Watching my mom cry over some lost change taught me to protect every dollar I earn, and that lesson has served me well for years

Watching my mom cry over some lost change taught me to protect every dollar I earn, and that lesson has served me well for years

April 7, 2021
  • My family collected cans to swap for change to pay the rent, and we once left some cash behind.
  • My mom was devastated. Seeing her so upset taught me the power of money and tracking every dollar.
  • As an adult, I’ve kept a close watch on my finances and it’s helped me achieve many money goals.

When I was about 10, my family collected cans so we could recycle them for cash. We lived on a block of subsidized housing in a city in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, and every bit of money we could scrounge up went to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. 

I remember one trip to a nearby strip mall to a standalone, self-serve recycling machine. It was a hot summer day, and my mom and I were taking turns dropping plastic bottles or aluminum cans into the machine. In exchange, the machine would shoot out coins.

When we got home, she realized she had left a handful of change in the machine and she began to cry uncontrollably. My mom was stressed out from raising two kids on her own while working a full-time job, but seeing her react that way because she’d misplaced what probably amounted to a few dollars taught me the power of money at an early age. I realized that if you don’t have enough to cover the bills, it could lead to a lot of stress and hardship.

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The experience with the cans shaped my relationship with money for the rest of my life. As I got older, I developed a vigilance about my money and how I managed it. I’ve probably pinched pennies more than most, but my dedication to money management has helped me achieve many goals.

I got my first job when I was 14

Through a city-wide employment program for teens, I got my first job the summer before my freshman year of high school. I worked at a center for film and television production research, and made $4 an hour and put in about 15 hours a week.

It certainly wasn’t a lot of money, but it was mine to do whatever I pleased. I saved most of it so that I could have some money for back-to-school clothes, and to grab a smoothie and some fashion jewelry at Claire’s at the mall with my friends.

I remember learning early on to think about purchases as trade-offs: If I spent $10 today at the mall, that means $10 less for back-to-school shopping. To this day I think about trade-offs when making a purchase. I ask myself: If I spend $20 on lunch today, that means less money to spend on a larger goal. Or, that’s $20 I could put toward a vacation fund. That sort of thing.

I kept tabs on my finances by balancing my checkbook

Yes, this was back in the ’90s, when people used check registers to keep track of how much money they had in their bank accounts. I opened my first checking account when I was 15 through a local credit union and was a tad obsessed with making sure I recorded every purchase I made with my debit card.

It taught me that keeping a close watch on where my money went meant that I wouldn’t be blindsided should the number in my bank account drop. It also meant that I could plan better and make better-informed spending choices. I usually checked at least once a week to see how much I had in my bank account, and roughly planned out my purchases for the week.

While my expenses at the time were pretty minor — buying lunch, going to the store after school to buy a bag of chips, a CD every now and again — I felt confident that I had enough to cover it because I kept regular tabs on my bank balances. 

I saved for the things I wanted

One summer, my bestie and I wanted to save for a shopping spree to spend at our favorite clothing stores at the mall. Our goal was to each tuck away $500. 

We worked hard trying to make as much money as we could — watering neighbors’ lawns, babysitting, hosting yard sales. While we both fell short of our goals — I racked up about $150 — it taught us to put in as much effort as we could, and to save for specific goals.. 

I opened a retirement account at 21 

During my last year of college, I opened a Roth IRA through my credit union. I didn’t put in too much at the time — it was about $100 or so — but it was a reminder that the sooner I put money away for a nest egg, the better. 

I ended up forgetting about that account, and didn’t save for retirement until I got my first “real” job a few years later. I did regret not putting some money into my account each month, even when I was working part-time at a coffee shop, living at my mom’s, and making about $800 a month. When I got a day job and my employer offered a 401(k) account, I started by contributing 3% out of each paycheck. I bumped up the percentage when I could.

Because I witnessed firsthand how stressful life can be when you don’t have enough money, I developed some habits to be mindful of my money. My dedication to keeping track of where my money goes, to save for specific goals, and to think about my future also taught me early on that you need to keep a careful watch of your finances so that you can plan better. In turn, you’ll have greater options and more freedom. 

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