Friday, May 24, 2024

Joyce Levy talks through a trip to a grocery store in Berkeley, Calif., with son David Levy. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, I was asked what my parents taught me about money.

The latest lesson about money I’ve learned from my mother: Maybe you’re not as retired as you think.

Mom raised a family, ran a restaurant and taught special-needs kids for a while and she and my dad retired comfortably on a nice pile of money generated during his adventures in suburban aerospace. Then came the Great Recession. A shocking amount of their retirement money disappeared, and mom, at 73, took on part-time work — running errands for, reading to and generally taking of, well, the elderly.

She keeps this up even though the improving economy and a switch in advisers has returned much of the lost wealth to my parents’ financial statements. That suggests a lesson about, rather than from, my mother, namely that she’s as much of a workaholic as the rest of the family. There was nothing about their retirement lifestyle that really demanded she worked; they could have continued on comfortably even without the income.

But she works nonetheless, a contribution that ensures, even though she’s working, she can also really relax.

Others lessons in money management came from both parents, which in retrospect is impressive. I don’t remember my parents arguing about money; in what might be another good lesson, they were aligned in their approach to credit, debt and spending: modesty. We didn’t have crazy vacations or the finest of things, at least until the Macintosh came out and I discovered The Thing We Spent Money On. Every family has one of these, right? I grew up knowing the Beaumonts, who lived like the Manhattan Beach, Calif., version of the Joads except for their bright, fashionable, seasonally appropriate and eternally renewed preppie wear. They always looked they were coming from or going to the country club, but I think the dinners they dressed for were mainly crackers and water. (It kept them thin.) Other families might scrimp and save but travel, get season tickets for the Dodgers or have the best cars.

Our family’s addiction clearly wasn’t nice cars. We were reminded that Nissan had been Datsun long after the rest of my hometown had forgotten. But dad didn’t skimp on computers, printers and software — an addiction my mom never complained about, maybe because it was one of the few splurges that could be justified by our future employability. When I went to college, no one knew desktop publishing and page design software like I did, and I retained the advantage up through last year. (Now no one cares. Thanks, Internet!)

Even when bringing home the latest laptop, though, the shopping was either done with cash or paid off immediately. Levys will be damned if they pay interest on their purchases, and while that may mean driving a somewhat pathetic and underpowered Datsun station wagon for more years than seems possible, it also means great credit that makes other, bigger things possible when those monthly payments are truly unavoidable. I think my dad was finally forced at gunpoint to pay off the mortgage on our house, so much was he enjoying the tax advantages from it. The bank conned him into coming down — something about a cake — and ambushed him when he walked in.

More recently my parents have been talking bluntly about the best ways of passing on their assets when they die, which somehow they make come across as reasonable instead of morbid. It’s another way I recognize that, even though none of us wound up rich, my dad and mom have already passed on a wealth of the other kind of value.