Just put it on Big Mama's tab

Just put it on Big Mama's tab

A Story by Melissa Lynn Cox

Another story from my freshman college course...this one mentions my Big Mama. You will hear about her soon.


When I was a young girl I didn’t understand anything about money.   My Big Mama had a tab at the neighborhood store, Little’s Grocery, and we could “charge” whatever we needed or wanted even if we didn’t have any money.   Every day, I would walk to Little’s to I get an ice cold Coca-Cola, some penny candy, and whatever else my Big Mama told me to pick up.  Leon, the owner of Little’s Grocery, would send a note home with me for my Big Mama around the first of the month when she got her check.  After she paid some of the more important bills, my big Mama would send me to Little’s with some cash to pay a portion of what we had charged that month.  She never paid off her tab completely, and I don’t think Leon charged service fees or late penalties for letting it ride.  Because not many people in the neighborhood could drive or had cars, the entire neighborhood relied on Little’s to stock their pantries even though his groceries were twice the price of the Winn Dixie’s that was five miles away.  I grew up with a homegrown urge to get the things I wanted or needed without one thought to how I would later pay for them.  The lessons passed down from my Big Mama caused me to have to learn some valuable money lessons the hard way. 

            The first and quickest lesson I learned was about writing checks.  I was nineteen and had a checkbook and a job for less than a year.  I didn’t write but one or two checks a month and really didn’t have enough money to worry about keeping my balance in my checkbook.  When I became engaged, my boyfriend and I opened a joint checking account.  We hired several different services for the wedding, and we wrote about twenty checks in the days just before the ceremony.  We were given checks and cash as gifts, but we didn’t bother to make an all important bank deposit before we left for our honeymoon.  When we returned, we had about twenty bounced checks hit our account along with each of their service fees. I was so glad that I had at least paid the minister in cash. We had to use all of the cash and checks we were given as wedding presents to get out of one big financial mess.   I never again wrote another check before checking my balance.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last financial mess I would get into or the only lesson that I needed to learn. 

            I learned about budgeting after four years of scrambling to pay our many bills and not having enough money for everything we owed.  I wanted to be a stay at home mom to our one year old daughter, but I went to work to give us some financial stability because it seemed for every step we made forward financially, we took two steps back.  My husband was struggling to find what he wanted to do and was bouncing through different types of sales jobs like a rubber ball. His irresponsible attitude toward our finances and marriage was driving me away, and the last straw came when he gave me cash saying that it was his commission pay for the week from his third job in five months.  I soon learned that the money came from an advance on his newly acquired American Express which he thought gave him some sort of high financial status.  He didn’t care that along with this status and the cash advance came a bill at the end of the month that was to be paid in full, and we had no way to pay it because he had quit his job again. After many sleepless nights, I made the very scary decision to divorce and start out trying to balance my checkbook and my life without him.  I had several monthly bills including rent, car payment, childcare, utilities, and food, but I had a good job working as a clerk in the courthouse.  I put myself on a very tight budget and usually had twenty dollars left over from my paycheck each week for gasoline and other extravagances like a weekly trip to McDonald’s and the occasional used toy or book.  I managed to pay all my bills for several months, but I did have to borrow money from my mom once when the IRS held my tax refund for my Ex’s delinquent taxes and my car insurance was due.  It was humiliating to have to ask for money, but it gave me a renewed determination to be financially independent.   I stuck to my budget and after my next pay increase, I began saving a little money each month for car insurance, Christmas, and savings bonds for my daughter. 

            I didn’t know much about saving money, and what I did know I sure didn’t learn from my Big Mama or my ex-husband. After a year of being on my own, I met a guy named Mark through a mutual friend, and our conversation turned to our different attitudes about money.  I thought money was a dirty word and he thought it was a religion.  He had a large savings account and managed his money carefully, but not so carefully that he didn’t buy things he really wanted like a home computer or go on a fishing trip or two while we were dating.  Up until then, I had only thought of my savings as a safety net and a way to stay afloat financially.  I never thought of savings as a way to get the things I wanted, not needed, like a newer car or a house or to go on vacation somewhere besides my own apartment.  Mark made financial goals and used his savings to help him get the things he wanted, and I could see why he was so impressed with money.  After dating for several months and having many more interesting conversations, we married and began saving a portion of our incomes each month not only for our bills, but also for our future.  We set goals together and made a plan each year as to how much we could put into savings.  We increased the amount we saved whenever our income increased, and we patiently allowed our savings to grow. Our planning helped us not only afford nice cars, nice homes and several great vacations, but also to put money into retirement funds and stocks.  In the last few years, we were able to invest in several businesses and quit our jobs to go to work for ourselves. Saving money was not always easy but worth the effort in the long run because it provided money for the things I really wanted and a safety net for any financial burdens that came along occasionally.

            I am so thankful that I learned that money isn’t a dirty word early enough to change my childhood notions about money.  My Big Mama died several years ago and Leon closed her tab.  I think she still owed him some money, but he didn’t ask the family for it.  The City, however, wanted back taxes, and she left several other unpaid bills. It sent her children into a panic because they had inherited all of her bills and her haphazard money philosophy, and not one of her seven children had any savings or financial resources. They spent several years settling her small estate and incurred expensive legal fees because they were unprepared.  Thanks to all the lessons I learned about money, I, on the other hand, have become a successful business owner.  I am the bookkeeper for two of our businesses and the Treasurer of my daughter’s school PTO.   I achieved my financial success because the most important lesson that I learned over the years is that you have to have a plan to handle money.  I don’t think money is a religion like my husband does, but I do understand that it is an important part of my life, and I finally respect money instead of fearing it or ignoring it.  Over the last twenty years, I learned to balance my checkbook, budget my money, and save for a rainy day and I learned it all the hard way.   


© 2010 Melissa Lynn Cox

Author's Note

Melissa Lynn Cox
This was written 4 years ago before the economy went to hell in a handbasket. We have lost and spent most of our savings but are still pushing forward. We still have our own businesses and I now work as a school secretary. It pays for health insurance but not much more. The lessons I learned about money still hold true and have helped us stay in business...KNOCK ON WOOD!

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What a good life lesson! Glad you were able to survive the Undeclared Depression with minimum discomfiture. I particularly enjoyed the line, "start out balancing my life and my checkbook." What relationship is NOT like a Checkbook without a register? Irregular deposits, frequent and unannotated withdrawals, undetermined what (if anything) is the balance; do you perhaps hear the bitter strains of the recently "bankrupted" here?

Have you ever lived in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana? You mentioned you had been a Clerk of Court, and our CoC there was named Melissa. Unlikely, I realize, but wouldn't that be an amazing coincidence?

Posted 11 Years Ago

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1 Review
Added on July 8, 2010
Last Updated on August 12, 2010
Tags: money, family, growth


Melissa Lynn Cox
Melissa Lynn Cox


Born in 1967--you will have to do the math. I can't remember for the life of me how old I am. Mother of three daughters that keep me laughing and guessing. Mother of 2 cats and 2 dogs and one illeg.. more..