Note: A version of this article (written by me) was published in MSN Money’s Smart Spending blog in 2009.
Years ago my dad had two teaching jobs: elementary school all day, and an evening gig with adolescents deemed too unruly for regular high school. One evening, a student flipped a penny at him. Dad picked it up and put it in his pocket. The teens laughed, and another one flipped a penny. Then another one.
When my father had 12 cents in his pocket, he said, “Guys, I want to thank you. All I need is 38 more of these and I’m going over to the Fairfield and have a draft beer — on you.”
He could see the horror in their faces: Man, I’m not gonna buy the TEACHER a beer! Not another penny was flung.
That was an example of what he would call a “useful life skill”: realizing that sometimes nontraditional tactics are needed to solve nontraditional situations.
In our culture, fathers are stereotyped as the ones who nag about money and responsibility. Check the Father’s Day greeting card section and you’ll see plenty of references to cash not growing on trees and the need to check one’s oil regularly. You’ll also read a lot about golf, TV remotes and naps.
My dad, Glendon Fisher, had zero interest in sports and rarely had the time to watch television. But he may have invented the power nap, which he called “taking 20.” He’d lean back in the recliner, say “Wake me in 20 minutes,” and fall instantly to sleep.
These brief snatches of shut-eye were a matter of survival, not self-indulgence. My father was and is the hardest-working man I have ever met, except maybe for his own dad — but even that would be a tie.
The fine art of making do
He and my mother married right after high school and had four kids in five years. Dad worked a variety of jobs — glass factory, truck driver, electrician in an auto plant — until he realized that an education would help him create a better future. At age 30 he enrolled in college, the first in his family to do so.
My father delivered newspapers, went to classes, worked various jobs and somehow completed his homework in a small house filled to bursting with four clamorous kids. He did well enough to win a fellowship for a master’s degree in special education. (During that time he got a grant to create math lesson plans, and used some of the money to pay a typist: me, age 12, thrilled to be earning 50 cents a page.)
Summers he either got his old auto factory job back or helped his father, a carpenter, build houses. In his spare time he did tons of improvements on our own home, from plumbing to wiring to remodeling the upstairs. It was years before I realized that most people call a handyman when things go wrong. We had a handyman on staff – that guy taking 20 in the brown recliner.
Other than those little naps, Dad didn’t sit still very often. When he did, it was to do schoolwork, pay bills or write budgets on yellow legal tablets, figuring out how much he could give to the shoe store or the dentist that month.
At times he devised ways to make a little extra: He built a produce stand for our garden surplus, and for a while took the job of recording police tickets for the township. My brother and I ran the produce stand, and at times I helped Dad with the ticket-recording. Once we discovered a ticket for a guy named “George Peed,” which put us both into hysterics — especially after reading the charge, which was “failure to maintain control.”
Mostly, my Dad made do by making do. Requiring lumber for a project, he got permission to tear down an old house. If he needed an extra set of hands, he traded labor with relatives or friends. That is, unless the job could be done by smaller hands.: That “useful life skills” phrase got bandied about quite a bit when he needed us to do things like carry cinder blocks or hold pipes while he soldered them.
Once he bought a two-story Victorian house for $1. That is not a typo. Still in the habit of attending township meetings, he heard a bank’s request to build a parking lot on an adjoining property. A house existed on that parcel. Dad offered to buy it for a buck to save them the trouble and expense of demolition.
He and my grandfather put a new foundation on the site of my childhood home, which had burned down, and then had the house transported there. My brother and his family moved in.
A chance to rest — not that he’s using it
After the house fire (and the divorce that preceded it), Dad sank what money he had into the chicken farm, an 18-acre parcel with a tumbledown farmhouse. For years he worked the two teaching jobs, spent weekends improving the property, and designed a small and extremely energy-efficient house. Eventually he built it on the foundation of the old house, with help from his father, other relatives and friends.
A decent chunk of his acreage is given over to Christmas trees. My father plants 1,000 seedlings every year for a nurseryman who harvests them as needed. He also has a side business of teaching country line dancing. At 76, he dances four nights a week both as work and for fun.
Dad was lucky enough to remarry, a lovely woman named Priscilla who is as thrifty and goal-oriented as he is. Yet neither of them is averse to spending money where it counts: home improvements, vacations (it’s about time!) and caring for family members. Dad poured a lot of money and time into building a small dwelling on his property for my grandparents, who spent winters in Florida and summers in New Jersey. He found a car for a grandchild who was having problems and, when it broke down, gave her rides to work.
When I was at my lowest point financially Dad made a trip to Seattle. During the visit we went to a warehouse club and he treated me to canned goods, sacks of flour, sugar and pinto beans, and 100 postage stamps. He also threw in several rolls of duct tape, because he believes in being prepared.
That’s why he and Priscilla have a generator, years’ worth of firewood cut and stacked, a cellar stocked with canned and dried goods, and a freezer full of foodstuffs bought on sale. (It was during a visit with them that I came up with the phrase “stealth stock-up.”) They plant a vegetable garden every year, too. If push comes to shove, he says, he can “tell the world to go scratch.”
My father taught me a lot, and always by example: how to make do, how to figure your way around a problem if you can’t go through it, and, most of all, that you should never give up.
Oh, and how to pick up pennies. Some things are just bred in the bone.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Live it up: Take 40 or 60 if you feel like it.