The Lesson Pop-Tarts Taught Me

By Shantel-Ann Pettway

With my 10-year-old hands attached to the side of the grocery cart that my god-mother pushed, I suppressed the urge I had to pick up items that weren’t on the grocery list. I loved going to the grocery store as a child because I always had a chance to get my favorite sweet, bubblegum.

“Don’t touch anything you can’t buy,” my god mother said.

She’d said that so much I knew I’d never get any bubblegum when I stayed at my god parent’s house.

Early on, I was exposed to two different shopping methods and two ways of living life. With my mom I was able to wander ahead of here and suggest items while at the grocery store. I was able to eat whenever I was hungry. With my god parent’s it was the polar opposite.

Sluggishly all of the girls [there’s 5 of us] walk down the steps in our cartoon designed over-sized t-shirts, that we called night gowns, and made our way to the blue gum- stained and tattered love seat, that sat next to my god parent’s bedroom door.

My god sister, Sabrina, knocked on the door to be greeted by my God father. “Scram you meddling kids,” he said with a comical smirk. [My god sister Maya was obsessed with Scooby-Doo at the time, so remarks as such were normal in that household]. In one hand he had a box of Pop-Tarts, and in the other he was shaking his balled-up fist.

Sabrina snatched the box, grabbed a pack of Pop-Tarts and ripped back the silver packaging and handed me one of them. “Only one,” I thought. I couldn’t understand why we had to share when I wanted both of them.

If you do the math at my god parent’s home there were 8 kids. One of the two adults worked. He would buy a box a 16 count of Pop-Tarts and in each box there’s 2 Pop-Tarts in each pack. That gives you 8 packs. Within 1 week out hose would’ve gone through 4 boxes of Pop-Tarts. One box of Pop-Tarts cost $2.99, with sales tax a box of Pop-Tarts cost $3.18. Therefore a week’s worth of Pop-Tarts cost my father $12.72. And this doesn’t factor in the neighborhood friends who occasionally spent the night and had to eat with us the next morning.

My god dad was a frugal man. As a fifth grader I just thought he was teaching us how to be nice to one another by sharing, but his constant closing of the front door “to keep the air in the house,” placement of plastic over windows and his efforts to repair things around the already falling apart house confused me. He would go to extremes to save money.

In contrast, my mother managed her money well, but wasn’t frugal. It was a major contrast going home and visiting with my god parents.

It’s a Sunday in 2005 and my mom is on her way to get me. “Have your stuff together and be ready Shantel,” my mom said sternly over the phone. “Ok mom,” I respond. 

I continued to play outside with my god siblings with my stomach growling. I was surprised it didn’t get me caught when we were playing hide and seek. My mom’s golden mercury sable pulled up and I rushed to my godparent’s room, said bye and got in my car seat to head home.

I rushed through the door past my mom asking “can I have some food mom,” I said. She looked confused as to why I asked but she said “Yeah you can have whatever you want baby.”

If I could have whatever I wanted why was I only getting one of the Pop-Tarts at my god parents’ house? My hungry stomach wouldn’t allow me to ask instead I just ate – no words in between bites – I just ate.

I began to feel what the “real world” was like when I entered into my sophomore year of college. I no longer had a meal ticket because my mom said tuition was too much money in itself. So with some help from my family most of my food was paid for out of my pocket.

Being tight with my money like my god father used to be, wasn’t always the easiest thing to do when trips to Panama City Beach, Florida were proposed to you by friends.

Now that I live on my own and have gained more responsibilities I’ve adapted to the ‘stick to my grocery list’ style of shopping. This is how I maintain my budget successfully while I’m at school. I do major grocery shopping once a month, and I make occasional late night runs to Wal-Mart to buy milk and bread.

On a regular night in Wal-Mart, I’ll head straight to the cereal aisle to get Pop Tarts and cereal. My strange craving to eat Pop-Tarts and cereal together began when I was in middle school and it has stuck with me.

As I approach the Pop-Tarts I go for the Wal-Mart brand – Toaster Pastries. Generic brand toaster pastries are better to me taste-wise because they have more crust than frosting and they’re a good way to save money.

Those weekends at my god parent’s house taught me how to shop according to my financial means. The thought of a lesson being taught in the aisles of Meijer never crossed my 10-year-old mind back then. I know now that that hidden lesson has helped me save money throughout my college journey.

My neglect for my nutritional needs brought back the same hunger pains I had when I spent time at my god parent’s home. Luckily my mother had told me about food stamps, so I decided to apply.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s current population survey, the number of students ranging from 19-24 in age receiving food stamps had doubles from the years of 2001- 2010. It seemed as if my chances to be approved were more than likely. I was denied.

I threw the letter of denial into the trash and set my microwave for 3 minutes and 30 seconds. At this point Ramen noodles had become my closet ally when I needed something quick to eat.

In those moments the corners my god father cut to maintain enough money to feed his household made sense. Though on a smaller scale, I had to feed myself on a miniscule amount of money. Generic toaster pastries was the first step to me saving money and me leading a financial responsible lifestyle.

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