The Jar of Money

December 1st, 2009

In a slow-moving–well, not-moving–checkout line this morning, I realized I was spoiled.

I was at a convenience store buying a bottle of Diet Coke to drink in my office hour on campus. After an uncharacteristic wait, I looked ahead to see why the five-deep line wasn’t carrying on. There was a woman at the front of the line, counting out change, adding it up to pay for a muffin. She stared at her handful of change with slow deliberation.

Impatient thoughts in my head were followed by rationalization. Come on. Couldn’t this line be a lot more efficient? I planned to reach the front of the line then whip out two dollar bills, get a handful of loose coins that I wouldn’t bother to look at, which I would later in the day lose somewhere in my car seat, or else empty into a jar I keep by my front door. Sometimes I’ll fish some change out of the jar and count it up if I’m planning to use a vending machine that day–have the coins nice and ready–but usually I just drop the coins there and don’t think about it until the jar gets full, when I think it’s turned into real money. I rationalized that the world would move much faster if everyone did it that way.

We say that money doesn’t grow on trees–but paper money comes from trees, and maybe we like it because we’re encouraged to spend it like it’s plentiful. We’re coming up with new ways to avoid thinking about money, which makes spending it even more smooth. You don’t even have to hold any money to spend money. You wave a card and you’re set. If I’m reduced to spending change, I take extra pains to make the spending as smooth as possible, sometimes counting out the stacks of quarters even before going into a store. I don’t know if the woman at the front of the line was poor, or destitute, or homeless; I simply felt a little embarrassed for her, being unable to pay the simple way.

People talk about recessions and depressions, and certainly we’ve seen declines in recent months. But I think not only of the Great Depression, but of the way of life for most of the world through most of history, and realize that most of this setback is insignificant. Consider the word “darning.” For our great-grandparents, a sock with a hole worn in it was still worth saving; the hassle of mending the hole was less demanding than the cost of buying a new sock. It boggles my mind a little bit, because throughout my life, the proper response to a hole in a sock is to throw it out and buy a new pair. Has this changed for anyone? I know the recession has hit many people harder than it hit me, but I don’t think many Americans have been forced to return to a sock-darning lifestyle. In essence, it seems we’re worried that a recession might–horror of horrors–force us to value every sock we own, force us to keep track of every nickel and dime; not that we’ll be homeless and shoeless and sockless, but that we’ll have to start living like most of the world through most of history.

The jar of money has enough coins in it to feed a family in rural India for a week. I have checks I haven’t bothered to cash, since my main sources of income are direct deposited. I don’t really worry about money, at least not in terms of daily needs; I worry that someday I might worry about money.

I realized that my frustration was directed at the one person in the line who was thinking about coins, who was paying attention to each nickel she spent, who took the time to recognize exactly what she was spending. I was lucky to be waiting in that line for the opportunity to spend $1.49 on twenty ounces of diet soda.

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