Remembering A Painful Childhood Experience

I was recently working on a self-evaluation exercise in which I was asked to consider memories from my childhood that had to do with money. These memories would then be used as a reflection on which to see my own personal finance biases today – and thus the connection would enable me to strengthen my personal finance skills. Most of my memories revolve around poverty, but one memory came up, one that was so powerful that as I was retelling it, it caused me to actually begin to cry.

I’m sharing this story with you now, because it is a very clear example of how events from childhood can affect our actions in adulthood.

I was raised in pretty intense poverty. My family often didn’t have enough money to make ends meet, though there was always food on the table. We lived in a small house that needed a lot of maintenance work. In short, things were often tough.

At one end of my parents’ property, there was an old abandoned train line, and just off of that was an old box car. We used it for storage and would paint it on occasion; the children would often use it as a play room. It was just barely out of direct line of sight from the house. It was old and rusty and not in the best shape, but few things remind me of “home” more than the sight of it.

One year, when I was about nine or ten, I decided I wanted to save up for something fabulously expensive. I don’t recall exactly what it was that I wanted so badly; in fact, I’m fairly sure that what I was saving for changed over time. What was important, though, is that I didn’t have an allowance of any sort. I asked my parents if they had any ideas on how I could save up the $300 that I wanted to save up; their only suggestion was to save aluminum cans and sell them. They estimated I would need more than a thousand pounds of cans to do this.

So that’s just what I did. I started collecting all of the cans that we used at home and, when I saw how slowly they were building up, I came up with arrangements with our neighbors to collect their cans as well once a week. I would go to their house and empty their can bins for them; in return, they had less trash to deal with. Virtually all of them were glad to do it.

With a small amount of money I received for my birthday, I purchased a manual aluminum can crusher because the local buyer would pay $0.02 more per pound for crushed cans versus uncrushed ones. I diligently crushed all of the cans I would collect and fill up giant plastic bags with them (another expense that I covered using my birthday money). I began to save the accumulating bags of cans in the box car.

Every day, I would crush all of the uncrushed cans on our property, and every week, I would go on my “can collecting route,” getting cans from neighbors and crushing them. This went on for more than a year as the boxcar slowly began to fill with bags of cans.

One summer day, my father came home from work and announced that the price of aluminum was “sky high” – the local buyer was paying more than $0.50 per pound. We did the math and even with a low estimate of the can weight, we were getting numbers in the range of $400. It was time to sell them, and we decided to do it that Saturday.

At that point, I flew into a fury of can collection madness. I walked along roadsides collecting cans, I checked the neighbors’ bins every day, and I made sure every single can was crushed.

Around this time, one of my cousins stopped by to say hello to my father. I had a generally pleasant relationship with him, but he was about twenty five and I was ten, so it was just cordial. He asked me what I was up to and I told him that I was crushing cans and I was about to sell them because the price was high. While he was there, I carried a big bag of cans out to the box car and he peeked inside and saw all of the cans.

If you’re not getting a bit of a sick feeling in your stomach reading this, you should be.

Saturday morning dawns, and I’m bouncing off the walls, ready to go to the metal salesman and sell my cans. I was planning on buying a really, really nice baseball glove, four games for my Nintendo, and putting the remainder into my savings account for a car or for college. All of my work for an entire year was about to finally pay off. To put this in perspective, I was estimating about $400 to $450 worth of cans here and to that point in my life I had never actually seen a hundred dollar bill. I was going to cash the check and actually receive a couple of these and hold them in my hand.

My father woke up and estimated that it would take five pickup truck loads to haul all of the cans to the dealer, so we got started immediately. I ran to the box car while he backed the truck up to it to unload the cans. I tossed open the door, looked inside…

And there was not an aluminum can to be found.

My father and I both stood there in what amounted to shock. When the finality of what had happened finally began to click with me, I just walked back to the house, went up to my bedroom, closed the door, and sat on the bed alone for a while. My father didn’t come up to see how I was doing, but when my mother came home from the grocery store, I could hear him in a rage downstairs, sounding as though he was literally ready to kill the person who could do such a thing to a child.

It wasn’t long before the culprit was exposed. That afternoon, my father got an interesting call from an old friend of his: my cousin, the one who had seen my cans just a few days before, showed up out of the blue at the friend’s house with $300 in cash and bought a used motorcycle that the fellow was trying to sell. In the end, though, it didn’t really make any difference; my cousin actually admitted to taking the cans, but said he would deny it to the police and there was no “proof.”

In short, I lost a year’s worth of work and more money than I could even imagine because of the thievery of someone in my own family. That individual was so full of cowardice that he stole a year’s worth of work from a child to buy himself a toy.

Looking back at my behavior since then, it’s clear to me how much this event impacted my thinking about personal finance. My biggest fear is a lack of safety. I often don’t feel safe with anything that I own. I am particularly paranoid about my own life insurance and my desire to have a very large emergency fund. And I often spend frivolously because I feel a sense of safety knowing that I actually can spend money and buy things. These actions seem contradictory, but they all have the same root cause: I yearn for the safety and security that was violated when I was just a little kid.

The second thing I learned is that this event caused me to not trust anyone, particularly when it comes to money. Because of this one act by an individual who wanted a motorcycle to play around with, I grew up with an inability to trust anyone with money. I started to keep any money I had in very well hidden spots and I wouldn’t trust anyone with it. For the longest time, I was even afraid to put money into bank accounts because I knew that when you put something valuable in a place, even if you think it’s safe, it’s not really safe. It’s still a challenge for me to make deposits into savings accounts or money market accounts, even to this day.

I had shut this memory out of my mind for many years, not wanting to remember that day I opened up the box car doors and saw that all of my aluminum cans are gone. Remembering it now has made me stronger.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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