Pennies For Produce

Our Farmer’s Market opened late last month, and my mouth immediately started watering for homegrown produce like you would not believe! We were among the first to arrive on a rainy Saturday morning and it was more than an hour later before we left with 3 bags of microgreens, sunflower sprouts, and spinach; a bunch of radishes, a gallon of strawberries, a loaf of bread, a jar of sugar-free blackberry jam, and an aloe plant. We spent $46.50 (nearly a quarter of the “market money” we had saved over the winter).

Though we love our Farmer’s Market and could talk for hours about the benefits of buying local, the story of how we came into our “market money” is what I really want to talk about today. You see, it never ceases to amaze me how much valuable stuff people throw away – including actual money sometimes.

Last October, when our Farmer’s Market ended for the season, Angie and I came up with the idea to save our change over the winter to spend at the market next season. We thought we’d end up with maybe $20 – $30 at most but, pretty soon, we started finding change all over the place, from pennies at the car wash to quarters in the parking lot of our apartment. Then there were the carts at Aldi. We live next door and often walk through the parking lot on our outings. Despite having to pay a quarter to use a cart, there are still a lot of folks who leave them in the lot (or in the grass). We returned nearly $8.00 worth of carts. (That’s 2 quarts of fresh, juicy blueberries or 4 bags of spinach, by the way.)

Another thing that we passed on our walks was the dumpster – 5 of them to be exact. In or near a typical apartment dumpster, you can find all sorts of stuff. We’ve been rescuing a lot of these items and taking them to Goodwill for years. This time, we started listing some of them on Marketplace. Though it was often a pain in the rear to meet up with people, we managed to make $38 on a couple of items that we found. And speaking of found – on several occasions we stumbled upon $1 and $5 bills at the park. We racked up another $12 this way.

Then one random day in February, we decided to declutter the hall closet. There’s not much in the hall closet of two people who have been minimalists for the better part of the last 7 years, but we did manage to scrounge up some puzzles, a couple pairs of bowling shoes and a tiny space heater to add to our Marketplace listings. We also threw in the money we made from ditching our microwave, for a total of $55.

On the night before the Farmer’s Market opened, we sat down in the living room floor, dumped all our change on the carpet, and started rolling. When we ran out of rollers, we were at $67 – and we hadn’t even touched the pennies! I would venture to guess that we left at least $20 – $30 in the jar for next time – the very same amount we thought we’d have in total in the first place.

Our actual “market money” total was $180, enough to fund our trips to the Farmer’s Market for at least 6-8 weeks (even including our over-exuberance on week one). We’re pretty proud of that, but detailing our good fortune is not the only reason I started this post.

In this world, there are two types of people – the ones who throw pennies away and the ones who pick them up. The penny tossers are also usually the same folks who throw away their dollars without much thought. How many times have you heard someone say (or have said yourself) – “It’s only a dollar (or $5 or $20)”- when contemplating some random purchase? The penny tossers don’t see the bigger picture. Small amounts of money don’t matter, they will never make you rich, so there’s no logical reason not to buy the candy bar, the mocha latte, or the lottery ticket. I mean, there’s a real chance that ticket could be worth a million dollars, right??

The penny pickers on the other hand, they know the real score. They know that all denominations of money spend exactly the same – and they all save the same too. We pick up pennies because they add up, maybe not to enough to make you “rich” but then again, what is the definition of rich anyway? When we take our $180 in mostly found money to the Farmer’s Market this season and trade it for delicious tomatoes, squash, melons, and berries – I’m pretty sure we’re going to feel like we hit the jackpot.

But, if that’s not enough to inspire you not to walk past unwanted change on the ground, this ingenious math from FI Tradesguy might:

Let’s assume that picking up a coin off the ground and putting it in your pocket takes two seconds (it does, I do it all the time!) That means you can pick up 30 coins per minute and 1,800 coins per hour. Here is the simple table showing the hourly rate of picking up coins at two seconds each.

1,800 coins X $.01 = $18/hour

1,800 coins X $.05 = $90/hour

1,800 coins X $.10 = $180/hour

1,800 coins X $.25 = $450/hour

I pick up change because of the mindset behind the action, but I also pick up change because I don’t want to pass by a couple seconds of really high paying wages. Every time you find a penny and pick it up, you can tell yourself that you just made $18/hour. Find a quarter and make $450/hour! Granted, you only worked for two seconds, but who wants to pass up $18 or $450 per hour? No matter how long you can work that gig.

Honestly, I’d never really thought of it that way but the excited feeling I get when find a quarter says that there’s some truth to that logic. $450/hour is some serious cash. Who wouldn’t be happy to find a quarter??

The Fear of Failure…and Spiders

As our moratorium on micromanaging money continues, I’ve started to think more about the role money plays in our lives. This post is part of that thinking process. 

When it comes to money, there’s a certain amount of fear that is ingrained in us as we grow up. We are taught early on that we need a good education to get a good job to make a good living to pay for a good home in a good neighborhood and provide a secure future for ourselves and our family. To do this, we need health insurance and life insurance and stocks and bonds and savings accounts and IRAs. When we can’t provide these things – or find that what we’re most passionate about in life just doesn’t provide these things – then that fear grows stronger, even paralyzing at times.

I believe that fear is irrational.

See how cute he is??

All my life I was afraid of spiders. Everyone I knew was afraid of them too, from my friends at school to my own parents. Having arachnophobia just seemed so normal, I never questioned it. Then one day, as I was taking a nap on the back porch, I felt something crawling up my arm. I looked down to see a hairy little wolf spider. I wanted to freak out. I mean, I was supposed to freak out, right? The only thing was, I had fallen asleep with my laptop in my lap and any sudden movement would have sent it sailing. So, I sat for a second, just me and the spider. He stopped. I stared. He was so small and well, kind of cute, and even if he had teeth, it wasn’t likely that he was going to chew me up like a wolverine. In that moment, I realized, there was no logical reason for me to be afraid. I didn’t have to do what everyone else did. And who knows, I might even like spiders (or at least some of them).

The same thing happened for me with money. All my life I subscribed to the same fears as my friends and family. I fought viciously to keep up. I racked up student loans to pay for a degree I’ve never used. I took out a zero-down mortgage because “successful people don’t waste their money on rent”. Never mind that part of it was on a 5-year ARM. I bought stuff. I had debt. But I was living the dream, according to those same friends and family. Until I wasn’t. When the economy collapsed, I lost my home. In the months that followed, I liquidated my savings, sold what I could of my possessions to cover my debts, and still ended up filing bankruptcy. Was it something I wanted to do? Absolutely not. Was it the worst thing that ever happened to me? Not even close.

If you’ve never filed bankruptcy, you may not know this, but the first things that you start to get – almost the minute that you leave the courthouse – are credit card offers. It seems counter-intuitive, but it actually happens. Next come the car loan solicitations. From the minute you are free of debt, someone is trying to put you back in it; because this is the way our society works. You are a financial failure if you don’t get back up on the debt pony.

I don’t consider myself a financial failure. I was just unsuccessful at living the American Dream. Why? Because it was never mine in the first place. When I lost everything I owned, a great thing happened. For the first time in my life, my so-called friends and family stopped telling me what to do (most stopped talking to me altogether, at least for a while) and I was left to figure things out on my own – in my own time, in my own way.

I paid off my last post-bankruptcy debt in 2009, while I was living with friends and driving a beat-up Jeep to a job 45 miles away making $11 an hour. I won’t lie and say that it was easy or that I was happy. Happiness didn’t come until much later. What I was back then was focused, but not on the things you might think. I wasn’t focused on rebuilding my credit score or getting back the lifestyle I was “accustomed” to. I was focused on figuring out what really mattered to me.

Bankruptcy didn’t teach me the value of money. It didn’t make me want to earn back all that I had lost and hold onto it for dear life. It taught me that money doesn’t matter much at all in the end. With or without it, I was still the same person, but without it, the world held so much more potential. I didn’t have to live by “the rules” and be afraid of financial failure anymore. I had already failed, but more importantly, I had survived.

It’s a decade later and I believe I have a pretty good handle on what matters most in my life, but my financial recovery has put me right back in the same position with my friends and family that I was before bankruptcy. I get a lot of unsolicited advice and there are some close family members who still give me grief about not owning a home (though I can successfully argue the merits of renting); not getting an advanced degree (In what? Student loans?); and not having a “meaningful” career (which actually means “lucrative” because I’m pretty sure helping non-profits find funding for programs that keep homeless youth off the streets and hungry seniors fed is pretty meaningful). Though I know better, the constant bombardment of other people’s opinions can wear on me and I start to think, maybe I’m not doing the right things. Maybe I do need to buy a house. Maybe I do need to work harder to save more for retirement. Maybe I’m not measuring up to where I should be by this age.

Then I remember: I’m no longer afraid of spiders.

How have your financial failures (or successes) shaped your life to this point? Do your friends and family offer you well-meaning but unwanted financial advice? If so, how do you handle it?