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I Was a 15-Year-Old Working Stiff

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I started working early enough that I had to go to my high school’s office and get a work permit, which I can only assume was to confirm that I wasn’t being forced into child labor. Most businesses wouldn’t hire anyone younger than 16, but finally I found a job at a coffee shop that was part of a small local chain.

I began earning money with one goal in mind: a car. It was an easy equation to me: work = money = car. I was a girl on a mission. Have no car meant that I’d get rides from my parents, convince friends to drive me after school, or walk from my high school to my job. I’d work until 10 at night on weekdays, and in the summers I’d get up at 4:30 a.m. to work the opening shift. None of this was abnormal—nearly everyone I knew had a job, and I worked with three or four other girls from my school alone. Most of the people I knew looked scornfully at rich kids who didn’t have to work; we thought of them as snotty and stuck up, and even had names for the towns where the wealthier families lived (my favorite was the spin on Duxbury, Massachusetts, which we always referred to as “Deluxe-bury”).

I made a minimum hourly wage—$6.75 at the time—but where I really made money was tips. In your local coffee shop, or Starbucks, or Dunkin Donuts (the institution in my home state), you’ve probably seen a tip cup on the counter. At the end of every shift, I’d leave with an oversized pint cup of change and dollar bills. I’d pander for tips; I’d smile, I’d be extra happy and friendly, I’d put on my higher-than-normal girly voice. It was a shameless art getting people to tip you.

It became an easy system; every week I’d go to my bank and deposit my check, and the tip money would be my spending money. By the time I was 16, I was working an average of 20-25 hours a week. Within a year or so, I bought my first car: a Buick for $1,200. I paid in cash.

My family wasn’t destitute—we were middle class—but my parents weren’t the type to throw money at us either. They did help me by paying my car insurance and splurging on music lessons for my brother and me, but they were also busy paying for our house, our food, and a million other costs that come along with caring for a family of four. “It’s too expensive” or “We don’t have the money” were typical responses to a lot of requests. Now, I doubt this was always 100% true, but I do know they were always prepping for the next big unexpected cost: a broken down car, a busted water heater. I felt guilty enough for my parents for saving and paying for college—how could I handle the guilt of asking for anything else?

When I got a scholarship for grad school, my parents bought me the most extravagant gift I could imagine: a used 2002 Honda Accord. I almost cried when I saw it. Today, that car is still running and sporting a proud 226,000 miles.

I’m rounding 30 now, and I’ve never gone more than a handful of months without working. I’ve learned a lot of lessons, like how you should never quit a job before you have another one lined up. And one from my days as a teenage working stiff: Please tip your barista.

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