The value of starting with $5

Photo Credit: Clem Onojeghuo Unsplash

Like many people at the start of a new year, I’m reflecting on where we’ve been and where we are going.

We’re coming off a brutal year, globally, but throughout this period of upheaval, Virtual Bookkeeping has continued to grow as more people seek harmony and stability in the realm of their personal finances.

I know how that feels.

As a new single mother at age 18, I lived on a very strict budget. Five dollars a week was all I allocated myself for spending money. The rest went to necessities: bills, food, caring for my son.

The five dollars I allocated to myself each week was often spent at a used bookstore, perhaps to buy a Stephen King or a romance I hadn’t read yet.

But I found satisfaction in being able to detach, emotionally, from what the money was doing, and understanding my budget more as a numbers game. Knowing where every dollar went gave me a sense of control, even mastery.

Around that time, I got my first finance job — at a collection agency.

I hadn’t known it was, when I applied. I only learned it was a collection agency when I saw their door sign at my interview. My first instinct was to run. I had heard horror stories about collection agencies and their awful operating practices, and harboured all the same negative images most people do about these businesses.

But before I could run, the owner was ushering me inside for my interview.

James was so caring, so interested in me as a person and as a new mother, that my misgivings were calmed over the course of the hour-long meeting, which was more like a conversation than an interview. He clearly didn’t run his business as a predator. He ran it as someone who cared about people — and their finances.

As we stood up and shook hands, he asked me point-blank if I wanted the job. I didn’t hesitate: “Yes.” And although he taught me much about finance, he also taught me to care about clients and their struggles.

When a client had a $45 hospital bill and no way to pay, we might explain they need not pay it all at once. We devised payment plans, even for as little as $5 a month if that was what the client could afford.

And after all, I knew the value of five dollars myself.

Small changes that accrued over time changed peoples’ lives for the better.

When I started Virtual Bookkeeping in 1999, I had just one bookkeeping client, growing incrementally by word of mouth and referrals. I knew I wanted to bring the same level of personal care that James had, and I had to trust that the work and integrity of our process would bring clients my way.  

And it certainly did. 2020 was our biggest year yet from a client success standpoint, and it’s reinforced what I learned in my early days as a single mother: People are capable of great change, even during times of greatest hardship.

Money need never be an albatross around your neck. Money is just a vehicle: a thing that helps you live your life the way you want to live it, and if you can separate emotion from it, you will be better able to see where money goes and where it needs to go.

Sometimes a new client comes to me and they’re a mess financially. They’ve got debts. There’s no budget. There’s no plan.

There is, sometimes, a note of desperation. I’ve had clients say, “We’re in so much debt, we might as well go bankrupt because we’ll never get out of it.” Some of those same clients, within a dramatically short period of time — 10 or 12 months — just by watching carefully where their money goes, and following the tailored plans we laid out together, reduced their debt to nothing and begin saving for the future. They’re living their best life, and they’re happy.

That, to me, is the best feeling in the world.

Though I would never say no to a $5 bargain on a good paperback.