Best Way for a Twelve-Year-Old to Learn Finance: My Paperboy Job

By the time I was 12 years old I knew more about finance and budgeting than most 20-year-olds.  I had started delivering papers at age 11 and had accumulated a lot of experience by the time I turned 12.  One of the older kids in the neighborhood had out-grown the paper route job, and my friend Alan I and I decided to share his route when the older kid “retired” from the newspaper business.  Alan was 12 and I was just 11 — making me one of the youngest paper boys in town.

The route was long, spanning about 4-5 miles, and hence came with a long-distance premium paid every month.  Alan and I alternated delivery weeks which included afternoon delivery Monday through Friday and early morning delivery on Sundays.

The best part of the job was afternoon delivery in the summer months.  I seldom minded the heat and I enjoyed riding my bike around the neighborhoods.  The worst part of the job was collections.  Most subscribers paid by mail, but some paid directly to the delivery boys.  For them, I would have to knock on their doors and ask for their monthly subscription fee.  Since many paid in cash I had to make sure to have enough cash on hand to make change.  I found that some people were very prepared to pay, while others said they did not have the money and “could I come back tomorrow?”.   The worst was when tomorrow never came.  The missing money temporarily came out of me and my partner’s pay.  Only when the adults in billing got involved and the situation was rectified did Alan and I get our missing pay — and this could take a couple weeks. We pre-teen kids served as the bank floating interest-free loans to the newspaper!

A bundle of about 50-60 papers was dropped off at Alan’s house every afternoon (or Sunday morning).  On rare occasions there would be one too few papers dropped off.  This meant that I had ride an extra two-mile round trip to the nearest store to buy a copy to replace the missing paper.  I would report the missing paper and get reimbursed for the cost of the paper — but not for riding an extra two miles.   Another lesson — sometime you just have to take on extra work to keep your customers happy.

I was getting first hand exposure to revenue, earnings, “one-off” financial events, and accounts receivable.  I learned that some customers paid on time and others were often tardy.  Occasionally some were generous and even tipped!   Those that paid my mail would sometimes leave a tip, especially around Christmas time.  All of that had to be accounted for because Alan I shared the tips.  Sometime the tips were gifts, rather than cash.  Alan and I divided the cash, be kept the non-cash gifts we were given.  We were both very fastidious about our finances, and I don’t recall ever having a conflict or dispute between us.  We were honest and meticulous and it paid off in a good working relationship.

I had a savings account and interest rates were around 5 percent.  I was eager to get my money in the back to start earning interest on it, and I’d go with my Mom to the bank to make deposits.  (I think her main reason to go to the bank was to deposit my Dad’s paychecks).  I was fascinated with the idea that after two months I would earn interest on interest (in addition to interest on my savings).  After three months I’d earn interest on my interest’s interest’s interest (even though that amount might be less than one penny).  I was paid interest monthly and always looked forward to my monthly bank statements.  I also wondered about the possibility of daily interest, hourly interest, etc.  I only learned later that my musings had touched on the mathematics of fundamental financial concepts such as compound interest, continuous interest, opportunity costs, and discounted future cash flows.

Looking back, I see that my paper route taught me a great deal about money and business.  It also helped me develop a strong work ethic. In many ways it is a shame that the job of paper boy or paper girl is pretty much a relic of the past.  So many lessons not being learned.  It seems that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for younger kids to work, earn money and learn important life skills at an early stage.  Nonetheless there are some young entrepreneurs who are finding real information-economy jobs on the internet, for example.  Times change and so do opportunities to learn and grow.  And that rate of change appears to be accelerating.  We live in interesting times.