| Real Life Strategies for Building Wealth

Do you worry about your retirement?

I do. And everyone I talk to lately seem to worry about retirement as well.

My colleagues worry.

My friends worry.

My PhD students worry.

My sons (the grown up ones) worry.

Frankly, in the world we live in, one will be rather silly not to worry about retirement.

Yet, thinking back, my grandmother never did. And she was far from silly – when it came to money she was frugal to the extreme, careful to a fault and ambitious as an army major.

I know; I live with my grandparents for three years when I was little and visited regularly until they passed on when I was at university.

She never even mentioned her retirement, or her pension.

‘She was probably rich.’ – you may be thinking.

Well, her life is a real ‘rags to riches’ and then loose it all again kind of story.

She was born in a small village in Bulgaria at the beginning of the 20th century. Her parents were poor. Like many young man, her father went to the US to work and provide. There, according to the family story, he got tuberculosis and died.

I have never seen the evidence of that and it is entirely possible that, like many young man at the time, he went to the US and…just never got back in touch again. Stuff like this happens, right.

When my grandmother was three years old her mum passed away and she was orphaned. She had a sister that was three years older than her, that was all.

As I said, her family was poor so she was sent to another village to be raised by a distant relative. She always cried when she told me this part of her life: it is a story of physical abuse, hard work at a very early age and terrible unhappiness. But she worked, she took the beatings, she went to school for several years (though I still think she was functionally illiterate which means that she could read and write but never did it) and survived.

In her teens, and with the promise of becoming a very attractive young woman, she went to Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria) to be a nanny to two Jewish girls. Several years later, and having become an attractive young woman, she went back to her village.

There she met my grandfather – the son of a wealthy local landowner – and decided that she will marry him.

She did: because his family was against him marrying a woman with no family and wealth they eloped.

They lived a comfortable life between the two World Wars. Just to give you an idea of how comfortable they were, my grandfather bought his son-in-low a dental practice as a wedding present.

Then in 1945 the Communists took over Bulgaria. They ‘nationalised’ the land which means my grandparents were left with just a bit of land for their personal use – the rest was taken into the ‘cooperative’.

My Dad (their son) was one of these communists, by the way.

Later, they still probably had more than the people around them: my grandfather was a talented accountant (you see, this personal finance blogging thing has family roots) and always made enough.

Still, my grandmother came from poverty, married into wealth, lost it all to the communist state and never worried about her retirement (or pension).

And this is why!

One: She grew everything they ate

My grandparents had a large garden around their house which was split: some was used to grow fruit and vegetables and part was fenced to house all animals.

They had sheep, hens, geese and turkeys. So all eggs, meat, milk and cheese came from the yard. They also had pigs which were used for meat (my grandmother used different preservation methods for that and some was canned, some fried and preserved in oil).

She made cheese and she made yoghurt. She canned all the fruit and vegetables from the garden. This way there was food during the winter as well.

The only thing I remember them buying was bread, sugar, salt and oil. Otherwise, if something didn’t grow in my grandmother’s garden it was bartered with the neighbours.

This means that although my grandparents didn’t make a lot of money, they saved almost all of it. It also means that feeding themselves was their job. But I still remember what it is like to bite into a freshly picked tomato that’s grown in the sun.

Two: She had a simple life

My grandparents had a very simple life. They worked the garden and other fields, looked after their animals and chatted to the neighbours.

They never travelled. I think that my grandmother can probably count on the fingers of her hands the times she travelled more than 40 km from her village. They didn’t have skiing holidays or rest at the beach.

Thinking about it, I’m not sure they had the notion of holiday – or entertainment – at all. They had parties on certain dates (usually the saints’ days) and that’s it.

My grandparents didn’t have a TV: my grandmother won’t allow it.

Most of my grandmother’s life was about functionality: not fashion or beauty.

Three: She didn’t waste anything

You know, my grandmother didn’t have a rubbish bin. Not really.

Everything was used and recycled. Organic waste was composted and used in the garden or in the fields; paper raps were used to start the fire and all packaging was re-usable.

My grandmother won’t put the light on because she didn’t want to waste the electricity (yep, if she paid more than 20 pence for electricity per month she thought she lost her frugal touch).

She did live, and she knew that she can live, on very little.

Four: She didn’t have great retirement expectations

Today, we make too big a deal of our retirement. We obsess about where we are going to retire, what we are going to do in retirement and whether we’ll be able to faraway lands.

My grandmother had no expectations of her retirement. I’m not sure whether she had a notion of retirement at all.

For her life was simple: you are born, you grow up to be a decent person, you work, you have children; you work some more, you have grandchildren; you work some more, you slow down and then you pass away.

This is life. If you are lucky this is the sequence of a good life.

Five: She had children

This is a major piece in this jigsaw.

My grandmother never worried about her retirement (or pension) because she assumed – rightly – that her children will look after her when she needs it in her old age.

For her, this was part of the sequence of life. You look after your children and make sure that you leave two things: legacy and inheritance. Legacy takes care of raising your children to be good people and know their duty to their parents. Inheritance gives you a bit more edge.

If you manage to leave legacy and inheritance, your children look after you.

She wasn’t wrong: my Dad looked after my grandparents when they needed help.


I’m not saying that my grandmother lived a great life.

Even if it was, I couldn’t live like that. This is why I am very serious about my retirement, my pension and building more income streams.

And if you don’t match all five conditions set out above I’ really urge you to get concerned about your retirement. Oh, and take action.

Do you worry about your retirement? What are you going to do about it in the next week?