Friends think I live in luxury, but my lifestyle costs me next to nothing thanks to a lesson I learned growing up low-income

  • Growing up, I remember helping my mom roll pennies in paper wrappers to pay the rent.
  • The experience taught me a lesson I live by as an adult: Every penny counts.
  • I look for bargains and maximize my savings on every purchase to live a luxe lifestyle on the cheap.

This essay is part of “The Value of a Dollar,” a collection of stories about money from writers who grew up low-income.

I never knew growing up that we were poor. Yes, our living room was devoid of furniture, and yes, my blind uncle came by twice a month to deliver “extra” groceries he’d received from the food pantry. But as a child, most of my thoughts revolved around playing, running, and chasing the many lizards that lived in our dusty backyard. 

So the first time my mom sat with me on the carpeted floor, a large plastic bowl jingling with change in one hand and a stack of paper wrappers in the other, I believed her when she said she’d found a new game. How many pennies would fit in this roll? What about the next? It was a game we played at the end of the month, every month. 

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I didn’t know it at the time, but the change paid our rent

At first it was fun. But like all children, I got bored. Why did we have to roll our change? What did it matter if our quarters were neatly stored or stacked haphazardly in a pile? Poking pennies into their thin paper tubes took forever, and I was not a patient child. 

Of course, I didn’t know then that we were rolling coins to pay rent. And that our landlord wouldn’t look too kindly on us if my mom had simply handed him a bowl of pennies. 

I remember the day she brought home our first automatic coin sorter. It was slick, the change clanking loudly as it was dropped deftly into each roll. The machine was so fast. And I was finally free!

Although I don’t sort coins anymore — I don’t even use cash — the lesson I learned as a child still sticks with me. No matter what I buy, where I go, or where I live, one thing is always at the forefront of my mind: Every penny counts. 

I live by the lesson I learned from my mom

This lesson held true for me when I bought my second house, which was the ugliest on the block. Sweat equity meant that when it came time to sell, I was able to turn a handsome profit. 

It was true when I bought my car, where I stonewalled the salesman into giving me a 0% APR.

It’s remained true even as my tastes have evolved. When I was in my early 20s, I was perfectly happy slumming it in the middle seat on a 15-hour flight to Australia. Now I’m older and my back hurts and — let’s face it — I’m a bit snobbier. So rather than lay out thousands of dollars on a flight, I found the world of award travel, where masters of the trade use credit cards and loyalty programs to snag business- and first-class seats for close to nothing. A couple of years later and I’ve got a few feathers in my own cap. 

It’s not completely free, obviously, but I’m happy to spend hundreds of dollars a year in annual credit card fees in exchange for a bed and pajamas on my way to wherever I’m going. I’m making sure that every penny I spend is doing double — or triple — duty. 

It’s a vastly different outlook from my husband, who did not have the same experiences I did growing up. He looks on with bemusement as I scour coupon sites and buy gift cards to earn extra rewards points where I otherwise wouldn’t. More than once this has gotten us into an argument, when he’s shrugged and paid full price for something without doing any research. 

But he’s learning. Nowadays, when I unwrap gifts, he makes sure to tell me what a great deal he got. And he’s opened his own rewards-earning credit card, though I’m still in charge of deciding which one we pull out when it comes time to pay. 

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