7 things my mother taught me about how to live (and dress, and pay my bills)

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot this past week, so today I’m re-running an updated version of this post that first ran in 2015. Happy reading!

Last week my mailbox was stuffed with invoices, and my thoughts immediately turned to … my mom. Our schedule was packed with meetings and deadlines and kids’ ballgames, and it wouldn’t have been a huge deal to put them off for a week. But I made myself sit down and pay those bills—because that’s how my mom taught me to do it. (I’ll explain.)

My parents are celebrating their 40-somethingth anniversary this week, and I’ve been reflecting on the influence they’ve had on me, in ways big and small. Today I’m focusing on what I’ve learned from my mom: from the big picture stuff to the practical minutiae, her influence is everywhere:

my mom and me

My mom gets consistently excellent service from every person she hires to service, repair, or maintain anything. (There must have been an exception sometime, but I can’t think of one.) She’s kind, which helps, but she also pays them immediately. It doesn’t matter if her bill says due in 7 or 30 or 45 days: if the invoice is ready, she’ll pay on the spot; if not, she’ll pay it the day (make that the minute) it arrives.

(Incidentally, when the air conditioning goes out in the middle of a summer heat wave, whose house gets serviced first? That’s right. My mom’s.)

Not just nice (although she is) but kind. Say hello to people, ask how they’re doing. It’s not that hard. (At least once a week someone stops me on the street and says Are you Martha’s daughter? I just LOVE her.)

My mom is an extrovert’s extrovert (as you know if you’ve read my book Reading People): she is genuinely glad to see people she knows (or might know, or suspects she knew in another life), anytime, anywhere. She never waits for them to notice her: she says hi first. And because she does, she has a lot of great conversations with everyone from long-lost childhood friends to long-unseen grade school teachers, all over town.

Most people are happy to see an error in their favor on their receipt. Not my mom. She points out missed items, incorrect pricing, and bad math whenever she spies them on her tallies. We were at Kinko’s together once; the cashier undercharged her, and she told him so. He was stunned: customers never pass up errors in their favor. Her reply: “If I’m going to sell my soul, I’ll sell it for more than 52¢.”

If it’s grey and rainy out, don’t wear black, wear something cheerful. Everyone’s happiness (including yours) needs a boost on a gloomy day.

This was more a warning to my adolescent self than an intractable statement about human nature. She warned me that if you cheat off your friend’s math test in 7th grade, people are going to remember when you’re 30. And do you want a cheater doing your taxes? She didn’t think so.

My mom knows everyone, or so it seems: she runs into people she knows on the streets of Chicago, at the top of the Empire State Building, in the park surrounding the Eiffel Tower. The world is smaller than you think, she’d say—and now technology has shrunk it more. (My mother, the prophet.) And she always said our city (Louisville: metro population 1.3 million) is “a big small town”:  you think it’s too big for everyone to possibly know your business, but they do. Behave accordingly.

Do you have a mother, or mother figure, whose influence is all over your life? What does that look like? 

P.S. More things my mother taught me: love per wear, and a decision making hack.

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  1. Amber says:

    I absolutely love this post! I had a girl in my 6th grade class that cheated off me. She was extremely competitive. I ended up catching her at her own game by putting wrong answers on my paper and then changing them later to the correct ones. I bet you can guess what happened. I share this story with my kids all the time because I never forgot and I also don’t want to raise kids who think it’s ok to cheat.

  2. Mary Ann says:

    Love that decision making advise. I use a couple other questions: What will I wish I had done today five years from now? or a friend’s Will it matter when you’re sitting in a rocking chair on the porch (as in, old)? All of these shift your perspective and give a longer view of things.
    Your mother sounds very wise.

  3. Ellen says:

    I love your mom! I haven’t met her in person, but just met her in your post. I strive to be much like your mom. My husband still chuckles because we found a $50 bill on the floor of a shopping mall in Toronto years ago and I insisted we turn it into lost and found. I said, “That could be someone’s grocery money!”. I also returned to a bank teller one day because she’d given me too much cash and I knew she would have to account for that error at the end of the day (My father worked in a bank for 40 years and had to wait for all the tellers to “balance” at the end of the day before he could leave for home). I recently told the Property Manager for our apartment complex that they weren’t charging us the rent we’d agreed to on our lease…they were undercharging. I love your mother’s statement about selling her soul. That price tag has to be a LOT higher than $0.52 or $10 or $50! We will never regret doing the right thing. By the way, I also have an orange rain coat and I NEVER wear it without someone complimenting me on it. Wearing a bright color on a dreary day is absolutely the right thing to do.

    • Helen says:

      My mom had a similar philosophy to your mom’s (about the 52c). One memory that made a lasting impression on me formed when I was about six years old. We drove through the bank teller’s window to cash a check. Because there was a long line behind us, my mom took the envelope with her cash and pulled ahead into a parking spot to count it. She noticed the teller had given her $20 in her favor–crisp new bills had gotten stuck together. Although we had a number of errands to run, we pulled back around into the teller’s line to return the money. The teller was so grateful. I asked my mom why she returned the money, and she told me that at the end of the day, the tellers had to balance their receipts against the money in their drawers. If they came up short, the difference got taken out of their paychecks. “Besides, I’d be stealing,” she said. “Isn’t it taking money that doesn’t belong to me?” Years later, as an adult doing some grocery shopping, I ran a tally in my head as I went through the store so I’d know roughly what I was spending. When I checked out, the total came out $10 below what I expected. That seemed awfully high for a rounding error or an unexpected BOGO. Again, there was a long line behind me so I stepped ahead to check my receipt. I realized the cashier had rung up a whole chicken for $0.10 instead of $10. I went back to the cashier and explained that he’d undercharged me. He looked at me like I was insane. I didn’t have cash but offered my credit card to ring it up again, but for some reason his register wouldn’t let him. “Lady, you must be a Christian,” he said. “Nobody’s ever tried to pay me back before.” He sent me to customer service and I got it sorted out (they also thought I was crazy). The ice cream was rather melty by the time I got home, but I’ve never regretted it. My soul’s worth more than $10.

    • Louise says:

      When I was young and very poor, (and before internet banking) I accidentally left my wallet in a shop. It had my rent for the next fortnight in it, and I was distraught as I couldn’t replace it. Not only did someone hand the wallet in but all the cash was in it. Whenever I find lost money or property, no matter how small, I always hand it in, remembering my relief and gratitude all those years ago. You never know much someone needs it!

  4. Keisha Dawson says:

    Oh my goodness! I am 100% sure you just described my mom. They couldn’t be anymore alike if they tried. Some of these things completely drive me crazy about her, but the way you described them made me a think a little bit about how I should be grateful that she is this way. I sure do love my mom though!

  5. Those are great stories about your mom.
    Mine was shy and not given to proclamations, other than if the dishwater doesn’t hurt, then it isn’t hot enough.
    But though she lived seven time zones away, she would babysit my kid. Via Skype. They would chat and draw and hold up their drawings to the camera to show each other. If I poked my head in, my kid would reprimand me–don’t you see we’re busy!?!? In any case, it was a boon while I was trying to make dinner.

  6. Eva says:

    These are such awesome pieces of advice! My husband said the same thing to me about selling my soul a few days ago when Amazon sent me three pairs of hiker socks, instead of the one I ordered. LOL. I do think it’s better tot be honest, but sometimes that little tug can be hard to fight. Have a great weekend!

    Eva | http://www.shessobright.com

  7. Birgitta Qvarnström Frykner says:

    I so wish that my relation to my mom had more positive vibes. She is now gone since 11 years. I was more my fathers daughter and she was in some way a little jealous of our relation. My father was the reading one and started when i was 3 years old to bring me to the libery. My mother was brought up in an environment where reading was laziness. A very poor environment where you had to do all chores before reading. My father was the opposite. That said we had some things in common and i miss her most of all for what she would had been for my now grandchildren. She was the best grandma ever. My sons loved her and did everything for them. The youngest helped her to buy clothes and everything. She was an accountant and some of the values that she thought me was to be fair. I even once went back to a store where i have bought some things for the church sale for about 50 cent/ piece. When i came home i found out that i got one that was not paid for. The next day i drove back to the store and told them what happened , and they just mouth just hang, then someone of the three said, what do you want to do. I want to pay i said, i dont want to come to my church with gods that in a way seems to be stolen. Some people would not care, but i’m that kind of person that was brought up to be fair and honest. She also learned me to mangle clothes and sheets and i still have a mangle in my house. She was a very good cook and one thing she never did, not a sause without thick cream- so do i

  8. Janet says:

    Wise words from a wide woman. My Mother was very much an introvert and I new felt like I knew her very well. She’s been gone 25 years having died much too young.

  9. Vanessa says:

    I wish I had your mom’s touch for greeting people and making them feel happy to see her. Some days I do, most days not so much. But I do like to return what isn’t mine and recycle when I can and pay my bills on time, I call bill paying my hobby. I have to confess that I recently ended up with a giant unpaid for steak that I did not return, I just called it a gift from the heavens and tried to enjoy it fully.

  10. Deborah Lewis says:

    I really loved so much of this post but people do change. Too many adults carry guilt and shame for things they did as children who were learning and just doing the best they could under the circumstances. As the child carries the guilt in into adulthood it takes on a life of it’s own. This is the plot of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch and a part of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.

  11. Sheree says:

    What fantastic lessons – and just in time for Mother’s Day!! 😉
    I love the first tip about paying the self-employed quickly. In fact, my parents had a similar philosophy (or, at least, the way I interpret it is very similar): “always treat the cook well”. These people are often the hardest working, but so often the most overlooked as well, so treating them with decency and respect goes a long way. Your mother sounds like an amazing woman!!

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