Let’s face it: Most of our parents play a major role in how we relate to money. They are often our first financial advisers, ideally giving us thoughtful feedback and guidance on how to handle — and not handle — our personal finance.
My own father was the most important financial literacy teacher I’ve had. His life embodied financial struggle and survival, but he eventually reached a position of strength.
When he came to this country in the mid 1950s — a decade after World War II — “financial literacy” didn’t formally exist. He had been raised in Italy, then a war-ravaged country, where he endured famine, nightly bomb raids, and the wrath of fascism.
All the same, he yearned for a bright future. He was young, hungry for success, and eager to have a shot at the so-called “American dream.” Perhaps most important, he had nothing to lose.
His financial life was an epic journey. He started with empty pockets and ended up as part of the one percent. This group — sometimes vilified, but often comprised of honest and hard- working entrepreneurs — shouldn’t be thrust into the same category as disingenuous businesses that commit fraud. They are not one in the same.
As the president and co-founder of CentSai, a financial literacy platform, I often return to the basic money lessons I learned from my dad. There are no guarantees of financial independence for anyone, but these have helped me along the way:
Don’t Live Beyond Your Means
For several years when my dad was getting his business off the ground — introducing a soil erosion product called a gabion to the United States — he could barely make ends meet. He initially lived in a dank room at the YMCA on 34th Street in New York City, then later in a shoebox apartment in the Bronx.
He had no discretionary income. He had to learn to budget to survive. He watched his expenses like a hawk. This budgetary discipline remained throughout his life. Even when money was no longer an immediate concern, he would still drive past a gas station that was offering gasoline at a price five cents higher than what he would pay elsewhere. “Why should I waste money?” he would ask me. Being young and impatient, I preferred convenience, but watching these small decisions shaped me.
Money matters, and anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn’t worked for it or lives in a utopia.
Hard Work Is Your BFF
My dad knew how to hustle. After establishing a small office on 42nd Street and 6th Avenue in New York, he started driving around the U.S. selling his product. Barely able to speak English, he started pitching it to the forest service, various engineers working for local municipalities, and anyone else who would listen. He would drive across the country several times a month, exhausted but determined to succeed.
As an early-stage entrepreneur, he was responsible for driving his product sales along with another partner. Every new sale or relationship gave him the strength to go further. Twenty years later, his company had grown to about 50 people, who manufactured gabions for Canada and all of the Americas. He retired at 55.
I realize that financial independence is not a top priority for everyone. And unless you win the lottery, it doesn’t happen easily. The news inundates us with supposed overnight successes. We just never hear about the 10 years of sweat, blood, and sacrifice that went in to a venture before it became well known. Keep doing your thing and don’t get distracted or easily discouraged.
You Don’t Need an MBA to Understand Business, But You Do Need Instinct
Nowadays, we are put under so much pressure to become educated in school, and often accrue debt at the start of our professional lives. But my dad did not graduate from college. I think he may have had the equivalent of an associate’s degree. What he did have was drive; charm; the “gift of gab”; and an insatiable curiosity about world events, personal finance, and economics.
He also had a sharp “sixth sense” about business. We all do to some degree. If something doesn’t make sense or seems too good to be true, it likely is. Scammers often prey on people who are afraid to ask questions about money for fear of looking dumb. Whether it’s the fine print on a loan or a return on an investment that doesn’t seem possible, there are no dumb personal finance questions.
Failure Sucks, But Never Let It Stop You
At one point in his career, my dad got kicked out of his own company by his investors. My parents’ car was repossessed. They nearly lost their apartment. For a few months, money became exceedingly tight, and their future looked grim.
Rather than throwing in the towel, my dad found new investors. He let his anger become a catalyst for reinvention, slowly regaining his clients one by one (or stealing them, depending on how you want to look at it). And yes, he enjoyed it.
Financial setbacks happen, and sometimes they are completely unexpected. That’s why protection in the form of insurance and emergency savings is essential, especially in our gig economy. Moreover, hitting some bumps (or craters) in the road does not give you a license to give up. Sure, a handful of people are exceedingly unlucky, but grit, determination, and mindset can take you just about anywhere.
Never Stop Learning About Money
Later in his life, my father became a student of the financial markets. He was completely self-taught, learning through networking, observing, doing, and reading publications such as the Wall Street Journal. There was no democratization of finance like there is today: no internet, no CNBC, and no Jim Kramer.
The markets were played by the elite. Day trading was impossible. But my dad taught himself about various financial instruments and plays: stocks, bonds, treasury-bond laddering, going long or short, hedging, and the relationship between a world event and its financial effect. For example, when bad weather hurt orange crops, he would go long on orange futures, knowing that scarcity creates demand.
Luckily, today people don’t have to learn all of this on their own like my father did. There are many sources of unbiased financial information that can help you make smart decisions. Knowing how to invest, the proper diversification of a portfolio, and how much one needs to live comfortably in retirement are some basics everyone should calculate.
The More You Give, The More You Get
My father was a big believer in paying it forward — in other words, giving to his family or to charity with no strings attached. He gave with great joy. He preferred giving anonymously, as he was a down-to-earth man until the end, and he shied from accolades.
That said, he always made sure he was protected. He kept a low profile and never lost sight of the fact that the world can be a tricky and treacherous place, particularly when it comes to money.
My father would be 91 this Father’s Day. I often wonder what advice he would give me in my current entrepreneurial ventures. One thing is for sure: I am as bullish on financial literacy as my dad was. He just didn’t know it.
This post was written by Doria Lavagnino for CentSai, a financial-literacy platform for millennials and younger Gen Xers to help them make smart financial choices.
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