A string of missed opportunities

My grandparents lived across town. We saw them mostly on Sundays after church. The dinner conversation often turned into rants about how the world’s going to pot. Labor unions and Democrats got a lot of the blame. It’s hard to admit, but let’s just say bigotry came in hefty portions before and after dessert.

Grandpa owned a plumbing outfit. The office was behind the kitchen, reached by a hallway to the back door. The office reeked of the bookkeeper’s cigar. Walter. A slam of the screen door and we’d be playing atop stacks of pipes at the rear of the yard. The small barn behind it was filled with supplies and a pipe-cutter. I still remember the sharp oily smell of its interior. He rented garages along the alley for his small fleet of trucks.

On occasion, I’d get to ride along in Bessie the pickup or his Chevy as he made his rounds of plumbing supply houses and sites where his men were working. It could have been a great opportunity for teaching me about the workings of money, but I never asked the questions — and he never prompted them.

I do remember one time when he let me open the mail and there was a check for something a little over $600. I got to handle it. It could have been a million, I was so impressed.

This would have been a great opportunity to teach me about the meaning of that figure. What his crew had done, what they were paid as wages, how long the project required, what the parts cost, how he figured in other expenses like the trucks, office support, Social Security, insurance, and taxes. Instead, all I saw was the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow — and his glee in being seen as rich, however fleetingly.

He didn’t believe in advertising, either. The sole exception was the calendars he mailed out every Christmas. I remember when we all pitched in to help around the kitchen table getting them ready for delivery.

After my dad’s death, though, I set out to learn more about my grandparents. I done the genealogy but largely skipped over them. The ancient history seemed more interesting. We had even owned a gold mine in North Carolina, back before the Civil War wiped everything away. (That part of the story can be found on my Orphan George blog.)

I’m still surprised that Grandpa’s education ceased after eighth grade. He was needed to work at the farm. Later, he moved to the city and took up plumbing through his brother. They would have gone into business together but, as I was told by several sources, that didn’t happen because their wives didn’t get along.

As kids, we used to play in the attic, too. As I learned more about my grandparents, I read of Grandpa’s going on fishing trips with his buddies and then remembered there had been a section of gear stashed under the rafters. What hit me was a realization he could have taught me to fish — even if I didn’t want to — and it would have been a great bonding moment. But he didn’t.

Maybe years later, when I lived along one of the top ten trout-fishing streams in the country, I would have been grateful to have the skill.

There were other things he might have related. The fact he had his diggers go six inches deeper than code required in laying a new line — something that paid off for his customers when the city had its coldest temperature in decades and many other pipes started freezing and bursting.

What did you learn about money from your grandparents? About work, too.


My own childhood money impressions

I’ve been asking you a lot of questions. It’s only fair for me to respond as well, as I would if we were in a workshop together.

Much of my childhood remains pretty fuzzy, as far as memories go. But one that stands out was when I was three or four and in a supermarket aisle — the A&P, if any of you recall one. I picked out a toy and put it in our cart, only to be ordered, “Put it back! We can’t afford it! We’re poor!”

The memory still stings.

My parents were both children of the Great Depression, and it had been a factor in the divorce of Mom’s parents. She also carried a lot of Southern attitudes toward money — it wasn’t something you talked about in public. Later, when I was in elementary school and had to sell flower seeds or whatever as a fundraising project, she instructed me that you don’t approach friends with a request to buy them. Neighbors were a different matter, especially if they were further down the street.

Dad was a dutiful accountant for a major corporation. I’m surprised I didn’t learn more about handling money from him, but maybe that’s where I got my frugality. I learned to type on the back side of discarded invoices. And Mom didn’t even know how much he earned, only that it wasn’t enough. One thing I realized much later was that I never got to see the inside of his office, the very place in put in so much unpaid overtime. Even when I had my driver’s license and had to pick him up in exchange for using the car, I had to wait outside.

I don’t remember my earliest encounters with money itself or whether I was ever allowed to hand it to the cashier — any of that sort of thing. I suppose there were times when I had to pay something to a teacher for a special event or, around third grade, the city bus driver for my trips to swimming lessons at the YMCA downtown. Oh, and eventually, on a real splurge, getting a grilled cheese sandwich at the coffee shop on the adult side of the building. (Now that’s a dish that remains a guilty pleasure, though not one my cardiologist would endorse.)

Well, that does bring back a memory of special days when I had a nickel to put in the vending machine at school and get a little carton of chocolate milk. Believe me, I knew that was a treat, nothing to be taken for granted.

Somewhere along the line, I learned to keep a ledger. I even earned an accounting merit badge in Boy Scouts. And a paper route would have also demanded record-keeping, along with weekly collecting rounds of the subscribers. (My, how we hated that! It meant ringing doorbells and asking for money, right?) Apart from the three-speed English bicycle I bought with my paper route earnings, I don’t think I got to spend any of it on personal pleasure — it certainly would have gone into my savings account, the one my parents set up at Gem City Savings when I was born.

We did have a garden, and in summertime we’d pack up little paper bags of tomatoes using a baby scale to measure the weight. It was Mom’s idea. Then I’d go door-to-door through a nearby apartment complex selling them. I don’t think I got to keep any of the revenue or that it went for a family treat.

Allowance? Mine was the smallest of my classmates, and it was given as a weekly reward for doing my chores — not for being a member of the family. No, it was a bribe. If it weren’t for the buck Gran slipped me many Sundays after church — to the consternation of Mom — I wouldn’t have gotten far. In high school, my allowance was upped to the equivalent of what cafeteria lunches would have cost. I had a choice, to spend it and eat there or to pocket it and pack my own lunch. I had enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a lifetime, thank you, but I also got a start on my record collection, most of which I still own.

Let me add clothing as an extension of my early lessons about money. Mine never fit. I was always too tall and too skinny for what was available at our local department store, at least on our annual back-to-school trip. The Metropolitan across the street was another matter, but it was more expensive, so we never went there.

By the way, my sister and I never, ever, took anything out of Mom’s purse. We were thoroughly shocked when we learned a cousin always raided Grandma’s.

That gives you an idea of my early impressions regarding money, work, and possessions. Not very positive, is it? No wonder I needed to take up this project.

How does your experience differ?

Just look at what advertising does to children

Mary Pipher, in The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families, observes, “Children learn these things from the ads: that they are the most important person in the universe; that impulses should not be denied; that pain should not be tolerated; and that the cure for any pain is a product. They learn a mix of dissatisfaction and entitlement.”

From this, she concludes: “With the messages of ads, we are socializing our children to be self-centered, impulsive, and addicted. The television teaches values as clearly as any church.” And, she notes, children are exposed to 400 ads a day — more than four million in a lifetime. “Children are taught to be consumers and sold products — junk foods, overpriced clothes, and useless toys.”

It all adds up. Here we are, talking about parenting when we set out to discuss money.

As long as we’re in front of the TV set, let’s watch a sporting event. But instead of following the action, zero in on all of the corporate logos and brand names. Jot them down on a sheet of paper. We’re bombarded with a lot more “buy” messages than the ads themselves. We’ll encounter far more than four million product messages in a lifetime:

  • How many product pitches do you count? What are they selling?
  • Do you think sponsoring a race-car team really peddles more clothing detergent? Is the event itself sponsored by a company? What payoff do you think they’re getting?
  • How many of these, such as stadium-rights naming or banners behind home plate, become “free” television advertising?
  • How many build brand-name loyalty?

As you can see, we live in a product-saturated society. It’s not just TV and radio.

You don’t have to buy into any of those presumptions. Not if you’re taking control.

As you use your cash-flow notebook, ask yourself how many times a brand name is involved.

Could you be just as satisfied turning to a generic or store-brand alternative?

Just what is prompting you to spend on this item, anyway?

Those superstars want your bucks

I hate the term “superstar” and its many extensions. Either you’re a star or you’re not. Ditto athlete, fashion model, actor, actress, musician.

“Celebrity” is even messier. Some of them seem to be famous for no reason at all.

Yet many of them lend their faces and voices to the advertising you see. It’s more than mere endorsements. Some of them become the front for the product. And there they are, speaking directly to you like an old friend.

Well, you know who they are, even if they don’t have a clue about you. We buy into the fiction anyway.

Let’s get down to business. (Sorry for the pun — you see how these money things are everywhere?)

  • Name a “superstar” musician, actor or actress, television host or performer, fashion model, and athlete. What special qualities would you assign to each? Which one would you argue is most important to society? Why?
  • Would you say they’re good role models when it comes to money? (After all, they’re being paid tons for what they do best.)
  • Why do you think they’re getting all that dough, anyway? (Hint: in the end, it’s not exactly for the reasons you would initially suspect, the musical or acting talent, good looks, or points scored. I’ll explain in a bit.)
  • Assuming you watch some television during the week, and it’s not all Public Broadcasting, what is your favorite television commercial these days? Why? And the one you find most annoying?
  • How much of the commercial is about the product or service itself? How much appears to be “something else,” such as music, comedy, drama, atmosphere. What are the hidden messages?
  • Do you ever catch yourself humming an advertising jingle? Do you use that product? How about repeating a line from a commercial? (Who was it who once asked us, “Where’s the beef?”)
  • Which jingles and commercials do you hear children repeating?
  • What other advertising phrases or images come to mind?

Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

Each of these commercials preaches at us, conveying messages that may not be obvious. Superstars are showered in riches because they are the “high priests” of consumer culture. One way or another, they get the rest of us to spend on the products wrapped around them — brands that make us believe we’re buying adulation, popularity, athletic prowess, sexuality, a mansion by the sea, or maybe even extended youthfulness.

Now what about all those folks sporting clothing adorned with the logo of their favorite hometown team?

Count your mail or email for a week, and note how much of it is advertising. Some, like your favorite catalogs, may be desired; the bulk is probably a nuisance. (Have you discovered it’s in your power to throw these pieces away, unopened?) There will be a few bills. Maybe even a personal card or letter. So what’s the score?

Right in your face

One reason many people find it so difficult to get real with money is theological. Yep, you heard right, worship of the almighty dollar. Let me bluntly argue that the dominant religion in America today is consumerism — and it’s based on bald temptation. Before you scoff, let me remind you that some theologians call this condition Mammonism. Among its major tenets:

  • Money makes the world go ‘round.
  • Spending will make you happy.
  • Brand names displayed on your apparel will strut your identity, good taste, or socio-economic status. (If you don’t know the current must-have brand names and products, just ask your kids or grandkids.)
  • There’s a shopping mall within twenty minutes of nine out of 10 Americans. (Think of it as a temple.)
  • Visa has 3.3 billion card users worldwide. Accepted at more than 37 million locations around the globe. China’s the exception — thanks to its own rival card.
  • Billions and billions served. (Do I have to explain? Just think of that happy clown.)

Core assumptions like these are embedded in the advertising messages that bombard us. Pay attention to the hidden tenets.

Corporations invest heavily in selecting a motto, either for the company and its mission itself or for one of its prime products. Just listen.

  • Save money, live better.
  • Expect more, pay less.
  • More for your dollar.
  • Milk from contented cows.
  • Got milk?
  • It’s the real thing.
  • Finger lickin’ good.
  • Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.
  • Betcha can’t eat just one.
  • The best shave a man can get.
  • Snap! Crackle! Pop!
  • When you care enough to send the very best.
  • Like sleeping on a cloud.

How many of these can you identify? Probably all but the third, unless you shop at a family-owned supermarket chain in New England.

What are the hidden messages and underlying assumptions, and how do they match up with your impressions of what’s really offered? What appeals to the emotions and physical sensations? Even the sins of greed, lust, and gluttony? Don’t tell us the Devil made you do it.

It’s not always big corporations, either. Some of the best slogans come from small firms:

  • Yesterday’s meals on wheels. (From a septic tank service.)
  • We repair what your husband fixed. (From a plumber’s truck.)
  • No appointment necessary. We hear you coming. (From a muffler shop.)

Start looking closely around you. They’re everywhere. Trucks on the highway. Logos at the ballpark. Baseball caps and T-shirts. All over the Internet.

What more examples can you add to the list?

Which mottos and slogans do you think are the best? Or the worst?

Sometimes money becomes an amusement park

As you’ve pondered these questions so far, have there been any times your emotions took off like a roller coaster? I seen this happen while leading a discussion group. One comment and the room turns into a Coney Island of feelings.

Pay attention to notice when a question or its answer has you becoming tense or morose, as well as those that have you feeling joyful or optimistic.

In a discussion circle, be alert for twists when the energy level sags, and when it bursts at the seams. These, too, can be clues to emotions.

How quickly the almighty dollar appears at the crossroads of daily rounds! How many tokens do you need to ride the Yankee Cannonball? How many for the Big Pirate Ship?

By the way, I have learned how much fun it can be to scream at the right moment. That first plunge downward is one. It’s always a great group experience. Would it work in these discussions?

In these money workshops, I’ve seen a startling variety in backgrounds, memories, and ambitions. This was the first time some participants ever candidly voiced theirs aloud — an important step in gaining control over money, rather than letting it control you.

Incidentally, I’m not so sure that revealing your incomes within a discussion circle is a good idea. For one thing, getting into some of our topics is difficult enough. Comparing paychecks can erect barriers we simply don’t need. Some privacy, after all, remains essential as a matter of simple respect.

Even so, if you really want to be courageous, have people who are emotionally close to you — your spouse, children, parents, or best friends — evaluate you to see how closely your perceptions and theirs match or diverge. In other words, how honest are you being here?

When’s the last time you wanted to scream about money?

Would winning the Megabucks count?

A word about Muppies

Gee, has it really been nearly 30 years since that dear couple invited me to go halves on a study kit they saw advertised in Utne Reader? It’s hard to believe that much time has passed.  And I thought I was helping them? You can see that it soon was working the other way around. Emotionally, I was a mess when it came to money stuff — at least I wasn’t dealing in debt. I just put a competent face on everything. But inside? There was a volcano.

At the time, I had recently relocated to New England from Baltimore, where a number of my friends were Mennonites. I suppose I should say something about their denomination, since it’s not common in many parts of the country. Remember, half of that couple was a Mennonite.

The faith arose in Switzerland and other spots in northern Europe at the time of the Protestant Reformation but traces its roots back through the underground church to about the year 1000 CE. Unlike the Lutherans, on one side, and the Calvinists, on the other, they refused to bear arms or swear oaths or to baptize their children. Because they believed that baptism was reserved for adults and made as a conscious act, they were dubbed Anabaptists — a name that also applies to several other denominations.

The Amish split off from them in the 1690s.

Discipleship is a major tenet of their practice, and churches range from very conservative, wearing Plain clothes and using horses for farming and transportation, to moderately liberal, with university degrees and professional careers. My friends were among the latter.

At the time, a new lifestyle was getting a lot of press — Yuppies, or young urban professionals. And it didn’t take long for some observers to note similarities and differences to Mennonites like those of my acquaintance. In fact, in 1985 Good Books (published by Merle Good in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) released Emerson Lesher’s The Muppie Manual: The Mennonite Urban Professional’s Handbook for Humility and Success.

That’s right — Muppies.

Its humorous and insightful details demonstrate ways our values can shape our financial activity. You don’t even have to remember the excesses of the Yuppies — young urban professionals — or know any Pennsylvania Dutch to appreciate this examination of decisions facing young Mennonites as they left large-family farms and moved to busy cities. If a Yuppie could play racquetball on Sundays, a Muppie would play basketball on Saturday. If one owned an original painting, the other might own a lithograph. And what do you leave out and what do you hide when your parents are coming over? How about when it’s your friends, instead?

You get the picture. You can begin asking just where you fit in this spectrum, especially when you encounter humorous examples like his. But be warned: Some readers thought it hit a little too close to home.

My fellow Quakers, meanwhile, found it expressing our own situation surprisingly well. A major part of our faith is the practice of simplicity, and like the Mennonites, ours is a peace church. We don’t go along with a lot of the spending practices of the general public around us.

Call it a lifestyle, if you will, but faith does shape the way we handle money. That faith, incidentally, doesn’t have to be a formal religion. I’ll argue everyone has one.

What do you wear to work? What brand, if any?

What can’t you wear?

What do you wear on the weekend?