This is the first of a series of several posts about my financial story. Here I’m going to talk about my secondary school years and my first contact with money management. Next chapter will revolve around high school age and the taste of actual money.
I think it’s worth sharing to give the readers context about me, my financial situation, my epiphany, my decisions.
I grew up in an Italian middle class family in one of the worst neighborhoods of Rome. My father who is now retired worked in the Italian public national electric company while my mother has always been a housewife. We weren’t rich, obviously, but not poor either. Actually, compared with the average neighbor we were a decent family. Not that hard to achieve, since the median neighbor was probably in jail at that time.
My father has always been a frugal person, a saver. He taught me to save money pretty early. I learned to accumulate for purchases, to avoid useless spending, to avoid luxury in general. My father taught me to pay cash for things: “if you want to buy something that costs X, just save a fraction every week and when you have X you can have it! Avoid installment payments (very popular in the 80s and 90s in Italy) because you’d be giving the seller no less than 10% more!“. Note: there were not credit cards at that time, at least not in my world.
I’m glad that such good habits were installed so early in my brain, even though growing up I recognized several flaws in my father’s principles:
- He saved because “you never know“. No big goals. This was sometimes frustrating in our family and it led to fights between my parents sometimes.
- He never invested in anything riskier than Italian CDs. Are you crazy investing in stocks??
- He’s not good at spending. He doesn’t do any research before spending, when he decided to spend. Usually ended either not spending at all or spending way more than necessary for things.
- He’s still always worried about money, living in kind of unhappy misery.
Anyway, my first approach with money happened at around age 11 (1988) during first year of secondary school (in Italy grade school is split in 5 years of primary – 6 to 10 – plus 3 years of secondary – 11 to 13). I spent my preteen years, as almost everyone else, in an arcade room in my neighborhood, playing those amazing coin op games! Yes, Wonder Boy, Pac Man, Space Invaders… days gone by!
The other socially acceptable activity was playing soccer on the street. The average day of my life was: school till 1.30pm, arcade room till 5, soccer or hide-and-seek till sunset, crappy 80s/90s Italian TV shows till sleep time.
Problem with this schedule is that the arcade room is not running for free. I need money to play my videogames. Not very much since 1) coin op games were very cheap those days (100/200 Italian Lira, 0.05/0.1 Euro) and – sorry for bragging – 2) I was very good at them! A single coin could last for hours 😉
Usual kid’s daily budget was 1000 Lira (0.5 Euro) and that was exactly my allowance. My mother gave me the mythical bill each day. (Almost) every single day. With this incredible amount of cash a kid could waste an entire afternoon at the arcade room and even buy a small ice cream!
Life was awesome, everything looked good. Except the day when I pissed off my mother and she didn’t give me the magic bill. Those days were like hell. Walking like a zombie in the arcade room, watching other kids playing. I was the condemned one. This cannot be accepted, I can’t be so threatened by my mother’s will!
So, one day, I forced myself to not spend all the 1000 Lira I got. I just tried to keep 200 Lira (20%) of them for the day after. It seemed a big limitation at first, it surely was… I was so close to beat my high score at Double Dragon, c’mon… let’s try again, it’s exactly 200 Lira, why wait?? I proudly resisted the urge. A free person was born.
So I started accumulating my spare coins, sometimes allowing myself to splurge above my daily budget, sometimes putting them in a piggy bank. Than one day I had a disciplinary note from school (don’t remember why) and my mother as usual punished me with the hated six words “you won’t get the money today!“. I shrugged and replied: “ok, you’re right. I deserve that.” and walked away, leaving her frowning alone.
I gave the impression of having accepted the punishment and learned the lesson and maybe even regretted the horrible mistake I did at school. Becoming independent from the daily allowance gave me more confidence and peace of mind. My mother understood that she’s lost power to make me fear punishments so she eventually stopped doing that. Bottom line: avoid living paycheck to paycheck drained power from my “employer” to fill myself.
My same age friends almost had the same daily allowance I had, but with this simple trick I felt richer.
One day, a friend of our family was playing Italian card games (tressette) at the same arcade room. The shop (bisca, in Italian) hosted more than just only coin op games: there were pinballs, pool tables, darts and spare tables for people playing non-gambling card games. That day, this guy asked me if I could do an errand for him, a simple one that requires no more than 10 minutes, purchasing something for him in another shop in the neighborhood. For those who wonder, it was nothing illegal :).
I did it, expecting nothing in return. Instead, this hero of the late 80s, offered me to keep the change of that purchase. I still don’t remember what I bought for him, but I do remember the order of magnitude of the change… it was a little below 5000 Lira. It was 5 times my daily allowance, all at once. Initial reaction to my first windfall was disbelief: “something was wrong, I didn’t deserve that money“. This guy wasn’t significantly richer than the average, 5000 Lira is not something you give to a kid for an errand. I asked ten times if he was sure about that and he laughed and thanked me for the errand. I’d love to be able to come back in time to stare at my face that day! I think in few months since I started piggy-banking coins I had accumulated more or less the same amount offered me that day. I doubled my net worth in a matter of minutes. Still couldn’t believe it!
Were I still living paycheck to paycheck how’d I invested that windfall? Handmade Gelato instead of commercial ice cream? 4 hours marathon at Wonder Boy 2? No need for 5K Lira for that, I was so skilled I can win the game (twice) with a single coin, I still can ;). I just banked the lump sum wondering which scenarios would it enable: having a pizza & coke dinner fully paid (not that I was going alone to a pizzeria at age 12, just fantasizing!), the first 10 Dylan Dog comics all at once,… the sky was the limit!
It happened several times again. When this fantastic, legendary superhero of my youth was playing cards in the bisca there were chances of ridiculously high paying task. I become addicted though. I started wandering around him, when he was there, putting pressure on him and probably making him feel uncomfortable with the situation. I remember one day spending most of the afternoon trying to be noticed by him – who obviously did notice me and my bothering behavior – and feeling like a shit about that the very same evening. I never did it again. I still feel embarrassed for that. I hope you forgave me, Enzo.
In spring 1991 secondary school was over, so was my daily allowance days. I’ll tell you my financial High School story in next chapter!