Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

Old School Circus34 Comments

I had a therapist recently ask me: When you were growing up, what did money mean to you? This was in relation to a conversation about my husband and I disagreeing on how to manage our finances. The purpose of the question was so that I could see how money, or the lack thereof, affected my childhood and shaped the way I think about money today. 

When I was nine years old, I was living with my mom, Sister Helen (a nun who lived with us for about five years), my older sister, and my baby sister in a run-down, abandoned boarding school. The Catholic diocese owned the boarding school, which was once run by nuns, and they allowed us to live there free of charge. We had running water and electricity, but we had to keep utility usage to a minimum because the place was huge. It was late spring, so luckily very little heat was needed, and on chilly nights, we closed the bedroom doors and lit a kerosene heater. We’d had roommates for a while, another family named the Bratmans, who at least had helped with the bills, but I’d managed to run them off with my heathen ways.

Doritos for everyone!

Doritos for everyone!

In case you haven’t figured this out by now, we had no money. And by “no money,” I mean No. Damn. Money. The only income my mom had at that time was the child support that she received from my dad, and that always went quickly. At ten and nine years old, my older sister and I were having a hard time concealing the fact that there were no extras in our household. When friends asked to come over, we generally asked if we could go to their house instead. I specifically remember wanting to go most of all to the houses where the junk food and snacks were overflowing. I would go over to play and wait the obligatory 30 minutes or so before asking, “Do you have any snacks?” Knowing full-well that their pantries were bursting with cheesy, salty, crunchy goodness, I’d do the Snoopy dance in their kitchen when they gave me the 9 million options to choose from. Otherwise, when our friends asked my sister and I to come to the movies, or to the county carnival, or to the arcade at the mall, or anything else requiring a few dollars that we didn’t have, we had to make up an excuse.

As for family fun-time, forget about ordering pizza like other families did, or going to McDonalds, or picking up something even as small as a soda from the gas station. You know – just because you wanted it. The best my mom could do for a treat would be to take us to the Mexican restaurant that had the free chips and salsa. My mom would order a drink sometimes, just so that we were paying for something, and then we’d sit there and get our fill until they gave us the boot.

However matter-of-fact I may sound about it now, back then, my sister and I weren’t stoic about our “have-not” status, believe me. Mom got an earful of whining, begging, pleading, “it’s not faaaairing,” door-slamming, shrieking, and other histrionics typical of prepubescent girls who compare themselves to everyone else.

After one such passionate tear-storm, Mom suggested that if we wanted a little “mad money” (a term which made no sense because who would be MAD about having money?), we should get a paper route like our neighbor, Sue. Sue was our friend, though two years older, and we’d walked her paper route alongside her many times. It was really cool that she got paid, although the paper route itself seemed like a major pain in the ass because she had to get up really early in the morning every single day of the week. My sister and I weighed the pros and cons, and decided to knock on her door to ask a few more questions about the job.

“If you really want to know what it’s all about, you can do my route for me when I go on vacation for a week,” Sue told us excitedly. “I was going to have to ask The Herald-Starr to find a substitute deliverer for me, but they’d love it if I lined up my own. It’s perfect because you guys already know the route!”

It was perfect, we agreed, so for the next two weeks, we shadowed Sue on her route so we’d be sure not to miss a single house. On Saturday, we would need to not only deliver the papers but collect the weekly fees from each customer, which we’d put in a heavy, orange zippered pouch to be picked up by someone from the newspaper on Sunday. By the time Sue left for her family vacation, we had our routine on lock: we were official Paper Girls.

Our job started the very first week of summer, prime sleeping-in time, and it was brutal to force ourselves up at the ass crack of dawn every morning so that all the geriatrics could get their morning dose of daily happenings in the bustling metropolis of Steubenville, Ohio. But my sister and I did it, while grumbling, sniping at each other, and chucking the newspapers haphazardly onto people’s porches and front walks. When Saturday, Collection Day, rolled around, we were over it. Thank God we only had one more day after this one, albeit the worst day of all because Sunday papers were twice as thick and therefore a back-breaker for two scrawny girls.

Get off my porch, ya thievin' whipper snapper!

Get off my porch, ya thievin’ whipper snapper!

On Collection Day, we went door to door, sometimes greeted by friendly, expectant faces; sometimes greeted by gruff, grumpy old men who thought the newspaper was robbing them blind; sometimes greeted by eye-rolling teenagers who didn’t bother greeting us before screaming for their moms, “the paper girls are here!” We hit our last house at noon, and by that time, we were exhausted and angsty. We started to stagger home as I sifted through the collections bag, whistling at all the cash money inside it.

“Hey!” I exclaimed, grabbing her by the arm so that she’d stop walking. “There’s over THIRTY bucks in here!”

“Wow,” she said dully, shaking my hand away to continue walking. “Great.”

“I’ve never seen this much money before,” I mumbled, still staring at it and still not walking.

“Could you snap out of it? I want to go home!” she called back to me.

“Wait,” I said slowly. “Just wait a minute. After all the hard work we’ve done this week, we deserve something special. Maybe we could just take some of this money right over to Pizza Hut for lunch, and no one would ever know. How do THEY know how much we collected? Maybe we could say some people weren’t home!”

“Ashley, that’s stealing!” my rule-following sister screeched, totally shocked.

“No, it’s not. When we get paid, I can just put our pay into the bag to make up for what we spend! This is great, because we get to enjoy our reward NOW, right now, while we’re tired and achy and hungry and needing it the most!”

The plan was fool-proof. I had made up my mind, and I started walking in the direction of Pizza Hut, which was a full mile away. My sister called out to me with her protests, insisting she wouldn’t be a part of this, but after a few minutes, I heard her running footsteps behind me.

“I don’t feel good about this,” she muttered, but she kept pace beside me.

The scene of the crime

The scene of the crime

It took us 15 minutes to reach Pizza Hut on foot. When we got there, I pushed open the tinted glass door, smiling as a blast of air conditioning scented with garlic and parmesan hit me square in the face. “Please Wait to Be Seated,” the sign in the entryway read, and I tapped my sandaled toes as we waited, like I’d been in just this situation a hundred times before. The hostess approached us from the dining room and asked if we were waiting for our parents, but I answered confidently.

“No, we’ll be dining alone.”

My sister snorted behind me. The hostess sized us up for a minute, and said, “Ok, right this way.”

We were seated at a booth, and after the hostess walked away with our drink orders (a Mountain Dew for me, a Pepsi for her), I felt so grown up I nearly bounced out of my seat with excitement. “Isn’t this awesome? We can get whatever we want!” My sister crossed her arms, but there was a twinkle in her eye as she stared at the menu. After much debate, two soda refills, and at least five eye-rolls from the exasperated waitress, we decided on an order of breadsticks, two pizzas (since we couldn’t agree on toppings), and a plate of spaghetti.

The waitress, her eyes bugging out of her sockets, asked, “Are you sure you kids can pay for this much food?”


Would’ve been funnier if her name tag had said “Weezie.”

“We sure can,” I answered brightly, not skipping a beat. The waitress, whose name tag said “Louise,” just shook her head and walked back to the kitchen. Fifteen minutes later, Louise staggered back to the table under the weight of our FEAST. When she’d unloaded it, Alyson and I sat for a minute, gazing at the table in glorious splendor, before digging in and shoving down all the decadent lusciousness our little soda-filled bellies could hold. Which, sadly, wasn’t much. We still had basically a whole pizza and a plate of spaghetti with three bites taken out of it left over when it was all said and done.

Louise came back, seeing that we’d lost the battle, and asked how many take-home boxes we’d need.

“Ummm, none. We’re done with it,” I groaned. Louise clicked her tongue, probably thinking that we were spoiled, wasteful rich kids, instead of lying, stealing poor kids. We couldn’t take the food home or Mom would know what we’d done. So Louise just laid the check down, and when she walked away, I Iooked down at it and gasped.

“What-what is it?” my sister asked fearfully.

“It’s TWENTY-FIVE dollars,” I moaned, feeling sick to my stomach. “We definitely didn’t make enough in one week to cover all of that!”

“But, but you said—“

“I know what I said!” I snapped. “But I didn’t know it was going to cost THIS much! What’re we gonna do?”

“We’re gonna pay it and get out of here,” she barked back at me. “And then YOU’RE gonna figure out how to get us out of this mess since you got us into it!” With that, she jumped up and walked across the restaurant and straight out the door.

I rummaged through the collection pouch, took out the 25 dollars and change owed on the bill, and not even leaving a tip for Louise (because what did I know about tips? I was nine!), I ran out after my sister.

The walk home was longer than the walk to Pizza Hut. My sister started crying, and I stayed quiet while desperately trying to think of some kind of cover story. We were robbed? We’d dropped the collection bag in an open manhole? We’d been chased by wild dogs who spared us, but tore the collection bag apart with their bare teeth and ate all the money, even the quarters, dimes, and pennies?  No, none of that was going to work. I had to confess to my mom.

As God is my witness!

As God is my witness!

When I tearfully told mom my sob story, I tried to deflect some of the guilt by saying that we NEVER got to eat at restaurants, and we were just trying to have the life that everyone else had. She just looked at me sadly, and I could feel her disappointment in that one long moment of silence, more than if she had railed at me for an hour. When the newspaper guy came, Mom made us sit in the room and watch his sputtering, scandalized facial expressions as she told him the whole story. She wrote him a check for the precious 25 dollars, which I knew would come out of Dad’s child support check. The man walked out the door, and shaking his fist at the sky (not unlike Scarlett O’Hara vowing never to go hungry), he assured us we would never work for the Herald-Starr again.

I tend to always want to put a nice, tidy, red bow on all my childhood stories, and assure the reader that some type of lesson was learned (stay in school, kids; say no to drugs; stealing’s wrong – all lessons I learned the hard way). But in most cases, it took much more than one catastrophe to change my behavior. There were plenty of repercussions to the paper route incident: Sue stopped being our friend and told all the other neighborhood kids that we were delinquents; we had to basically live off potato pancakes and boxes of matzo crackers for the next month because we’d wasted 25 bucks of grocery money; and my mom felt so desperately poor that she got the hair-brained idea of selling funnel cakes at carnivals for the summer (which didn’t “pan” out, luckily). The lesson, for me, was learned many, many years later and only in hindsight. Money meant everything when I didn’t have it; and when I did, it slipped through my fingers as easily as a handful of water. Money meant everything, and it meant nothing. 

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

34 Comments on “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems”

  1. Leigh-Mary

    Wow. That was quite a post. I want to hug nine-year-old-you so bad … and I don’t even hug! You did such a great job telling this story, even though it was hard to hear. Thank you for being so honest in all of your posts.

    On a separate note, I remember the days of the paper boy collecting money door-to-door – that seems like such a long time ago…. so different now.

    1. Ashley

      Thank you so much, LM! I appreciate your kind words and the virtual hug – I feel very special, since you’re not a hugger. 😀 xoxox

  2. Whitney

    Ugh. Beautifully written but so hard to read. I worry so much that my kids are going to become so spoiled because they have “everything,” but the truth is money can mess us up no matter what. Great post.

    1. Ashley

      Thank you so much, Whitney. These are hard for me to write, too! It’s why I’ve only managed to post once in two months! But this is therapeutic too. I worry about my kids being spoiled, but I make sure to do the whole “when I was your age” thing. Not sure how far that goes, lol. Thanks so much for reading!

  3. Debra Hudelson

    You tell such a good story, and make me feel all the feelings! I can smell the pizza! P. S. It was totally worth it, right? 😉 You have a fan in me. I hope you write forever!

  4. Drew Clarke


    Your idea was sound in principle but you were doomed before you opened that Heavenly Pizza Hut door because you had no concept of what things cost. I can empathize with you to a certain degree. Jay and I only got one pair of shoes per year. We lived off doughnuts from my Grandfather’s bakery (Williams Bakery) for two weeks, we never got to go to Kings Dominion etc. However, my parents did save all year so we could go to Nags Head for a week every summer. You, Alyson & Bridgette were deprived the life your peers enjoyed and that can be humiliating, frustrating, and difficult to understand when your young. Beside her religious views and practices, was there another reason why your mother never pursued game full employment? So, when we met at the Kings Charter tennis courts, you and Alyson were just beginning to be exposed to a far more privileged life than you hd ever known?

    1. Ashley

      Yep, we were living “high on the hog” when we moved to King’s Charter, Drew. Our background wasn’t something that teens would ever want to throw out there when they’re meeting new kids their junior and senior year of high school. To answer your question, my mom was in and out of work. She was a special ed teacher. When she started having more kids, the childcare aspect became difficult. She also didn’t like leaving us with other people to take care of! Complicated to understand, and I’m limited in my understanding so not the best person to ask! Thank you so much for reading, and for sharing your encouragement and your background with me.

  5. Amy Denton

    Loved it. You write with so much detail, it’s so easy to imagine being there. I remember getting myself into similar binds as a child. I always came up with “bad” things I thought I could get away with, and then when I couldn’t, I got myself into even deeper messes trying to twist the story. But – I did have an awful lot of fun. And those messes make the BEST stories!

  6. Teri

    I could read your writing all day. I really enjoy your posts and truly think you need to write a book. No lie. We’ll talk Sunday.

  7. Drama Queen's Momma

    I really, truly LOVE reading these stories! You are such an amazing storyteller, I get hooked and can’t stop reading until the very end! (And BELIEVE ME, that’s a serious feat for me, I am a chronic skimmer….sorry folks!) <3 Your biggest fan (in a non-creepy your the shiz kinda way)

  8. Uncle Dubs

    Another great tale from your nimble mind and mischievous spirit, Ashley! I feel your pain at the early rising, like my twin and I grumbling our way down to serve 6:30 mass! Worse when the alarm didn’t go off and we’d get scolded by the scowly nuns. And collecting for the paper route! The old guys whining and yelling, “Don’t ever hit my screen door again!” And your kid hunger reminded me our poor brood. When a loaf of bread (usually day-old) entered the house it was devoured as soon as Mom Left the kitchen – mustard and Bosco sandwiches! ha haaa.

    Excellent telling, as usual, my dear! OH! I saw “Boyhood” and was mesmerized throughout, as the mother reminded me of YOU! Check it out!!! Keep those fabulous scribbles a-comin’!!!!

    1. Ashley

      Uncle Dubs – I’ve missed you! I am sure being an altar boy was a lot more demanding than being a paper girl (for one week). You should be writing stories about your childhood too! And I will check out the movie “Boyhood” – I sure hope the mother’s awesome or I will come after you! 😉 Thanks so much for being a loyal reader, and as always, I love your comments.

  9. Nicole Bauer

    I grew up with a single mom. I know exactly what you experienced. I stole a $5 bill from a friend’s mom. It was lying in her car’s cupholder and I figured it was fair game. I was nine also. She would never let me come over anymore after that. I’ve since learned that every single cent counts. Hardest learned lessons are the most remembered! Great story!

    1. Ashley

      Thanks for sharing your story, Nicole. I bet that was a hard lesson to learn and rough to lose the friendship too! I had many more dalliances with stealing after the paper route, unfortunately. Like I said, I seemed to ALWAYS learn my lessons the hard way. At least I didn’t end up in jail, though! (Crosses herself). 😉 Thanks so much for reading!

  10. Joy Christi

    WOW, quite the lesson! That’s a lot of stress for a 9 yr old. Too bad your waitress wasn’t Weezie, she would know just what to do.
    We were poor growing up, too. My dad did a lot of construction and that kind of work for our school so we got money off of our tuition. The church would deliver those boxes of non-perishable food to our door, which embarrassed all of us but not enough not to eat the food, of course.
    I was super grateful for uniforms, so no one could tell who the poor people were. I wish all schools had uniforms. Oooorrr at least that we could afford to send our kids to a school that did.
    Great story. Real life right here.

    1. Ashley

      Lol, yes I wish Weezie would’ve been there! Ha! I’m sorry your childhood was rough, too, Joy. It is hard when kids are always measuring each other up and often measuring their worth by material possessions. I was lucky because I had a Grandma on my dad’s side that did all of our clothes-buying, and she was quite the style maven. We had uniforms too, but on our Dress Up Days, we could dress in the clothes our Grandma bought us and stick it to all the Judgy Judgersons. 😉 I’m always so fulfilled when I read other people’s comments who are relating in some way – small or large – to my weird childhood. It gives me purpose, so THANK YOU.

  11. Ashley Fuchs

    I felt your pain reading this. It is so stressful to be poor. People tend to romanticise poverty in movies and books: poverty sucks. And children are left not learning the Life skills that they need. No one prepared you to receive all of that money at that age. It took a lot of courage to tell this story.

    1. Ashley

      Thanks, Ashley. It’s always hard to write these stories, so I’m amazed when people respond to well to them. I appreciate your analysis and your support!

  12. Ariel

    Your writing is reminding me of David Sedaris – unique and kinda crazy childhood memories written with rich detail and humor throughout. I love reading your posts! And I really want to eat Pizza Hut now 🙂

  13. Ansley West

    Your writing is compelling and heartfelt. You should definitely write a book. Certainly some of us have learned money lessons the hard way, especially when you are young and compare your circumstances to those of your peers.

  14. Laura Jo

    Dude, I had a paper route as a 12-13 year old. It was my first experience with earning some spending money. As my dad was a banker, the rule was half of my earnings HAD to be deposited into a savings account that I could access for big purchases. In a year, I had saved enough for a Schwinn 10 speed. BUT I wasn’t allowed to get curved handlebars because they weren’t “safe.” Can we say old school helicopter parents??? As always, your writing mesmerizes me. XOXO

    1. Ashley

      Thanks so much for commenting, Laura Jo! Your dad had the right idea – I’m sure his lessons have served you well in adulthood. It took me years to figure out how to save money and not spend it as soon as it hit my pocket! I say Yay for helicopter parents!

  15. qwertygirl

    A very compelling story, Ashley. Beautifully told. Reminds me of a story my dad used to tell of when he was a kid. They lived in rural north Louisiana, and my dad was at school one day with a bag of…something–chips or something like that. Somehow he dropped it on the playground and the bag spilled. Being 9 or whatever he was, he walked away from it and left the spilled stuff in the dust (I assume he took the bag to the trash). Then he noticed two little kids out in the dirt, picking up whatever it was, brushing them off and eating them. It wasn’t because they were dumb kids, as you can probably imagine, but because they had no food. My dad told my grandmother, who went out the next day and bought two bags of whatever it was, took them to the school, got my dad to point the kids out to her, and gave them the bags. I like to think those kids remember my grandmother as a kind person to this day.

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