Thursday, April 5, 2012

What the 1940 census taught me about saving money

Welcome to this week's Frugal Follies Frugal Tip!

On Wednesday, instead of blogging, I spent some time searching through the recently-released 1940 US Census archives.  I was looking for my parents, who were both young children when the census was taken.

I knew my dad's address when he was growing up, so it didn't take me too long to locate his record.  (As of now, you can only search based on street name.  There's no search available by last name yet, though I'm sure that will be available some time in the future.)  My mom moved around a few times when she was young, so she gave me several possible addresses.  After a lot of pouring over records, I was able to find hers as well.

There's more information in the census than just names and ages.  There was also whether the person rented or owned their home and how much they paid.  There was the last grade completed and their citizenship status.  And there was their occupation, how many hours they worked in the week before the census, and how much they earned in the previous year.

And that's where I found some interesting insights.  My dad's father and my mom's father both reported earning almost exactly the same amount of money that year - their salaries were within $25.  But how they earned and what they did with that money was quite different.

My dad's father was a truck driver for the garment industry, a job he worked at for most of his working years.  He had worked 48 hours the week before the census was taken.  My mom's father was a proprietor of a small neighborhood grocery store.   He had worked 90 hours the week before.  So my mom's father worked almost twice as many hours for the same amount of pay.  If you throw in the unpaid labor my mom's mother did for the store, the per-hour earnings are even less.

At the time of the census, both families were renters. But years and years later, my dad's family still lived in the same apartment (that's why I knew the address), whereas a few years after the census, my mom's family had purchased a two-family house.  They lived in the second-floor apartment and rented out the bottom floor.  So they had business income as well as real estate income because of the hard work they did earlier to build their business.

The moral?  Hard work does pay off eventually.  Work now to increase your income, save money, and find investment opportunities, and you'll be much better off in the future.  Don't do those things, and you'll continue to stay in the same place you've been in all along.

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Gina @ MoneywiseMoms April 6, 2012 at 10:24 AM  

This is fascinating! You're so lucky to have so the stories from your parents and grandparents to put the census into into context.

ff April 6, 2012 at 4:34 PM  

That's really interesting! Where can you find the census records? That's so great that they were able to find a way to create pseudo-passive income for themselves.

Unknown April 6, 2012 at 4:57 PM  

@Gina - I talked with my mom and dad about what I had found, and they filled in some of the blanks. And I don't mean to disrespect my dad's father - he was a great man and a wonderful father, but he never really got ahead financially as my mom's father did.

@femmefrugality - it's at You can currently only search by street name, and even then if the person you're searching for lived in a city, you might get hundreds of pages of information to look through.

What I found helped was finding the address on Google Maps, finding a nearby cross street, then searching for both street names separately. Then I made a list of all the census districts with each street name in it. Then I compared the two lists and only searched districts that were on both lists. That worked for me.

Jennifer April 10, 2012 at 2:20 PM  

That is interesting! I don't think my parents were born until the last 40's, but maybe I could look up my grandparents.

Unknown April 11, 2012 at 1:41 PM  

I love looking through old census records. I'm not sure exactly where my grand parents lived in 1940, I'll need to ask.

I found you through WFMW, I'd love for you to link up on my blog.

Auburn Meadow Farm April 13, 2012 at 1:42 PM  

That's really interesting. Just goes to show, it's not what you have, it's what you make of it.

Anonymous,  April 18, 2012 at 11:03 AM  

Neat! A couple of did the one father become an owner of the grocery store? Was it handed down to him? Which father (set of parents) had more time for their children? Were there other situations in the family that kept the one father from getting ahead (such as medical, caring for elderly,charity giving, etc.)? Who was the least stressed?

Unknown April 18, 2012 at 2:41 PM  

My mom's father immigrated to the US as a young adult in 1920, so he started out with almost nothing - nothing was handed to him. I do know that he had a dry-goods business (like linens, towels, etc.) before the Depression, but he went out of business due to the economic downturn. He figured that people still had to eat, so that's why he opened a grocery store.

I'm not sure how he had the financial start to open his own store. (Keep in mind it was a very small store, not like today's supermarket.) I would guess that his in-laws, my mom's mom's parents, helped - they immigrated here at about the same time, but they were older and may have had money from the business they ran in their former country.

My mom's parents certainly worked more hours, but my mom's grandparents (the in-laws listed above) lived with them, and my mom's grandmother took care of her when my mom's mom had to work in the store. My dad's parents probably had more time for my father than my mom's parents had for her.

No issues such as medical, caring for elderly, and charity giving were involved as far as I know.

Obviously I am simplifying the story and how things worked in the 1940s don't necessarily work now. I just thought it was interesting to see the figures, knowing how things turned out later.

Thanks for your comments!

Anonymous,  April 19, 2012 at 4:48 PM  

I am the Anonymous in the post above. Your grandparents' story caught my interest because my mom's parents also owned a small grocery and gas station after selling their farm, but this was more in the 50's. You have inspired me to find out more about both sets of my grandparents (and how things turned out financially). It is really nice you were able to find all that out and make such a neat connection!


eemusings April 21, 2012 at 1:02 AM  

That's fascinating! I wonder if you can do that in NZ. I'm not actually sure what our census surveys or if it's that comprehensive.

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