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Money lessons from Babcia, Dziadek

In honor of Dyngus Day, that most merry of Polish celebrations, I’ve decided to share some of the money lessons I learned from my Polish grandparents.

They lived through the Great Depression and were the children of immigrants. That gave them unique perspectives on how to handle money and how to live a full, happy, stable life.

They were frugal, but they also knew how to have a good time. And they never missed an opportunity to share their wisdom with me.

Don’t lend more money than you can afford to lose. Countless neighbors, friends and distant family members went to my grandparents for “loans” of $20 here, $200 there. My grandparents had had their share of rough times, so they never wanted to turn away anyone who was in trouble or needed help.

Lots of those people paid my grandparents back. Lots of them didn’t. That didn’t keep them from giving abundantly, but it taught me to be discerning.

The Joneses are idiots. Buying stuff they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t know. Why the heck would anyone want to keep up with the Joneses?

My grandpa actually pitied people who bought brand new cars. All of his cars were refurbished ones that other people had junked at my uncle’s salvage yard. When I started college, he gave me his 1986 Plymouth Reliant. It was loud, old and had rust holes in the floor big enough to lose your purse through. But it also started up every time – even in the dead of winter – and got amazing gas mileage.

Was I jealous of my friend’s Honda CR-X at the time? Sure. But not two years later when I had a pile of cash in the bank and she still had a car note.

Wealth in real life doesn’t always look like wealth on TV. My grandparents’ house didn’t look like the ones I saw on “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Actually, it was more like something out of “Sanford and Son.”

But the bills were always paid, there was food on the table and there was always money in the bank. Actually, there was always money in the freezer, because they didn’t trust banks.

The Fudgsicle tastes better if you have to work for it. My grandpa wouldn’t allow himself to spend a cent until he had earned and saved $100. When he finally made his first hundred, he indulged in a five-cent Fudgsicle. It was the best one he’d ever tasted.

Gardens are the gift that keep giving. My grandmother’s garden fed my whole family throughout the summer. Her homemade jams and canned tomatoes fed us the rest of the year. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but cherries and apples do, and we always had plenty of both.

“Bože’s gonna help.” That’s what my grandma said every time I called her in tears about something. Her pep talk always included the assurance that Bože – God – was going to take care of things.

There was a picture of Pope John Paul II in her living room, an Infant of Prague on the windowsill and a Black Madonna upstairs. When she wasn’t wailing an exasperated “Oy Jezus!” or praying to “Tony” (St. Anthony) to help her find something she’d misplaced, she was thanking Bože.

And even though she stopped going to Our Lady of Czestochowa years before she died, her friends and family in the parish were a strong support system. Her faith gave her the kind of peace that money can’t buy.


My grandparents were frugal, but they knew how to have a good time.