The Value of Money (and Coupons)

She walked into the grocery store, her folder, thick and heavy with coupons, clutched at her chest. She was a first time couponer – and nervous with it – but she had to get through this trip under budget.

It was the last week of the February. Even though it was the shortest month of the year, it was quickly becoming the most expensive. She was still trying to pay off her credit card bill from Christmas – it was a shame she missed the after-Christmas sales, but the kids and Rob had to have presents on Christmas Day – and she’d spent more than she should have.

Then, come January 1, Rob was laid off, and her hours were reduced to part-time. Winter in rural Iowa was one thing; winter with no money was another. Thankfully, they had their cash stash, but who knew how long it would last? Marcie wasn’t willing to find out.

She stomped her feet on the thin black rug in front of the sliding glass doors and welcomed the warm air the heater blew on her chilled skin. The grocery carts were to her left. Unwrapping her scarf, a handmade gift from her youngest daughter, she placed it, along with her book of coupons, in the child seat. The coupons were quickly becoming her fourth child; just as precious, just as needed.

She’d spent the week collecting them from her neighbors, from the members of her church – the nonjudgmental ones, anyway – and from her friends. She’d downloaded merchant coupons from her home computer and her work computer, and she’d gone around collecting Sunday papers. Although it shamed her to admit it, and no one in her family knew, she’d driven out to the neighborhood recycling center to dig coupons out of the blue plastic bins. It wasn’t dumpster diving, exactly, was it? It wasn’t like she emerged from the bins covered in banana peels and coffee grounds and who knows what else. It was just paper, perfectly harmless. Right?

Tentative at first, she wheeled the cart past the fresh produce and into the frozen food aisle. She flipped the cardboard top of her notebook open to look at her neatly printed list of items and scanned the frosty doors for the match. Frozen pizzas, 10 for $10, and she had a 50 cent coupon that the store would double. 10 pizzas for free. But she’d get 20, just to be safe. That’d be 20 dinners (maybe less, given how her 12-year-old son was eating these days). For free.

She pulled the door open, propped it on her hip and carefully counted out 20 boxes, all pepperoni. As she placed them into her cart one by one, she felt her timidity, her lack of confidence melt away. Just wait until Rob saw what she was able to get. A wave of giddiness swept through at the thought of the pride and pleasure on Rob’s face. She was going to take care of her family. She was going to do it.

She mentally pumped her fists in the air before taking the cart and striding down the aisle. Next up – frozen vegetables. Something healthy. Sort of. 35 bags of vegetable medley. Then 63 cans of soup; that would get them through the winter and into the spring. 8 packages of honey-glazed ham lunch meat. 19 boxes of saltines. 81 snack packages of M&Ms. Those she’d have to hide and save as bribery for her children; sometimes homework was just easier to complete knowing that a nice package of candy-coated chocolate was waiting. 7 bottles of shampoo. 22 24-packs of Coke products (again to be used as bribery).  48 travel-sized tubes of toothpaste.

She crossed off each item with a flick of her pen. It felt good, nourished her in a way the food couldn’t. She’d filled three carts of goodies to feed her family. Maybe the groceries weren’t entirely healthy, maybe they weren’t fresh, maybe they weren’t gourmet. But it was food. And in this economy, who could afford to be picky?

She relayed between her carts, pushing them toward the check-out station that looked to have the youngest cashier.

“Hi,” she said brightly.

The cashier, a young blond whose name tag was marked with “Allie” in black letters, looked on at the carts in horror. The stacks of frozen foods, the towers of cans and boxes. The notebook bursting with tell-tale white scraps of paper.  A couponer. The amount of scanning she would do was going to give her carpal-tunnel. She swallowed and let out a cautious greeting.

“Hi there. Did you find everything you needed today?”

“I sure did!”

“Great.”

Marcie started taking out items from her carts and piling them on the conveyor belt. Her back was aching from the bending, but the pain was dull, in the back of her mind. Her focus was on the bill. She was happy, simply happy, and she had practically danced down the aisles. She could only hope that she hadn’t calculated her savings wrong. She’d never been a good student, but she prayed that simple mathematics wouldn’t fail her now.

Allie took the items one by one, dragging them across the scanner as it beeped. The two women settled into a rhythm, each intent on their tasks and the give and take of plastic and cardboard and metal containers. The metronomic beeping gave structure to the movements, and when Marcie paused, resting, the numbers on the screen angled in her direction shocked her. She’d never seen so many strands of $7.99 and $12.99 and $3.99. She reached back blindly for the book that rested in the last cart, comforted when the tips of her fingers stroked the cardboard cover.

When Allie had finished scanning and bagging the food, she asked Marcie, “Do you have any coupons today?”

Marcie opened the notebook, handing Allie one batch of coupons after another. She felt the relief sweep through her, causing her knees to weaken, her breath to slow, at the first drop in the total. One scan at a time, the numbers dropped, from $598.76 to $576.52.

As Allie continued to scan, as Marcie kept her eyes glued to the screen, a handful of shoppers began to peek over the racks of magazines and candy and gum, curious at the extreme couponer. One of them, a septuagenarian, called out to Marcie in a creaky, thin voice, “Good for you.”

Marcie turned back, took in the old woman with the white peach fuzz hair.

“Thank you.”

“Are you saving for your family?”

“Yes, my husband was just laid off. We have three children at home.”

The woman gave a nod of approval to Marcie. These young people were suffering, but God bless the woman for trying, she thought. If only those politicians and bankers hadn’t screwed everything up. Back in her day, everyone knew the value of a dollar.

At the counter Allie swiped the last coupon and announced Marcie’s total: $198.30. The spectators clapped politely before returning to their lists and their carts.

For Marcie, the clapping was white noise, a buzz in the background. She’d messed up. Her total should have been under $100. Where had she gone wrong? She didn’t think her dyslexia affected her math skills, but obviously she was wrong. She couldn’t afford to pay the almost $200. A lump gathered at the back of her throat, and tears began to prick her eyes. She looked up at Allie.

“Are you sure that’s correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I thought my total would be closer to $85.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

Oh, god. Marcie fisted her hands, driving her fingernails into her palms, hoping the pain would distract her from crying.

“Ok, I’m going to have to put some of these back.”

The humiliation, the embarrassment coursed through her, burning her cheeks, her lips, her ears.

“Just a minute, dear.”

The septuagenarian shuffled forward. She carefully opened her pocketbook and took out a handful of bills. She reached out to take Marcie’s hot, sweaty hand in her own dry, wrinkled one.

“You use this money. I’m eating at my son’s tonight, anyway.”

“No, please, I couldn’t.”

Marcie tried to hand the money back to the woman.

“No, dear. You need it more than I do.”

“Please, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” she urged. “You’re a mother. You know what’s right.”

Marcie swallowed and slowly turned to hand the cash to Allie.

“Ok, your total comes to $98.30.”

One hundred dollars. Macie couldn’t believe it. That was too generous, too much.

She swiveled around to find thank the old woman for her generosity. But she was gone.

Marcie’s eyes tracked the store, looking for the white hair, listening for the sound of orthopedic oxfords scuffling along the floor. Nothing.

“Where did she go?”

Allie shrugged. She handed Marcie her miles of receipt tape and wished her a good day, grateful her break was coming soon.

Marcie thanked her absently and walked out in confusion.

It had begun to snow, and the sun had sunk into the cloudy sky. Marcie pushed her carts to her minivan and scanned the dark parking lot for the woman. Again, nothing.

Marcie loaded the bags into the trunk, shut the door, returned the carts. As she retraced her steps to her van, she called out, “Thank you!”

Only the wind and the snow answered her, flying around, caressing her cheek. A mother to a mother.

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