5 Money Lessons I Learned From My Dad

Colleen Oakley

I knew I had married my father the day my husband Fred lost his black comb.

It was four inches of plastic with teeth and cost about 75 cents at the CVS, but instead of parting with three quarters to buy a new one, Fred spent the better part of a day tearing our house upside down, searching every nook and cranny of his Jeep and muttering things like, “It’s not like it could have walked off on its own!”

My dad is cheap, and I thought my husband was just like him.

That is, until we needed a new car. I balked at the mere suggestion that we needed Bluetooth, or leather or—God forbid—a sunroof. As my husband envisioned a new, luxury vehicle, all I could see were dollar signs adding up fast. “Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you were the cheap one in this relationship. Why do you want to spend so much on a car?”

“Me?!” he sputtered. “You thought I was cheap? What about the time our washer broke and instead of buying a new one you spent three days calling repairmen until you found the lowest price? Or how you only let us eat out at places for which you have a Scoob? Or how you make me call our credit card every three months to ask if they’ll lower the interest rate?”

“Your APR is ridiculously high,” I said, folding my arms, but inside I was horrified.

I realized that my husband might get frustrated at the loss of a 75-cent comb, but it was actually me who was just like my dad.

Of course, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. My husband and I are in the best financial place we have ever been, and I know it’s partly because of these lessons I have subconsciously learned from my dad.

In honor of Father’s Day, here are the best lessons my father taught me about money:

1. Never Buy a New Car

I can remember many Saturdays of my childhood that my dad spent in the garage, covered in grime, changing the oil in our very used cars, or tuning up the engine, or fixing a window-roller-upper that didn’t want to roll up any more.

One time I asked him why he spent so much time fixing our cars, when he could just buy a new one with no issues. He said, “A new car loses value the second you drive it off the lot.” I scoffed, but when it came time for Fred and me to make a car decision, I literally couldn’t bring myself to agree to a brand-new one. We settled on a pre-owned car with 19,000 miles on it, and saved at least $4,000. Our car payment is lower than most of our friends’. Our car still looks great, doesn’t require Fred to spend Saturdays under the hood and has a lot of life left in it.

2. Talk About Money

My parents never kept their financial status a secret from us. We often heard phrases like “We only have $50 until payday,” and I remember overhearing them discuss what they spent that day so they were on the same page. Now Fred and I do the same thing. Money is a taboo topic in our society, but thanks to my parents, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. Because of our open running dialogue about our finances, we never argue about money, unlike most couples.

(Learn how to have those hard conversations in our free Getting Hitched Bootcamp!)

3. Save, Save, Save

I opened my first savings account when I was 7, at the prodding of my parents. I remember how proud I was when it first reached $100. My dad taught me that no matter how little you have, you should always make sure you have a cushion in case you hit hard times. Even when I was making $300 a month in college, I always put $5 or $10 in my savings account—and was glad I had when Fred got laid off just a few months after we got married.

4. Don’t Spend More Than You Have

I opened my first credit card when I was a senior in college to buy a $125 plane ticket to visit my boyfriend who lived three states away. My hands were sweaty and I was nauseated because all I could hear was my Dad’s voice saying: “Credit card money is not your money.”

He always preached the importance of spending within your means. It was hard to do in my early 20s when I was living on a $25,000 salary with champagne tastes and Jimmy Choo dreams. But the lesson kicked in when I got married and Fred brought nearly $30,000 in debt to our relationship. We decided right then to not use our credit cards for anything, and concentrate on paying off the money owed. Four years later, we’re down to a $6,000 balance left on one credit card and live faithfully by Dad’s rule: If we can’t afford it with cash, we don’t buy it.

(Been doing too much buying? Our free Get Out of Debt Bootcamp can help!)

5. Every Little Bit Counts

Okay, so my Dad definitely took his frugality overboard at times—like when my parents bought a pick-up truck and he asked my mom to drive it around with the tailgate down because it got better gas mileage. And I don’t keep the thermostat at 80 degrees in the summer and 68 in the winter (as he did every single year, despite my constant whining).

But I do find myself tapping the temperature up or down a notch or two if the house is comfy. And I’ll buy store brand food as opposed to name brand to save a few cents. And I wash my clothes on the cold cycle to cut down on our electricity bill.

It may not seem like much, but it’s nice to have a few extra bucks at the end of the month so we can afford things we might not otherwise have been able to spring for—like little plastic combs.

Colleen Oakley is a fiscally responsible freelance writer in Atlanta. But her Dad is just cheap.

  • Katherene

    Colleen truly your Dad is a treasurer!  I enjoyed reading and learning from your Dad’s tips.  And will definitely incorporate a few of those tips.  Thanks for sharing your Dad…with those of us who never knew our Fathers we enjoy learning from them.

  • Katie Morris

    Wow, you are so lucky that your parents instilled such wonderful money values in you! Money was such a taboo topic in my house…I had no idea what was really going on.  As a result, at almost 30 I have a terrible relationship with money, and I’m scrambling to set things right now and teach myself how to be responsible.

    Thanks for your article, it was great!

  • maracujation

    thank you for sharing :) These are simple but powerful rules that make a difference between being broke and sick from all the stress of owing money and being healthy and in peace because you don’t owe anyone money and achieving your financial goals is actually possible

  • Amber

    Her Dad sounds so much like my Dad. These lessons seem simple, but I’m always surprised by how many people don’t use them.

  • Jenluksich

    I love the words “credit card money is not YOUR money.” I opened my first credit card at 18 in college and went crazy opening up another 5 credit cards by the time I was 25 and ending up with $10,000 in debt. I have learned the very hard way that credit cards are a very very bad decision. I will be out of debt within the next year and I cannot wait to finally have financial freedom at the age of 30. 

  • http://twitter.com/saraedunphy Sara E. Dunphy

    Awesome, reminds me so much of my own father, and family.  My parents where always making us aware of our financially situation, and my father is as cheap as they come.  But this has had a really positive influence on my own finances now that I am an adult.  Luckily, my husband loves being cheap just as much as I do, helping our savings account grow!

  • Alyse Cato

    This sounds so much like my own family! They didn’t talk as much about the “only $50 till payday” part, but my parents taught me how to save and fully set the example of making smart financial decisions, not buying what the couldn’t afford, etc. Mom taught me that “zero” balance in my checking account should be at least $1000, and I never let it get below that. I didn’t get a credit card until after college and I still get stressed out about using it, even if I’m paying it off almost immediately.

  • Margaux

    Your Dad sounds like such a good Dad.  :-)  My family was similar to yours.  My parents were always open about their financial situation. They often let us know where they stood until the next payday and if we needed to eat lentils & rice or fried egg sandwiches for a few days.  My Dad is a saver and my Mom isn’t so much.  I got more of my Dad’s sensibility luckily.  My husband wasn’t saving any money before we met and I’ve been able to share some of my Dad’s sensibility with him.  Though my husband has taught me about buying things that last as opposed to the cheapest thing out there.  It’s ok to find a happy medium like the used but in good shape car that you and your husband bought.  Thank you for sharing such a light-hearted, wise account of learning how to manage money from your family situation and then taking it into a marriage.  

  • http://twitter.com/Lbeemoneytree Lauren Bee

    It’s amazing how much parents pass along-be thankful you had a pair that talked about money!

  • Annoyed

    LearnVest: Why is it so difficult for you to come up with a meaningful and relevant “subject” for your Daily email? I don’t think “How a 75-Cent Comb Almost Ruined My Marriage” is anything close to an appropriate subject for this article. This seems to be an ongoing problem and I don’t think I’m first to point this out.

    • Michellea

      I agree. Your titles are misnomers.

      • osirisis

         I agree, your subject titles should be more succinct and reflect what the article is really about.  I also think its an insult to us readers intelligence as your writers think they need some foolish and outlandish title to lure us…not a good look.

    • Quyen

      Yeah…. What the heck?

    • Rockstar_chick87

      Yeah, the title has nothining to do with any of this.

  • Kdmarshall28

    I found the title misleading. Good take away lessons.

  • http://www.amateurvagrant.com/ Rae

    Yeah, I like reading LearnVest articles, but you guys need to figure out to write headlines or get a new editor. It was unnecessarily incendiary, which is becoming pretty typical for you lot, but also just wrong: this article was about her father, not her husband, and you’d think you could come up with something catchy the Friday before Father’s Day.

  • Kat

    I think these are great lessons, but I do want to challenge you on something: you say “If we can’t afford it with cash, we don’t buy it,” but you also say you have a car payment. In other words, you couldn’t afford that car with cash, but you still bought it. You may have contributed some of your money, but you also used the bank’s money. I’m not saying that’s wrong (I have a mortgage, which is the same thing), but please be honest with yourself about your financial situation. If you have a car payment, you have debt; i.e., as far as your car goes, you are not living within your means. If you admit that and are OK with it, fine. But please be honest with yourself about it.

    • Colleen Oakley

      Thanks Kat! I am honest with myself about it– and didn’t mean to lead the reader astray. I should have written that if we can’t afford day-to-day purchases with cash, we don’t buy it. We have a car payment and a mortgage!

  • Brittany

    It seems like LearnVest is trying to improve their email open rates by including scandalous subject lines. It probably works, as I was intrigued by this one, but it’s in poor taste. LearnVest is coming off a tad trashy with this new optimization to their email program.