Show me the money

Show me the money

Last weekend I had the privilege of working at a sausage sizzle at our local hardware store. I use the word privilege deliberately, because it was actually quite fun working with a bunch of lovely people from my brass band, all of whom were giving up their Sunday for the sake of our organisation. It was hot and greasy work for the two cooks, who worked all day uncomplainingly.

They gave me the task of taking the money and giving people the correct change. It was a cash only situation which perplexed many of our customers who clearly hadn’t used actual money for some considerable time, if ever. I made a couple of mistakes with the more complicated orders (five sausages, three with onion, an extra sausage for the dog and three drinks), but mostly I could do the unsophisticated mental arithmetic fairly easily.

It was interesting to note how many young people seemed hesitant to hand me actual cash (a Covid thing?) or proffered too much money. In one case, a young boy around 12 handed me both a ten-dollar and five-dollar note when his order totalled $8.50. He looked vaguely terrified, as if he was using foreign money and didn’t know its actual value, which was possibly the case. Many customers forgot to take their change (perhaps they were eager to eat their sausages) and I had to chase after them. I could have made quite a tidy profit for the band, had I been a less scrupulous person.

It reminded me of being on canteen duty when my children were little. The tiny kids whose heads barely reached the counter would reach up with a small handful of change and say, ‘what can I buy with this’?

Of course it’s not just young people who find cash confusing or hard to manage. When my daughter was in high school, she worked at the local supermarket and a lot of the older people who shopped there would just hand over their purses and ask her to take the right money because they couldn’t see very well, or their arthritic fingers couldn’t select the right coins. Just as well she was honest too.

Many people struggle with mental arithmetic. It’s a life skill that some people miss out on, either through missing too much school or living in situations of neglect.

Years ago, when I first started teaching adults, my first classroom experience was teaching a group of long-term unemployed people ‘personal development’. It was part of a scheme to get people off the dole and back to work, popular in the 1980s when unemployment rates were high. It soon became clear that the entire group of mainly middle-aged men were not only illiterate, but innumerate. After a few days of encouraging them to talk about their feelings (a total disaster) it occurred to me that the lessons I’d prepared were preposterous and ill-conceived, so I switched to more practical tasks such as how to use a phone book or read a street directory. These tasks are hard, if not impossible, if you don’t know the alphabet works. Simple arithmetic also perplexed them, so I took in a few games of junior monopoly* and they took turns being the banker. Soon they were all wheeling and dealing like big city investors. In the days before credit-cards and smart phones, it was fun and hopefully useful, especially for people who had little money to begin with.

And although people rarely use cash these days, it doesn’t mean they aren’t being taken advantage of. If people can’t do simple arithmetic, how are they to know if they are being overcharged? They could be charged twice them for items and they probably wouldn’t notice. I’m sure many people don’t bother checking their bank statements.

A friend told me that cash is now considered so old school and retro that it’s coming back into fashion, like record players and tape decks. That made me laugh. Soon they’ll be teaching people to cook and sew.

* Monopoly was invented by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie in 1933 to highlight the wrongs of making money at the expense of others. Charles Darrow stole her idea and sold it to the Parker Brothers, who made a fortune.

Who Invented Monopoly?

Attitudes to money

Attitudes to money

My father died shortly before my fourth birthday, leaving my mother with three young children, a half-finished house, and no income.

He was 33, a newly qualified architect just starting out in his own business when he died. He designed our home, which was very modern for its time. It was open plan, with a huge kitchen/dining room and a laundry overlooking the front yard. This was very unusual as most kitchens and laundries were at the back of the house in those days. My mother had insisted that she wanted to have a view of the street when she was in the kitchen or doing the laundry. She disliked housework and menial chores (it runs in the family) and didn’t want to be stuck away somewhere at the back of the house slaving over a hot stove in the kitchen or doing the endless laundry that comes with a growing family.

Our family home designed by my Dad, Les Moon.

We had beautiful polished floorboards in the lounge room and a fireplace. This was odd given that we lived in Perth where the winters aren’t really that cold, but we all loved that fireplace and I have happy memories of sitting on my grandmother’s lap eating hot buttered toast in front of a roaring fire. We’d crouch in front of the fire with long forks trying to get our thick white bread nice and brown without burning the edges, but we secretly loved the burnt bits. They added excitement and texture, elevating the toast to something magical.

We moved into the house before it was really finished, so when my dad became ill, we had many working bees at our house. Friends and people from our church would come around on weekends to build cupboards, paint walls and hang doors. They even made us a cubby in the backyard from leftover building materials. They fashioned a little front doorstep, and we pushed our feet into the wet cement and put our initials underneath in a neat row–BJM, in that order, oldest to youngest. As I grew older, I would marvel at how my feet had mysteriously grown large enough to fit into the impressions made by my two big sisters. 

Family photo
Family snap circa 1959 – Jennifer, Les, Beverley, Nola, Margaret (L to R)

When my father died, my mum survived by cleaning the local hairdressers, taking in ironing and doing whatever she could to make ends meet. Sadly, her father (our grandfather) also died in the same year, so it was a difficult time both emotionally and financially, but we got used to wearing hand-me-down clothes and eating meals that had been stretched out with cheap fillers like pasta, oats, and bread.

One of my favourite desserts was made from Weetbix layered with apples and sultanas and served with hot custard. Years later, my mother told me she used to make this when there wasn’t really enough of the main course to go around.

I’ve got no doubt that these experiences have shaped my attitudes towards money and I often struggle to understand how young families can afford to take their young children to the local café where breakfast costs $40 or $50 dollars for a family, and that’s without any smashed avocado!

This isn’t a criticism of young families. I can fully appreciate that times have changed in so many ways, but I find it hard to comprehend that people seem to spend fairly large amounts of money on things that I consider luxuries. I still feel guilty buying take-away coffee even though I can well afford to these days, but I’m also very aware of where these feelings come from and I know they are hard to shake.

Once when my children were toddlers, my mother sent me a five-dollar note inside my birthday card with instructions to buy myself a cup of coffee at the shops as a treat. She knew me too well. There was no money to spare and it would have been unthinkable to spend money on coffee when I needed the cash to put petrol in the car so that I could get to playgroup.

Now I’m heading towards retirement and I’m finding it hard to accept the idea that one day soon my income will drop and I’ll have less coming into my bank account. Over my career I’ve transitioned from a well-paid job with the national broadcaster, moving to part-time work with TAFE and back to full-time work when the kids were bigger, but I’m still thrilled when I get paid every fortnight.

I’m hoping that when I eventually call it quits, I’ll have learnt to be generous with myself (and with others) and not get caught up in the fear of not having enough. I know that I have enough, as well as a generous and supportive husband, so these fears are totally unfounded, but it helps me to understand that my fears are rooted in experience.

It also helps to remind myself that being relatively poor wasn’t even a bad experience. We never missing out on anything. We had clean clothes, a nice house, a loving mother and plenty to eat. We were satisfied with our lot, so I hope that as I move towards the next phase of my life, I’ll be happy knowing that there’s enough of everything, including money for coffee.