The Saving of a Prodigal Spender

Gold coins

When I was 14, my friend, Basil, and I went to work after school for my older brother, Wilf, in his Red and White grocery store. It was 1939 and the store was on Main Street in Estevan, Saskatchewan.

We ran errands, removed sprouting potatoes from bins, filled phone-in grocery orders, and did whatever other chores we were assigned. But mostly, we weighed and bagged produce that came to the store in bulk.

That’s the way many products came from the wholesale warehouse: – sugar and potatoes in 100-pound sacks, candy in 45-pound boxes, and even peanut butter in large tubs.

Plastic had not yet made its appearance as an everyday part of life, so we weighed up candy in cellophane bags (8 -ounces, 12 -ounces, etc.) and sugar and potatoes and onions in paper sacks (3 -pounds, 5 -pounds, 10 -pounds, etc.).

We did this work in a narrow room at the back of the store. The room had a long counter along the back wall and scales, scoops, and sacks of various sizes. A window looked out on the alley.

Each Friday before we left our jobs my brother paid us each a one dollar bill, our first earned income. To me, in some primitive way, that bill represented power. It awakened in me a certain prodigality. It was mine to do with as I wanted. I usually knew in advance what it would buy.

One day after we had worked for several months Basil mentioned to me that in a drawer at home he had a roll of 35 one- dollar bills. He hadn’t spent one of them.

I met this news with silence. Did I feel jealousy or shame? Perhaps a mixture of the two. At the time, as I recall, I may at best have been able to produce four one dollar bills. It had never occurred to me that you didn’t have to spend money just because you had it.

My spendthrift ways may have been my undoing if they had carried over into my adult life. But there were counter-influences that resisted my prodigality, sometimes carrying considerable weight, and by the time I was of age I had learned to use money with more care and restraint.

I write about those influences now, starting with my parents. Josiah and Esther Jane Bastian.

My parents were immigrants to Western Canada shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. They were perhaps 20 years of age and had married in the little coal mining village of Stubbshaw Cross, Lancashire, England. My father knew that coal mining there as a lifetime job held little promise. At the same time, he and Esther Jane were drawn by the call of Canada and the offer of a free homestead in the west.

My father first mined coal at Roche Percee in southeastern Saskatchewan. Coal mining was all he had known since at 13-years-of-age he had gone into the mines with his father at Stubbshaw Cross.

After a period of time, the young couple located on their homestead in a shallow valley three miles south of Estevan. Long Creek ran through the property and they intended to raise vegetables for the market in the homestead’s rich soil.

But that alone would not have provided a survival income, so my father sold Watkin’s Products door-to-door. Some evenings to end the day he took a coal car or two of coal from the mine in the side of a hill on the property. In the new world they had had to make a life for themselves and the oncoming family from the ground up.

By all accounts it was a bone-wearying life from dawn to dusk, but they were energetic people. They were bent on “getting ahead.” and frugality was not only a necessity, it was a major strategy.

They were 42 when I was born. By the time I and a younger sister had grown to adolescence as almost a second family, they had lived through most of the Great Depression –1929-1939. I remember well the care they took with their resources, and their sparing ways that weren’t always understood or appreciated by growing children. Yet their consistency must have made inroads into my wanton tendencies, and that is benefiting me to this very day.

Although it is 43 years since their deaths and 70 years since I was 14, I still recall the nuggets of wisdom regarding money they dropped along the way. And although we were a Christian family with daily Bible reading in the home, and although Christian influences had their effect upon our home life in other ways, their teachings about money management seemed to come from another source: the sayings of Benjamin Franklin.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” “Look after the pennies and the dollars will look after themselves.” Such sayings were repeated often enough to leave an indelible mark on the memory of a growing child. I recall that my father dropped the word with me that we should always “put a little aside for a rainy day.” I believe that comes from Ben Franklin, too. Putting a little aside for a rainy day is apparently what my parents were trying to do.

My father also chided me once when I had a dollar I was eager to spend. “That money will burn a hole in your pocket,” he said. Such little nuggets of wisdom have a way of lodging not only in the memory but in the psyche as well.

But I ponder, where and how did my parents get their ammunition from Ben Franklin, the American patriot and contributing founder of a nation? He was eighteenth century; my parents were twentieth century. He was an American colonist; they were English immigrants to Canada.

They were not wide-ranging readers but Franklin’s proverbs, analogies and aphorisms, had been published faithfully each year from 1732 to 1758 in what Franklin called Poor Richard’s Almanack. And those pithy and wise sayings had apparently saturated the English-speaking world, to make our family one of Franklin’s distant beneficiaries.

Apparently parental influences skilfully lodged do have a way of sticking — for better or for worse — and as I reflect on my first impulses toward prodigality on the issue of money management, and the influences that countered that prodigality, I am profoundly grateful to my parents and to Ben Franklin.

(I’ll continue this story in my next posting)

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2 thoughts on “The Saving of a Prodigal Spender

  1. In the spring of 1942, before entering Chesbro Seminary, I worked in Dunkirk, NY helping to build an Allegheny-Ludlum Steel Plant. I worked digging foundation trenches with a German gentleman. We would dig a bit, and he would stop, wipe his brow and in his heavy German brogue he would say, ” Vell, ya know, dat’s a little, it don’t take much ta make a lot!”. — a truth, that as with you, has lasted these past years.

    Thanks for sharing.

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