Dollars and Sense

Everyone is paying for something. Catalytic converters (whatever they are), new septic tanks, root canals, bad dates, funerals, weddings, roofs and trips so long ago that the tan has faded into fish-belly-whiteness again. Celebrations and devastations both come with a price tag.

042When I volunteered in Africa for four months last year, I quickly adapted to not earning a paycheque. When a litre of beer and a goat leg cost less than a dollar, I thought I was playing the greatest game of Monopoly–with all my tiny red plastic houses on Park Place. What was silently transpiring was my mind becoming  engaged and stimulated by the experience, and dollars no longer made sense.

My second sabbatical came to an end just a few weeks ago. Another fling with Madame Africa in the Congo followed by abruptly moving across Canada put a few hairline fractures in my nest egg, but I’m smoothing out the lines again. As Juliana Margulies’ told Oprah in this month’s O Aha! Moment, her mother always reassured her by insisting, “Honey, this is only a moment, it’s not the rest of your life.”

Luckily I’ve never been money-driven, as my scales tip towards the life end of the work-life balance. I admire work ethic in others, and their commitment to the greater good of a company, but, I like to address the greater good of myself first. 

As a child, I was an entrepreneurial star, with my juvenile fashionista ways fuelling most of my ambitious upstarts. There were Kangaroo shoes and Chip & Pepper overalls that were must-haves. Not to mention the Ralph Lauren button-downs, Tretorns and trendy Lacoste cardigans.

Growing up in the country, we were forced into non-traditional money-making schemes. A lemonade stand wouldn’t fly on our gravel road that was only frequented by my grandfather and uncle commuting between pig barns at feeding time. We tried, oh, how we tried—but we drank our proceeds and had cankers and gut rot from all the warm pink lemonade.

My dad was generous with chores, and the pay out. We could rake up pinecones in the back woods (oh, could we?) to make cutting the grass safer. Let me tell you, those pinecones were instant projectiles, hitting you like fiery bullets when they propelled out of the back of the push mower. Equally exciting was the opportunity to rake up gravel from the grass after a winter of my grandfather clearing out our driveway with his snow plow. That plow was effective for snow removal and gravel removal. The driveway was about 100 metres long, which translates into five tonnes of gravel on the grass come March. Gravel-raking was slightly more enticing than doing the whitewalls of the Cutlass Supreme Oldsmobile though. The SOS pads always made my hands itch like I had been picking poison ivy. Not only did we have to scour with the SOS, we had to follow this step up with a toothbrush (and we weren’t even being punished), a hose-down (but not too much water because we were on a well), followed by a shine with the Turtle Wax. I wouldn’t do that for $50 dollars now.

Luckily I had artistic talent to rely upon (which my sister still sneers about). I would sell drawings of our grey Persian cat on a snowmobile, or cross-country skiing. Oh, how Moker loved to snowshoe. Xanadu, our Benji-knock-off dog, was featured in most of the drawings with Moker. Xanadu also enjoyed skiing and the odd toboggan ride. I’d sell these crappily coloured pictures for 25 cents a piece to any relative with a wallet. The accompanying stories would net at least two to three dollars, depending on length and my up-sell.

Dax caught on to the relatives with wallets, and became quite industrious with his vegetable garden enterprise. My mom would purchase the seeds, pay Dax to roto-till and weed AND have to buy his produce on top of all that. The pints of raspberries earned the most coin, due to the tedious nature of the work, and also due to the annoying thorns.

Kiley earned her spending money (to finance her own personal telephone was she was nine) in a less honourable way. She convinced her elementary school colleagues to join her prestigious “White Rabbit Club.” Members were charged a weekly fee, and I’m sure she had an initial registration fee as well. All was lucrative with her White Rabbit Club until a jaded classmate (who didn’t make the cut) reported the financial scam to her mother, and Kiley’s club was canned.  

Dax expanded his skills in the kitchen after a 4-H bread-making course and became a burgeoning country version of Cinnabon, before Cinnabon even came to fruition.  He made Nanaimo bars and brownies so rich that your teeth would disintegrate as you ate them.  He had sinful cinnamon buns and a knock-out Betty’s Bread Pizza (a lovely braided pizza loaf) that I still request for my birthday. A friend of mine actually paid him to make desserts for one of her parties when he was 15. And we’re not talking church bake sale kind of prices. He was making enviable royalties largely because my mom had to buy all the ingredients!

How we make our money and how we spend it fascinates me. I have no problem spending $150 on running shoes because I’m a runner, it’s what I do. My dear mother hates spending money on shoes. When she finally went all out and bought herself a cool and expensive pair of orange sandals a few summers ago, she had nightmares about them being run over by transport trucks. Really, she didn’t sleep for weeks because of awful dreams about her sandals being destroyed. However, as my dad will attest, she has no issue with spending money on fireplace mantles. She has about six now.

Kiley Torti, former President and CEO of the White Rabbit Club

Kiley Torti, former President and CEO of the White Rabbit Club

Dax is all about the fish. He will buy corals as pricey as the orange sandals my mom stays awake over, while my sister fawns over more downhill skis (she goes down the hill a lot, it’s justified. And she lives in Banff where it’s winter from August to June.

Michelle, my friend from Nunavut, takes pleasure in buying dried mushrooms in Chinatown, Steam Whistle beer  for around $25 a six-pack (it’s Nunavut remember—not a big beer selection, and slim pickings on the fresh strawberries and Costa Rican bananas) and artisan apple wood chips for  her fish smoker. Then there is my dear Kelly and her affection for all things Louis Vuitton. You don’t know how many times she dragged me into Holt’s to visit her Speedy bag. She’d put her cell in it, her keys, and fling it over her shoulder, feeling the wonderful weight and meticulous craftsmanship of the bag on her shoulder. Finally, one day she walked out of the store with it (after buying it), proud as a peacock.

I like that individuality and brand passion. But me? I like to spend money on experiences. Last week I had a reflexology treatment and three red bean paste rice cakes with all-I-could-drink Chinese tea for 30 bucks. Money can buy happiness! I love theatre, out of season blackberries, concerts, gourmet shortbread, film fests, skin lotions that smell like pumpkin pie and marshmallows, manicures, shiatsu—anything to indulge my senses. Goat curry from Mr. Jerk, East Dell Estates Big Black Cab, Jann Arden in my ear, a new shiny book and the bliss of being in a post-Thai massage state is what being well-off means to me.

Spending money on tampons, taxis, toilet paper and transit really irks me. Paying “professional fees” of $550 a year to work as a massage therapist, turns me into a professional swearer. And $1, 455 to simply move my stuff (that arrived 30 days late) across Canada? Well, that annoyed me too. Because, that is a plane ticket to somewhere really decent, and probably hot.

home-toronto-amster-nairobi 838I run the risk of entertaining and pampering myself to death, which is probably not a bad thing. I love wedges of cheese that are skinnier than a doorstop and over 10 dollars a bite. I like champagne for no reason and Paco Rabanne. But I’ve raked a lot of gravel and pinecones in my life, I deserve it.

As for $250 dollar jeans, well, I have those too. I’m not bragging, just justifying. I’ve had them for five years, and if you do the math, they were less than 10 cents a day in 2004 and have been free for the last four years.

My dad always talks about winning the lottery and what he’d do (something along the lines of building a bigger house and having us all move back home. Except, my mother would probably move out). My mom, the more rational one (remember the sandal nightmares) finally snapped back, “Larry, you should just be happy to be able to walk by the time you’re 80.” That’s the lucky lottery to her, and this makes sense given her exposure to palliative care clients on a daily basis.

And as I sit in my now-free jeans, sipping East Dell Big Black Cab in one of the glasses that didn’t arrive stem-less from BC, I realize how simple and incredibly rich life can be. Maybe it was the failed lemonade stand that taught me the early value of the dollar. (Don’t get me wrong, I was insanely jealous of every city kid who could have a paper route while I took a toothbrush to the tires of the Oldsmobile).

I smile when I think of my sister (post White Rabbit Club success) being so down and out because the Valade family was clearly richer than we were. Their house was bigger, they had a swimming pool, a 10 inch TV in the kitchen and a pinball machine. AND, Mrs. Valade made homemade ice cream bar sandwiches.

I’ve always felt rich in what I have (even the year that SARS hit Toronto and the last thing anyone wanted was to be touched, let alone by a massage therapist. It was a stellar year of earning less than $19,000, but I still did everything I ever wanted to). My career success ladder sometimes resembles more of a step stool, but I know how lucky I am.

Besides, I could never bite into an ice cream bar anyway (lifelong sensitive teeth). And I peed in the Valade pool every time I went in it.

For my friend Latham Hunter’s take on money, check out her blog “Composing Myself” at:

And then read her tell-all about blowing $6,000 on a painting without regret at:

And after all that, tell me what you think about money and what you spend it on.

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Dollars and Sense

  1. Molly Carmichael

    I love this one Jules. It’s a really good way to look at things and has inspired optimism in me.
    not only that but that is HILARIOUS about the Valades! I”m so sure you peed in their pool 🙂 LOL.

    • jules09

      Maybe just once, and only by accident. And there are more than two sides to every coin–glad you could see the optimistic one.

  2. Phenomenal writing, you always make me fired up about a subject!

    Money, that is a fascinating subject.

    I echo your feelings about using it on experiences. I remember someone quoting me a price for a furnace / air conditioner. It was 6,000 bucks. My first thought? Cripes! .. thats two trips to Hawaii.

    Growing up we probably had an “OK” amount of money, having income from GM, but my father was as stingy as they come. We never enjoyed new clothes in Sept when school went back, and when it was SO important to be fashionable. He doled out the money to my mother and it wasnt much.

    I remember wearing the same pair of green stretchy pants, for two years, grade 7 & 8.
    No Calvin Kleins for me, just these dumb ugly pants. And kids being mini ogres, thought it was clever to nickname me “Mrs. Green Jeans” The name stuck into high school. Thanks Dad.

    Money really gets funny when its part of a will. I believe Money then translates into “Love”. You didnt get part of the trust? Dad didnt love you then did he? Which is why wills most always tear families apart, specially when the deceased wants to make a point.

    My father, the tightwad, won a lottery several years ago. He won $100,000, which in 1979 was a lot more than its worth today. He gave us three girls 2,000 each, which…we thought was nice.

    But years later I heard that the girl who sold him the ticket ..pretty little blonde… was also given 2,000. Oddly, that hurt. This stranger was worth the same amount as his precious daughters. Does my pain make any sense?

    By the way, my mother had the most bizarre reaction to him winning this money. We were all jumping around in excitement, and she says ” oh god here we go….nothing but trouble now” She knew in her experience with dad, that this was just going to be a huge power play on his part. It was. Oh the arguments that ensued.

    It was also the happiest I’ve ever seen my father. Ever. Not births or marriages or getting a hug from a grandchild .. winning money was the ultimate for him. Sad to me.

    So dad died mostly alone, not missed as a vital part of our family unit..
    He had nothing for us and had a lifelong affair with his bank account. As is usually the case, if you hear about his childhood and what he went through, you can begin to understand he’s not a monster, but a product of his experiences.

    A year after he died, our mother bought the two surviving daughters a car. Just like that. Heres a car for you. It was like she was giving Dad a giant “flippin the bird.”

    We remember Mom sewing us Barbie clothes for Christmas, because she didnt have enough to buy them. We remember her sneaking a $20 in a book when we were students and broke, so dad wouldnt know.

    Money is experiences, and sometimes, money is love.

    • jules09

      Wow, Kay. That was longer than my blog! I kid, thank you for sharing your two cents.

      It’s unfortunate that money becomes a weapon between family members and friends, but it is the most successful way to kill a relationship. Where there’s a will…there’s a way.

      Mrs. Green Jeans, I think you’re all the better for it. Income can be as disposable as the people attached to it. Or it can create an Oprah.

  3. Dax

    I remember the damn pinecones, and prickly pines with hypodermic needles. AHHHH.

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