Learned From Less

Ken Cutler

HOW MANY OF OUR adult financial habits are shaped by childhood experiences? My parents, who grew up during the Great Depression, weren’t fans of providing allowances for my sisters and me. My oldest sister, Gail, got no pocket money but remembers being offered a quarter to fill a grocery bag with dandelions pulled from the yard. Lynn, 10 years older than me, received a quarter a week for a short period.

My first allowance was also a quarter a week, which I started receiving around age 10. That may not sound like much, but I felt fortunate. At the right store—Grants—I could buy three full-size candy bars for that quarter. Baseball cards, my other big extravagance, were a dime a pack.

It seemed that all my friends had more money than me. One friend’s dad gave him $5 a month, paid out all at once. I suspect it was doled out that way in an attempt to teach him to budget his allowance for the whole month. The lesson was lost on my friend. Shortly after receiving his monthly $5, he tended to blow the entire wad on candy, soda, baseball cards, comic books and whatever else caught his fancy. It was fun to hang out with him right after he got paid.

Some of my friends had newspaper routes. These guys were flush with cash. They could afford many more packs of baseball cards than me. Since I couldn’t buy my way to a superior baseball card collection, I had to learn to be a shrewd trader. If I came into possession of a card coveted by one of my richer friends, I’d negotiate getting a large number of their unwanted duplicate cards in return. Then I’d use one or more of those duplicates to execute a similar trade with a different friend who also held excess cards. In this way, I built up my card collection on a tight budget.

Perceiving myself as impoverished compared to my peers, I was always on the lookout for extra money. My parents chuckled as I checked every public phone booth we passed, looking for forgotten change. Every now and then, I had the last laugh when I found a dime or two.

One early financial event sticks out. I accompanied my father to his business after hours. While he was doing work in his office, I looked in all the trash cans to see what I could find. I could hardly believe it when I found a crumpled $1 bill in one of the cans. My dad laughed and let me keep it. A month’s pay for so little effort.

Inflation in the 1970s hit hard, and eventually I negotiated a raise to $1 a week. I still had to be careful with my money. There were now more things than baseball cards and candy bars to buy. I loved going to the nearby mall in Moorestown, New Jersey. For music, I frequented the discount bins at Sears. They often contained record albums for 99 cents each, 75% or more off the original list price. At Woolworths, discounted 45 RPM records could be had for a quarter, and there were some great deals to be had on bulk candy. I also had my hobbies of collecting coins and postage stamps to fund. The mall had the Koin Korner to satisfy those needs.

As I entered my teen years, I told my parents I wanted a paper route to make more money. My mother was not in favor and, as a compromise, my allowance was raised for the last time, to $3 a week. In return, I had to mow the lawn and take out the trash.

My allowance ended when I got my first paying job, right after I turned 16. I was hired by the Moorestown Public Library for the princely sum of $2.25 an hour. This was below minimum wage—the library had an exemption—but I didn’t mind. I liked the feeling of having a real job and gaining access to the “employees only” areas of the library. I was in charge of the massive magazine room, and I got positive feedback from my supervisor.

I worked there after school and every other Saturday for a year and a half. My parents had explained that I’d be responsible for buying all my textbooks and funding incidental expenses while in college. That meant I needed to earn and save money. My modest passbook savings account began to grow.

What were the effects of my early experiences with money? Not having it in abundance as a youngster most likely made me view the value of a dollar differently from my more cash-flush and spendthrift peers. Whereas a dime may have meant little to a kid who was raking in $10 or $15 a week from a paper route, it remained a significant sum for me.

The habit of spending with care got ingrained in me early on. As an adult, I’m fairly certain I get more satisfaction from finding a good deal than the average person. On the downside, I often feel uncomfortable making large but necessary purchases, though my older self is getting better about that.

This year, we had to replace both our roof and a vehicle. To my surprise, I wasn’t stressed about these large expenditures. In both cases, I didn’t agonize over whether I was getting the best possible price or picking the right option. I didn’t even feel the need to create a new spreadsheet. That’s progress.

I learned as a teenager that I needed to save money to achieve longer-term goals. That continued to be the case throughout my working life. The goals changed from buying college textbooks to things like purchasing a car, buying a house, funding retirement and paying for my children’s education.

My parents weren’t poor, and they could have easily afforded to give me an allowance commensurate with those of my peers. They also could have paid for my college textbooks and given me spending money for college. But by not doing so, they taught me thrift. That lesson has lasted a lifetime.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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