Old-School Tips for Better Finances

Mixing Dad's advice with sound financial planning can help us regain stability.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — I will never forget my father calling out to my sisters and me, “Turn off the lights,” as we went from one room to another in our ranch-style Baltimore home, leaving on all the lights in our wake. His next line pretty consistently was, “Do you think I’m made of money?!” We would huff and puff and eventually retrace our steps and turn off the lights.

But I distinctly remember being frustrated and thinking that my very strict father was simply too strict. “What difference did it make?” my child’s smart-alecky mind wanted to know. Now, I didn’t dare defy my father, either by not following his directions or by challenging him. Nevertheless, I did so in my mind.

It wasn’t until many years later — after I had started my own business and had commercial space, commercial rent, a commercial telephone bill and a commercial power bill — that my father’s message came back to me. When I got that first electric bill, I had to pick my mouth up off the floor. How could it be that this tiny space that I inhabited for a mere eight or so hours a day could possibly use that much energy? How could the bill be so high?!

I called my father after paying that first hefty utility bill and admitted that it was only then that I fully understood what he had been attempting to forge into our awareness from as long ago as I can remember. It is much easier to spend a dime than to make one, and harder still (apparently) to save one.

My father had so many things that he did to either save money or generally be frugal, some of which seemed like odd superstitions. For example, whenever he noticed a loose thread on a garment, he would point it out, gently pick it off and put it in his pocket, exclaiming that he had just found money.

Blacks Hopeful About Financial Future

I hadn’t thought much about that idiosyncrasy of his until I recently attended an event during which Prudential presented “The African American Financial Experience 2013.” The financial firm commissioned a detailed survey of more than 1,000 African Americans to examine their spending, saving and retirement patterns.

Among the findings was that black people generally are hopeful. We value education and are often willing to go into debt for higher learning, we believe in buying life insurance to provide for our children more than investing in the stock market and we worry more about debt than preparing for retirement.

Some of the findings in this extensive report were hopeful, and some were worrisome. To bring the study to life, Prudential brought in National Urban League CEO Marc Morial and former CNN financial reporter Valerie Simpson Morris, as well as CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, to unpack the content.

As I Iistened to the lively conversation, I wondered about the here and now for many black people. After the Great Recession, thousands of well-heeled, fully employed black folks lost just about everything. Even those who had socked away three to six months’ worth of savings emptied those coffers long ago if they did not replace the job they lost when the economy tanked. Those very people, many of whom had a plan for the future that included retirement, probably do not believe it is possible today.