Things I Learned as a Mini-Mart Employee

(or, how to get my mind off the election returns…)

I’ve been working three nights a week, about 18 hours a week at our local gas station/mini-mart since September, in an attempt to plug a widening hole in our budget, and to speed our being debt-free. It’s been an interesting experience. On the occasion of my retirement (I’m cutting down to one day a week now, enough to make the Christian school payment), I thought I’d reflect a bit on what I’ve learned about American society from being employed for about 5 months with Q-Mart.

My first impression is that people are really stupid unwise with their money. I’ve seen people drive up, put $16.49 in gas in their vehicle, and watched them walk up with a (ridiculously overpriced $1.39 20 oz.) soda, and then be overcome with an obsession to spend all of the $20 bill they hand me, usually on lottery tickets. I have customers who come in on a nearly daily basis and spend upwards of $4 a pack on cigarettes. This is after I had several of them chuckle and claim that they would quit after the Jan. 1 Wisconsin tax hike, which increased the tax on cigarettes by about $1.25. Now, they come in and examine the two-fer sales on their brand, or have switched to the off-brands of cigarettes. Our sale rack of cigarettes is frequently empty. It boggles my mind to think of how much some of my faithful customers burn up in cigarettes over the course of a year, not to mention the ones who come up and buy a couple packs of cough drops with their cigarettes, as they hoarsely talk about the weather and wheeze their way out the door. I see people come in and buy their “groceries” for the next couple days, picking among our extremely healthy choices, like pre-cooked refrigerated microwaveable cheeseburgers and large grab-bags of chee-tos. The average bill for one of my customers who shops this way –about $20. I do see some people come in and bypass the sugar and trans-fat laden goodies and take advantage of our milk sale, but these people are very much in the minority. Most of our in-store sales (not counting gas) are cigarettes and lottery tickets, followed closely by soda. It’s enough to depress a person. I see families who appear to not be well-off come in and spend $5 or $10 on the off chance they might be struck by lightning win the lottery. I fight the urge sometimes to bring up in conversation that most lottery winners wind up claiming bankruptcy within a few years of their win. You don’t break poor choices with more power to make bigger poor choices.

It’s not a very flattering portrait of America that I see every day at work. But I do see some good from time to time. I have witnessed on several occasions people in our community help out someone who’s run out of gas on the highway, and refuse the insistence by the person helped that they be paid. I have seen people come in more for conversation than for their regular brand of cigarettes. There are a couple young men who I see almost every Wednesday on their way to church youth group who always make me smile by their polite behavior and consideration of others.

But the overwhelming impression I got is that I think I know why the lower middle class is swimming in debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck. When you put a $1.39 soda on your Discover card, something’s wrong. When you are compelled to spend all your change on lottery tickets, something’s wrong. When you’re in high school, and half your paycheck goes for cigarettes and Mountain Dew, something’s wrong.

Now, I understand that I am being judgmental. I know. I know because I have done stupid myself. I still do on occasion. When you’re living on less than $25,000 a year, eating out is usually doing stupid. For someone making $60,000 a year, a dinner out is a drop in the bucket. For us, it can be 20 percent of our monthly food budget. I’ve had to learn that I am really bad at saying no to myself. I can justify ordering pizza out because… well, it’s just what you do when you’ve had a hard day and the only groceries you have would require an hour and a half to make a meal with. I have had a paradigm shift where that’s concerned. If we’re going to stay debt-free living on very little, it’s going to require a lot of saying no so we can say yes to things like paying the bills on time, keeping me home, and keeping the kids in Christian school. Deprivation? Maybe. I think of it as coming to grips with the reality that it’s wisest to forego the good for the best. It’s putting the big rocks in first.

Our principal in high school did an object lesson on priorities for us. He had a large jar, a cup of rice, some sand, some water, and a few rocks. He had someone come up and try to make all the items fit. The victim volunteer made an attempt by putting the rice on the bottom, followed by the sand, then the water. When she tried to put the rocks in, the container overflowed. The solution, our principal explained –put the big rocks in first, followed by the rice, then the sand, then the water. When he did that, it all fit. You just have to think about the order. Think about what’s important.

I couldn’t fit this in anywhere else, but another minor thing I learned at work –whoever named the Chase Freedom card needs to have their head examined. No Hassle?? Yeah, until you can’t make the payments. I doubt it’s “no hassle” then. What’s in YOUR wallet?!? Nothing?!? Well, we got a problem with that, now, don’t we? It’s really depressing to be working to pay off debt and see so many people blithely trudging into the same mess you’re trying to dig out of. Now, yeah, some of these people pay off their card every month, but I doubt that’s how they build all the big office buildings and can sponsor arenas. Okay. Enough sarcasm. For now, anyway :).

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