We Can Learn to Live within Our Means


My story begins in 1913 when a pretty Idaho school marm (my mother) fell in love with the handsome young teacher across the hall (my father). Dad had little to offer his bride besides himself, $40 in savings, and a willingness to work hard. But he had been offered a job as the first principal of a new high school in a little town nearby, so they were married. They borrowed $120 to add to the $40; bought a brass bed, a sturdy table and chairs, and a few other small items; and set out in Grandpa’s hay wagon to begin their life together.

Dad was an ambitious young man. He was not only principal of the high school, but religion class superintendent, postmaster, school trustee, and village clerk as well. Then, when the only general store in town burned down, Dad saw an opportunity to make his fortune by opening another—not, by the way, in place of his other responsibilities, but in addition to them. Mother could mind the store while he was at work. It would be a surefire cinch. So they borrowed the money to purchase and fix up an abandoned building, mortgaged what little property they owned to buy the goods, and went into business, looking forward to a happy and prosperous future.

Because Mother and Dad were scrupulously honest, they assumed everyone else was. So they extended easy credit to friends, relatives, and anyone else who asked for it. And they felt confident that their customers would all pay the mounting bills. When many did not, the young couple found themselves under an impossible burden of debt and very anxious to get out of the general store business. A friend offered help, which they gratefully accepted. But they were shocked when he sold their goods at a mere fraction of their actual value. “Now you can declare bankruptcy and be totally out of it,” their friend explained. But Dad couldn’t feel good about treating his creditors as he had been treated, so he arranged instead a long-term schedule of repayment. Although it took many years of skimping and sacrifice, Mother and Dad paid off their debt to the last penny.

This incident happened years before I was born. But it has profoundly influenced my life, for it gave my parents some rather strong views on financial planning and money management. For one, my father for ever after felt that the only legitimate reasons for borrowing money were (1) to further his professional training or (2) to buy a home. An even more basic influence was that my parents no longer equated success with money. They wanted to have sufficient for their basic needs. But they felt they could be happier by finding ingenious ways of working together to make what they had go further than they could by going off in all directions to increase their income. They budgeted their money carefully, foregoing some “necessities” they could do without in order to enjoy the luxuries that were important to them.

Dad had discovered the work he loved. And, though he knew it would never make him wealthy, we children grew up believing it to be the noblest of professions. He spent the next seventeen years working toward his dream of becoming the best he could possibly be in his chosen field of education. He was a teacher in the winters, a student in the summers. My very earliest childhood memory is of living in a big tent up on the Utah State University campus, probably one of the earliest versions of student housing.

There were five of us children by the time we moved to Berkeley in the early 1930s. Mom and Dad had finally saved enough for the last big hurdle—a doctorate in education. But Dad had barely begun his school year when the bank where our savings were deposited went under. There would be no funds forthcoming. Hating to give up the goal they had dreamed of for so long, my parents considered alternatives, then decided it was now or never. Dad was sure they could make it; Mother was willing to try. So Dad tutored handicapped children in their homes and became principal of a night vocational school. And he still managed to achieve his desired degree with honors.

Interestingly, I never realized we were poor. I remember the fun times: birthdays, picnics, hikes where Mother would tell us the names of all the flowers. I remember making excursions to the zoo, putting on plays with my brothers and sisters, threading beautiful necklaces of shells on the beach or of fragrant eucalyptus buds on the university campus. And, oh, how we loved the hours Mother, and sometimes Dad, would read aloud to us everything from Mother Goose to Shakespeare.

Of necessity, all the girls learned to sew. We learned to darn socks, bake bread, put up fruit, and cook the less expensive cuts of meat. Family projects taught us to paint, hang wallpaper, upholster furniture. And we learned to think these things were fun! We went to plays and concerts and sang together around the piano. And we were each encouraged to develop our talents, through music lessons and other kinds of lessons as our interests developed.

Certainly no one could have had a happier childhood. I considered my father an enormous success. I knew he was loved and respected by all who knew him because that’s the way people treated me as his daughter. I was quite surprised to learn, years later, that my father’s top salary at the very height of his profession was the same as my eldest daughter earned in her first job as an inexperienced secretary. I also learned years later from my mother’s journal that Dad was offered a much more lucrative position in another state, but he chose, instead, to live in the place he felt would be best for his family. In his tiny memorandum calendar for that year, I found in Dad’s handwriting this statement of his priorities: “We made the move that we might translate the truths of the gospel into our lives. Whatever else we gain, we fail if this objective is left undone.”

My husband was also reared in a humble, happy home. What a blessing! For we were able to face years of schooling with confidence. We set about having our family with faith and enthusiasm, knowing we could manage. And we were never happier than when our little family was struggling to make ends meet in our reconverted army-barracks, student-housing apartment.

Out of my life’s experience, I have gained some strong views of my own on the subject of money management. First, I believe that we usually can learn to live within our means. And the skills, creativity, and imagination we develop in learning to do so will be a blessing in many ways. Financial struggles can be extremely challenging. But the love, contentment, and fun we can find in life need not be limited by a tight budget. How grateful I am for lessons my parents taught me.

[illustration] Illustrated by Scott Greer

Margaret F. Richards, mother of twelve children, is a writer for Church Curriculum Planning and Development.