Last weekend I got a call from my mom. She was cleaning out her house and came across my old Atari 2600. She asked if I wanted it back. I said heck yeah and took off to retrieve it. I’d forgotten all about the thing, but the minute I saw it the memories rushed back. The hours I spent playing Yar’s Revenge, the mania to get all the way to the end of Pitfall and, of course, joystick thumb from pressing that red button so hard and so often. But after the nostalgia wore off I remembered something else about that Atari 2600. It gave me my first real lesson in personal finance.
At the risk of dating myself, I’ll say that I was about ten or eleven when the Atari came out. If you were alive then, you remember how every kid (and a lot of adults) wanted one. If you weren’t alive then, think of the frenzy over the Wii and you’ll be close to what it was like. I was no different. I wanted one, and I wanted it badly. Especially after my best friend got one. I was crazy jealous. I just had to have it! I think the Atari was also my first experience with consumer culture and the crazy desire to own something.
Anyway, I bugged my mom for weeks (probably months) for an Atari. I swore up and down that I would do extra chores, clean my room, walk the dog, be nicer to my siblings; whatever it took, I was willing. Finally mom got tired of the whining and sat me down and explained the nature of money to me. It was pretty much the, “Money doesn’t grow on trees” lecture that most kids get, except my mom went further. She showed me the household checkbook and explained where the money came from and where it went. At the time I didn’t appreciate her honesty (I was stuck on the fact that I wasn’t getting an Atari), but looking back I realize she gave me an extraordinary gift. She taught me that money is finite and that needs have to come before wants. By showing me the household finances she let me see that she wasn’t just being mean (although I thought so at the time), but that there were things that were more important than expensive toys and that the realities of money meant that we couldn’t have everything we wanted.
Like any smart-aleck kid, I noticed that there was extra money in the account. “Why can’t I have it?” I asked. She said, “Yes, there is extra money in the account but that is for emergencies, small treats, or your college education. Big things, like this Atari thing, are saved for over time, not purchased on a whim. Since we’re saving for your college and other things needed for the household, the Atari is out.”
Undeterred by reality (as any ten year old is) I redoubled my whining, certain that she would change her mind in the face of my hideous behavior. But she stuck to her guns. She made me realize that all the whining in the world doesn’t change the formula. Money doesn’t magically appear just because you want something badly enough.
Somewhere along the line I decided that the only way I was going to get an Atari was to get the money myself. I was still whining, but a subtle shift occurred. I started saving my money. I think at the time my attitude was, “Fine, if you won’t buy it for me, then I’ll buy it myself!” At the time I thought I was being rebellious and defiant. Of course now I see that mom had neatly boxed me into the exact corner where she wanted me. If I wanted that Atari badly enough, I was going to have to come up with the money for it and, in the process, learn what it took to earn, save, and spend money in a sensible way. Sneaky, mom. Real sneaky.
I took any extra chore I could find to add to my allowance. I bugged the neighbors to let me rake their leaves, mow their grass, or shovel their walkways. I did the laundry with the understanding that any change that washed up was mine. I squirreled away the checks my grandparents sent for my birthday and Christmas. I scoured parking lots for change. If there was money to be found or made, I was all over it.
Then the day came: I had enough to buy my Atari 2600. Oh, happy day! My mom drove me and my riches to Sears where I plunked the whole sum down on the console and two games. Finally, I was cool. I got the thing home and rushed to hook it up and then proceeded to ignore everyone and everything for about a week as I played myself into delirium. The whole experience was probably even sweeter because I had worked so hard to earn that console. I was never sorry that I spent my fortune on that console. Later I would learn about the disappointment that comes from saving up for something that doesn’t live up to expectations, but at that moment all the work was worth it.
My mom never did cave in on her stance about the Atari. I had to earn the money for every game I bought, unless I asked for it for Christmas or a birthday. Because I had to pay for every game, I was careful to research or try each game before buying to make certain that it was one that I would like. And I learned to wait for sales. I didn’t want to waste my money on junk or pay full price if I didn’t have to.
My mom could have just rolled over and bought me that game console. The money was there and she would have spared herself a lot of whining. But she didn’t. She knew that it was important to teach me about money and so she set about teaching me in the subtlest way possible: She said no until I learned how to solve my own problem by working and saving. And by making me buy all the games myself, she taught me how to continue to save and to make sure that I got the most for my money with every purchase. She taught me to make financial decisions: Should I buy the Atari game, or save the money for some other want? Or should I save up and buy two games when they went on sale? Could I save even more by buying on the used market or trading a bad game with a friend for a better one? I learned how to stretch my money to cover the most games and still afford some other wants, as well.
I’m sure that mom knew all along what she was doing, but I didn’t fully appreciate those lessons until I looked at that old console again and remembered the “ordeal” I had to go through to get it and keep it stocked with games. Now I understand that much of my financial foundation was built by that Atari 2600 and my mother’s response to it.
When I got the console back to my house this weekend I hooked it up to the TV and, what do you know, the thing still works. Some of the games are toast; I expect the chips inside those cartridges wore out or are choked with dust. But many still live on and I had a good time traveling down memory lane with my Atari 2600.
Image courtesy of James UK