Poppa once took me to a deli for dinner. I was a boy of about 10. We went to the cash register to pay, only for him to find he lacked exact change.
“I’ll owe you the nickel,” he told the cashier, who refused the offer. My grandfather fished out a dollar bill and collected 95 cents in change. “I’ll remember this,” he warned the cashier with a menacing scowl.
Benjamin Sheft never took anything in life for granted, least of all money. Any time we ate in a restaurant, he studied the check as if it were a sacred text. Paying cash, he peeled currency off his billfold as if stripping away a sheet of his own skin.
As I grew up, no one tried harder to teach me about money–earning it, saving it, and losing it–than my poppa. Nor with less success.
This year, the British financial services company Legal & General conducted a wide-ranging survey of 2,000 grandparents and 2,000 grandchildren. Among the questions it asked grandchildren was, “What are the most important life lessons your grandparents have taught you? As it turned out, almost a third of grandchildren (30%) cited grandparents for passing down “financial and money-saving advice.”
Similarly, Charles Schwab last year issued a guide to grandparents about teaching financial literacy to grandchildren The Role of a Grandparent | Over 50s | Legal and General. It counseled “talking about money in everyday situations” with grandchildren and even learning to prepare a budget. “Starting these conversations at a young age,” it said, “can help ensure your grandchildren grow up to become responsible money managers.”
My poppa came to the United States from a village in Russia at age two in 1909, his father a tailor who barely spoke English. He married at 20 and became a father at 21, his daughter – later my mother – stricken profoundly deaf in infancy. He graduated from the City University of New York with a degree in accounting, the first member of his family to go to college.
In his search for clients during the Great Depression, the newly minted CPA went door to door, on foot, to businesses around his neighborhood–dry cleaners, auto-repair shops, anything–offering to do the books for a pittance.
But by the late 1940s, in the first flush of the postwar boom, Poppa started to hit his stride. He opened an accounting firm with a partner, renting an upper-floor office right across East 42nd Street from Grand Central Terminal. There, he prepared taxes, bank records, payrolls, you name it. In my visits to the premises, I always gawked at his view of the Empire State Building.
In the early 1950s, he moved his family from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx to a neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side suddenly swanky with the Second Avenue El recently torn down. He sent his son through New York University and Yale Law School. He bought my parents a split-level, three-bedroom house in suburban northern New Jersey and himself a Cadillac, then the standard American symbol for financial success. In due course, my grandparents joined a country club, where Poppa played golf, smoked cigars, and savored his Scotch on the rocks. They attended Broadway shows, acquired season tickets to the opera and the ballet, and vacationed in Europe and Asia.
Even so, Poppa always believed he was chronically a day late and a dollar short. His son, my Uncle Leonard, once told me so. One day Poppa verified that claim. He told me how he and some partners once invested in a garden-apartment complex.
“I sold my stake in it too soon,” he admitted, his voice hoarse with regret. “I wanted to turn a fast buck.” He shook his head in shame and disbelief. “If I had held onto it longer, I would be a millionaire now.”
You could never have enough, he seemed to be saying. Likely he never recovered, all those decades later, from the psychic wounds of the Great Depression.
He meant to teach me about money–to count it, watch it, grow it–but I could never see money as he did. I grew up spoiled, certain that money magically materialized. The $5,000 in gifts for my bar mitzvah in 1965? I blew it 10 years later. Adjusted for inflation, that cash would today be worth north of $47,000. The $17,000 in presents at our wedding in 1979? These were squandered by the late 1980s. Today, that sum would amount to at least $74,000.
Before I could learn anything from Poppa, I had to make my own mistakes. It took me until age 35 to develop a serviceable work ethic (having two kids will do that) and then until 45 to get out of debt. Some of us never learn, while others learn late. Eventually, I pulled myself together.
“Everything is addition and subtraction,” says a character in a film noir the title of which I’ve forgotten. “The rest is just conversation.”
Our parents and grandparents can teach us only so much. As I found out–and as Poppa showed me–certain lessons we just have to learn on our own.
Bob Brody, a consultant and essayist based in Italy, is the author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.
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