Health & Medicine

It could be worse — and it has been

I was talking with a friend last week, catching up on all the years we had not been in contact, when the conversation turned to the economy and our wallets.

We are both journalists, but his job in Mississippi seems more secure than mine here in Lexington.

Still, he was more worried and completely stressed out about it.

At 48, he isn't married but he has a daughter in college. He has traveled the world covering sports but hasn't managed to save much money.

He was telling me that his credit score couldn't get any lower and that these are the worst economic times he has ever seen.

Oh, no, I said. There have been far worse times.

I told him about the times when mortgage interest rates could be as high as 17 percent, and how my husband and I were blessed some 25 years ago to get a mortgage rate of 103/4 percent.

Hard times, I said, were when I went without a meal as a single mother to ensure my daughter ate. Hard times were when I paid $20 for a good pair of shoes that I then wore for the two years it took to finish my degree at the University of Kentucky.

He didn't agree. We ended the conversation on good terms but with no indication he was willing to sacrifice anything to have better credit.

But there have been far worse times than these. My parents lived through one called the Great Depression. So did Cara Richards' parents.

Richards, anthropology professor emeritus at Transylvania University, said she was about 7 or 8 when she received her first lesson in economics.

While doing her homework in the kitchen, Richards sometimes would see her mother taking the family's daily earnings and divvying it up among several envelopes that were kept safely in a box. It was 1934 or 1935, Richards recalled.

"My parents both taught private singing lessons in New York," she said, "and when they came home in the evening, my mother would go in and sit at the kitchen table with a box full of envelopes. One was for gas or a car. One said rent. At the time, we were renting."

Other envelopes were the studio rental in New York City, insurance and food.

"She would take the money, the cash, and put it out on the table and divvy it up depending on what was needed," Richards said. Anything left over was for bus and subway fares to New York from their home in Bayonne, N.J., and for food.

When her parents decided they needed a new sofa, they started a new envelope.

In other words her parents, like mine, planned for their bills and then paid them.

My mother kept jars and envelopes in her dresser drawer, and when my father brought home his pay, she separated it out. I remember one jar was for taxes and she began filling it again right after taxes had been paid.

Whatever happened to that mind-set?

Our parents lived and survived by patience, the one virtue they had in abundance. And even when times got better, they never changed.

"I learned first of all that money was scarce, that it had to be parceled out and not to budget for anything that hadn't been planned for," Richards said.

One of her first gifts was a savings bank in the form of a cash register. She saved her dimes diligently in that bank until Christmas, when she would buy presents with them.

Her parents bartered for the things they couldn't afford. They wanted dance lessons for her, so they traded singing lessons for them.

These are tough times, granted, but they are survivable. Our parents and grandparents made it through. So can we.

John Rosevear, a contributor to the Motley Fool, an investment publication and Web site, advises us that "now is an excellent time to skip the business section of the paper, turn off CNBC, and go for a walk or something instead. The market's story will unfold whether we're paying attention to it or not."