If Nothing Else, Be Kind

Angie and I stopped by Dollar Tree earlier this week to pick up a birthday card for her dad. Our purchase was small and the line was extremely long so we decided to walk the aisles for a bit. When we returned to the front of the store 10 minutes later, the line was even longer than it was before. For a moment, we debated on returning the card and coming back another day but we had combed through so many cards to find this one that we didn’t want to take a chance that it might be gone (or more likely, that we’d forget to come back and would end up paying more for a card at Walmart.) So we got in line.

I’m the first to admit, I’m not the most patient person in the world. I’m working on it but sometimes I still get antsy waiting in line. This day though, I felt pretty peaceful. We had nothing else pressing to do, except stop in to check on my mom, so we weren’t in a hurry. The same could not be said for a group of 4 at the head of the line.

We were 3 people back from the foursome but could hear every word that was said. Yes, they were that loud. At first, they were complaining about having to wait in line for so long, but then. one of the women started calling the cashier names. The cashier was probably all of about 18 years old. This was likely her first job. And to boot, this was only her second day on the job. She held her composure and continued to scan the items before her. All the while, the leader of the foursome continued to berate her, while the other three laughed. These were adults, mind you. Grown adults!

The customer behind them was embarrassed and unsure of what to do. I could tell because she kept looking back toward the line as if asking for help. The man in front of me just muttered, “Only in America.” He was from Haiti.

To add insult in injury, the Less-Than-Fantastic Four decided, after the cashier had totaled out their transaction, that they needed sodas. One of them walked back to the cooler, grabbed 4 drinks and came back to the register. The cashier couldn’t add them to the transaction and told the leader that she’d ring them up after she paid for the first purchase. Ms. Meanness refused. She wanted her way or no way. In the end, Ms. Meanness paid for the first purchase, threw a handful of bills and coins on the counter for the drinks, said something obscene, and stormed out, telling her group that they were never coming back.

“Wouldn’t that be great,” I remember thinking to myself, just as the poor cashier burst into tears.

As human beings, we may not know what the right thing is to do when someone is acting the fool in front of us, especially in this day and age, but we all instinctively know what to do when one of us is crying. We comfort them. And that’s what we did. Every single person in that line. I have never seen such an outpouring of support.

When it came our turn to check out, the only thing I could think of was something I read on Facebook earlier in the week:

So I simply said, “It’s not about you, it’s about them. They are the ones with the problem. Don’t let them get the best of you.”

I’m pretty sure my words, and the words of all the rest of us who stood there witnessing this senseless act of stupidity, were too little too late. We don’t go to Dollar Tree often but I can almost guarantee you that this girl will not be there the next time that we do. The look on her face when she asked me if I knew what time it was told me that she was counting down the minutes until this day, this nightmare, and this job were over. I know that look because I have worn it before myself.

This kind of stuff happens way too often. Everyone that I talked to about this incident had a similar story. My niece, that same day, received a call from her friend who works in the mall. Two customers had gotten into a fight during her shift. In the midst of the brawl, someone yelled that they saw a gun and the mall was evacuated, but not before people started running and pushing each other in panic. Thankfully, there was no gun but here in my own town, three young men got into a fight at Save-A-Lot last week, where there was a gun and one of the men was shot.

When I was 18 years old, I worked at Save-A-Lot. This same one.

I hate to say it, but as the foursome at Dollar Tree stood there being mean, thoughts of brawls and guns and pain and death crossed my mind. We all think we’d be a hero if something bad happened in front of us but the truth is, more often than not, we’re just as scared as the person being harassed. None of us want a trip to the mall, the grocery store, or Dollar Tree to be the last trip we ever make, so when people are being bullies, sometimes we just stand there in the in-between.

Had someone spoken up or spoken out – even the cashier – we don’t know what would have happened. Perhaps nothing, since bullies don’t like it when someone stands up to them, but at the same time, we don’t really know.

I don’t like being scared. I don’t like feeling helpless. I don’t like it when folks are mean to others. But if life has taught me anything, it’s this – I can’t fix what’s broke inside other people. I can only fix me. I can be the good that I want to see in the world. I can be more patient. I can smile more often. I can practice saying positive things, even when everyone around me is negative. Not just when I’m standing in line but every day, in every situation. If I do nothing else, at least I can be kind.

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?