Veterans Day, Wartime and Money Messages
On Veterans Day, we honor veterans of all wartime eras. The oldest living veterans are members of the “Greatest Generation” – famous for many distinctive character traits. When it comes to money, it’s often been about their famous frugality. Where did that frugality come from?
“Money messages” are beliefs and attitudes about money. They form during our early years and times of hardship, like war. Those messages lead to regular money habits.
For example, to Baby Boomers and Gen X, it could be hard to understand why Mom or Dad cleaned and re-used Ziploc bags or hoarded empty shoeboxes. It might have been frustrating that they would not buy themselves something nice. However, an explanation arises if we examine their wartime money messages.
Indeed, many recognize that frugality habits evolved during a time before WWII of true scarcity – the Great Depression. (Interesting side note: Depressions are often followed by wars.) When the U.S. entered the war, this frugality was reinforced by the government, as demonstrated by rationing. Below is a historic relic: a war ration coupon book, issued in 1943. It belonged to my late mother-in-law, Betty Bates Donaldson, born in 1925.
What Are Ration Books?
What are ration books? Because so many of the U.S.’s resources were diverted to producing military hardware, shortages arose in everyday food and household goods. The government issued ration coupon books to fairly distribute food and goods.
Actually, you might wonder, “Americans accepted being told by the government how much food they could buy?” Remember that at the time, government programs had brought tens of millions out of starvation. We 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.
To a Depression-battered generation, a wartime message of scarcity and frugality must have seemed not only logical, but patriotic.
Government and Scarcity
Indeed, on the ration book, the language and tone is striking. If you had been an 18-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: Scarcity. 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: Watch out. 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: Only buy what you need. Your wants and wishes must be suppressed right now.)
The word “ration” is used nine 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…”
“Persons who violate rationing regulations are subject to $10,000 fine, (in 1943?!?), imprisonment, or both.
Contrasting Messages to Spend
In contrast, compare the ration book messages to ones heard today:
“We need consumers to spend.”
Pile on rampant consumer advertising and social media “influencers”, and we’re hardly lacking messages telling us to want more and spend more.
Handling Our Money Messages
As we grow, we adapt the best money habits we can, based on a foundation of money messages reflecting beliefs and values. It’s important to continue to ask ourselves, as times change, are these money habits still serving us well? Do they help us lead a happy, fulfilling life in the midst of strife? Are they keeping us safe? Do they enhance relationships? Or do they keep us trapped by unhealthy attachments to money, possessions, or to fear itself?
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 authority figures: government leaders, parents, teachers, coaches, or spiritual leaders.
The Greatest Generation saw their parents and authority figures succeed through the roaring 1920s only to be humbled in 1929 and struggle through the 1930s. Might we see generational money messages come full circle? Given today’s tumultuous times and their disdain for Baby Boomers, might Gen Z turn out to be the most frugal, least materialistic, best savers to come along in 90 years? Or will TikTok-raised kids hang on to money messages glorifying consumption and spending?
Share your thoughts below.