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?