The five lessons of life

My parents grew up during the Great Depression and the lessons from those tough times were etched in their minds. Growing up in a mining town with its ups and downs only deepened those beliefs.

The financial crisis we are living through right now serves as a reminder of my parents' engrained principles. It is especially important today, because most of those who survived the stock market crash in 1929 and the public works programs of the 1930s are gone.

The first lesson: "Don't live beyond your means."

My father and uncle bought our family home in 1936. They saved and pooled their money and paid $3,600 cash for the two-bedroom home where I grew up. After World War II, my Dad bought out my uncle and my folks lived in that house until they died in the late 1990s.

When my younger brothers and sister came along, my father, an electrician, traded some electrical work with a couple of carpenter friends and added two bedrooms upstairs - but not until he had saved enough cash to pay for the addition. Today, many would consider our small house a mere one-bathroom squatter's shack even though it was a comfortable home for us.

And unlike today, when people buy a new car before they've paid off the old one, our family cars lasted until we saved enough money to replace them.

The second lesson: "Always put money away for a rainy day."

In Butte, there were miners' strikes. Some lasted for months, and even though my Dad was a construction electrician and did not work in the copper mines, we had Walkerville's garbage collection service. When the miners were off, either because of a strike or when precious metal prices were low, collecting money for hauling people's trash was difficult. Without money in the bank, we could not pay for gas and repairs for the truck or liability insurance and taxes on the business. So, we drew from our savings.

The third lesson: "Pay your bills first, then put food on the table and save for the extras."

After the miners went back to work, they paid off their debts and, while it might take our customers five or six months to pay off a $10 debt, they did. Their honor was at stake.

My folks also made sure there was enough food on the table even if it meant eating hamburger every other night. In fact, Mom had so many ways to cook hamburger she should have written a cookbook. Only problem was she couldn't market it in Butte because everyone else had the same recipes.

The fourth lesson: "Be satisfied with what you have."

I remember pitching my folks on the merits of a new, bigger home with a game room big enough for a pool table. That Christmas our gift was a small pool table that fit in the bedroom one of my brothers and I shared. My parents were not into "trading up" to a big home with a big mortgage.

The final lesson: "There is no free lunch."

My folks never owned a credit card and only once took out an emergency loan when my Dad was hurt as a volunteer firefighter. In those days, volunteer fire fighters were not covered by Montana's workers' comp system. That changed after my Dad organized a legislative effort to have them included.

Today, most Americans can't relate to those hard times. The Great Depression is simply a chapter in our history books between World War I and II. I have a feeling that is all about to change.

There is enough blame to go around about who caused our current financial crisis. But regardless of the finger pointing, one lesson is clear: People must be more careful with their money and manage their debt better.

It is a good thing to save money in order to put a larger down payment on a car or, heaven forbid, pay cash. And common sense tells us that it's risky to take out a 100 percent mortgage to buy your big dream house because when the economy takes a downturn - as it does in regular cycles - your dream home's mortgage becomes a nightmare.

We all need to apply a little more common sense and take more responsibility for our actions. If we don't, our good Old Uncle Sam (which is really you and me, the taxpayers) may not be able to rescue us the next time.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.


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