What I Learned from Grandpa Bob

I was lucky to have special relationships with all of my grandparents, and even luckier that my grandparents on both sides of my family were close friends with each other. That made for fun experiences during my childhood where all four of them were present and happy to be in each other's company.

The last of the four, Grandpa Bob, passed away this week just before his 90th birthday, and I've spent some time pondering all that he taught me. He was a shy guy, but as witty as can be if given the chance. In his honor, here are a few of the most memorable financial and other lessons from my interactions with him over the last 30 years:

1. Treat every dollar as if it were worth a hundred times more. One of his most well known tricks was gluing a stack of $2 bills together like a notepad. He loved peeling them off as he handed them out during the holidays. The process was time consuming (I've tried it) and typically involved an argument with a bank teller that started off something like this: "No, these bills are too wrinkled and can't be glued together. Please see if you have any new ones in the vault." And I definitely remember him bragging about how he might move to a different bank if they ever denied his request for crisp bills. I never asked but I would bet he put a lot of thought into his choice of that particular bill. It was affordable if he gave a few out to every member of the family (his 7 kids each married and collectively gave him 20 grandchildren). Being somewhat rare, it drew attention to the whole act and highlighted the fact that every dollar earned and given away is meaningful. And he also knew we couldn't do too much damage when spending it. He really cringed at wasteful spending.

2. Don't take life too seriously. Grandpa wasn't a rich guy in terms of material or financial assets, but he did have some investments and often chatted with me about them. One conversation stands out because he mentioned a particular stock he owned that really did poorly. "How bad was it?" I asked. With a chuckle, he gave me the recent high that the stock reached and then explained how the company went bankrupt. He had lost every penny but didn’t waste a moment with regret.

3. Not everything is meant to be perfect. This stands out as one of my favorite lessons by far. I was thinking through whether to take the leap and start Mindful Wealth. I struggled with leaving the perfect job in exchange for the entrepreneurial experience of running my own company. Grandpa Bob had done the same thing many years ago when he started his own corner meat market after working for another butcher shop, so I gave him a chance to weigh in on the opportunity. He looked over the top rim of his glasses and said confidently, "Not everything is meant to be perfect." That hit me hard. I was in complete disbelief that he would have anything to say other than support. He barely had any of the facts. I laughed and tried to compose myself quickly. Much later, I thought more about it and supposed that he might be talking about money and whether or not that was my motivation. I think he didn't want me to make the change based on the belief that I could make more money. And I also think he didn't want me being bothered with the notion that more money was better. If I'm right, then we were actually in perfect agreement. I did not take on this challenge because of money, and I find it a little easier every day to avoid the negative influence that money can sometimes have on decisions. The reality is that he probably just wanted me to take work less seriously. It's a means to an end, and that end is feeding your family.

4. Keep a close watch on your finances. Have you ever seen one of those binder-style checkbooks with 3 checks per page and little stubs for record keeping? My guess is that Grandpa Bob is the only person in history to maintain such a cumbersome thing like that for personal finances. It seemed like during every visit to their home, I would happen upon Grandpa at his desk reviewing his check activity, recording them as they cleared, and worrying about checks not yet cashed. That was one of the earliest lessons I had in finance, and I can remember at a young age thinking that he really seemed to be on top of things. I respected that. When I got his annual birthday card with a check in it, I made an effort to alert him that I received it (a few days early, of course), deposited it immediately at my bank, and intended to use it wisely.

5. Always clean your plate. Grandpa Bob was a hard-working butcher and the sole source of income for his family. With a tight budget and so many mouths to feed, one of his biggest pet peeves was wasted food. It was deeply engrained and stuck with him even into retirement. I can still hear him in my mind muttering about how many half-full sodas he might find at the end of a family holiday party. He had a profound respect for how hard it is to earn a living and save money, so every mention of wasted food served as our reminder to be frugal stewards of our own money. (NOTE: This was one of our most contentious recurring lessons because I spent all of my childhood as an extremely picky eater who never cleaned a plate. That did not sit well with Grandpa Bob.)

6. Cherish your family. Grandpa's family tree has grown to well over 50 members, including 20+ great-grandchildren, and he was as proud as can be about that. He had a regularly updated spreadsheet on hand at all times in the basket of his walker with a precise count of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You might see him sharing that with friends around the retirement home where he lived.

7. Don't be attached to material things. Grandma Dot, who died many years before Grandpa Bob, was a very talented pianist. Grandma and I had spent countless hours playing the piano together at nursing homes to entertain the residents, and in our ongoing conversations about music she often brought up her childhood piano, which she said was a pink baby grand. She wanted to find it somehow after having been separated from it by a half century. Grandpa, on the other hand, thought her attachment to that old thing was silly, so he proposed buying a new baby grand instead. And they did. They bought one that made sense for their budget, but it certainly is beautiful and plays quite well. After Grandma Dot died, we were having breakfast together and he passed me a handwritten note that said he wanted me to have her piano. With all it meant to him having been his gift to Grandma, he still wasn't overly attached.