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Making Cents

Richard Quinn  |  June 24, 2020

IT ISN’T HARD these days to find media stories about family financial troubles—living paycheck to paycheck, no retirement savings, no emergency money and so on. These news reports often include complaints about the limited opportunities to get ahead financially.

That got me thinking about my own work history. My memory of earning money goes back to 1953, when I was age 10. It was about then that I recall understanding that you needed money to get stuff, like a peashooter, caps for a cap gun and goldfish.

An allowance was out of the question, because my parents were focused on paying the rent. My father was a salesman at an auto dealership. He didn’t get paid unless he sold a car. We lived under the 1930s motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”

I had to be creative to raise cash. There were many ways to make money in my youth, some of which may be considered demeaning today:

  1. In the 1950s, a soda bottle had a two-cent deposit. Convincing neighbors to give you their empties was a skill. Rummaging through the local park’s trash cans yielded more empties and, on occasion, the prized large bottle worth a nickel deposit. Two of those big boys got me an ice cream cone and three, believe it or not, a slice of pizza.
  2. As I grew older, I needed more cash for the movies, buying presents and more expensive stuff, like model airplane and car kits. I expanded my work repertoire to include raking leaves and shoveling snow. Today, that seems to be passé. In the 45 years I lived in my house, I can count on one hand the times a teenager asked to rake leaves or shovel snow.
  3. I grew up in a building with 24 apartments. A giant coal-burning furnace presented income opportunities, by helping the building superintendent shovel coal and take out the ashes. That building also had dumbwaiters. Pulling them up to each apartment to collect garbage every evening meant more cash.
  4. The apartment building presented me and my sister with a captive customer base—for shoe shining. Also, our neighborhood version of Our Gang put on plays and carnivals, charging parents a dime for the privilege of attending. Throwing a wet sponge at my face was popular at our carnivals, though I’m not sure why I was selected for that role.
  5. We tried our hand at a lemonade stand, too—with the juice freshly made. It was my first lesson in business failure. Nobody wanted to pay for quality. The next time it was Kool-Aid.
  6. About age 13, I talked my way into working at a pet shop after school and on Saturdays. The pay: $5 a week and an occasional free goldfish. I became adept at cleaning parakeet cages.
  7. Back in the 1950s, you could sell things like greeting cards door to door and earn prizes. Mine was a .22 rifle sent to me in the mail. It’s still one of my prized possessions—because I earned it. Imagine today sending your kids door to door all over town, let alone to earn a rifle.
  8. The quest for cash became more serious around age 15. I got an afterschool job at the local library for 75 cents an hour shelving books and running the mimeograph machine. By the time I graduated high school, I was earning $1.20 an hour.
  9. That library experience came in handy a few years later. While in the army, I got a part-time job in the base library.
  10. Once instilled, the desire to earn money is there to stay. After I retired, I started my blog. Why not earn a little extra cash? Last month, the blog’s revenue was $5.05. But the thing is, it isn’t really the final score that’s important, but the quest. I think that explains the frugal nature of your everyday millionaire, who enjoys the challenge of earning money, but sees no need to flaunt it.

When I was a kid, there always seemed to be a way to make money if you were motivated, but times have changed. The bottles have become plastic throwaways, the coal is natural gas, shoes are $200 sneakers, libraries have fallen prey to search engines, kids play on tablet computers and suburban homes have snowblowers.

Is all opportunity and motivation lost? I wonder if kids today even need extra money or give any thought to earning it. Many of them seem to have plenty of stuff. While working at the local pet shop may be a thing of the past, I shudder to think of our future if there are truly no opportunities for children to use their creativity to make a few dollars, while also learning the value of money.

Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.com. Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Scared DebtlessWhat If and Despite Myself. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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Mik Barbasol
Mik Barbasol
9 months ago

Many thanks for asking the right questions… no matter how painful.

Peter Blanchette
Peter Blanchette
9 months ago

Relax. It is not considered demeaning to ask people to give you their deposit bottles. I have this kid in my neighborhood who picks up mine regularly. He has a little wagon that he drags around from house to house. Things aren’t as bad as you think.

Thomas
Thomas
9 months ago

I would say there are more opportunities than ever for young, creative people to make money. Most of those opportunities involve the internet, though.

bart37064
bart37064
9 months ago

I made $87 in one day shoveling snow at age 17. I learned the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.

Thomas Taylor
Thomas Taylor
9 months ago

Growing up, I did yard work for several neighbors and had a paper route. When I was old enough, I then worked as a bagger at a grocery store, and so on. The yard work is all done by “Landscape Maintenance” crews and the paper routes are long one. A sign of the times and perhaps employment laws, legal liability issues, etc. play a part as well. The grocery store jobs are there, but most kids aren’t interested. Sometimes the parents are the ones who think if their kids work it’s demeaning to them, especially if the Jones’ kids are not working. Not all, but I’ve seen it.

medhat
medhat
9 months ago

Thanks Richard for another great read. I think, especially in the current climate, that the products of hard work and perseverance are being conflated with equally true issues of systemic inequities in society. I do believe that ultimately, cream rises to the top, but history is replete with cases where prolonged oppression has many not willing to wait for enduring legislative solutions.

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
9 months ago

Ha! I had a very similar experience with a lemonade stand. We made so little money – that lesson stuck a very long time.

I think we enshrine certain types of experiences because the values we learned from them were timeless (I have), yet parenting taught me that it’s about more than the specific experience, it’s the values that we’ve found ways to share.

BestBoy
BestBoy
9 months ago

Great article. I lived my life similarly…there was no allowance. So it behooved me to earn money myself: shoveling snow, getting the mail for an elderly neighbor (in my small town you had to go to post office and pick up your mail), pumping gas. When I was 14 (in 1969) I worked for a neighbor tending their very large gardens. But I only earned $0.50/hour. You got $0.75 in the local library in the late 1950s?! I was robbed. 🙁

The summer before I went off to university in the early 1970s, I worked full time for a construction company putting up drywall…it was backbreaking work. My pay was $2.00/hour. But it allowed me to cover the parent contribution to tuition (my parents refused). While in college, I worked two different part time jobs and full time each summer. My (ivy league) education was my most valuable investment and my university was an amazing supporter all four years with scholarships and outright grants of aid. I return the favor by contributing to financial aid funds.

My wife and I were able to retire early by being smart about money, especially in how we spent it over a period of about 25 years. Now we live comfortably on our hard won invested assets; but still have a savings goal in the annual budget! These habits never go away.

DrLefty
DrLefty
9 months ago

I was a lot like you as a kid. I came from a family of modest means and was always looking for a way to make money. At age 7, I started a weekly neighborhood newspaper and sold it door to door for 2 cents. That lasted four months. There were lemonade stands, hot dog stands, carnivals, and shows put on for the ticket sales. When I was 12 or so, I bought a bunch of mistletoe at Christmastime for 25 cents a bunch and sold it door to door for 50 cents. By 12 I was babysitting and house sitting for neighbors, and by 16, I had regular after school jobs. Like you, I worked at the local library shelving books.

I grew up to be a university professor, not an entrepreneur, but I’ve never lost the satisfaction of earning my own money and being independent.

David J. Kupstas
David J. Kupstas
9 months ago

Ah, yes. My parents lived in the depression. My allowance was a pittance. In the ’80s, I collected aluminum cans. If the rates were high enough, each can was worth about a penny. Striking gold was finding a glass returnable soda bottle. Those babies were worth 10 cents.

R Quinn
R Quinn
9 months ago

It’s gratifying to hear of some many others with similar experiences, but on he other hand I suspect they are all in the retirement age range.

Dwayne73
Dwayne73
2 months ago

I started delivering newspapers at age 11. Legal age was 12. I always had a job, sometimes two. I always accepted overtime. I worked shift work for 32 years which had built in overtime. I figured that I worked enough OT hours that it equated to an extra 5 years of work. I saved and invested my money. I retired at 55. Don’t feel bad about it since I figured I worked for 49 years. Now my job is CFO, managing my portfolio, which still requires a few hours a week.

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