I recently read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time-- it's an extraordinary book, and full of so many interesting thoughts about money. The main character is Francie, a little girl growing in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Francie's father is a charming alcoholic who can never keep a job for very long, so they're always poor and scrambling for whatever money they can get. Francie and her brother sell old rags or metal (I forget which) to a junk dealer in order to get a few cents of pocket money for themselves, and here's what Francie does with hers:
Arriving at the store, she walked up and down the aisles handling any object her fancy favored. What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface and then replace it carefully. Her nickel gave her this privilege. If a floorwalker asked whether she intended buying anything, she could say yes, buy it and show him a thing or two. Money was a wonderful thing, she decided.
Here's an excerpt from a scene describing the family's mealtimes, where they each drink a cup of coffee. Francie often doesn't drink hers and her brother wonders why she's even given one. Here's Francie's mother's response:
"Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it away rather than to drink it, all right. I think it's good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be to have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging."
This queer point of view satisfied mama and pleased Francie. It was one of the links between the ground-down poor and the wasteful rich. The girl felt that even if she had less than anybody in Williamsburg, somehow she had more. She was richer because she had something to waste.
As she grows older, Francie is constantly aware of the need to save money. Her mother has learned this lesson from her grandmother, who insists that she should save whatever money she can, hide it in a coffee can nailed to a closet floor, and never touch it until someday there's enough to buy some land:
"It is winter, say. You bought a bushel of coal for twenty-five cents. It is cold. You would start a fire in the stove. But wait! Wait one hour more. Suffer the cold for an hour. Put a shawl around you. Say, I am cold because I am saving to buy land. That hour will save you three cents worth of coal. That is three cents for the bank...."
And then there's this painful scene, where Francie wants to win a beautiful doll that is being given away at her church by a girl from a rich family. They announce that it will be given to a "poor little girl named Mary" and Francie wants it so badly that she raises her hand and lies about her name, while having to publicly acknowledge that she's poor. As she leaves the church with her prize, she is tormented by the other poor girls:
Francie's eyes smarted with hot tears. "Why can't they," she thought bitterly, "just give the doll away without saying I am poor and she is rich? Why couldn't they just give it away without all the talking about it?"
That was not all of Francie's shame. As she walked down the aisle, the girls leaned towards her and whispered hissingly, "Beggar, beggar, beggar."
It was beggar beggar, beggar, all the way down the aisle. Those girls felt richer than Francie. They were as poor as she but they had something she lacked-- pride. And Francie knew it. She had no compunctions about the lie and getting the doll under false pretenses. She was paying for the lie and for the doll by giving up her pride.
If you've never read this wonderful book, I highly recommend it, and not just for the insights on money and class. There's great historical detail about old New York, and it's a fascinating portrait of a girl's coming of age.