Penny Pinching


“That’ll be two dollars thirty-one cents,” the barista told me.

She looked about nineteen or twenty years old. Perhaps a student at the local junior college.  I searched my wallet. I had a ten-dollar bill and two quarters.

“Do you have a penny?”

“Only in the tip jar,” she replied.

I reluctantly put my fifty cents into the tip jar and began fishing around for the penny.

She looked aghast.

“You can’t do that!”

I froze. I’m sure my face became stony cold as my brow wrinkled; my hand stayed in the jar.

“That’s tip money!”

There was no smile in my voice when I asked, “You want the penny?” My disbelief was apparent.

Finally, she tossed out a sullen, “I guess not.”

I gave her the penny and my ten dollars.

I was angry, puzzled and hurt. As the day progressed I couldn’t let it go. Finally, I got out a journal. I needed to process this to get it out of my system.

Was I guilty of stealing? I felt that unstated accusation. Tip jar money is sacrosanct. In general, I believed that too. (In self-justification I recalled memories of being in church in an African country where people made change from the offering plate. Surely, the offering plate is more sacred than a tip jar!)

Was I angry because I felt unfairly judged? Yes. I felt looked down upon from her superior nose-in-the-air “I guess not.”

Usually I did not tip baristas for pouring me a plain cup of coffee.  Was I irritated because I felt forced to pay forty-nine cents for the privilege of using her penny? And on top of that, she wasn’t even grateful! She was coming out ahead, why was she so blind?

I could identify with her. I was raised to follow the “rules.” Pay my bills, don’t steal, do things the right way. I still believe in rules, but I am quite sure there are less absolutes in this world than I previously thought. Perhaps at her age I would’ve had rigid boundaries about tip jars too. Was I being too hard on her?

I mourned that short-sightedness – in her, and in my former self. We couldn’t see past the rule (don’t take money from the tip jar) to the win-win transaction that was occurring.

I had to ask myself, Have I really changed? Do I ever do this now? Perhaps not with pennies, but do I hold a “rule” so tightly that I can’t see a bigger picture? Do I judge and look down upon someone because they have stolen my penny? Do I fail to notice the forty-nine cents to my credit? And when I am confronted, do I get huffy or gracefully recognize my folly?

I may have “pinched” a penny (as the British would say!), but I am learning not to be a “penny pincher” when it comes to extending grace and recognizing the true values in life.

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