Forever Twenty-Bucked

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    If you’re like me, you almost never see it coming.

    It’s a bolt out of the blue, a maddening surprise, a whack across the back of the head when you least expect it. And there’s nothing to do but hunch your shoulders, roll your eyes, and make that sound you make – half-grunt, half-sigh – that lets anyone in earshot know it’s happened yet again.

    You’ve been twenty-bucked.

    In the day-after-day scramble of scheduling, childrearing, and strategic bill-paying that puts you constantly in search of new ways for Peter to pay Paul, there is a special place for certain family expenses and costs that never show up on any QuickBooks spreadsheet or ever-changing Google Calendar.

    You know what I’m talking about. And, like me, you’ve probably come to accept it. Unpredictable, unavoidable, and nearly always occupying a category of transaction I like to call “stupid,” it’s that twenty-dollar hit on your wallet that goes toward the strangest merchandise and the weirdest of whims.

    Note that I am not talking about the perpetual trickle of fives and tens that escape from your pocket on a daily basis. There is a particular, honorable area among our personal purchases for the casual venti latte; the latest issue of the New Yorker; the purpose-driven and planned-out trip to the frozen yogurt shop where an old, tattered coupon will get you two small cups of soft-serve and toppings for the price of one.

    No, I’m talking about the new iPhone charger cord you need because the dog chewed the plug-in jack off the old one. I mean the 50-foot, heavy-duty, orange electrical cord you got from Home Depot after you sliced through the one you were using to trim the Japanese hollies. I’m referring to the new retractable dog leash you bought to replace the one that exploded in your hand when the dog suddenly decided to bolt after a rabbit.

    They all cost twenty bucks, and like the mushrooms that keep growing all over our yard because I neglect to treat the soil (because a bag of fertilizer would easily cost twenty bucks), there is no way to stay ahead of them or even predict where they might pop up next.

    I suppose we might gain some ground on this dumb money if we were a family who knew how to plan ahead. But buying mega-packs of paper towels and toilet paper bought in bulk and stacked in the pantry just isn’t our way. At our house, we live a hand-to-mouth existence, buying only what we need when we need it and blithely soldiering on without a proper supply of 75-watt light bulbs on hand at all times.

    Which brings us back to the steady stream of bills adorned with the face of Andrew Jackson.

    Need to run out and buy a single black ink cartridge for your home printer because your child’s pre-algebra worksheet must be printed, completed, and turned in first thing tomorrow?

    Twenty bucks.

    Need to purchase that keepsake panoramic photo of your son’s travel soccer team that won’t fit in any standard store-bought frame and will instead sit ignored on your dining room table for the next nine months?

    Twenty bucks.

    Find out at 11 p.m. that you must buy two-dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts before school because this is the Friday your daughter takes her turn bringing in tasty treats for her entire homeroom class?

    Twenty bucks. (Actually $17.91, but you get the picture.)

    C’mon, now. Do it with me. Ugh. Sigh.

    Yes, it’s true that some of this malarkey must be taken in stride. Say you’re running a child from play practice to dance class and there’s no time tonight to arrange a nutritious sit-down dinner. A quick stop for two burrito bowls at Chipotle is the only solution ($20).

    Or here you are at Walgreen’s because your doctor insists that the time has come at long last to include a 300 mg dose of 100% pure omega-3 krill oil in your daily diet ($20).

    Or the time has come again to honor the efforts of one or more hard-working teachers over the holidays or at the end of the school year. How about a decent dose of Starbucks presented in the form of a gift card? Twenty bucks sounds like a tidy and generous amount – and since my wife is also a hard-working teacher, I fully endorse this particular outlay because she will invariably get twenty-bucked in return.

    But let’s look beyond the apparent twenty-dollar necessities (jars of overpriced cosmetics so numerous that we could open our own Clinique counter; monthly trips to Sport Clips because my son insists on getting his hair cut while surrounded by TV screens broadcasting professional soccer games). What about the random and superfluous twenty-dollar nuttiness that fills our cupboards and litters our lives, egged on by our bank’s ATM machines, which happily spit out fast-cash withdrawals in twenty-dollar increments?

    Here is a George Foreman grill, stuffed into one of the kitchen cabinets along with all the other ghosts of good-cooking intentions gone bad. A Washington Nationals baseball hat, bought at the game to soothe a child’s begging, now sits on a shelf with a dozen other hats, never to be worn again. I just found a Halloween mask from last year in the front hall closet – George W. Bush in stretchy rubber. By my calculations, based on its $20 price tag and our teenaged kids’ quickie trick-or-treat run around the neighborhood, we paid about a dollar a minute for my boy to double as our forty-third president.

    But at least our children are now starting to earn some crisp, green twenties of their own (though the refund for some returned Forever 21 jewelry came back not as cash but as credit – twenty dollars now trapped in a plastic card we promptly misplaced). Which does give me some extra time to wander into the coffee shop, order up a venti latte, and ponder exactly why shipping an unused school textbook back to the publisher – twenty bucks – costs more than the book itself.

    Oops. Thanks to that one, I’m now out of cash. Hey, sweetie. Anything left on that Starbucks gift card?

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    Tony Farrell
    Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. He lives in Richmond’s West End with his wife, Laura, and their children, Lucy and Will. He writes for the DadZone every other month and shares theater reviews occasionally too.