Making Cents

Richard Quinn

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 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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