The summer of 1986 meant riding my Schwinn Thrasher eight blocks to Lafayette Pharmacy where I cashed in my nickels for a bag of assorted Jolly Ranchers. The loot cost me $1.67, and the trip took a solid twenty minutes of pedaling hard without any hills.
With only one gear, on my plastic BMX seat, and rocking my first-generation Sony Walkman (with no belt clip), the adventure was a lesson in independence. There was a thrill in spending my money on something I wanted, which made up for the days when the AA batteries died or the Tom Petty cassette got eaten. When I got back home and dumped out the Ranchers and counted the peach-flavored ones, the mission was complete. (I must have been the only kid who liked that flavor because they don’t make them anymore). The quick gratification from a dollar spent in a candy store makes any kid appreciate economics. These days, unless you go for a single Airhead or Peppermint Pattie, there isn’t much to choose from that can be bought with the coins in the sofa.
At home, we’ve introduced the boys to the idea of spending and saving money. To start, we ordered a small safe for each boy. We told them, “If it is important, put it in your safe.” Like Boo Radley’s carved soap, the treasures in Levon’s safe are strictly sentimental: a few colored rocks, a journal, two LEGO men. He took our saving advice, but he finds the technology of protection tough, so we wrote his combination inside his bedside lampshade. Since then, I keep finding him in his room, peering up into the lamp, trying to read his secret code. With regularity, the safe locks him out after another incorrect attempt. Then, I get the emergency key, and we start again.
Atticus, on the other hand, started to learn about saving when he broke his bedroom window with a baseball this spring. I explained just how many weeks it would take to repay the $120 fix if every penny of his allowance (one dollar a week) went toward the glass. In the past, when the boys have asked for guinea pigs, scuba gear, a roof for the treehouse, and a pool, they’ve heard us say, “Well, maybe you should save up for that.” None of those conversations seemed to matter until the window was broken, and the money wasn’t there. Then, Granddaddy donated his dresser jar full of coins, and the boys scored two years of his loose change. They couldn’t believe all those coins added up to $183.83.
Atticus begged to take his own coins to Kroger’s Coinstar, sure he would have at least two hundred bucks. Instead, the total was closer to thirty. On the way out of the store, with his new greenbacks in his hand, he asked for some watermelon gum.
Dad wisdom: “If you want to spend your money, go ahead – but why don’t you save it instead?”
Atticus: “Yeah, I want a Nintendo Switch.”
Currently, we have a bootleg version of the original 1987 NES console. It cost $27.99 on eBay and came directly from China with a stickered customs form. Instead of inserting games, you push a button and scroll through forty-five screens, looking for your favorite. Once your game is over, you must repeat the slow process, navigating a foreign language. The boys loved it, until they came across a YouTube star playing Mario Odyssey on a Nintendo Switch. He let them in on the secret that thirty-one years is an extraordinary amount of time in tech advancement. Today’s Mario is a 3D game full of power moons, a magical cap, and a quest to save Princess Peach through many kingdoms. As I explained to the boys, it also costs a bit more than the price of two busted windows, which to them, quickly translates as a big-ticket item.
For me, each block on that Schwinn was a build-up in anticipation of getting something I wanted. But squirreling away for that candy meant nothing once I found my own big- ticket item – a Pearl drum set. It took all summer and all fall cutting yards for twelve bucks a pop. Each week, I rode on my same Schwinn to Boykin’s Music and handed over my earnings. And each week, I watched what I owed decrease on the sales receipt until the day we loaded the tom-toms into our Toyota station wagon.
Money meant little until I had to wait for those drums.
Atticus is the one now keeping a ledger of how much more he needs to claim his Nintendo Switch. The anticipation is fun to watch. At his grandmother’s recent birthday party, he was given the job of working the cooler. I went over the script with him. He knew the drink options and made a “tips” sign and stuck it above his shirt pocket, like an ATM deposit slot. Then, he got to work, mastering his lines: “You look like you need a beverage.” And, “Can I get you another?” There’s something about an entrepreneur chasing his dream and rallying support. He was a hustler.
At the end of the party, the cooler was empty, and Atticus had $33.25 more for his cause. He put it in a Ziplock bag to cart home and place inside his safe.
“Dad,” he said, “I almost have enough.”
Tom Petty was right: The waiting… is the hardest part.