Members of the Greatest Generation are famous for their frugal habits, sometimes to the frustration of their Baby Boomer kids. It can be hard to understand why Mom or Dad refuse to part with Ziploc bags and empty shoeboxes, or why they will not buy something nice for themselves. Many of us recognize that these habits probably evolved after being raised in a time of true scarcity – the Great Depression. What I didn’t know until recently was how this money mentality was reinforced by our government throughout World War II. A baby boomer friend recently showed me a historic relic I had only read about but never seen: a war ration coupon book, issued in 1943. It belonged to his mother, born in 1928.
The language and tone on the ration book is striking. Authoritarian, even threatening. If you had been a young person holding this ration book, what money messages might you have received? My own thoughts, if it were me at that time, are below.
“Rationing is a vital part of your country’s war effort. Any attempt to violate the rules is an effort to deny someone his share and will create hardship and help the enemy.” (Yikes! Both of those sound pretty bad. I’ll comply.)
“This book is your Government’s assurance of your right to buy your fair share of certain goods made scarce by war. Price ceilings have been established for your protection. Dealers must post these prices conspicuously. Don’t pay more.” (Those evil dealers/merchants. They’re always trying to get us to pay more than what’s fair.)
“Be guided by the rule: ‘If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.’ ” (Right! I got through the last ten years with one pair of shoes; the next pair can last that long, too.)
Contrast the last message to the one to “go shopping” following the 9/11 attacks. The word “ration” itself is used 9 times on the outside of the book, plus on every stamp in the book. Other scarcity terms pervade: “This book is valuable. Do not lose it.” “Without the stamps you will be unable to purchase those goods.” “Do not throw this book away…You may be required to present it…”
You may ask what self-respecting Americans would have put up with this rationing garbage. Yet, at the time, the government had been given credit for bringing us out of the Depression. We had been attacked by Japan, and German U-boats were off our coastlines. Who else would you turn to for protection? If you wanted “rationed goods,” (many of them household staples), the government was the provider, unless you wanted to risk a $10,000 fine (a lot of money now, and in 1943?), imprisonment, or both. Stiff penalties awaited noncompliant rule-breakers. From this place of fear, a message of scarcity to a Depression-battered generation must have seemed natural, even patriotic.
Money messages from authority make the most impact in our formative years, and in times of fear. It depends on who we view at the time as authority: parents, teachers, coaches, pulpits, and government. In response, we adapt the best habits we can in the interest of self-preservation. The trick is to continue to ask ourselves, as times change, are these habits still serving us well? Are they helping us lead a happy, fulfilling life, enhancing relationships with those around us? Or are they keeping us trapped by unhealthy attachment to money, possessions, or fear itself?
Need help identifying your money messages? Try books by Rick Kahler, CFP, Brad Klontz, Ph.D., and Ted Klontz, Ph.D., and read Chapter 2 of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future.