Americans lives in a household with three or more generations under one roof, according to Generations United’s 2021 report. The number of folks living in these multigenerational households has increased sharply over the past decade, from 7% in 2011 to 26% in 2021. Although “multigen” households come in many shapes and sizes, the rarest type is a four- or five-generation family living together.
For most of my preteen years, I lived in a four-generation household. It all began in 1947, during a blustery blizzard when my great-grandpa drove my very pregnant mother and my father to the hospital. He didn’t trust Dad to navigate his DeSoto on the icy roads. When my parents brought me home, my great-grandparents and grandparents welcomed me.
All seven of us lived together as a multigenerational family in a large rambling house built in the late 1800s. When Dad returned from Europe after World War II, he was a GI Bill university student with no income. Mom promptly got pregnant and remained a homemaker for several years as the babies came quickly. Living with family was about economics and affordability.
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I thought our housing arrangement was normal, though I later realized most of our neighbors lived in two-generation family homes. Except for a short stint when my parents and I stayed with my great-aunt and uncle on their farm, we lived with my double set of grandparents until I was almost 13 years old.
I believe my parents’ failed finances were the main reason they lived with the grands. My great-grandma provided child care, allowing Mom to earn income working outside the home. When my great-grandmother and grandmother were each widowed, living with the extended family helped them emotionally as well as financially.
Growing up with all these relatives taught me several money messages. “You can’t take big shortcuts and expect to get paid,” my exasperated grandmother told me one day. As an eight-year-old, I had to pick a row of green beans from the backyard garden before receiving my compensation—the chance to play with friends. Rushing to get done, I offered up only a half-filled bowl. Admonishing me for missing many string beans still on the vine, Grandma sent me back for another round. Only when I returned with a brimming bowl was I rewarded with playtime.
In addition to that lesson on doing a job the right way, there were six other lessons I learned from my multigenerational family:
1. Live frugally, resourcefully and spend money intentionally. Both sets of grandparents lived through the Great Depression and knew how to stretch a dollar. They saved and reused everything until further repair was impossible. Times were tight for us all, so money was spent meaningfully. Today, I still find bargains at vintage thrift shops, use coupons and prefer spending money on experiences rather than stuff.
S&H Green Stamps bought many kitchen accessories. Vacations were rare and usually involved visiting family. Seven of us drove from Wisconsin to California and back jammed into our Rambler station wagon with overload springs. We probably looked like The Beverly Hillbillies. Going to the state fair at summer’s end every year was a special family treat.
2. Start a small business. That’s what my grandmother did with her commercial bakery, and where I helped after school. A related lesson I learned from Grandma is that it takes dedicated, demanding work to make your business successful and, even then, things might not work out. My first venture as a 10-year-old entrepreneur was a lemonade stand, followed by selling greeting cards door-to-door. My babysitting work boomed when I was 11. At 49, I began my own financial planning business, which I continued for 18 years before switching to a six-year encore consulting business.
3. You’ll never go hungry if you grow your own food. I helped my family raise plentiful crops, which filled our freezer and the basement’s shelves of canned goods. All that bounty fed us through the winter. Today, I continue harvesting a wide variety of healthy veggies and luscious blueberries from our garden, although I no longer pack a full-size freezer.
4. Don’t eat your money. Dining at McDonald’s was a rare treat for us in the 1950s. Today, I’m not comfortable paying $50 for lunch when I can easily eat a healthy meal at home, brown bag it or choose an inexpensive alternative if I’m out.
5. Do well in school. Scholarships and a college degree can be your ticket to a better life. Having seen my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents struggle financially, I hoped to break the cycle by continuing my education. Both my great-grandmother and grandmother were briefly one-room schoolteachers, before their marriages. I’m glad they encouraged me to earn a university degree and start my professional career as a public-school teacher.
6. We care for each other as we age, and save money that way, too. After my great-grandpa died and later my grandpa passed, their widows continued living in our multigenerational household for decades. Before his death, my father-in-law moved in with my husband, my children and me for several years. It was much less costly than a retirement home, and it was meaningful for his grandkids to know this gentle soul better. I believe living with us gave Grandpa a better quality of life in his remaining years.
I don’t want to appear Pollyannaish. Yes, I do also remember negative money messages from my childhood. My parents often argued about their finances. There never seemed to be enough money, especially one Christmas when Mom bought many presents from the General Merchandise catalog on credit.
My grandparents dealt with their money disagreements away from us kids, but sometimes I heard their fights as well. I recall adults yelling, banging doors and sulking. These memories turned me 180 degrees in the opposite direction. My husband and I openly discuss money matters and don’t keep financial secrets.
Will the trend toward increased multigenerational housing continue? I believe it will.
During the pandemic, a friend of mine and her husband combined households with their adult daughter, son-in-law and two toddlers. With no child care available, their remote-working daughter and husband were desperate for help. Now that the critical phase of the pandemic has passed, this three-generation family has decided to remain together for financial and other benefits. Indeed, they pooled their money and bought a bigger house to provide more space for all, including a semiprivate in-law suite.
For many years, I’ve enjoyed living just with my husband, inviting extended relatives to visit often. Two summers ago, my son and his family stayed with us in our roomy house for almost two months. Years ago, when my mother was widowed, she was with me before choosing to live in a nearby retirement home.
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I plan to maintain my independent lifestyle for many more years. But who knows? Perhaps someday I’ll return to a multigenerational family—but this time I’ll be the elderly grandparent.
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This column first appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.
Kathleen M. Rehl is retired following a career in financial planning and an “encore career” of speaking and doing research about widows. She wrote the award-winning book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.