1, 2, 3: it’s not as easy as A, B, C…

November 20, 2008

My dad did his best to teach me about money. For my twelfth birthday, I got a checking account. During the drive to school, he lectured me about fiscal responsibility and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. He was an accountant, so how he came to raise a daughter incapable of counting change is anyone’s guess.

When I say I am bad at math, I don’t mean bad in the modest Georgetown “I didn’t get a 5 on the AP subject test” sense. I mean bad as in sometimes I find myself wondering how many quarters are in an hour, before I remember that quarters go into dollars and minutes go into hours. It’s difficult to explain that you’re late for class because you confused cents with minutes.
Needless to say, it came as a great surprise when my first summer after college, I was hired by a local discount store to work in their accounting office.

Let me preface this by saying that I lived in a town where one semester of college meant I had more education than the mayor did, so getting the gig was hardly a testament to my math skills. The fact that I showed up at the interview wearing shoes more than qualified me for the position.

Officially, my job was to empty the contents of the cash registers, count the money and compare it to the receipt totals to make sure that none of the cashiers had stolen anything. Then I had to stick the money in the safe and wait for the Brinks truck to come and pick it up. And because the store was convinced all of its employees were vicious thieves who would rob it blind if given half a chance, I had to do this while locked in a small windowless room, with only a security camera to keep me company.

This task required almost no formal skill beyond operating a calculator, but counting stacks of bills over and over was boringly hypnotic. My first day, after counting the same stack of fives 17 times, I realized I had no idea how much money was in the cash register, and nothing in the world could induce me to care. I spent the next two hours giving myself a manicure with white-out. When my supervisor came in to check my totals, she was shocked to see how little progress I had made. Reluctant to be fired on my inaugural day, I resolved to actually try to count the contents of the cash registers. Despite my best efforts, I could never make them match up, forcing me to resolve that either each cashier was stealing in the neighborhood of $1.45 in nickels every day, or that I was hopelessly bad at addition.

Finally, I gave up and came to work everyday with a huge purse full of change. When the money was short, I would just add it out of my own pocket. (Strangely enough, the registers were never over.) After two weeks I quit, realizing that the amount of errors I made were causing me to barely break even, and that I might even have been paying for the privilege of working there.

I thought my brief foray into the field of finance was behind me, but then I got a letter from the IRS. Apparently the government found out I was giving out free money and they want a piece of it, too, in the form of taxes. Let’s just hope there’s still some money left in my birthday checking account.


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