It was thirty years ago last week, in early December of 1985, that I made a major mistake with my personal finances. In hindsight, I think back upon that moment with surprisingly fond memories, but at the time is was a moment of fear and anxiety. I share this story, in the spirit of the holiday season, to be a reminder of the “potential” and kindness of strangers.
I had started my business career just a few months before, graduating from Vanderbilt with my “newly minted” MBA, and taking a great role as a Marketing Assistant with Kimberly Clark. After a few months of sales training in the field, (a wonderful experience that will be fodder for a future essay) I was assigned a role on a brand team at HQ, in Neenah Wisconsin.
Having moved to Wisconsin in October of 1985, to a great little apartment near City Park in Appleton, I dove into my new job, new neighborhood, and new friends with gusto. Everything was going great, I loved my job and my first boss (Bruce Paynter was my boss at the time who I have written about extensively on this blog. Take a look at the archive to find those essays when you have a moment.) and was feeling great as we started getting close to Christmas.
An unusual reality about working for Kimberly Clark (often referred to simply as “KC”) was that they ran payroll for management once a month. While it certainly does not seem like much in retrospect, my annual salary, net of appropriate withholdings and deductions, was sent out via check 12 times a year. I was pretty typical of many of my peers at the time; I was single with little to no savings, some significant student loans, and a new job where I wanted to be succesful and use as a foundation for future executive roles and a long-term business career.
Everything seemed to be going just fine as we entered early December of that year. I had purchased Christmas presents for my family, a plane ticket to go visit my girlfriend (now wife of 28 years) Jennie in Atlanta, had my car serviced and winterized in advance of a tough Wisconsin winter and still had a enough in my checkbook to “make it” to my early January paycheck.
It was a snowy Friday night that I came back to my apartment after hitting happy hour with “the gang from work” and picked up a voice message on my new, high tech home answering machine. It was a message from a “Ms. Ratzenberger from the Valley Bank”, letting me know that my account at the bank had been frozen because I was “thousands of dollars overdrawn” and that I needed to come to the bank in person on Monday morning!!! I can still remember the feeling of panic that hit me that cold night. Whatever lingering effects of the “good cheer” from happy hour were washed away by a rising sensation of fear, anxiety and stomach acid.
In the cool light of a crisp Saturday morning, I tried to figure out what had happened. I only had the account for a few months, so I pulled out the 2-3 monthly statements and my checkbook to figure it all out. It only took a few minutes of digging to realize MY error and mistake. Just about the time of my December paycheck, I was getting to the bottom of the “checkbook register” and the last entry on the first page was my monthly paycheck deposit. All good so far! As I turned the check register OVER to start the next page for some unthinkable reason I entered the December monthly paycheck deposit again and added it to my running balance. (Just a reminder for the younger readers, there was no email/internet/cell phones/e-banking /etc. in 1985. Just the good old checkbook and the monthly printed statements.) I had “Double Deposited” my December paycheck and fully spent against it. I didn’t have enough to “make it to January,” I was indeed thousands of dollars overdrawn and in trouble big time!
It was a long, sleepless, anxiety filled weekend. I started collecting all the receipts for all my Christmas presents and seeing what I could “get back” if I took them all back to the stores. I tried to see about what refund I could get from cancelling my plane ticket to go see Jennie for Christmas. I tried to figure out what I could get as an advance eon my credit card, but with a $300 limit at the time (hilarious) not much there, I even tried to figure out what I could sell my car for if I needed cash fast! As Monday morning grew closer, my anxiety only grew since I had NO plan to find the money…. what was I going to do???
In hindsight it was a very good decision to arrive at the bank early that morning, dressed in my suit and tie, ready for my meeting with Ms. Ratzenberger. I sat quietly in the lobby when I was called back to her small office, no plan in hand and nervous and deeply scared. At first she was stern and a little angry, asking me what had happened and how I could have become overdrawn so quickly after just opening the account a few months before. Sheepishly I showed her my “double deposit “ error in my checkbook, how I had deposited my monthly paycheck twice and spent against it, stammering on that I wasn't sure what to do or what to sell to come up with the money. Instead of bearing down on me, she perked up with a surprising question…. “ your monthly paycheck? Do you work in management for KC?” While I wasn’t sure that a Marketing Assistant was considered “management,” I said that I was in the marketing department at KC and had been there for six months. Quickly she left her office to “make a few calls.”
I had no idea what was going on, but I sat silently as she was away from her office for a few minutes. She returned with a smile on her face, and a stack of papers and forms in her hand. She shared that she had called KC and confirmed my employment status and salary (I was in management afterall, ha!!). She also said that she had a “personal loan repayment plan” for my overdrawn amount that would start in January with monthly payments for a year to closeout my “debt.” Finally, she had the docs for me to convert my MasterCard to a Valley Bank credit card that would lower my interest rates and be linked to the “personal loan repayment plan” above.
Well to say the least I was blown away. Rather than being some kind of overdrawn deadbeat, I was a valued new and expanding customer of Valley Bank! I didn't need to sell my car, return the Christmas presents and cancel my flight plans. What I needed to do was do a good job at work, payoff my loan and credit card bills to the bank on time or early, and NEVER make a “Double Deposit” again!!
As I think back on that moment thirty years ago a few lessons come to mind. We all make mistakes and always will. It’s futile to think about living a “fault-free” life. Instead, we need to focus on how we handle the moments of mistakes when they come, regardless of what side of Ms. Ratzenbergers' desk you find yourself on. If you are the one who made the blunder, own it! Don't run from the truth; don't try to “talk your way out of it.” Be open and honest about what happened and work towards solutions. If you are on the other side of the desk, dealing with the “offender” find ways to be open as well. Look for ways to turn the negative moment into a positive opportunity, find ways to turn the “deadbeat debtor” into a valued new customer! As you head into the holiday season, keep this little "snowy Wisconsin story" in mind and find ways to turn mistakes and errors into moments of generosity and opportunity.