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Understanding free money

Many Americans either have or will soon be receiving some free money. Splendid simoleons! Cool cash! Marvelous moolah!

The concept of getting money for nothing is something that’s imprinted on us from an early age.

It begins with our birthdays. When you’re a little kid, celebrating a birthday often means receiving gifts of toys and candy and blowing out the candles on a cake that contains enough sugar to power an aircraft carrier for an entire year.

But at some point, a shift takes place. Instead of the fun toys and yummy candy, you are given slips of greenish paper or small discs of shiny metal.

You wonder what you’re supposed to do with these things. Some experimentation quickly reveals that they don’t taste very good and are a poor substitute for toys.

Your elders explain that you can swap the paper slips and metal discs for anything you might want. Visions of rooms full of toys and oodles of candy dance in your head.

But then an even wackier idea is floated. You are urged to save your money so that you can buy something really nice. This strikes you as impractical since your birthday paydays come only once per year.

I was an impatient child and was never able to save anything for any amount of time. I was encouraged to open a savings account at our local bank but was worried about what they might do with my money. What if they, like me, found the candy aisle too tempting to resist? How would I feel to learn that the bank had “invested” my money in Milk Duds and Twizzlers?

Then there was the matter of that so-called “interest.” Given enough time, I was told, the magic of compound interest would cause my savings to grow. As I understood it, if I waited long enough, I would eventually have enough money to buy three candy bars instead of just two. But the waiting part would encompass approximately a century.

Free money can come your way at various junctures throughout your life. For instance, I learned that graduating from high school can result in a surprisingly large haul. I would have graduated several times had I known about that earlier.

When I was a young dairyman, I received an unexpected dividend check from my dairy cooperative. The check’s amount matched the price tag of the new push lawnmower I’d had my eye on. Who was I to question fate?

Getting married presents a great opportunity to harvest loot from your relatives. My wife and I received numerous thoughtful gifts when we were wed, things like toasters and platters, along with monogramed towels that I was never allowed to use. But what gratified me the most were the cards that contained cash.

I did my best to spread our new-found bounty during our honeymoon. We didn’t spend like drunken sailors, but it was a novel experience to be able to say, “I’ll be paying cash for that.”

Our eldest son arrived nine months later, so our honeymoon must have been both fun and productive. Having a baby highlighted the fact that the world’s most powerful economic dynamo is a young mom who has a newborn.

It wasn’t long before baby-related paraphernalia occupied every flat surface in our house. We spent more on baby stuff that first year than the gross national product of Uruguay.

During the years when we were raising our two sons, the notion of saving money was as far-fetched as booking a roundtrip flight to Saturn. Back then, receiving a cash windfall meant finding a few dusty coins under the seat of my pickup along with a petrified French fry and a lost Happy Meal toy.

Operating our family’s dairy farm involved expending vast amounts of capital and hoping that we would at least break even; losing our shirts was always a distinct possibility. I think this is why gambling doesn’t appeal to me. After literally betting the farm year after year, stuffing a few dollars into a slot machine seems awfully tame.

My wife and I have arrived at an understanding regarding our personal finances: her money is her money, and my money is her money. I have no idea regarding how much is in our checking account. I feel that this isn’t any of my business.

Which suits me just fine. But when this next round of free dinero lands in our laps, I’m going to do everything I can to stimulate the heck out of the economy.

Because I’m among those who believe that money is like manure: it doesn’t do any good unless you spread it around.

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