How $16 Changed My Life
“Carry out a random act of kindness, with no expectation of reward, safe in the knowledge that one day someone might do the same for you.” – Princess Diana
Before going any further into this post, I want to clarify two things:
1) This is not a product or promotion I’m pushing that costs $16
2) This is a very low point in my life that I haven’t shared with many people
Now, with full disclosure out of the way, I’ll tell you what the title is all about.
In the summer of 2008, I worked as a sales trainer for a small marketing firm in Nashville, TN. Although during my career there I would work in over 7 different campaigns, at the time I was selling and training salespeople for a retail promotion involving At&t’s home services inside their cellular stores. Do you remember going into an At&t store and someone coming up asking you about your home phone service? Could have been me or someone I trained.
The money was good, usually, though not very consistent. I would have 4-figure weeks; and occasionally $100 weeks. No base pay, no car allowance, and no guarantee. I am very grateful for the experience I received working under these conditions because I learned that I can survive on my own without a “steady paycheck.”
This lesson didn’t come easily to me and it didn’t come without pain. Lots of pain, coupled with lots of fun. You see, managing my finances was never a big concern of mine. I lived in a cheap apartment with a roommate. I didn’t buy cable TV. I didn’t waste electricity. I had no car payment and very low insurance. In fact, much like now, I had almost no bills at all.
I did have one main vice: restaurants. I love to eat and back then my idea of a perfect night was a pretty girl across the table at a nice restaurant. The level of niceness depended largely on the previous week’s commission check. I assumed that when I had a good week at work I could afford to go wherever I wanted. I didn’t look at my bank account much and never cared about saving. Life was short, so I figured I should go ahead and enjoy it!
My biggest week ever came: $1,600! That was a lot of money for six days work and a kid with no college education. And I had a blast! I went on four very nice dates that week, each with a different girl. I sent the one I liked the most a very nice bouquet of flowers. I bought myself a video game system. I even used a little bit of common sense and paid the rent. Things were booming. To top it all off, I was already well on my way to a $1,000 check for the next week.
Then, as so often does when we grow cocky and careless, the bottom fell out.
To briefly explain, part of our training process was to take new reps into the store with us to teach them how to work with customers. Also, since this was a straight commission job, we wanted them to know exactly what we do and that it is possible to make good money doing it. I believed this and was doing it already, so I enjoyed training the “newbies.” If a trainer wasn’t making money, that trainer didn’t get to train, so this was also something of a status symbol to us.
On this particular day, I took a very enthusiastic, though somewhat scared, trainee out to a small town roughly an hour from the office, to work in their At&t store. For lunch, I offered him a treat: I would take him to the Farmers’ Family Restaurant, a gigantic, high-fat, quite delicious, southern-style buffet. I am a very healthy eater now, but at the time I loved nothing more than a huge plate of greasy food finished off with a couple of desserts. He hadn’t made any money yet, so I offered to pay.
We really enjoyed our meal. I remember I had some homemade lasagna and creamed spinach, finished off with two pieces of pie, pecan and apple, and topped with ice cream. It’s funny what the mind retains, over four years later.
We walk up to the counter and tell them we had two buffets with two sweet teas. The cashier told us our price was $15.63. To this day I remember that number, partly because of what happened and partly because we ate there a lot when we went to that town to work.
I handed the cashier my card, she swiped it, and then the dreaded words popped on the screen: “DECLINED.”
I was shocked! How could my card get declined? My card had never been declined before. Besides, I had just had two back to back awesome weeks. Of course there was money in my account!
Visibly shaken and obviously trying to figure out how I would pay for lunch, I searched my pockets for cash, even though I knew I didn’t carry any. Not knowing what to do, I said I would go out to the car and grab some money. I didn’t have any money. To this day, I’m not sure what I would have done. There’s a good chance I would have driven off without paying and asked not to be sent back to that store again. I was humiliated.
A man sitting at a nearby table with his family stood up, pulled out a $20, handed it to the cashier and said “I’ll take care of his bill. He looks like a nice young man.”
I looked at him with tears in my eyes and could barely utter “thanks,” before rushing out to my car. I composed myself on the way and when we got in I told the trainee “must be something weird with my card. I’ll call the bank when we get off.”
I could tell he didn’t buy it; he didn’t show up for work the next day.
That night, I called my bank. I was overdrawn and now had to pay over $200 in overdraft fees. My cell phone bill, set on auto-pay, had gone through and knocked me in the red. I had 7 pending transactions which were each charged a $26 late fee. How could I have been so stupid?
I cried myself to sleep that night. As proud as I had been about my ability to sell and earn, I was so foolish to let it all slip through my fingers. I made a vow that day which I still honor: I will never be careless with my money again. To this day, I still feel a slight twinge of fear every time I use my credit card, as if being declined could happen randomly. It’s a fear I am getting over, but not quite there yet.
Sometimes in life, it’s the hardest lessons that teach us the greatest truths. I don’t know who that man was, but he taught me a second, more important lesson that day: You never know how a single, small act of kindness will change a life.
Thank you for listening to my story. If you have a similar experience you would like to share, I would love to hear your story below. If not, go out of your way to do a small kindness for a stranger today. Your small act could leave a profound impression for a lifetime.
Photo by Andreas Øverland