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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.