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Post: : Wisdom for St. Patrick’s Day: Six money tips that worked for Nanie Sheehan, my Irish grandmother

Nanie Sheehan was the only grandmother I have ever known.

She was an Irish immigrant who worked as a maid after arriving from Ireland in the 1920s. By the time she married and had a child, my mother, she had saved and was able to put a down payment on a home. And all this before women’s voting rights and equal-opportunity laws.

Nanie was a widow who lived alone longer than she did as a married woman. She left home only at the very end of her life. The five years before her death were spent in her own shrinking world in a nursing home.

Yet, the longer that time goes by, the more I realize the impact she had on me as a third parent. She was the one who had the time to listen to me. Taught me every domestic lesson from cleaning to gardening to baking Irish bread. Nanie was also a grand teacher on life and money.

These are some of her tips.

Cash in a box is good: Nanie had a tin box hidden in the back of her non-walk-in closet filled with cash. So if you were taking her out spontaneously and her wallet was bare, she would just have to go upstairs “for a moment.” Her own personal ATM. Of course, once or twice she shared with me the location and the purpose of the box. Having cash handy was of major importance for all sorts of reasons. The gray tin box was better than the bank for someone who had lived through the Great Depression and bank scares.

Food is important: Basic, healthy food. Nothing fancy. Nothing expensive. The goodness was in the way she cooked it. With Nanie it was always with loving care. And the slow simmer of what was a poor cut or end of meat was transformed into a melt-in-your-mouth delicacy by dinner time. Leftovers were her specialty. Only at her home did I relish having leftovers, as she turned her hand to create a special meal through the magic of her fry pan. Today the so-called slow-food movement has caught on to her ways. 

The little things in life: Trays. I learned the enhancement of trays. She would serve you with a tray. Prepared with love in the pantry and brought out on a tray — one for her and one for you. 
Naps. A “stretch across the bed” in the afternoon, otherwise known as a nap, keeps one fresh for whatever is ahead. Simple things. None of which cost much but were small treats to fill the mundane of everyday life. A personal story, a specially baked treat or a treasure of hers passed on to you all held love. 

Pay off your house: Land is important to the Irish. There was never any talk of paying a mortgage at her home. Nanie Sheehan did not have much money. She survived mainly on Social Security. Yet, somehow she had prioritized and lived “low” to gain the title to her home. Though the financial crisis of 2008 made many folks true believers of owning their home outright, I grew up that way. 

Appreciate what you have and share it: She shared what she had — her home and welcoming spirit. Her guests, invited over for tea, dinner or even to stay overnight, were bathed in love and appreciation — along with being well-fed. She had told me numerous stories of other Irish Immigrants who showed up for Sunday dinner unannounced because they were hungry and knew she would be cooking. They were never turned away. 

Her grandchildren knew they were important to her. Showered with gifts? Never. Showered with time and special meals? Always. Without much money, she made her 17 grandchildren feel abundant — each received a homemade birthday cake on their important day. 

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle: She never had to think about these three concepts. This was the way she lived her life. As a farmer’s daughter and then a mother during the Great Depression, she never let anything go to waste. Not food or threads or packaging.

There was not an air of poverty about her. Rather an air of practicality. Leftovers were rewarmed and eaten. Scraps went to the neighbors’ dogs. “Composting” was not in her vocabulary, but she knew egg shells were good for her garden, and veggie scraps added minerals to the soil. Styrofoam containers were used as special trays for serving, or as prep bowls or as the occasional plate. 

Her built-in cabinet next to the stove had a trove of treasure scraps. Threads, string or just the right nail could be found because she had kept it, knowing it would be of use someday. In the cabinet, she knew what was in the sewing basket or cookie tin or wooden box that held such fixes. She never ceased to amaze me by knowing what was where in the house. 

I never heard her complain about being poor. She had no drivers license, so she had no need for a car. She rode the bus, walked and mostly got rides to family functions. 

She rarely traveled. I know of four times she returned to Ireland over the 70 years she was in the U.S. — scant visits to her family and home of origin. I never heard her say, “I do not have the money.” She was content right where she was.

She was fun and real. A model in life for me. Her secret? I am unsure. But somewhere along the line, she practiced “keep it simple,” “be content” and “keep the faith.”

Regardless of the currency you use — whether you live in Europe or in the U.S. — these tips work in life, and they work today. Try one or two of Nanie’s ways to make your life financially sound, sustainable, simple and truly Irish.

CD Moriarty is a certified financial planner, a columnist for MarketWatch and a personal-finance speaker. She blogs at MoneyPeace.

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