Quebecers used to wear their Sunday best very sparingly and make their savon du pays (country-style soap), lamp oil and candle ends last as long as they possibly could. They’d carefully save up their coins in an old bas de laine (wool sock) for a rainy day. Every now and then, they’d feel the weight of their stash and count their fortune far from prying eyes. Lending a few bucks to relatives or neighbours adds to one’s prestige. It’s the same old “Séraphin” story told a hundred different ways.

The tale of Séraphin depicts men as the miserly ones, but more than a few observers have noted that it was usually the women who looked over the nest egg while men were a bit freer with the money.

In 1859, Bishop Bourget wrote, “Wear (as in used items) is an ugly wound that festers among our people and will eventually ruin it. Let us please deny our French roots when it comes to this matter.”

As I was getting ready to leave an Ocho Rios hotel, the maid – a buxom Jamaican woman with an easy laugh – entered my room and looked under the mattress. When she saw me looking at her she flashed me the brightest smile and said, “If you sleep on your money it grows overnight.”

A Jewish shopkeeper in Montreal explained to me how at least half of one’s fortune should be physically transportable. There were two Renoirs and one Picasso on his living room wall. “If I roll these up really tight, they’ll fit in my briefcase. I would lose the frames, but they’re not worth much. Here, take a look.”

Every minority seems to have its own idea of what a nest egg should be.

Caisses populaires (cooperative banks) were born because of Heartstrings 8 and 20. A former Caisse pop manager explained how he used to sniff out nest eggs.

“My strategy was to approach hard-working farmers and tell them they should open an account at the local bank. The habitants would put on a surprised look and say something like, ‘Me? I don’t have two cents to rub together.’ Then I’d act surprised and say, ‘That’s not what I heard. People in town say you’ve got quite a bit saved up in a bunch of old white tin cans.’ The old farmers would look annoyed and ask me to tell them to mind their own business. But the very next day, the same guy who didn’t have two cents to rub together would show up at the bank with a neat little package wrapped in newspaper tucked under his arm.”

Under French rule, habitants worked hard to save up Intendant De Meulle’s infamous paper money. Unfortunately, once the British took over, they were quickly taken to the cleaner’s. They’ve remained very suspicious of banks and governments ever since.

Economist Auguste Roy gave the following update on Quebecer’s nest eggs:

“The average rate of personal savings (as a percentage of disposable income) over the last five years (1970-74) was 6.8% in Quebec, 8.0% in Canada and 8.4% in the other nine provinces. There is fierce competition among financial institutions and we’re seeing them develop many different strategies to try and get the highest percentage of Quebecers’ savings. The current trend seems to be for Quebecers to lock up their savings in short- and medium-term investments (up from 52.4% in 1970 to 57.4% in 1974).”

Starting with Victory Bonds, government bonds became a popular savings option. “They’re as good as gold” was a very lucrative catchphrase for Canada Savings Bonds. Advertisers added, “They’re safe, profitable and easy to cash. They’re the same as money.” In other words, they make a great nest egg.

We still have nest eggs today, but they’re mostly in the form of life insurance. Quebecers tend to over-insure their person, but they under-insure other things, like their cars (23% of drivers don’t have car insurance). We hold the Canadian record for purchasing the most life insurance even though this sector decreased by about 3% between 1970 and 1974.

The Quebec financial wealth market is wide open and very promising. But will our nest egg approach finally be replaced by sounder, better planned financial decisions? Economists seem hopeful there’s a chance it might happen.

The term bas de laine has an updated meaning, that of a false economy which gives you four quarters for a dollar. A well-known Montreal doctor drives his big Cadillac down to Florida every year claiming the airfare is too expensive.

We watch what we spend, but we don’t want for anything. Quebecers, playing off the paradox, can’t decide between Heartstring 8 and Heartstring 13. Telling a consumer she’s a thrifty shopper is like applying a soothing balm to a painful wound.

We know Quebec housewives don’t shop the sales and are wary of major price cuts. The Simpson’s campaign reminds me of one of my grandmother’s favourite sayings: “Quality is always cheaper.”

Promos, freebies and coupons work better on Quebec women than in-store sales when it comes to shopping.

According to John Maynard Keynes, there are seven reasons (let’s call them Heartstrings) that keep people from spending their money: precaution, foresight, calculation, ambition, independence, pride and greed.

That may be true, but there’s nothing wrong with wasting money when you’ve got some put away.

So can Quebec women, who always have a huge say in family money matters, ever learn to plan ahead and save money the way Japanese women (who are the example to follow) do?

© 2022 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.