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Guess What? My Boomer Parents Were Right About Money

Here's what they taught me about saving.

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My baby boomer parents knew how to stretch a dollar. Juggling three kids, a mortgage and a couple of car loans on a middle-class income in the late ’90s was an exercise in frugality. 

We grew up hearing “Money doesn’t grow on trees” like every other kid. But when my older brother suggested our dad get more “free” money out of the ATM, the true money management lessons began. 

From my folks’ perspective, teaching healthy financial habits would have a positive influence on us as adults. That worked out pretty well for my brothers and me (here I am writing about personal finance). But not everyone in my generation shares that experience. Over 34% of Gen Zers say their parents did not set a good financial example for them, according to WalletHub’s Generational Finances survey

Younger generations face many objective obstacles that make it difficult for them to be financially successful, including rising living costs, student debt and high inflation. Still, it’s never too late to build solid money management skills to help your future self. 

Everything I know about saving I learned from my parents 

When I was 15, I pitched the idea of studying abroad in Ecuador through the local Rotary Club. My brother had done it a decade earlier in Chile, so my parents weren’t shocked by the idea. However, before I approached them, I made sure I was fully prepared: I had already been accepted to the program and had the funding lined up. I was ready to be fiscally responsible and autonomous, and it was all due to their money lessons over the years. 

Little did I know that the tips and mentorship from my boomer parents would translate beautifully to my career as a personal finance writer. So, I sat down with my folks to talk about what they taught us about money growing up. 

Tip 1: Pay your bills before you pay yourself

Every time I get paid, I hear my mom’s voice saying, “Pay your bills before you pay yourself.” I’ve carried this message with me because it emphasizes the importance of sticking to a budget. 

“Budgeting was a regular household activity because we didn’t want you to think of it as a chore,” said Kelley Hall, aka my mom. “It was normal to sit down and talk about our goals because we wanted you to visualize the payoff.” 

To this day, I feel more in control of my finances through budgeting (I use the classic pen-and-paper approach, but many of my CNET Money colleagues prefer budgeting apps). I start by setting aside a portion of my paycheck to cover the necessities: rent, utilities, groceries and student loans. Then, whatever is left is my discretionary income for nonessential items.

Tip 2: Distinguish wants from needs 

I used to cry in the backseat of my mom’s minivan because I wanted the trendy thing everyone at school was raving about. My mom would patiently say: “I want a lot of things, but do I need them?” I probably didn’t understand the sentiment back then, but my mom had an excellent point. No, I didn’t need Ugg boots in July in Texas. 

Now, whenever I see something new or scroll through Amazon, I constantly ask myself if the coveted item is a want or a need. To avoid overspending, I usually let a potential purchase simmer for 24 hours before I cash out. It also helps me set long-term goals if there’s a new pair of shoes (i.e., Doc Martens) I actually want to save for. 

Tip 3: Build credit, not debt

When I went to college, my parents encouraged me to get my first credit card because they wanted me to understand the importance of building credit. But my mom also made sure I wasn’t abusing the card by spending what I didn’t have. 

“I used to always tell you not to use your credit card unless you know you can pay it off in two payments,” my mom said. “If you get stuck in a cycle of just paying the minimum payment, you’ll end up building debt and not credit.” 

Today, in my late 20s, I only charge what I know I can cover and repay in full. If I start using my credit card when I don’t have the funds to pay it off, I’ll be hit with steep interest charges. And the last thing I want is debilitating credit card debt. 

Tip 4: Don’t touch your savings 

I didn’t have a piggy bank growing up. Instead, I had a giant mason jar with a map stuffed inside because I was obsessed with traveling the world. For years, I’d fill the jar with loose change and any money I made from babysitting gigs or household chores. Eventually, my parents got me a savings account. 

“That was probably your very first lesson on savings,” my mom said. “You were around 10 years old and saw the value in setting money aside for a big goal.” 

Today, I keep my savings account separate from my everyday checking account because we’re less inclined to spend what we don’t see. If I was looking at a mason jar full of cash every day, I would be tempted to spend it and not save for an emergency. 

Tip 5: Manage your debts so they’re easier to handle

When I applied for financial aid for college, I remember feeling quite anxious about taking on debt. Even though I wouldn’t have to pay my student loan debt for many years, I thought about the logistics of paying off that balance. That’s when my parents started talking to me about debt management. 

My dad remembers what his father told him as a kid: Your money is supposed to work for you. “That piece of advice can be applied to a lot of things, even debt,” said Chuck Hall, aka my dad. My dad passed on my grandfather’s wisdom to me. If you have debt, don’t avoid it. Make it a regular part of your budgeting so it’s more manageable. 

One way I manage my debt is by negotiating the due dates on my recurring bills. This helps me spread out my payments so I’m not broke right after my paycheck hits my checking account. 

Listen to… your parents? 

Baby boomers own more than 50% of the wealth in the US. Sure, they’ve had a longer time to grow their wealth, and they grew up experiencing a booming economy that allowed them to benefit from things like lower housing costs.

Our parents were right to say money doesn’t grow on trees, and it’s worth listening. This generation might still try planting some seeds. But knowing Gen Z, there’s an app for that.

Liliana Hall is a writer for CNET Money covering banking, credit cards and mortgages. Previously, she wrote about personal credit for Bankrate and She is passionate about providing accessible content to enhance financial literacy. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in journalism, and has worked in the newsrooms of KUT and the Austin Chronicle. When not working, she is probably paddle boarding, hopping on a flight or reading for her book club.
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