As Veterans’ Day approaches, we honor some of our oldest living wartime veterans. Members of the “Greatest Generation” are famous for many things, and to their adult kids, it’s often been their frugality. “Money messages” are habits and attitudes we all have about money. To Baby Boomer and Gen X 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 these habits evolved during a time of true scarcity – the Great Depression. What I didn’t know until recently was how this money mentality was reinforced by the government throughout World War II. Below is a historic relic I came across: a war ration coupon book, issued in 1943. It belonged to my late mother-in-law, Betty Donaldson, born in 1928.
What Are Ration Books?
What are ration books? In the midst of World War II, because so many of the U.S.’s resources were diverted into producing military hardware, shortages arose in everyday food and household goods. The government issued ration coupon books to fairly distribute food and goods.
You might wonder, “What self-respecting American would have put up with this rationing garbage?” Remember that at the time, government programs had brought tens of millions out of the Depression. Hawaii had been attacked by Japan. German U-boats were off our coastlines. More Americans felt they were “in this together,” and the government, whether trusted or not, was the only option to coordinate the national response.
Government and Scarcity
On the ration book, the language and tone is striking. If you had been a 15-year-old like Betty, holding this ration book, what money messages might you have received?
“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.” (Money Message: There is only so much to go around. Taking more than your fair share is selfish and downright dangerous.)
“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.” (Money Message: Dealers/businesspeople can be greedy. Be vigilant about prices.)
“Be guided by the rule: ‘If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.’ ” (Money Message: You only need to buy what you need. Your wants, wishes, and dreams aren’t in the equation.)
The word “ration” is used 9 times on the outside of the book, plus on every stamp in the book. Other scarcity messages 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…”
Stiff penalties awaited noncompliant rule-breakers: $10,000 (in 1943?!?), imprisonment, or both. From this place of fear, a money message of scarcity to a Depression-battered generation must have seemed natural, even patriotic.
Contrasting Messages to Spend
Compare the ration book messages to the ones we have heard from government over the past 40-50 years, but especially since the 9/11 attacks – “Go shopping.” “We need consumers to spend.” On top of all our consumer advertising, we’re hardly lacking incentives to want more and spend more.
Right now there are, sadly, other incentives to hold off. Many people don’t feel confident enough in their financial futures to loosen the pursestrings. After the financial crisis of 2008 and again in 2020, Americans’ savings rate overall have increased. As a whole, and though unevenly distributed, we have a glut of cash sitting in bank and money market accounts, not being spent.
What Messages Will Today’s Youngest Absorb?
Money messages make the most impact at two times: in our formative years, and in times of fear. They sink in from people who we view at the time as legitimate authority: parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, and/or government, by watching whose actions match their messages.
What messages are today’s youngest generations receiving? A lot of fear-based ones. While hearing that spending is needed to keep businesses afloat, the actions of those around them largely indicate fear. This time, it’s fear of an unseen enemy; but also fear there won’t be enough; or fear of appearing selfish when the public good is at stake. When it comes to money, fear = stock up and save, not spend with abandon.
We may well see generational money messages come full circle. The Greatest Generation saw their parents party through the roaring 20s only to be humbled in 1929. Are today’s millennials and Gen Z experiencing the same cycle? Might they turn out to be the most frugal, least materialistic, best saver generations to come along in 100 years?
Handling Our Money Messages
As we grow, we adapt the best habits we can. The trick is to continue to ask ourselves, as times change, are these money habits still serving us well? Are they helping us lead a happy, fulfilling life in the midst of strife? Are they keeping us safe, and enhancing relationships? Or are they keeping us trapped by unhealthy attachment to money, possessions, or fear itself?
Need help identifying or questioning 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. https://www.amazon.com/Mindful-Money-Mentality-Balance-Financial/dp/0988804905