The Gift of Zero

by Lindy on March 17, 2011

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When I was nine years old I went through a phase typical for a young girl of the 80’s. I went through a penguin phase.

A whole shelf in my room was dedicated to my collection of tuxedoed birds. I had penguin figurines, art prints, mugs, post cards, I even saved an old styrofoam cup from a penguin-themed frozen yogurt shop. Gross, I know, but I was nine, and obsessed.

It was during this phase that my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Dick, drove down from eastern Washington to visit us for Christmas. Since he hadn’t bought me a Christmas gift yet (being a single guy in his 60’s and not aware of the tastes of a nine-year-old girl), it was decided that he would take me to the mall to pick something out.

Just him, and me.

This sort of outing with Grandpa Dick hadn’t happened before in my nine years of life. Whenever he came to visit, he’d usually spend most of his time out golfing, or closed up in the guest bedroom emerging only for important events, like dinner, or breakfast. Grandfather-granddaughter activities weren’t generally on the agenda during his stays.

I don’t remember much from our shopping excursion that day, except for the part when we were walking through the department store and I spotted it.

It was the item of my nine-year-old dreams: it was a penguin clock.

The whole clock was in the shape of the bird, and the red clock hands were in the middle of his white belly. I think it was even wearing a red bow tie. It was perfect.

I turned to Grandpa Dick and told him that this was it. This was what I wanted for Christmas.

He picked it up, looked it over, and said these words that still ring in my ears:

“I’m not buying this.

This is a piece of crap,”

followed by something that sounded like “grumble grumble grumble.”

The next thing I remember is calling home in tears, requesting that someone come pick me up.

Unfortunately this incident went on to define my relationship with Grandpa Dick. Not because I held a grudge about the penguin, but because our differences were just too great to be breached.

I was a sensitive, shy, creative little girl. He was outgoing, pragmatic, calculating. We didn’t see eye to eye. And neither one of us were willing to try to bridge that gap.

His annual visits continued as normal. We would chat cordially in the kitchen for a few minutes after his arrival, pass each other in the hallways as he was heading back to his guest cave. Never any bonding of any sort, definitely never any shopping trips.

Last fall Grandpa Dick passed away at the age of 89. He had developed throat cancer, and complications from treatments led to his passing. Thankfully my dad was able to fly up to Washington in enough time to see him and be by his side.

I often think of my infamous Grandpa Dick shopping story when I’m out shopping with my own kids. If I find myself shunning something they want, deeming it worthless or cheap, I remember to bite my tongue. It doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to buy it for them, or not try to teach them about quality. But I’m reminded not to grumble.

A few weeks ago, my dad called me over to tell me something.

“I have some good news for you,” he started, smiling and holding a rectangle piece of paper.

“Grandpa Dick was a pretty good money manager, and he wanted you to have this from his estate.”

My dad then handed me a check. And the amount on it,


Now that I think back on the characteristics of Grandpa Dick’s life, I can see clues to how he was good with his finances. He owned a duplex in his retirement years, living in half of it and renting out the other half for income. We already know that he espoused a belief in only buying quality goods, whether it shattered a little girl’s dreams or not. And for many, many years, he drove the same gold 1973 Mercedes.

He retired at 59, and supported himself from that moment on. He was very independent, never needed any help from any of his kids.

I too, am trying to be a good money manager. Crawling out from debt, building up savings, looking into investments, buying quality goods…being stingy, maybe, at times.

Maybe Grandpa Dick and I shared some common ground after all.

A few weeks ago I transferred his entire gift to our credit card debts, then our recent eBay sales knocked off the last $500. So now, for the first time in our married lives, both of our cards sit at zero.

But don’t think I’ll be packing up the blog and calling it quits with this news. Our credit cards were just the tip of our debt iceberg. And though life’s fortunate twist has pushed us past our first goal a little early, we still have a very long way to go.

We have a car loan, student loans, home equity loan (with a very good explanation), and retirement accounts needing lots of attention. We’re still tallying up the totals of these debts, having pushed them aside until now. But I can tell you, the amount won’t be pretty.

Plus, I still have stuff to sell, and other ideas for making money. This is just the beginning.

So Grandpa Dick didn’t get me that penguin clock when I was nine. I don’t think he gave me anything for Christmas that year. But I think he’s given me the better gift.

And I’m going to make it count.

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  • What a GREAT real life experience. I loved the whole post from start to finish.

  • I love this story.
    Glad to hear you are not packing your blogging bags too.
    p.s. I was obsessed with unicorns, I have gotten over that though.

  • What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing this!

  • That’s awesome news!
    We paid off our credit cards in December, and we should have stopped while we were ahead-haha. We’ve accried about $1300 again, but while we pay it off in full every month, we still seem to have a balance every month! It’s so annoying. By August though, I hope to have it paid off! and we still have other debt and financial obstacles to go through!

  • Lisa

    Beautifully written Lindy! I remember your grandpa and the penguin phase too! I love the lesson that was learned here, and am excited that you could reach your first goal!

    • Lindy

      I think everyone who met Grandpa Dick remembers him :)

  • This is such a great story – although I couldnt have imagined living through something similar at that age. My dad does use the “im not buying this because it’s crap” motto, but I didnt get that till I was 15 or so. Im sure your grandfather will be happy that you used the money prudently. Way to keep working on your debt.

  • Oh wow. What a great inheritance. I’m so glad you used it to get down to 0. And didn’t just buy, say, a penguin clock.

    I look forward to following your journey to work off the rest of that debt and get onto firm financial footing!

    • Lindy

      Hehe, yes. It’s a good thing.

  • Loved the story. And, congratulations on paying off your credit cards! What a great way to honor your uncle & his lifestyle.

  • Oh, this nearly made me tear up. He would have been proud of you. What a great final gift.

  • Beautiful post. I never met my paternal grandfather but my maternal grandpa is still around and grumpy as ever. I’ve never been close with him but this entry definitely makes me think about it.

  • Awww… I use the “I’m not buying that…” line, but my kid then spends his own money if he really really wants it.
    Considering that I didn’t actually ENTER a store until I was somewhere in my teens, I don’t know that I can relate. But it won’t surprise me if my money hoarding father leaves behind a big chunk of money because of that. I would have preferred a more normal childhood…

  • Great story – I hope there were no lasting effects from the penguin clock trauma! Many lessons to be learned from your post!

    • Lindy

      Somehow, I still turned out okay after the clock incident :)

  • What a lovely story and a lovely gift!

    Congratulations on being cc debt free, I’m so pleased for you all :)

  • Ann

    What a great story. And congrats on paying off your credit card debt! My parents were always very frugal growing up, which I’ve come to appreciate now. I had a similar reaction to being refused a dress when I was about 8… but I guess I had to make some financial missteps to realize how important budgeting really is.

    • Lindy

      There’s a lot of truth to learning from your own mistakes. Our parents can teach us the way, but often we don’t get it until we experience it.

  • such a great post…thrilled for you. your children continue to benefit from your learned lesson and now your bottom line benefits from his learned lessons. but your “tempered frugality” seems like a better world to live in.

  • What a great man! The gift of frugality can pay off when needed — congrats on your great news!!

  • What a wonderful story! It’s hard for a 9-year-old girl to understand the idea of “quality” and I’m sure that day your dreams were shattered. But how wonderful that he always had you in mind. Congrats on getting your credit card debt down to zero!

  • I agree with Little House: what a wonderful story! And CONGRATULATIONS on clearing your credit cards – I know how liberating that feels. Miss T x

  • What a great story. I’m sorry you weren’t able to see eye to eye while your grandfather was still alive, but it’s wonderful that you were able to learn this lesson, even if it took some time.

  • Thank you for sharing that story. I could just picture a little girl wanting that penguin clock so bad, and then being denied! I am sure there are many men of his generation that would have done the exact same thing. However, it doesn’t matter when your little 9 year old heart is breaking.

    How nice of Grandpa to remember you in his will, and I am sure he would be thrilled that you are putting it to such good use.

    Also, congratulations of being free from the constraints of credit card debt!

  • Great story! Seems like your grandfather was focused more on the quality of the merchandise than on how much you wanted it at the time. Under the surface, it was probably a lesson about seeking quality… though that’s a hard lesson to teach a little girl that just wanted a penguin clock. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lindy

      I think it was just so deeply ingrained in his personality to not buy crap, regardless of the fact that it was for his granddaughter that he only saw once a year.

  • What a beautiful, beautiful story!!

  • How awesome of your grandfather to be so financially independent and thinking far enough ahead to leave you this gift of zero. I’m also happy to know that you won’t be packing it up. I’ve come to enjoy the eBay reports almost as much as the blog. Will you be posting new numbers for us?

    • Lindy

      It has been a while since I’ve reported anything new, huh? My eBay efforts have slowed a bit (explained here), but I’ll be reporting some more numbers again soon. Thanks Sandy!

  • Lindy,

    I had a Grandpa Dick too and he was a crusty old coot. He was a real cowboy and he used to ride fence on the Diamond Bar Ranch. Now, it’s called the City of Diamond Bar, Ca. I loved that old man, even though he made me see stars a couple of times.


    • Lindy

      Haha. Great visual memories. Thanks for sharing Bret.

  • Excellent Story Telling. Keep doing what you are doing.

  • STL Mom

    I remember shopping with my grandma when I was 13. I found a really cute little top, but she was horrified that the stripes didn’t match at the seams. She made me keep looking until I found something of better “quality.”
    At the time, I would have preferred the cheap tube top. But I have to say that now I do look at clothing construction, and I care if the stripes match. Just like my grandma, I sniff and put the poorly-constructed garment down and keep looking.
    Sometimes when we talk to children, we are talking to the adults they will become, not to the kids they are at that moment. But it’s better if we don’t make the child cry!

    • Lindy

      It is hard to keep in mind that children have such a different viewpoint than ours. I buy quality now too, but I’m glad I have this experience to remind me that kids don’t always see the importance of that. It’s our duty to teach them, only without the crying. Thanks for the comment.

  • I love that story! Your Uncle Dick obviously remembered the Penguin Clock episode too! Generational differences can cause hurt feelings, and that probably will never change for any of us. Makes life interesting!

  • Beverly

    Lindy: thanks for the lovely story. It gave me pause to think about the many lessons my grandparents taught just by being themselves.
    STL Mom: thanks for the reminder. Elegantly put!

  • Sandra

    This is a terrific story indeed! I suggest acquiring a small penguin memento to keep available for a permanent reminder.

  • Vicki

    All the positive comments are great in paying off your cc debt. That is a blessing. However, I wonder how your Grandpa Dick would feel if he knew all his money went to a cc company and not to some pleasure that will remain for you (other than “I remember Grandpa Dick’s money went to pay off a debt we owed.”) My dad was a Grandpa Dick, but when he passed away he left my mother with a sizable chunck of money that she was able to live the next 16 years in very good comfort. There was also enough left for a small inheritance for each of his 4 kids. With my inheritance I took my husband and me on an African safari in remembrance of my mother’s love of travel. Somehow paying off a cc debt (although that is a VERY GOOD THING), to me it just doesn’t cut what an inheritance should be used for.

    • Lindy

      Our credit card debt has been a heavy burden on us recently. The fact that his gift has lifted this burden makes me think Grandpa Dick would appreciate how we used it…especially with how pragmatic of a guy he was. :)
      And you’re right, it would have been nice if we didn’t have that debt in the first place and could have used the inheritance for other things, but overall this will get us to a better place in the future, so it’s worth it in our book. Thanks for your comment Vicki.

  • Tanya

    It’s true; grandparents – and parents – who are truly wise may not always give you what you want in the moment. But they give you strong examples and life lessons that benefit you so much more. Money can’t buy those.

  • It’s a very touching story. Your grandpa Dick had given you the best gift. And he had taught you something that until now is still in your system. Congratulations on being debt-free for now. And thanks for sharing this beautiful story. :)

  • Tina

    I have a question. Did that 10K mend that broken heart? I’m sure you’ve carried that memory around for years. I would have gladly traded that 10K for a better relationship with my grandpa!

    • Lindy

      You’re right, I did carry that memory around for years. That’s why this is a good lesson for all of us to not take for granted the relationships we have today.

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