(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.
So all of the hopeful and important conversations about learning to invest wisely and teaching your children how to save as early as age 3, according to Morris, were great but did not address the shame, fear and floundering of the newly broke. I wanted to know, what bridge can be erected to draw these folks over to the highly skilled financial planners who may be able to help them? Or what hope can be presented to them concretely to help them believe that it is even possible for them to turn the corner toward economic stability and potential growth?
Naturally, one answer was to save something, anything, now — preferably using savings instruments that are designed to yield more than the cost of living. A little can add up to a lot if you save it consistently. That is a worthwhile point, and one that many do not believe they can afford to do during these lean times — even though they must if they expect to change their fortune, or so the experts say. Another point Morial made is that trust has to be developed between adviser and client in order for the relationship to stand a chance at blossoming.
Helpful Tips From the Depression
As Morial pondered my questions, he reflected on something else that just may resonate in a realistic and tangible way. He spoke about his parents, who were Depression-era babies — just like mine. He suggested that we might take a page out of their book. He said his mother considered it a sin to waste food. Not a morsel of food was ever to find its way into the trash can. Something creative needed to happen in the kitchen so that the hambone or extra bit of vegetables was turned into a meal that could warm hungry bellies.
Morial later told me that he was at a fancy restaurant the other day where a fried ball of something yummy was being served. He learned that it was fried grits — a dish his mother had made all the time when the dry, extra bits of grits in the pan no longer worked so well as breakfast but transformed perfectly into a snack!
We sat riveted listening to Morial's stories, like how his father and mother never threw out any bag that came in the house. Each was carefully saved and repurposed later. Same for fabric. You did not throw out clothes, sheets, towels or string. Everything could be reused. He said that his daddy had a big ole bag of string that he had collected over time that was used for a variety of purposes.
As I listened to Morial speak with such passion about the ways in which his New Orleans family had honored every single thing that crossed their family threshold, I thought about the way that most of us live now. First of all, we are bombarded by advertisements luring us to purchase something, anything and everything in order to make us more beautiful, lovable, worthy.
Compared with people in much of the developing world, most Americans live with excess, even the more modest among us. Ask yourself, how many pairs of shoes do you have, versus how many you need? Same for beauty products, bed and bath items, furniture, cars. You get it. I know I do. My husband sometimes calls me a spendthrift. I admit that I have a lot of things.
Recently I went to a swap-and-shop event where other women who have a lot of things get together, have fun and trade their no-longer-desirables for somebody else's. We had a blast, and we didn't spend any money. The concept of bartering for what you need or want is largely lost on our society. But it isn't too late to bring it back.
A friend and I are considering taking this concept to another level and creating our own kind of sample sale, a favorite in the fashion industry, where designers sell their excess merchandise at super-discounted prices. Why can't we gather a group of peers and sell off our extras, earn some much-needed cash and enjoy great fellowship?
I'm not saying that we will be able to magically turn the tide of our economy by adopting the frugality of Great Depression babies or that we can do so without the aid of financial-industry experts. But I feel confident that if we begin to accept reality — namely, that today, at least, there are fewer resources for most people, and we have to deal with that rather than fantasize about the pot of plenty at the end of the rainbow — we stand a greater chance of being more financially stable.
My father has been gone for many years now, but his wisdom lives on in my being. I have never been afraid to work hard. I now religiously turn out the lights — at home and at work. I think I am going to adopt my daddy's practice of keeping $100 bills in an old sock that he used to hide in a wall inside his office at home — for rainy days. (Don't worry, Prudential, that didn't mean he decided to forgo using more traditional financial tools. As your study pointed out, my father invested his hard-earned dollars in conservative savings instruments. Thanks to your research, I intend to be a little more risky.) I distinctly remember my mother pulling the sock out of its wall space and being happy to have the several thousand dollars as the various unexpected bills flowed in immediately after his death.
What stands out in my memory the most right now, though, is when I was sitting with my family at my father's burial site. My father, the honorable Harry A. Cole, was a distinguished judge in Maryland. Because he had served as a lieutenant in the Army in World War II, his funeral service included a 21-gun salute.
At the grave site, I watched the American flag being carefully laid upon his shiny coffin. In the stillness of that moment, I noticed a tiny white piece of thread lying across the bright red of one of the flag's stripes. After a bit, I stood up and walked over to the coffin and carefully picked up that thread. I still have it safely stored today. It was and is a reminder of my father's belief that every thread is valuable.
Somehow I think that if we adopt that philosophy today, it will help us to weather this economic landscape and pave a better path for tomorrow. Oh, yes, and if we enlist the support of professionals who can help us make smart decisions with our resources, who knows where we will end up?
Harriette Cole is the president of Harriette Cole Media and a contributing editor for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.