I earned pennies picking cherries as a kid, but the hard work taught me a lesson that's helped me buy homes and save thousands

  • Growing up without much money taught me a lot about hard work and saving.
  • When my mom wanted to take a trip, we got up every morning at 4:30 to pick cherries.
  • The experience taught me to value hard work and helped me save thousands over the years.

This essay is part of “The Value of a Dollar,” a collection of stories about money from writers who grew up low-income.

My brothers and I were the first-generation of latchkey kids. Both of our parents worked, and we returned home from school every day to an empty house. Our mom and dad worked full-time out of necessity, not to pursue a dream or a career goal. 

We were a low-income family, although, in the 1970s in small-town America, it didn’t seem like we were worse off than our friends or neighbors; that could be because I was young and the wealth gap wasn’t as apparent to me at the time. 

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I know that I learned many valuable lessons about money from my parents, and those lessons have made working and saving a lifestyle for me rather than a burden. 

Picking cherries to fund a summer vacation

Both of my parents were creative and extremely resourceful. They made our toys, clothes, and costumes, they canned food from our garden, and they found ways to make the money we needed. My dad held the same job over the years, but my mom had dozens of positions, from a secretary to a waitress to a police station’s dispatcher. What her work life taught me was that there are endless ways to make money, and that all work is equally valuable. 

One summer, my mom wanted to take my brothers and me on vacation to Canada. She asked all four of us kids if we were willing to get up at 4:30 AM to pick cherries with her in a local orchard to save for the trip. Only my brother Andrew and I wanted to do it. 

We got up before sunrise every morning for several days and drove out of town, and spent days climbing ladders and filling buckets with cherries (they had to have the stem left on). The work was physical and tiring, and we were outdoors in the sun all day, and we had to be careful not to bruise the fruit. It was my first job besides selling Girl Scout cookies (although I didn’t earn money selling the cookies, I did learn the skills of record-keeping, talking to strangers, and living with the word “no”). 

We earned under $100 for all our work in the cherry orchard (they paid us by the weight of what we picked), but it was enough to drive north and cross the border into Canada. We stayed with friends most of the trip and counted out our pennies. We made it home with fumes in the gas tank, and on our last stop, we had just enough change to buy one candy bar to split between the three of us. 

The life lesson I learned: Work hard for what you want

If I had to pick what was more critical to developing the skills necessary to carry me through adulthood, experiencing a foreign country or learning to work and save for the things that matter to me, I would pick the latter. 

Our time in Canada didn’t stay with me, except for the flowers we saw in a city park and a ferry ride. But getting up at 4:30 AM and being willing to do work that goes unnoticed by many people, and to use the money we made to reach a goal that would have been out of reach unless my mom was willing to work hard and be resourceful, that was memorable and life-changing. 

Picking cherries is part of why I’ve had many jobs, from ushering at theaters to babysitting to stuffing envelopes to cleaning apartments, as well as being a social worker, marketing coordinator, and a library technician. It is also why I have been able to save substantial down payments for all the houses I have lived in and was eventually able to go back to Canada on a trip that I remember in great detail.

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