A Lifetime of Financial Wisdom from My Mother

Originally published in the May issue of 50+ Living of Western NC

My mom, Wilma Scott Boatwright, is eighty-five now, but I guarantee that she still balances her checkbook with greater precision than I do each month.  As a child growing up in Waynesville, I probably didn’t realize that she had any special financial savvy.  Facing significant decisions about money as an adult has certainly made me appreciate just how acute her financial senses have always been.  Had she been born one generation later, she would have excelled in my profession of financial planning.  With Mother’s Day upon us, I took the opportunity of interviewing my mom about her life from a financial perspective, and about the financial wisdom that she would like to pass on.

My mom was born and raised on a 96-acre farm in Smyth County, Virginia, about twenty minutes from Interstate 81.  When I asked how money was managed in her family, her answer was succinct:  “Well, we had very little money to manage—very, very little.  The main income came in the late summer/early fall when we sold the beef cattle.”  Her parents made that income last all year by being incredibly frugal.  “We raised most of the food we ate, and our fuel came from the farm—the wood from the mountains.  We didn’t have an electric bill until the 1940s—that’s when the electric line came down Teas Road.”

My mom doesn’t remember specific financial lessons that her parents tried to teach her, but she does have great stories about how their thrift and hard work impacted her.  “I remember when Mom would take the eggs to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Marion.  Afterwards, we would go over to the Marion Drug Store that was diagonally across the street, and she would let me have ten cents’ worth of cashews out of a machine.  That was so special!  I can still smell that.”

I was curious whether my mom remembered financial distinctions among the people that grew up in her farming valley.  “There were families that, now, I realize, had more land and cattle and more money, but, then, there was no distinction.  We were at church with them and that’s who our friends were.  There was no caste system, and everybody was pretty much equal.”

Society was certainly patriarchal in those days, but it was my grandmother who owned the first car in the family.  She had worked in an ammunition factory during World War II, and continued to work in a school cafeteria after that, and had what my mom called “little side projects” on the farm, like raising and selling turkeys.  All of that work added up, over time, to enough for the car that my mom used to drive to her first teaching job in Marion.

My mom was the first in her family to attend college.  She arrived at what is now Radford University having never seen it before, even though it’s only about seventy miles from the farm.  At first, her plan was to complete a two-year secretarial course, but she continued on to get a bachelor’s degree.  Before and during my dad’s residency training in Richmond, my mom taught high school business courses—her first year salary was $2,400!—and took evening and Saturday classes to earn her master’s degree in business.

For my parents’ entire marriage, my mother was the one keeping the books.  When I asked how she and Dad decided that she would be the bookkeeper, she said “[t]here was no discussion that I remember.  Since I was business and he was medicine, each one just did his own thing.”  When I asked whether she had taken some accounting courses that helped her, she was indignant:  “I taught accounting!”  Duly noted.

My parents were always savers first and not big believers in credit.  When I asked what sort of mortgage they had on their first home in Waynesville, in 1961, the answer was that they didn’t have one.  The house had cost $12,000.  How had they managed to save that much during my father’s residency, with my mom teaching school?  The answer, not surprisingly, was work and controlled spending.  “While we were in Richmond, Bob had two jobs.  He did the residency job and then, on weekends, he did autopsies for the medical examiner and Johnston-Willis Hospital.  We didn’t spend a lot of money living in Richmond.”  Mom remembered that her own parents had the same attitude toward credit:  “My Mom and Dad never bought anything ‘on time.’  The fertilizer, they wouldn’t buy it until they had money.  Without having the money, they didn’t buy anything.”

My mom wouldn’t want anyone to believe that she was always level-headed in financial decisions, but even her departures from fully rational thought often had not-horrible endings.  I had her re-tell a story that has been family legend since the 1970s.  “Maggie Valley had these auction houses, mainly for the tourists.  Libby Kauffman and some other ladies, we decided we’d go out to Maggie Valley one night for the auction.  We had been before and bought, like, dish towels for a dollar.  And that night, as they usually did, they passed around pieces of jewelry for everyone to examine.  They passed around this solitaire diamond ring—it was beautiful.  Just out of the blue sky I decided to bid on it and ended up buying it for $400.  It made me sick to my stomach after I had done it.  I couldn’t believe what I had done.  When I wrote the check, they knew I was scared to death.  The auctioneer said, ‘That’s okay, we’ll give you twenty-four hours and, if you decide you don’t want it, just bring it on back and we’ll give you your money back.’  So I went back home, and of course Bob was asleep.  I woke him up from a deep sleep and told him what I’d done.  I was in such a state that he laughed.  He said, ‘We’ll just count it as an investment.’  The next day, I was determined to find out how much I had overpaid, so I drove to Asheville and had the ring appraised.  It appraised for within $25 of what I had paid for it—I think $25 more.  But I took it back anyway.  And what do you think it would be worth now?  Thousands of dollars, I guess.  So that’s one bad decision I made.”

Our daughter, Harper, was with me when I was quizzing Mom, so asking for advice that she wanted to pass on to the next generation was a natural ending point for our discussion.  Her answer was equal parts clear-headed and sentimental.  “I think you need to study business some.  Because a lot of times, people that go into a profession, like medicine, don’t have much background in business.  So, even though they may have a good income, they don’t have any experience in business to go along with it . . . .  I hope that when I’m gone, you will take good care of the farm so you can pass it along to the next generation.  That’s really important to me.  Be good stewards of the land.”