Boomers, it’s time to talk about the days when a penny actually bought a piece of penny candy. Back then, my dad’s financial expertise taught me everything I needed to know, and less:
1. “Kids, shut the lights off when you leave the room, or you owe me a quarter.” A quarter was equivalent to five full-size candy bars. Yes, my childhood was measured in candy. Wasn’t everybody’s?
2. “Eat everything on your plate.” Dad tried to pull the kids-starving-in-Korea card. I didn’t buy that for a minute. However, I knew being a member of the Clean Plate Club ensured dessert.
3. “Save your money.” On the continuum of frugality, Dad was off the charts. When I witnessed him driving over 10 miles each way to a gas station to save a penny per gallon, I began to question his money management skills. Some (OK, everyone) who knew him called him cheap. But in a really fun kind of way. He’d very seriously explain his rationale, and we’d call him cheap again and have a few laughs at his expense, no pun intended. Nevertheless, we kids knew that if needed, we could go to the Soft-Touch Bank of Mom and Dad, and count on them to help.
Halfway through my nursing career, I began working for a large-scale employer who offered retirement accounts. Here I’d been thinking I could get by, some day, on the quarters I’d saved from shutting off lights.
Now older, I’m still eating everything on my plate, and I guess it’s about time to check what my retirement account is doing in this unstable financial market.
I dial the toll-free number.
“Thank you for calling,” begins the menu. “Please listen carefully, as our menu has recently changed.”
Really? Every place I call says that. This is not starting well.
I press something. I don’t even know what I press.
“… say your mother’s name …” a female robo-voice says.
“Margery,” I reply.
“I think you said ‘Forage Ray.’ Is that correct?”
Oh, dear God.
“No. Margery,” I say, louder and slower. It’s possible there’s an edge to my voice.
“Moe Forage Ray. Is that right?”
Good thing I take all those blood pressure pills.
“Margery. Margery. Margery, you !%%#!@@$##!!!”
“I think you said …”
Now I am repeatedly pressing (aka, pounding) the “0” option on my poor phone.
“Please hold for a customer service representative,” the automated voice says, and I swear it’s almost laughing at me. Oh, how I miss human beings answering phones. Three minutes of Muzak’s rendition of “Feelings” later, no one picked up. I start pressing “O” again, which puts me back to the beginning of the menu. I hang up. Forcefully. That is why I’ll never give up my wall phone.
I look at my computer.
Like a coal miner five months behind on rent and heading underground, I face the experience with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I need to do this, but I really, really don’t want to.
Yes. I am on the website. Now they want my password.
Hmm. Where’s my cheat sheet? I look in the file cabinet.
Definition of file cabinet: a large, four-drawer free-standing unit, plus a small two-drawer cabinet (purchased after nursing school graduation, age 23, to get super-organized and all that idealistic crap), plus three giant dust-laden rollaway plastic bins under the bed (oh, wow, my old high school newspaper). Um, yeah, plus eight damp cardboard boxes in the garage. I sort out a box of old photos, then throw them back into the same box labeled “Old photos, to be Sorted” and head back inside to the computer.
Of course, my session has ended.
But I am prepared. I have the password.
Oh. User name? Hmm. Is that an “n” or an “m?” I type “n.” Then I try “m.” Then I go back and retype the password, and then … was that a zero or the letter “O?”
I’ve already given them my mother’s name, the elementary school I attended, my first pet’s name, and tried to copy the weird words that they want me to decipher. Wouldn’t a hacker know how to do this? See, that’s where we boomers have an edge. What we lack in technology, we make up for in wisdom.
Unfortunately, I can’t get in to my own account. And calling them for help? Oh, please. I exit, in frustration.
I’ll just wait for the mailed quarterly notification of my financial picture, Valium at the ready. I’ll brace for the possibility, once again, that my money will be going south, which unfortunately will mean that I can’t do the same.
‘Cause if my retirement money goes away, my dad and Moe Forage Ray aren’t around to help.
My best financial advice? Shut the lights off when you leave the room.
You might just save enough for that three-for-a-dollar penny candy.
Kathy Eliscu, who lives in Westbrook, writes “Lightly Roasted,” also for Maine Women magazine. She blogs at www.kathyeliscu.com.