolio.

The year I turned 12, my mother drove me in our Chevy station wagon to the bank in Bethesda, Maryland, where the teller helped me open my first savings account. Mother insisted I deposit $6, half my babysitting and newspaper delivery earnings. 

She was a smart economizer. Although our family did go to the beach every summer, we never went on fancy vacations, because Mother thought college tuition was more important. She even bought dented canned vegetables at half-price.

My husband and I have followed my mother’s example

Her example has served me well all my life. Because my husband Barry and I have managed our money carefully, in our 70s we now divide our lives between Eureka, the “Victorian seaport” on California’s North Coast, and Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage center in the Central Highlands of Mexico.

Throughout our marriage we rarely bought new cars or new furniture. Today, we own a 1990 Mazda Miata, which we drive about once a week, and a 2003 EuroVan, which we use to explore the beauties of Northern California and southern Oregon. In Guanajuato, we don’t have a car — a great benefit, because in el centro, where we live, houses don’t have garages or driveways, and paid parking lots are expensive. We walk everywhere on the city’s vibrant, colorful streets. 

Nor do we own a dishwasher or clothes dryer in either home. In Guanajuato, clothes dry fast on our patio in the sunny, warm air, but even in Eureka, it doesn’t take that long. You just have to be patient.

I admit, we’re not complete minimalists. We can’t be — we own six kayaks, two paddleboards, and eight bicycles! The bikes are divided between our two homes. As for the kayaks, each has its story. Another article!

louisa rogers with purple hair on her patio in Guanajuato, mexico

The author on her patio in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Louisa Rogers

We visit Europe about once a year, but rarely pay for international tickets. By applying for a credit card with 50,000 or 60,000 bonus air miles every couple of years, we build up our miles. We apply for a new card only when we know we can compress a lot of expenses into a short time period, because you have to spend $3,000 to $4,000 within the first couple of months, which is much more than we normally spend. 

A friend recently described us as “frugal,” but I disagree, because we don’t deprive ourselves. I don’t believe self-deprivation works in the long run: it’s like dieting — too much deprivation can lead to excess.

My dad taught me how to invest for the long term

My dad, meanwhile, was not only a saver, but an investor. During my childhood I would overhear him discussing stocks with my mother.

In my early 30s, when Barry and I were living in Bellingham, Washington, a then-cheap hippie town, Daddy encouraged me to open an IRA, since I was his only child who worked for herself and had no pension. I wasn’t earning much at the time, but I took his advice and opened an IRA with $50. Barry did the same, and a year later we each opened a SEP IRA. Our accountant advised us to put the maximum in both accounts each year to reduce our annual taxes, so we did, and today, 40 years later, my two IRAs combined are worth over $530,000.

I made some stupid decisions, of course, like impulsively following Barry’s idea in the ’80s to buy futures. Never again! I lost $1,500 that way.

But other decisions were smart. When we moved from Bellingham to cushy Palo Alto in 1987, I was terrified, because our rent jumped from $265 to $1,200 a month, and climbed to $1,400 a year later. But I was forced to make serious money for the first time in my life, and that was good for my future. After networking for six months, I got an ongoing gig with Apple, which led to other contracts, leading trainings for companies like Hewlett-Packard and AT&T.

Seven years later, during a brief dip in the market, we managed to scrape together enough money to buy a house from a friend of a friend, avoiding real estate fees. We worked hard to pay off the house. 

In 2004, we left Palo Alto and sold the house. After giving our daughters some money, we invested about a third of our profits in a bond, which has earned us about $1,000 to $1,200 a month consistently ever since. At its maximum, before the 2008 crash, we earned $2,000 a month. It comes out to about a 5 to 7% average return. 

And instead of paying someone to manage our stocks, we’ve invested in index funds. We figured out that no one has a “market on the market,” so to speak.

Between stocks, bonds, our IRAs, Social Security, and our part-time earnings, we’re financially comfortable. Thanks to following my parents’ examples — investing carefully and not spending our money on high-cost items like trips to Hawaii or new cars — we’re able to afford the rich, diverse, bicultural life we now enjoy.

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