The Legacy of Growing Up Poor

(Originally appeared in The Beach Reporter on 3/18/93)

Most people I know who grew up poor seem to have two distinct sides to their personalities as adults. There is the side that wants to achieve things or buy things just because they can. The toy car that one never had as a child becomes the Porsche sitting in the garage. The fully stocked freezer is security against ever going hungry.

Then there is the flip side. The side that is always looking for a bargain, clipping coupons, not buying something until the old one wears out.

When I was growing up my mother was an inveterate coupon clipper. She had a filing system for her coupons that would put the Library of Congress to shame. My dad used to jokingly call her “Coupon Annie.” I would roll my eyes and die of embarrassment every time she pulled out her coupon file in the supermarket.
Well, what goes around truly does come around. I, too, now have a coupon envelope in my purse. One of my biggest thrills last week was when I went to target to get some Oil of Old Lady moisturizer that was on sale, plus I had a coupon for 50 cents off and a $2.00 mail-in rebate.

Not only do I keep my coupon envelope with me, but I also have a coupon basket at home for discounts on restaurants and fascinating places my family might want to visit. Like the Movie-land Wax Museum or the Nixon Library. I also have the following money-saver cards: the AMC Movie-Watcher card (which if I live another fifty years will entitle me to a free small popcorn), frequent diner cards for various restaurants, ValuPlus cards for a number of supermarkets, and a Penguins Yogurt punch card. Most embarrassingly, I am a member of the Friendship Club at the Hello Kitty store (for my daughter’s use).

I blame all this weirdness on the way I was brought up. I am the oldest of seven. From my mother, I learned the meaning of the saying, “Pinch a penny ‘till it’s black and blue.” She used powdered milk to double the volume of milk. She baked double batches of Toll House cookies with only half the chocolate chips in the recipe.

Mom sewed our clothing on an ancient sewing machine. Twice a year we could pick out fabric and she would use a pattern she had probably used dozens of times before. My grandmother sent us Easter dresses every spring that she, too, had sewn.

I started babysitting at eleven to earn money for my own clothes. At Christmas we would always get a basket from a church, sent to a “needy family.” Once a week, Mom bought a steak for my dad, but on our birthdays we could choose whatever we wanted for dinner.

The couch in our living room sank right down to the floor if you sat on the bad end. Dad was always positioned at the good end. When I started dating, my date would always be asked to sit on the couch to wait for me – invariably the “bad end.” When he crashed to the ground it kind of broke the ice.

Our poverty wasn’t the result of my dad not working. Usually he had two or three jobs – his regular day job, a night gig at Montgomery Ward selling carpet, and his weekend job as a ticket seller at the track. Sometimes he drove the route with the big blue library Bookmobile for an extra fifteen dollars.

All of these things amaze me now, when I drink a glass of milk that hasn’t been diluted. Or bite into a cookie with lots of chips. When I do laundry in the convenience of my own home. But last night when I ordered a pizza from Domino’s, my son came running up and handed me a coupon for $3.00, saying, “Wait, Mom, you forgot this.” Grandma would be proud.

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