My Parents Used to Save Coins in a Glass Bottle. It Taught Me Everything About Life

Objects of Affection is a column centred around the things and spaces that serve as hallmarks of our relationships, from the personal to the professional, and everything in between.

Your dad has a few hundred dollars lying around at home.

No, it’s not hidden under the mattress or distributed throughout the home in the crevices between sofa cushions. Instead, he stores the money in a glass coke bottle approximately 50 cm tall. The bottle is filled to the brim with fifty-cent and one-dollar coins, which are untouchable once they are placed in the bottle.

When he first lugs the empty bottle home, you’re amused. It turns a then 40-something year old man into a child. He excitedly tells you that he’ll commit to emptying his leftover fifty-cent and one-dollar coins into the bottle at the end of each day.

For all its apparent novelty, the bottle is as unsurprising as your dad’s eagerness. Over the years, several of your presents from your parents have been … piggy banks. In all shapes and sizes.

Your parents have always been remarkably enthusiastic about saving money and teaching you how to do the same, which you think is terribly uncool. You are hopelessly oblivious how lucky that makes you.

After all, you are 12. You just want nice things, like holidays abroad. But what do you know?

The bottle fills up quickly, especially after your dad’s regular trips to the wet market on Sunday. Every coin that falls into the growing pile reminds you that money is important, saving is key, every bit counts, it’s good to start early, stop spending on unimportant shit, and blah blah blah.

Frankly, your life begins to resemble a POSB ad you never asked to be part of.

As much as the bottle is displayed prominently, your parents have never been open about your family’s financial situation.

At least not until you score 3.0 out of 4.0 for your GPA during your second semester in polytechnic. It’s not a terrible grade, but only the top 10% of your cohort will make it to a local university. Or so your dad has reminded you every day since you started school.

After learning about your results, he replies, “You better study harder. I have no money to send you overseas for uni.”

His words are meant to motivate you, but it jolts you like all reality checks do. For the first time you are aware of your ignorance, and it terrifies you. You have been told, in no uncertain terms, that you must care about grades. You are simply not financially privileged enough to not prioritise academic success.

The next time you encounter that bottle at home, you experience an irrational resentment towards it, which looms in the background during your conversation with your dad. If only he put that the money in the bank, perhaps he would be able to send you overseas after all.

Mostly though, you’re confused.

Firstly, you don’t understand why your parents actively live way below their means, especially if doing so restricts their child from ‘gifts’ and ‘rewards’. Yes, your parents; your dad isn’t the only one who lives frugally. If an item were 20 cents cheaper at a supermarket that’s further than the one you normally go to, your mom would walk the extra distance anyway.

It’s just 20 cents, but it adds up, she always reasoned. 

Secondly, you can’t figure out why your parents are walking contradictions. On one hand, they are obsessively cautious about money; on the other, they stubbornly hold on to practices that make no sense. For instance, the bottle of loose change might serve as cool home decor, but leaving cash out in the open as mere ornament is illogical.

You theorise that having a substantial amount of physical cash lying around, in case of an emergency, provides some peace of mind.

After your conversation that night, your dad manually pens down what he’s spent on that day into a tiny notebook, from lunch to groceries. This includes his car’s mileage for the day, down to two decimal places.

None of this is new: his financial prudence has been a daily habit for as long as you can remember. When you were younger, he would even recycle items left by strangers at void decks that were still in usable condition.

But that night, the sight of your dad hunched over the dining table, religiously scribbling into his creased notebook, leaves you numb with gratitude.

The following semester, you top your cohort. Eventually you also make it to a local university.

You should be thrilled because all these accomplishments supposedly means you’re smart. Instead, you are just relieved your dad won’t feel obliged to spend on an overseas education for you.

In university, some friends tell you that they’re thinking of heading to the United States for a six-month exchange programme. Others are considering nearer Asian countries, like Korea and Japan. They ask you where you’ll go.

You smile politely: there’ll be no exchange for you. You won’t even bother taking a look at the list of partner universities offered, because you don’t want to place that financial burden on your dad. Neither do you have enough money to pay for it yourself. And, well, the thought of taking out a bank loan is enough to send you spiralling into despair.

After you actually start working full time and have enough money saved, you can go on holiday to all these places you missed out by forgoing an exchange. Sure, it’s not the same as studying abroad, but you convince yourself it’ll have to do.

And so you spend your summer breaks taking on internships, working part-time in retail, and doing freelance writing.

One night, in the back room of the store you work at, you allow yourself a good cry. You are bloody exhausted, but you’re not a quitter either. So you soldier on for $8.50 an hour, which is 17 fifty-cent coins, and save everything you earn (in the bank, not a glass bottle).

You also promise yourself that you will give each parent 10% of your salary once you start working. That will be at least 400 fifty-cent coins.

For the first time, you understand the importance of every single cent in that silly glass bottle.

You are 28, and you haven’t thought about the bottle or its significance in a long time.

In fact, you haven’t worried about money in awhile. On top of succeeding in saving substantially, you are able to comfortably afford a decent gym membership and the occasional spontaneous holiday. At the risk of bragging, you are more financially stable than many of your friends.

And then it dawns on you.

You do, in part, have that ridiculous glass bottle to thank. Your lifestyle is only possible because your practical, sensible, and arguably shrewd middle-class parents believed the best demonstration of love was to show you the importance of saving from a young age. From making it a point to drop coins into the bottle in front of you, to buying piggy banks for birthday gifts, they knew you would watch and learn.

Your parents ensured you received just enough to leave you hungry for more. They were right obviously: it leaves you starving.

All the times you felt upset in school for not having as much money (and as much fun) as your friends has made you more prudent. Years ago, you cut down significantly on shopping, eventually only doing it twice a year. You got better at discipline and time management, and only take public transport now. You stopped ordering drinks with your meals, and now eat at hawker centres most of the time. You force yourself to put aside at least 40% of your salary.

These might be small changes, but its effects are long term. After all, in the corner of your living room is a bottle that’s evidence the little things make a big thing.

A few years ago, you ask your dad if he would ever bank in the money in the bottle. It’s been full for a few years, and he doesn’t seem to spend from it at all. You wonder, wouldn’t it make more sense to put it in the bank, where it can accumulate interest?

He smiles, “No. For what?”

He’s perfectly content with forgoing the interest if the bottle can remain a lasting lesson for his children about the value of money.

I suppose this article is proof of his point.

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