"Can anybody remember when the times were not hard and the money not scarce?"
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Despite the early-rising, pre store-opening throngs camped football-stadium deep outside Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us on the Friday after Thanksgiving, merchants and consumer analysts alike are complaining that the size of the shopping crowd "didn't meet expectations."
Poor babies. Who would have thought the heads of America's vast gift-selling state would complain because they weren't making enough money?
But for the perpetually insolvent consumer, Christmas ranks right up there with braces, car repairs and worn-out shoes. Where, we moan, will we find the money for this, too?
To solve the Christmas shortfall dilemma, banks used to have a savings plan called "The Christmas Club," which their customers either religiously joined or completely panned. For the joiners it meant putting a few dollars into a do-not-open-until-Christmas account throughout the year, but for the panners it meant wasting a 12-month opportunity to earn while you save. Christmas Club accounts earned no interest. The bank simply acted as the manager of your sub-estate.
I fell somewhere between the cracks on that one, never quite having the money or the discipline to keep the ritual going beyond week four or five, and rationalizing how much more I'd have if I invested the money " which I didn't do, either, beyond week four or five.
But the Christmas after my oldest granddaughter turned 15, she set up a Christmas Club plan that was a lot more successful. Because she was nearly old enough to drive, her family bought a used car that they were willing to store until she earned enough money to keep it running. Would she now set aside money each month from her paltry baby-sitting income to fund her new prized possession?
Not exactly, but her timing and sales pitch were perfect: "Grandma, I don't need clothes for Christmas this year. All I want is money." Translation, "All I want is more money than you ever spend on me for clothes."
So as I began scrounging for the extra cash to help make her wish come true, you can imagine my euphoria when I received the following letter from the Social Security Administration: "Periodically we reexamine our records to see if there are any additional benefits due. As a result, your benefit amount has been increased "
Wow! Maybe I could buy her a better car.
Not exactly. The letter continued: "Instead of your usual payment this month you will receive an additional $5, representing the total additional amount due." I did the numbers: My $5-windfall meant I had been short-changed 26.3 cents a month for the previous 19 months.
Besides wondering what part of my granddaughter's car expense I was supposed to furnish with that extra 26 cents a month, I wanted to know how many of my tax dollars it took to pay the mathematician who discovered the mistake.
I admire attention to detail as much as anyone, but it seems to me this person would be of better use over at the Office of Management and Budget where such skills would benefit the whole country. If he or she could find my extra 26 cents " and a Social Security spokesperson confirmed that many of the 32 million Americans currently receiving Social Security benefits received a similar amount " think how much money might be found in government miscalculation for a budget a thousand times as large. Maybe we'd find enough for hurricane relief.
Of course, if they needed my 26 cents back, too, I could probably swing it. It's the patriotic thing to do. I could even use the gesture as an example for my granddaughter to follow. So what if she had to work an extra hour " or mastermind another hit " for her car.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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