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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Six Dollars an Hour

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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On a generosity scale from one to ten—one meaning “painfully cheap” and ten meaning “delightfully generous”—my kids think I’m a one. For years I thought all the “You’re Number One” cards, trophies, and plaques my children gave me on Father’s Day celebrated my best-ness. It turns out it was code. They were mocking my cheapness. In fact, they think my entire generation is cheap.

Now, before you Gen Xers, Millennials, and other Post-Boomers join forces with my children in condemning my generation for being inordinately thrifty, take a walk in our slippers. See what life was like growing up as a teenager in the 60s. One look at a typical school day and you might replace your contempt for my generation’s penny-pinching with an appreciation for our financial conservatism. Stranger things have happened.

When I was in high school, I would get up every weekday morning and face the same question: Should I pack a lunch? My parents were unwilling to give me money to “throw away on fast food,” so if I wanted a noon meal I would have to make my own lunch—and it had to be sandwiches. This would have been fine, were it not for the fact that in order to save money, Mom generally purchased tongue, heart, liver, and other internal organs to be used as lunchmeats.

So here was my typical school day. I would peer into the fridge and immediately reject tongue. Whenever I ate tongue, I couldn’t figure out who was tasting whom. Heart and liver were also out of the question because the mere sight of them freaked out my lunch mates. If I went so far as to take a bite of, say, boiled heart on raisin bread, it caused an epidemic of shiver-gags. I don’t even want to talk about the scene a tripe sandwich could cause.

Later on as lunchtime rolled around, I’d be famished and, for reasons you now understand, without a sandwich. This presented me with the second question of the day. Should I take the quarter my parents had given me to ride the bus home and use it to purchase fast food? Or should I save my quarter for the bus and avert the hike home? If I sprang for fast food, my quarter would buy either a see-through milkshake or a tiny, pretend hamburger that contained no actual organic materials.

Given these options, I typically skipped lunch, but to no advantage. At the end of the school day, I would again face the “eat vs. ride” decision. Only now, a bakery that sat next to the city bus stop made the choice even more difficult. It sold (and this was just plain cruel) twenty-five-cent cream puffs.

While waiting for the bus I’d stare longingly through the bakery window at the delectable treats—fiercely gripping my quarter as if it were the key to Donald Trump’s safe deposit box. Eventually I would step out from under the bakery’s awning to see how hard it was raining. If it wasn’t raining too hard, and if the cream puffs looked particularly scrumptious, I would surrender my quarter, wolf down a cream puff, and walk home.

Oh yes, one more detail. I didn’t merely walk home. I walked home while lugging a stack of textbooks. I completed this feat (as did all teenage boys in the 60s) by cocking my right arm unnaturally high and tucking my books into my armpit as if to say, “Look at me and my many muscles that can easily hold aloft these heavy books.” This ridiculous balancing act was extremely difficult to maintain and made me think twice about walking anywhere.

So, if it was raining hard and I had a lot of books to carry, I’d have to be a nitwit to give up my bus fare—which, I’m ashamed to admit I did regularly because I adored cream puffs and possessed not a trace of willpower.

But not without consequences.

Once I had given into the allure of French pastry, I’d grudgingly hoist my books to their unnaturally high position in my armpit and trudge a mile and a half up the hill to my house. Within a few minutes a city bus would mockingly cruise by while the kids inside pointed and laughed at the self-indulgent sap lugging books up the hill in the rain. All of this took place because I couldn’t stand tasting a sandwich only to have it return the favor.

Now, keep in mind, this drama was about a quarter. Two bits. Twenty-five cents. You can only imagine what it took for me to spend a lot of money. I did earn money through various jobs, but every cent of that went to buying clothes. When it came to the frills, I had to skip lunch and walk home—sans the high-octane fuel of French pastry—often for days on end. For instance, during my senior year when I elected to go to the prom, for over six months I hungrily walked home in the rain, lugging my books like a stevedore. And while I did, here’s what I’d be thinking:

“Let’s see, my date wants a purple orchid to match her dress—five bucks (or 20 quarters). The prom tickets cost four dollars (16 quarters). Photos are another four. Dinner—please don’t let her order steak!—fifteen bucks (a whopping 60 quarters). Plus there’s the tuxedo and. . .”

I hadn’t thought about that prom until one day over thirty years later when my mother produced a piece of paper she had set aside the day after the dance. It was an itemized list I’d made of what I had spent. At the bottom of the list I had calculated the total dollar figure and divided it by the number of hours the date had lasted—revealing that the prom had cost me six dollars an hour.

I know, I know. The fact that I calculated how much the prom cost per hour brands me a hopeless cheapskate. Nevertheless, having just walked in my slippers, I hope you now understand my cautious ways. You know that as a young man I rarely had any money or a chance to get any. That is, unless I walked a mile and a half uphill in the rain carrying a stack of books jammed under my armpit.

So, dear friends, forgive me my frugality. Show patience as I—and others from my generation—ask the restaurant cashier for change for a quarter and then return to the table to leave an exact 15 percent tip. Smile knowingly when we refuse to turn on the air conditioning, buy discounted label-less cans, and wash and reuse the plasticware that comes with fast food. Take pity on us old codgers who, on occasion, can appear to be a tad cheap.

We have our reasons.

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26 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Six Dollars an Hour”

  1. Jill Searing

    Kerry- Was the prom night “priceless” though? Great story!

  2. Peggy

    I loved this! I’m at the end of the baby boomer age, but I still remember how my family had to save for special occasions like prom. My parents went without alot of the time, so I could have the “special” items or events I wanted. I only hope the younger generation learns a little from our experiences when they are raising their kids.

  3. Michael Marlowe

    I grew up just a few years younger than you, a teenager in the later part of the 60’s, in a barely lower middle class, we lived in tight apartments, in a city where the nearest grass was two blocks away at a city park. There the grass was fenced so no one would play on it. My mother would mix butter and margarine to make it stretch. So I resonate with parts of your story.

    My question is this – what has prevented you from changing and growing – You are no longer that young boy, yet that seems to be the voice that is talking to us. Where is the man of resources, living in a comfortable home, with a car, with a refrigerator full of food, and the ability to eat out any time you would like. and a retirement fund that your parents never had.

    What am I to learn from your story?

    1. Kerry Patterson

      You’re right about the fact that I no longer live under conditions remotely close to those I experienced as a young man. I’m actually quite generous in many ways and can afford to be that way. Nevertheless, there are still many habits of frugality that creep into my current life–ones that my kids don’t get or appreciate. Rather than to tell them to walk i my moccasins–something that can’t really do anyway–I decided to share a story that would provide more insight into what it was like living in a time of very few resources.

      1. Janet Ross

        Kerry, I also grew up without much. It’s not a generational thing at all. It’s a matter of haves and have-nots. As amusing as the story is, I think it has the potential to antagonize younger generations, by claiming yours is the only one to know how to make do with little.

        1. Kerry Patterson

          Good point. That certainly wasn’t my intention. My own children are very careful with their resources as are lots of people. And for lots of people coming out of tough circumstances, many become awfully loose with their money. My goal was to simply show how some of us were raised as a way of explaining some of our proclivities.

  4. Russ Gemberling

    You are so right Kerry about the differences between our generation and todays generations. My first job was working for the local corner grocery store where I was paid $1.50 an hour. I started that job when I was in 7th grade at the age of 12, in 1962, and have been working continuously for the last 50 years. I have learned the value of money and how to spend it wisely. Everything that my wife and I own has been from the grace of God and hard work being careful what we spent our money on and being diligent saving for the future retirement days. The kids of today don’t want to work and wait till I can afford to buy something and have the thinking of give it to me now. People mock my wife and I when we take home leftovers from the restaurant and ask for a to go cup to take our sodas home to drink later yet they do not realize or know about the lean years when we could not afford to go out to eat and if we did go out to eat, it was when the parents sprung for the meal. I too had to brown bag it to school every day but I had the luxury of eating bologna sandwiches and PBJ’s on a rotating basis. There would be a day or two during the month when a different type of meat would be available because Dad wanted something different in his lunch that he took to work in the steel mill. It was a treat for me to buy a cup of ice cream because I knew that there was none in the freezer when I got home. We are like we are because our parents did not give us everything we WANTED and we had to have our own money to buy things and not use the parents credit card to go buy it.

    1. Kerry Patterson

      I thought a couple of my friends were really rich because they routinely had soda pop in their refrigerator. If you found 7-up in our fridge, you knew someone was sick.

  5. Mary Jane

    Dear Kerry,
    That was beautiful. I particularly liked the bit about tongue and other assorted offal. I can see the pressed tongue in the fridge with a plate on top and a brick to weigh it down. i didn’t mind eating it back then and even ate blood sausage ( as disgusting as it sounds).But now, like you, I don’t embrace the thought of who is tasting who.

    We have used Crucial Conversation for our first year engineering communications unit, and this week we are using The Unaccountable’s.
    great work

    thanks MJ

  6. Kathy Lewis

    I absolutely adore your stories and find them so insightful and inspirational! I was a teenager in the late 70’s and worked at age 15 for a whopping $3.50 and hour (.15/hr over minimum wage so I was thrilled!) so I never knew such hardship but I find it refreshing that still to this day with all your success that you still really value and appreciate the value of a dollar! 🙂 Keep the stories coming.

  7. Elizabeth

    Dear Kerry,
    I’m right there with you! Of course, I actually grew up in the early 70’s but many thing very similar!
    I am a fan!
    Elizabeth in Medford Oregon 🙂

  8. James Wilson

    Growing up without money was such a great lesson that i too learned. I remember going to the parish fair and spending all my money on one ride. i was heartbroken but never did that again. Learned the value of work and manual labor was the greatest motivator for a college education.

  9. Charles

    Recently, in lunchhour conversation with my co-workers, I learned that my frustration with two grandsons (that have resided with us for several years) related to my perception of excessive water usage during daily shower (bathing) time, could eventually have a humorous endnote.

    Both a son and daughter of one of my coworkers, now on their own, with apartments in cities located several hundred miles away, have evidently come to a new understanding of dad’s frugal conservation — lamenting to him recently that when they have friends over for the night that their frustration over the amount of time water is running in the shower is almost unbearable because they can just imagine the water meter adding dollars to the next utility bill.

    I could not help but think that until we take responsibility for the finances of our lives, or any other area for that matter, it is easy to be critical of the provider’s concern for waste and extravagance.

    Thanks for lending encouraging perspective in this area of frustration related to how much to give without “strings attached” when teaching lifeskills related to becoming responsible adults.

  10. Letizia

    I always love Kerry’s articles. They remind me so much of the wisdom my father used to share with me. I’m ever grateful for the lessons he tried to instill in me and have benefitted so much in my life when I do follow them. Too bad Kerry’s children see him as a cheapskate. We seem to be living at a time where many younger ones feel entitled and don’t understand the need to work hard for what you want or need. Simple equation: work hard = stuff or be lazy = nothing. Thanks for your articles. I look forward to more!

    1. Kerry Patterson

      My kids view how my wife and I are frugal in ways they wouldn’t be–and sort of kid us. The truth is, they admire my wife’s careful attention to dollar details and have grown up to be responsible stewards on their own.

  11. Therese

    I can relate to your story, especially the part about not being able to spend money on cafeteria food. I’d look with envy at the other kids ordering hot food! But one thing I think you forgot to note is that parents of Boomers either lived through the Great Depression or felt the effects. My father grew-up in the Depression era and he absolutely hated wasting food. While you had organ meats, we had moldy cheese and bread for our sandwiches and after school snacks? They were “omelets” made over and over again from leftovers ranging from chips, crackers, bread, old cheese, cornflakes, ham, pasta, and, well, leftover omelets! Needless to say, I’m not a fan of omelets to this day…

  12. Megan

    This is an interesting perspective and I am glad you shared it. I certainly did not grow up in a situation where money was that tight, though I know live a more comfortable life than we did when I was a kid.

    What I really took away from your story though is that you certainly are no longer in such tight financial straights. Knowing how hard poverty can be, why aren’t you turning around and being generous to the very people who now are struggling to make ends meet – the people who need that 15+% tip at the restaurant?

    I certainly could be more generous with my time and money and don’t always live up to this, especially if I felt service at a restaurant was shoddy. However, there are times when I am in a position to be generous to someone not as blessed as I am and it feels so good to be able to do that. I strongly encourage it!

    1. Kerry Patterson

      My intention was to describe the circumstances and, in some cases, long-term effects of children brought up by parents who survived the Great Depression. I write about my generation by characterizing my self in the harshest way. I have indeed learned to be generous and take great pleasure in helping others. But that wasn’t the part of the story I was telling.

  13. Teresa

    You are my favorite writer – your stories pull me right into the scenes you describe. It was “a different time”, and thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

  14. Peter Martin

    As I read this article, I thought, did I have a brother that I did not know about? How could you know that we too had difficult lunch choices. Fortunately for me I wrestled from Jr. High School through College and lunchtime turned into the time for a 10 mile run instead of making difficult choices over lunch. I never ate a meal in our Jr. or High School cafeteria. There weren’t free breakfast or lunches for students. It was a time when parents took responsibility for their children and not let the “village” raise their children. Yet, as painful an experience it was, I wouldn’t change it for the life a kid leads now. I once did the Engineer-in-the-classroom thing. Student arrive at class around 9 am after breakfast. They are taught for a little more than two hours and then its lunchtime. Back to class around 12:30 and most days they are out by 3. Now walking in your slippers as you put it, I got up early each morning, delivered the morning SF Chronicle before walking 2 miles to school. Arriving at 7 we had Band practice from 7-9 in the morning. Then class until noon when I would go for a run. Afternoons were math and science. By 2 we’d be in the gym for wrestling practice until 7. Then after walking home, I’d go to my evening job and clean-up a shop for 2 hours, before going home to do homework until midnight or so. Then get up around 5:30 and do it all again. In those days, you ate a piece of fruit for breakfast, another for lunch if you were lucky, and some sort of stew for dinner. And yet, through it all, I enjoyed it and made me think about the importance of setting goals, the value of money, hard work, and the meaning of EARNING a living. When I was growing up, leaving the light on, one would hear “you don’t own stock in the power company”. When I finished college, I built my own house and installed PV solar for electricity. When my dad came to visit, I told him to go ahead and leave the lights on, its OK, I own the power company.

    1. Kerry Patterson

      I got the same power company line from my dad. If you really wanted to see him flip, all you had to do was make a long-distance phone call.

  15. Sally Washburn

    I am also of Kerry’s generation, and grew up with parents who had gone through the Great Depression as children. My mother, even though her family was comfortable formed habits that she carried through her whole life; saved envelopes for scratch paper; old shirts, towels and fabrics for rags; regularly served left overs, sewed my clothes growing up; and generally wasted as little as possible.

    It was a real treat to buy lunch. I always had a good lunch but it was a brown bag lunch after all, not especially cool and never as good.

    You only have to look at recent economic events to see that we could use a little more saving and less spending. Here’s hoping that people will think about today’s message and not just think it’s the older generation boasting how tough they had it and how easy you young folks live. You know – “I had to walk to school, uphill both ways in the snow.”

    Keep the communications flowing.

  16. Victoria

    You can call it cheap. I say that our baby boomer generation deserves the Excellence Award in Sustanability!!

  17. Robert Ludwig

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. My family may have been a bit more affluent as we had one more choice in the refrigerator to choose from, sometimes there was headcheese available along with tongue. Thanks for sharing. I always look forward to your column.

  18. Jean Hughes

    OMG! I thought I was the only one that had to endure those horrid tongue sandwiches that my mom tried to disguise as “roast beef!” There were mealy cull apples for snacks, milk mixed half and half with powdered milk and always a pile of wheat germ on top of my dry cereal! And woe unto you if you ever made a sandwich with TWO slices of bologna! If I missed the bus and had to walk home from school it was 3 miles. I babysat 3-4 times a week for 4 children plus cleaning house and cooking for $ .35 an hour. That paid for my clothes, movies, football games, dances and my prom dress. However, I never thought of us as poor – we bought a 1957 Chevy and got a new furnace in the same year!

  19. Carol Davison

    Yes, Sally Washburn, you may have walked uphill to school 2 miles, both ways, but did you have shoes?

    A lovely, moving story as always Kerry!

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