Lessons From My Stepfather

We learn a great deal from the people that raise us. Since many of us live with our parents or caregivers for at least the first 18 years of our lives, this has a profound impact on who we are as individuals.

“We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.” ― B.J. Neblett

My parents divorced the summer before my 4th grade. My father moved to the East coast, and my sister and I lived with my mother and stepfather in the Midwest. We lived in a nice quiet neighborhood in the suburbs.

Now that I have kids of my own, I notice both the good and bad impact my stepfather had on me. Luckily, my children will never know the sting of a belt, but they definitely benefit from the money lessons I remember from my time with him. He was definitely an influence on me, just as I am an influence on my kids today.

Always Carry a $20 Bill

My stepfather did not believe in credit cards. As a result, he always had cash in his pocket. That may not be strange, but what was unusual was the amounts of cash that he carried. I remember times when he would remove a huge fold of cash from his front pocket. He enjoyed playing a game with my sister and me. If we could guess how much money was in his pocket, to the dollar, he would give it to us. I think the closest I ever managed to get was within about $10, which was quite close considering he could have as much as $2,500 in his pocket, but it was typically between $800 and $1200.

When I was old enough to have money of my own he told me to always make sure I carried a $20 bill in my pocket. This stuck with me, and I do it to this day. I believe this has several benefits. If you find yourself stuck somewhere, having a little cash can make a huge difference. Holding cash in your pocket helps you be more responsible, because you train yourself to enjoy that feeling of having it and of not spending that ever-present $20 bill. Lastly, I, perhaps superstitiously, believe that money begets money and by carrying cash, you are welcoming more cash into your life.

Protect Your Money

My stepfather grew up very poor. He would tell us of times going without shoes, not owning a winter coat, and having to patch his school clothes. All these things strongly influenced who he was and how he handled his money.

He was an incredible saver. He worked incredibly hard his whole working life. He was frugal in his expenses, saved much of his money, and invested in his retirement account.

He would take us to the drive-in theater to save money. One time, a friend of mine went with us. This friend had $20 of his own money that he brought to use for concessions. Since it was pretty safe to wander in the dark to the concession stand, he and I walked to get some popcorn, candy, and drinks. Along the way, he dropped his $20. He was distraught. That was a ton of money for a little kid. Instead of buying anything, we went back to the car. When my stepfather heard my friend dropped his money on the way, he went out in the dark, scoured the ground, and found my friend’s $20 bill. When he returned the $20 bill back to my friend, he said, “Protect your money!”

My stepfather always carried his money in his front pocket. He liked to vacation in Las Vegas and New Orleans with my mother. Both places are notorious for pick-pockets. It is much more difficult for someone to steal your wallet or cash from your front pocket. To this day, I still carry my small wallet and fold of cash in my front pocket. I am also very careful with it to make sure it does not fall out when removing my phone or anything else from my pocket.

He would say “Protect your money!” many more times throughout my life. This was not just from being stolen, but also from incurring unnecessary fees or even from yourself. As I mentioned, he was frugal, and he did not spend money on unnecessary expenses. Despite his frugality, he was not cheap. He prided his ability to take his family out to dinner. One time, he took his older kids (my stepsiblings), their spouses, his aunts and uncle, my mother, my sister, and me to the nicest steak restaurant in town. I have no idea how much the dinner cost, but I have no doubt it was well over $500, and that was 30 years ago. I don’t know about you, but I have never dropped that much money on my family for a dinner.

Track Your Money

My stepfather read every receipt for every purchase. If he was not charged correctly, or if a discount was not applied, he spoke up and had the mistake corrected. One time the bank withdrew money from his checking instead of his savings to purchase a $20,000 CD (Certificate of Deposit). This caused a check that my mother wrote to bounce. As soon as the bank notified him of the issue, he drove to the bank and had them correct the error. This is a good lesson for all of us. If there is an error on your statement, contact the bank immediately, and have them fix it. Even if the error is your fault, the bank may reverse the fees. Banks make tons of money on fees, and are usually pretty agreeable to waive them for a good customer to keep your business.

You have to know your money, to easily recognize mistakes. If you do not know how much money you have, you need to figure that out first. Start by calculating your net worth. Feel free to use ours as an example, but there are plenty of references on how to calculate it. That is a great way to see all your money in a single place and track if you are headed in the correct direction. It has the added benefit of allowing you to change course if you are not. Dr. SoS did not think tracking our net worth would make a difference. She now enjoys seeing the increase month after month as we pay down debt and our investments increase in value. Try it, and you may be equally surprised.

Early Retirement

When my mom married my stepfather, she was contributing a minimal amount to her 401k. The first thing he did was get her to increase the amount to meet the match. At the time, she could contribute 6% and her match was 4%, which is an amazing deal. Once they had their finances and expenses under control, he had her increase to the maximum at that time, which was 10%. When my mother received annual raises, she increased her 401k contributions as the total amount one could contribute increased. Because of this, after only a little more than twenty years, she was able to retire at the age of 53. Not only that, but not long after, her investments totaled more than a million dollars. Had he not encouraged her to put so much money in her 401k, she would probably still be working today.

Be Content

Another thing that helped contribute to early retirement, was being content with his life. Although my mother wanted to move to a bigger house, we remained in our modest three-bedroom, two bath house. He did not see any reason to purchase a larger house and increase the mortgage expense. By keeping his expenses low, he was able to invest more of his hard-earned money in order to make more money on those investments. I believe this is a trap Americans have been falling into since I was a kid. Make more money, buy a bigger house. Make more money, buy a nicer car. Make more money, buy more stuff we don’t need. Be content with what you have, do not spend more than you earn, save your money, and you will be just as happy. You will also be wealthier as a result.

Lessons from my Stepfather

We are a product of our family, situations, and the knowledge we obtain in our lifetimes. I hope you learned something from my experiences with my stepfather. When you next have a $20 bill, put it in your pocket and keep it. Challenge yourself to see how long you can keep it there without spending it. Use it if you need it in case of an emergency, but otherwise it should remain as an inspiration for your future wealth.

Protect your money! Keep track of your balances, avoid unnecessary fees, and calculate your net worth so you can see your wealth increasing! Begin investing now, so you will be able to retire when the time comes. Even if you can only save $10 a week or $100 per month, it is better than putting it off until tomorrow, which may never come. Be content with what you have, and learn to live with less. Material items can be nice, but they will not make you happier. Lastly, take advantage of the positive influences you have in your life and be a positive influence on those around you. Both can make all the difference in your future!

Keep saving and keep swimming!

Mr. SoS


  1. I’ve had the same emergency $20 bill hidden in my wallet for over 15 years. I’m early retired and wealthy now but I hope to still have that bill for the rest of my life.

    1. That is an incredible inspiration. It is great to see that others have the same beliefs about the difference a single $20 can make in your wallet.

  2. Congratulations for the nicely written post! I can definitely relate to this. My grandfather has always been a saver and invested his money on real state while being frugal. I can definitely foresee where i will end up.

  3. Thanks for sharing. Lots of great nuggets of wisdom. On occasions I carry money in my pocket rather than my wallet. I will start to do this more often. It definitely gets you thinking about holding onto your money, understanding more the value of the money and wanting to.protect it.

    1. You are quite welcome. Thank you for reading. They are simple truths, but a great reminder to us all. I rarely use cash, but I carry no less that $20 on me at all times. When I receive more cash, I add it to this stash in my pocket. Having this little extra cash helps me walk a little straighter and taller knowing that I have the ability to keep cash without spending it and the ability to turn my knowledge into more wealth in the future.

  4. Yes! Sometimes we forget the basics. If we really take them to heart (invest prudently and consistently, avoid waste, avoid overspending), we will not only be ok financially, but well on the way to a great retirement.

  5. hey, you made it to the rockstar page. i had a tough old man with many of the same characteristics you mention. he gave out good advice that i thought i didn’t need. i find myself 30 years after the fact following all of those principles despite myself, so …better late than never.

    rock on.

    1. Yes, it was quite a surprise to me when J$ sent an email to me this morning to let me know I was on the Rockstar page. My stepfather was certainly a tough old man. He was a telephone lineman and later a lineman manager. He was a strong man that struck an imposing figure. He was strict, but I look back and appreciate much of what he taught. It took me a long time to realize the value in the simple money management tools he shared when I was a kid, but reflecting on them realize I should have put them into practice much earlier in life. It was not until after getting my finances in order about fifteen years ago that I figured out what he had been trying to tell me so long ago when he was alive. Sometimes things take a little longer to sink in, but you are absolutely right… better late than never!

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