This post is from Ollie Geiger, a personal finance writer who contributes to MoneyRates.com.
Whenever we visit my grandmother-in-law's house, we always leave with paper towels. Lots of them.
Because our car is typically packed with vacation items when we visit, and because we usually have plenty of jumbo packs of paper towels waiting for us in our garage, there's no good reason we should cram 14 rolls of these things into our back seat for the 400-mile drive home.
Except this: My grandmother-in-law really wants us to.
A study in thrift
My wife's grandmother is very concerned with her family having enough for the future. While this is true of many grandmothers, her concern runs a little deeper than most. She is neither a “prepper” nor a hipster coupon enthusiast. Her philosophy is instead grounded in a practical, non-ironic desire for security.
Her habits may relate to the austere conditions she faced while growing up in Japan during World War II. She has told my wife that her family was not above eating dirt for its mineral value when food ran scarce during long periods of bombing. It's easy to imagine how someone who grew up under these conditions would be inclined to stock up on essentials when they were available.
But whatever the root cause of her thriftiness, when paper towels go on sale, she doesn't hesitate to buy in bulk. And, being the sweet grandmother that she is, she wants us to have lots of paper towels too.
Occasionally I try to resist. I feel a little bad that she's handing over her hard-fought bargains. But because of our differences in native languages and her remarkably strong will, I eventually concede and start moving goods from her doorstep to our trunk. Then off we go with our paper towels, as well as whatever other practical necessities she's recently found at rock-bottom prices.
Not surprisingly, the family suspicion is that she has socked away a lot in savings too. While no one but she knows her exact savings account balance, I wouldn't be surprised if the sum dwarfs her family's expectations.
But while she may be more frugal than most, a broader view of American savings suggests that at least part of her habits may simply be generational.
The long decline in American savings
Saving money was an American institution for much of the 20th century — particularly when my grandmother-in-law's generation made up the bulk of the workforce. Savings rates hovered around the 10 percent mark from the 1950s to the 1970s. But something happened to American savings after that.
As the graphic below shows, the U.S. personal savings rate has fallen sharply over the last three decades.
Courtesy of: MoneyRates.com
You'll also notice that after rebounding somewhat after the Great Recession, America's savings rate has started to slip back toward those pre-recession lows. While the sluggish recovery has certainly played a role in this, the economic slowdowns of recent decades hardly affected the American savings rate.
While I'd be willing to bet that I save less aggressively than my grandmother-in-law, I know that I save as much or more than my own parents. But statistics seem to suggest that many others may not be doing the same. While this blog's readers may not be the ideal representative group — one might expect that Get Rich Slowly readers may be more acquainted with the virtues of saving than the population at large — a few questions are still worth asking.
Do you save more or less than your parents? What about your grandparents? Do you expect that your children will save more or less than you do? What could the overall patterns in the American savings rate mean for the country?
Author: Ellen Cannon
Ellen Cannon was the editorial director of the financial services sites at QuinStreet from 2010-2015. She has covered personal finance for magazines and websites for more than 20 years, including five years as managing editor of Bankrate.com. She lives in South Florida with her kitty and sunshine.