Lessons in personal finance often come from unexpected places, Washington, D.C., obviously, not being one of them.
A favorite picture of my mother shows her standing on a barren snow-covered prairie. The snow is so deep and has drifted so high it nearly touches the sloping roofline of a barn in the background.
My mother is all of 20 and has on a stylish A-line coat with a double row of buttons and an oversized collar. She's standing in the snow wearing heels, bare legs protruding beneath the hemline of the coat, and bare hands sticking out from the sleeves.
My father explained that in their first year of marriage they thought they should both have a new coat. So they bought coats. But they didn't have enough money left over for boots and gloves.
"What did you do?" I asked.
"This!" he said laughing, pointing at the picture. "We went without!"
Lesson No. 1: If you can't afford it, you can't buy it.
Many economists have been saying that the U.S. population has been going through an era of "luxury fever." We finance our consumption by reducing savings and increasing debt. We see, we want, we buy usually with plastic.
A second lesson in money came from the husband, who is a bean counter, not by trade, but by nature. During our first several years of marriage, he suggested we keep a ledger of every penny we spent. Star-crossed and giddy girl that I was, I agreed. We tracked every last dime: rent, clothes, utilities, gasoline, oil changes, parking meters, vending machines, movies and eating out.
Having come across that ledger in recent years, I gasp at how often we ate out. It seems rash now, but at the time we were both making good money, both working more than 50 hours a week and one of us usually had a salad, so it wasn't all that expensive. Each year we knew exactly how much we'd spent in some 19 categories.
Lesson No. 2: Know where your money goes.
A third sound lesson came from Uncle Bob. Every family should have an Uncle Bob charming, witty and razor sharp. Uncle Bob likes to further his graduate studies in probabilities, as he puts it, often laboring long into the night at establishments in Las Vegas or New Orleans.
Several years ago, unknown to the husband and myself, one of the kids sent Uncle Bob a 10 dollar bill, requesting he play it on her behalf at the Black Jack table. Uncle Bob responded that he would not take the 10 to Vegas, but he personally doubled the kid's money, giving her a 100 percent return. (He also said it was a one-time offer, not valid for her siblings who might also try to cash in on the deal.)
Uncle Bob then delivered Lesson No. 3: Young people shouldn't gamble and that there is no return like the guaranteed return on compounded interest.
From a picture, a ledger and a gambler some of the most sound financial advice on Main Street.