Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Penny Saved Is a Penny Spent

This weekend, I was reminded of one of my pet peeves: People who load their CTA fare cards one nickel at a time.

I’m not talking about commuters with $1.50 on tap, looking to beef up their total by a quarter to the required buck seventy-five. I’m talking about those infuriating individuals who plunk in three, four or five dollars worth of change, excavated coin by coin from the bottoms of their purses or pockets.

Metallic money was meant to be saved, not spent, for the sole reason that its usage slows transactions to a crawl. Get behind one of these dilly-dallyers—who are impervious to the sighing hordes behind them—and it’s a sure bet you’ll miss your train by fractions of a second.

Imagine the number of people who wind up late for a job interview or first date, having whiled away precious seconds waiting for Ms. Slowpoke to boost her fare card tally to $8.15. Lives have been ruined, loves have been lost all because of a dime rejected by the coin feeder, and re-inserted time after time after maddening time.

I, on the other hand, was taught to hoard my change.

First, a gal must identify a suitable container for her booty. In the ninth grade, I served as homeroom rep for my school’s annual fundraiser. The duties largely consisted of collecting my classmates’ purchase orders for whatever superfluous objects we were hawking to family and neighbors. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a bank in the shape of a giant Tootsie Roll. Initially stuffed with candy, the bank was quickly depleted of its contents, the void to be filled by change. I carried this memento into adulthood, a sad testament to the dearth of other prizes earned in my glory years at Fassett Junior High. Eventually I traded up to a sizeable Ball jar, which holds more coins and curbs my appetite for sweets.

Once the change reaches maximum occupancy in said receptacle, it is taken to the bank and redeemed for “fun money.” These are the rules as set forth by my father.

My dad is a genius at a number of things: exaggerating any statement by at least 60 percent, muttering not quite under his breath, driving 18 hours without making a single pit stop. But he truly excelled at the art of saving change. It was a privilege to watch the master at work. We’d saunter into an establishment, McDonald’s perhaps, looking like every other mild-mannered suburban family. We’d place our order and the cashier would announce the damage: “That’ll be $12.01.” Ka-ching! Rather than produce the single cent, Dad would giddily hold out his hand for three quarters, two dimes and four pennies, which he later would deposit in the glass milk jug stored in his closet.

When the jug was bursting to capacity, it was time to roll the change, which became an annual family event. We’d gather in the kitchen, my father in his customary position at the head of the table, coins strewn in front of us, the proportion of silver to copper an immediate clue as to the success of this year’s haul. We’d plunk the coins into their corresponding paper sleeves—$10 in quarters, $5 in dimes, $2 in nickels, .50 for pennies—tapping them into place with the eraser end of a pencil. The grand total ran into the hundreds of dollars, and tens of pounds.

While the collecting of the change was my father’s domain, the depositing of it fell to my mother. Walking into a financial institution with a load of rolled coins has all the appeal of shopping with food stamps. The tellers are not happy to see you and affect the sort of snobbish attitude that clerks at Tiffany’s reserve for customers purchasing trinkets from the jeweler’s affordable line of silver baubles. Mom suffered the ignominy in silence, much in the way that she ate every piece of bread crust while the rest of us tore into fresh loaves.

The coins had now been converted into spendable cash—our mad money that would fund all forms of merriment on summer jaunts to East Coast beach resorts in the Carolinas and Virginia. That glass milk jar was our ticket to ice cream cones of both the soft and hard variety, rounds of miniature golf and trips to the iron-on T-shirt shop. Without it, we would have been back in Ohio swatting fireflies with our tennis rackets and smearing the glowing guts on the driveway for special effect.

My dad stopped saving change when General Motors introduced a rewards card. Papa wants a new Buick, so my parents began charging items that once would have reaped a bonanza of coins. The romance of “$12.01” now seems about as quaint as soda fountains and sock hops.

But I still have my Ball jar, which Dave and I contribute to regularly. Last summer, we cashed it out and hit the road. We found ourselves in Montana, licking ice cream cones along a mountain lake on a blazing blue July evening.

Doesn’t that beat a ride on the CTA?


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