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How Much is $20?


Yesterday my son asked me for $20 extra in allowance “because I’ve been really stressed lately and I want to buy something.”

Sirens went off in my head as I flashed back to all the emotional spending I’ve done in my lifetime. I’m pretty sure my brain stopped working for a minute. When I finally realized he was waiting for a response, I asked, “Why in the world do you deserve $20 extra when you normally only get $10 a week? I haven’t noticed you washing down the walls or shining my shoes lately.”

“Come on, Mom! It’s only $20!”

Only $20. Just twenty bucks. Can you really even buyΒ stuff for that amount of money anymore? Part of me felt like I should just give it to him because it’s not a big deal. Another part, though, started thinking about all the times $20 felt like a life preserver.

How Far Can $20 Take You?

$20 can be the tipping point for an overdraft fee. Spend $20 when you only have $17.48 in the bank, and you’ll overdraw your account. My bank charges $37 per overdraft, plus $4 a day for every day you’re in the red. So that $20 could easily cost $50 (or more if you have other pending checks or transactions).

$20 can feed you for a week in a pinch. One time I was so broke I couldn’t even come up with enough change to buy a $1 drink at McDonald’s. Luckily, a friend stopped by that day to repay $20 she owed me. I was able to buy enough cheap staples (milk, pasta, bread, etc.) to last until payday that Friday.

$20 can pay the water bill. Ever had a utility cut off for nonpayment? My check for the water bill bounced one time and I had to pay $144 to get it turned back on. Plus the associated fees from my bank (see the part about overdraft fees above). I literally stole a bucketful of water from my neighbor’s hose so I could flush the toilet until my service was reconnected. Pathetic.

$20 can keep you from losing your job.Β I’ve only called off work one time because I didn’t have enough gas to make it there and back. Actually, I called in sick because I was too embarrassed to tell the truth. I hated lying to my boss, and I was terrified that somehow she would find out. Had that been a regular occurrence, I probably would have been disciplined or fired.

$20 can protect everything you own. If you rent your home, you need renter’s insurance. Period. Without it, a fire or other disaster could destroy your belongings, and your landlord’s policy will only cover the home itself. You can get a decent renter’s insurance policy for around $20 a month.

But it’s ONLY $20!

These days, my spending is under control and I don’t have to deal with close calls like I mentioned above. If I want something that costs $20, I can pretty much just go get it without thinking about it. For many people, that may be a laughable milestone to be proud of – I know people who could spend hundreds without thinking twice. But for me, given my history, being able to spend ANYTHING is amazing.

I could have transferred $20 to Jay’s account in a matter of seconds when he asked for it yesterday. It wouldn’t have prevented me from paying my bills or buying food; I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that it was gone. But I decided I don’t want him to get into the “IT’S ONLY ___” mindset. Thinking “It’s just $10” or “It’s only $35” is what got me into debt in the first place.

Instead, I talked to him about why he feels so stressed (school as usual) and whether buying something new would fix the problem (it wouldn’t). We talked about all the things he already owns that could distract him for awhile or help him feel better. In the long run, that moment will be worth far more than $20 could ever buy.

How much is $20 for you? Could it make a real difference in your life, good or bad? How do you deal when you start thinking in terms of “IT’S ONLY ___”?

About Andrea Whitmer

Andrea is a freelance web developer and mom trying to maintain a sense of humor in an otherwise chaotic world. She blogs in hopes of helping others avoid the same mistakes she made in the past. Join in the discussion here on So Over This, or connect on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Plus. You can also subscribe to new posts via RSS so you never miss out!


  1. I never asked my parents for any money because my mom was always openly complaining to me about bills and how we were going to lose the house or not have food that week because of XYZ reason. I remember once the whole school was doing a charity thing where we had to give 5$ and a friend of mine said "it's only 5$, just ask your parents" and I was horrified at the thought of asking my mom for 5$ to send to an African charity.

    My brother, on the other hand, is much younger than me and by the time he was in his teens and needed money, my parents were more financially settled. He asked for money and they gave and I'd cringe when he'd say "it's only ___ Vanessa, relax!"

    • That's a really good point, and something that affected me in the opposite way. My parents were so tight-lipped about their finances, I never had a CLUE what was going on. Now that I know how little we lived on back then, I feel awful for asking for money as much as I did. I'm sure knowing too much about your parents' financial situation wasn't great either, but I'm sure it has benefited you in the long run.

  2. $20 is a lot – it's overdraft protection, it's my groceries for the week, it's part of the reason I can have a job to begin with. 

    I still get set in the "it's only" mind set. It usually applies to teas and coffees or $0.89 vending machine snacks. I wonder how much it would add up to if I stopped with the "it's only" and added up everything I thought that about in a year!

    • I actually did that – not stopping, but adding up every little nitpicky purchase. I looked over several months' bank statements and nearly died. I don't use cash because I tend to waste it, but I am a firm believer that most people need to carry a cash allowance each week to realize how quickly they can go through money if they aren't careful.

  3. GREAT post.  What a wonderful teachable moment for your son.  Buying stuff may make you feel better in the moment, but it doesn't solve the problem at hand. 

    As for $20….that is a co-pay at the doctor for us.  We pay that every week for my son's occupational therapy.  And it is worth every penny.

    • I'm kind of jealous of your $20 copays! Mine were $50 at my old job, and I'm thrilled that they'll be $30 on my new insurance. Then again, I don't have an appointment every week so I think I'll keep my mouth shut. πŸ™‚

  4. $20 is actually my grocery money for next week. Even an extra $5 would be great. Damn pets keep wanting to eat. So if you're handing out $20, I'll take it lol.

    • I feel you there! It never fails – my dogs only run out of food when I'm super broke. Or the day before payday when I was still working at my job. Nothing like eating ramen so your pets can have their food, but I guess it's just part of it!

  5. It is amazing what something can be worth when you actually sit down and think about it. To think about it though I think depends on your situation. If you have lots of money, $20 is going to feel like pocket change to you . However if you have no money, $20 is going to be a big deal and you are going to consider carefully how you are going to spend it. It all comes down to perspective.

    • That's true. $20 isn't a huge amount of money for me now, but there have definitely been times when it was. I hope I never get to a point in life where I can't remember how far $20 could go, even if it becomes pocket change. Though I don't see that being a problem anytime soon!

  6. So when I was in high school, I'd make maybe 100$ a week at my part-time jobs. Maybe 150 if I'd worked extra hours that week.
    That can keep the power on. That HAS kept gas in the car and it's been able to add groceries on the table. I never really thought about having 20 dollars to buy a new sweater or a new pair of jeans the way my peers did because that 20 dollars is about 20% of what I made for the week.

    However when I moved out and was able to earn for myself, I'd noticed that I'd not think too hard on a 20$ walmart purchase if it wasn't necessity. Now that I'm getting ready to move in with my boyfriend in a few months though, we've been budgeting on a much tighter level since that same 20 dollars will be gas in one of our cars or part of the electric bill

    • It definitely makes a difference as you take on added responsibilities. I remember thinking $20 wasn't much when I was asking my parents for it, but it SURE became important when I had to come up with it myself!

  7. A few months ago, $20 was everything.  It definitely made the difference in grocery money. It's not as "imperative" now but I still have the mental thoughts of $5 I don't spend is $5 I can save or pay off debt.  And emotional spending is a horrid trap I'm still getting out of.  Hopefully he doesn't go down that road.

  8. My wife and I do most of our shopping with our debit or credit cards.  So for us $20 is a months worth of cash between the two of us!

  9. $20 feels like a lot for me right now, because it would be an extra $20 on my student loan — doesn't seem like much, but when you factor in the interest over 2 years it's even more than $20 πŸ˜‰

  10. $20 dollars can last a very long time. I used to put only $5 of gas in a car, exactly the right amount that would get me to school, to work and back home. And then I would have some left to make it to work the next day. $20 is much more than it sounds. 

    • I agree with that. I remember when I was in high school, I would put $3 in my gas tank to drive around for the weekend. My, how things have changed! Now $3 doesn't even make the gas gauge move.

  11. Like you said, $20 is a lot when you actually think about it. It can go a long way when you actually need it.

  12. first of all, andrea.. you need to find a new bank.. those are some brutal overdraft fees.

    secondly, you are dead-on. if a child needs $20, he/she should have to work extra hard for it.. i don't think i have respected the value of such a seemingly small amount of money appropriately in my life, which has led to many financial problems in my life.. if i had learned those lessons as a kid, i think i would be in a far better place today..

  13. I remember early in my career as a financial advisor….I was SO broke and NEEDED clients to trust me, so I'd pretend I had my act together. There was so much duct tape I was afraid people would notice it. Once my car ran out of gas on the way to a client meeting. I walked the rest of the way to the office, completed a meeting about good financial controls (Ha!), then walked back and dug under the seats for change until I could come up with enough cash for gas. I'm glad those days are long, long gone.
    But now I can vouch for the fact that $4 in loose change will buy you enough gas to get from Ann Arbor back home (barely).

    • lol.  I remember in college, While on a trip to Vegas with my buddies, we accidentally gambled away all our gas money. Since that time, …I always kept my emergency credit card and at least $10 under the spare tire. I chose that spot because it made it hard to get to it and I wasn't gonna pull up the spare unless I had an emergency. I never had to use my emergency gas money.

      But when my kids began to drive, I hid $10 in the same spot in their cars. One night, my son called to say he was out of gas and needed help. I told him to check under the spare tire, where he found the $10.00.  It was great for him, but better for me because I didn't have to get up in the middle of the night and drive to go get him.

      Oh yeah, it helps to have a small container (plastic bottle) to put the gas in. πŸ™‚

    • That is an awesome story. Have you ever told that in longer form as a blog post? If not you should!

  14. I get a lot of those moments. "It's only $5", I tell myself when contemplating cheating and buying some dinner instead of cooking. It's hard to come back from it, but as principle, the moment I think that, the moment I tell myself I dont have any valid justification to spend the extra and dont. Works for me.

  15. When I really think about it, $20 seems like a decent amount of money to just give out. I don't just spend $20 on anything. At the same time, there are some things that I expect to spend more than $20 on and do so without much though – a night out to eat, groceries, a couple books, etc. I guess it all depends on what the $20 is for and how much I make myself consider it. But would I just hand out $20 for anything? No.

  16. ImpulseSave says:

    This is such a great post. When it comes to teaching kids about money, it is so important to put in perspective like that. When I was in high school, $20 would fill the tank in my sister's car. I guess $20 is not really as much as it used to be… but still! $20!

  17. Twenty bucks. It must be one of the most commonly used phrases in America, usually prefaced with "Can you lend me…?" I think that $20 used to mean nothing to me. Spending $20 was so cheap to me. Now I know that $20 dinners are actually very epensive (and they're usually inching up to $30 anyways.) So far this week, I've spent $2 on lunches at work. I'm hoping that's the grand total of it. And so $20 means a lot more to me than it ever used to, and yet I'm less stressed about money and bills than ever before! (I'm still stressed about other things.)

    • It amazes me how the more I worry about where my money goes, the less I have to worry about where my money goes. I have plenty of stress in my life, but getting my bills paid FINALLY isn't one of them!

  18. LOL   every example you gave is so true. Especially the utilities being cut off.

    I once had to pull out the generator because I forgot to pay the electric bill. It cost me $18 in gas to run that generator, instead of the approx $10 in killowatt hours I normally use.

  19. I just love the way you handled this.  Instead of handing over the money or simply saying "No", you stayed calm and explored it further with him.  What a fabulous learning moment for him!

  20. $20 is a lot.  It gives me gas for a week.  It also is the amount of cash I take with me on a night out, either to see a movie, go to a restaurant, or go to bars.

  21. Maria@moneyprinciple says:

    Well, $20 is a lot of money! Last autumn I spent about a week in Italy having only 1.20 euro – and all was great because when I told my colleagues the reaction was: ‘Let’s go for a drink; I have cash.’ I know, somewhat different but about $20 being plenty I was not joking.

  22. You handled that so well, Andrea!  I know a lot of adults who need to have the value of $20 explained to them.

  23. Lena Shannon says:

    I spent $23 today in a store to buy us groceries for the whole week. $20 is a LOT of money for us!!

  24. I blame ATMs. $20 used to be a lot. I think it still is, but because it is the only denomination most ATMs use, it's become the most common bill in our wallets, making kids think it's not much money at all.  I loved my college campus ATM because it disbursed in $5s. Often, I didn't have $20 in my account, but $5 was lunch for the whole week

    • That's one of the (many) reasons I love banking with PNC – I can get as little as $1 from the ATM. It's so nice when I need $7 to just get $7 instead of $20, because I know I'll just waste the other $13.

  25. "I literally stole a bucketful of water from my neighbor’s hose so I could flush the toilet until my service was reconnected."
    Haha! I'm sure it wasn't funny at the time, but I'm picturing you running over to your neighbor's house to steal their water. 

    Right about now, $20 is a lot of money to me. Since I quit my job, I hardly ever dine out. And if I do, it's at fast food joints. I'm a foodie. So, naturally, it's one of my largest expenses and the luxury I derive the most satisfaction from. I miss it. If someone was to give me a $20 bill, I'd save it. But I'd spend the rest of the day wanting to splurge on crispy duck.

  26. Only $20?!?!  Once, I found a $20 bill in a pocket of a jacket I hadn't worn in several months.  It felt like I'd won the lottery.  Only better!  Because I didn't have to pay taxes on it!! ;)))

    • There was a story a few years back about a low-income lady who was on her last dollars… who found a $20 bill in the parking lot of a convenience store. Instead of buying food or milk, she spent it on a lotto ticket. And…. she won tens (or maybe even hundreds – can't remember) of millions of dollars. So $20 can become A LOT of money. πŸ˜‰ I hope she got a good financial advisor to help with her her riches though… I don't want to read about her going bankrupt again.

    • I LOVE finding money I forgot about. Except the last time that happened, it was a check my mom wrote me in 2005 for my birthday. And I found it in 2010. πŸ™

  27. It's also a share of stock of many well known companies!

    (Side note: imagine the surprise on his face if you had said, "I purchased you $20 in stock"?)

  28. $20 still feels like it could make a real difference to me — which now just means that I consider it and don't take it for granted. For a while there, $20 really did make an unbelievable difference for me.

  29. Jeff @ Sustainable l says:

    very good way to turn this into a teachable moment about emotions and finances – something that took me AGES To grasp (and I'm still not all over it these days).
    Also, 20 would have prevented the worst financial mistakes I've made to date (a series of overdrafts due to spending a measly 1.78 more than I had in my account)

  30. Jeff | Sustainable L says:

    very good way to turn this into a teachable moment about emotions and finances – something that took me AGES To grasp (and I'm still not all over it these days).
    Also, 20 would have prevented the worst financial mistakes I've made to date (a series of overdrafts due to spending a measly 1.78 more than I had in my account)

  31. I remember back in college days when $20 used to be my weekly grocery bill.

    • This just makes me think of how far inflation has gone. A $10/week allowance would have been huge when I was a kid. As it was, getting $100 a month or so delivering papers was awesome. πŸ™‚

  32. I have to really watch myself with cash. Usually it's gone in a matter of minutes and I never know where I spend it. My debit card is my best friend!

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