Clean your plate, save your money, and other controversial concepts our grandparents taught us!

There is a reason why my grandparents’ generation has been called “The Greatest Generation”. My grandparents and their siblings were children during the Depression and young adults during World War II, with many being sent overseas to fight the most epic war in American history (in my opinion). The hardships they endured left them with an amazing amount of wisdom that subsequent generations have greatly benefitted from. Their philosophies on life heavily influenced the upbringing of my parents’ generation and continued to influence my generation.

But the experiences that molded their philosophies happened in the 1920s, 30 and 40s. In light of modern social and economic conditions (the current recession notwithstanding), I think that in some cases we can relax the strict adherence to a few of the “commandments” that our grandparents (and parents) pounded into our heads:

1) Clean your plate! This was life or death during the Depression, but perhaps not the best advice today in the context of the current obesity crisis in this country. The other day I wasn’t as hungry as I had previously thought and as I was scraping my leftovers into the garbage, my wife chastised me about wasting food! While certainly not affluent, we live a comfortable lifestyle, were raised in middleclass households, and have never gone to bed hungry a day in our lives. The offense she took to what I was doing was reflexive, passed down from her grandparents rather than learned through any reality that she had ever experienced. But is it really a sin anymore for you to leave food on your plate if you are full? If only we were wise enough to cook perfect portions or scoop the exact amount on our plates! Occasionally we misjudge.

I am certainly not advocating the wasting of any resources, food or otherwise. I understand how lucky I am to live in the United States and that billions of people around the world are not nearly as fortunate. But given the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country, is it better to let some of that food go to waste rather than force another helping into a kid that is anything but malnourished?

2) Save your money for a rainy day! Let me make this clear; I’m not suggesting that you frivolously blow your savings! But in the eyes of many elderly that I have known, that “rainy day” for which they are diligently saving never arrives. I have had several relatives that passed away while possessing substantial savings accounts and/or money under the mattress, while living incredibly modest lifestyles. They could never bring themselves to spend their money on something frivolous like a Caribbean cruise, a car manufactured post-1985, or a dinner that isn’t featured as the “early bird” special. The next great depression was always looming. While I respect the willpower and discipline required to live this lifestyle, to live and die like a pauper while possessing substantial financial resources is somewhat tragic.

You only have one life, and as the cliché goes, you can’t take it with you. The extreme savers’ reward for passing away with a lot of money is often donating a big chunk of their estate to the government. Is it worse to frivolously blow your money than to hand it over to the government in estate taxes? I’m not sure. Instead of hoarding it, they could have spent it on meaningful things for themselves or gifted it to loved ones and watched them enjoy the fruits of their labor.

As I contemplated this blog topic, it honestly was a little uncomfortable to even consider questioning these concepts that are so ingrained in our culture. It would have been awkward to discuss this with my departed grandfather, the man who was walking around with shrapnel throughout his body from long ago battles on Pacific islands, the man who had to fight with his siblings for scraps from his parents’ plates as a child in rural Kentucky back in the 1920s, the man who passed away wearing patched shoes that were 25 years old while he had stacks of cash stored under his mattress. I’m not sure he would have embraced my 21st century perspective on the core principles that guided his life for 70 years! But I don’t believe that we should unquestioningly live our lives as if the world that shaped these beliefs is still a reality.

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Patricia Paul

This is a very thought provoking topic. As a generation that really has never had to face the types of challenges that our grandparents did, we take for granted that there will always be enough. In likelihood, for some of us, there might not be. With the current economic condition, nothing is really for sure.

You make a great point in that we need to change the way we prepare for the future and how we are going to use our resources in the present. Our grandparents did what they had to do to survive and set a good example for our generation so that we could live the lives we do. Their advice is still very wise but let’s work it into 2011. For instance–on the finishing what’s on your plate and childhood obesity—before finishing what’s on your plate, order or get the portion that is realistic. “Super-sized” seems so great–but do we really need all that food at one sitting. Let’s plan before we make dinner or order and do leftovers instead of throw away because the food has already been on someone’s plate.

As for money in the mattress–you still need to plan for the future and worst case scenario–but there is so much more financial and planning assistance out there than there was in the depression. Search out trusted advisers that can help you put money away for a rainy day and make allowances for where that money should go if you pass from this life and can’t spend it.

Sounds too simplistic when I write it but–my grandparents taught me great lessons–I think that we just have to incorporate those lessons into life in this time.

Bryan Conway JD, PMP

Thanks Patricia! This blog was inspired by the irrational feelings of guilt in scraping about $1 worth of food off of my plate, and asking myself where that guilt originated! The underlying motivation for these principles is very sound, I just think we just need to update the execution to stay relevant in contemporary times.