Lessons From My First Job

Michael Lux Best Of, Blog, Student Loans 26 Comments

Before I was the Student Loan Sherpa, before I became an attorney, and before I even learned how to drive, I was Little Mike who worked the 5 AM shift at the local McDonald’s.

My Start at the Golden Arches

When I was 14 years old my parents insisted that I get a job. My dad said that if I wanted to go to movies with my friends or ever drive a car, I would have to earn my own money. Like most teenagers, I knew everything, so I informed him that it was a terrible idea. Looking back, it was one of the best lessons my parents ever taught me.

I was just over 14 years old when I started, and I ended up working for McDonald’s until the age of 19. To this day, I benefit from the many lessons I learned.

Lesson Number One: The value of a dollar

My McDonald’s was located very near Cedar Point. Due to the demand for seasonal service industry workers, new employees were able to get $6.25 an hour at a time when the minimum wage was only $5.15. I thought I was making the big bucks. Then my first paycheck came. I was shocked to learn that my new job wouldn’t make me rich.

In time I worked up the courage to ask for more money. I was told that I could make an extra $1.25 an hour for every hour worked before 8 AM. To me that sounded like the best deal ever. I couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want to come in at 5 AM. It was worth an extra $3.75! In retrospect, keeping those hours for an extra $3.75 seems a bit absurd, but I worked the 5 AM shift for many summers. As a teenager, I quickly became very hesitant to part with any of my money, even a few bucks, because I knew how hard I had to work for it. A decade later, I still am careful about every dollar I spend.

Lesson Number Two: You are how you treat people

You can walk into many fast food restaurants and in minutes get a hot meal served for only a few bucks. Think about that for a second. 24 hours a day you can walk into any restaurant and have a meal instantly prepared for you. We have come to accept this as part of modern society, but it is really remarkable.

Sadly most people never stop to consider this advancement, or even thank the people responsible. Instead, many choose to see the people in the silly uniforms as beneath them. To some individuals, it is perfectly acceptable to yell at the kid behind the counter at McDonald’s if your sandwich had more mustard on it than you would have liked. I once had a lady lecture me on how terrible the hygiene and cleanliness of my restaurant was because she found a hair on her breakfast sandwich. The only people working that morning had dark hair and the hair on this sandwich was clearly blonde.

I could write a book about the many absurd ways in which customers treated my coworkers and myself, but it comes down to one basic principal. Regardless of who you are, there is never a reason to treat a perfect stranger as beneath you, just because of the job they are performing.

The other side of that coin is that I had the pleasure of meeting many people who were amazing. One day I was feeling a little down in the dumps and a customer told me a very brief story. He said, “I’ve got a good friend who used to work at McDonald’s for years. You know what we all call him now? Doctor.” It was the boost I needed that day, and it’s something I remember years later.

On another occasion, when making change, I inadvertently gave a customer too much money back. The customer immediately returned the money and said, “you better keep this, I don’t want your drawer coming up short on account of me.” It’s easy to think that if someone gives you too much change, it’s just your lucky day, but the reality is that it could result in someone else’s bad day. Thanks to that stranger, I didn’t have a bad day, and I now pay forward that favor when the opportunity presents itself.

Lesson Number Three: Enjoy every day

I worked with a gentleman in his late thirties named “Barry.” Barry had fairly severe Down Syndrome, so many tasks that came easy for others were very difficult to Barry. As a result of his condition, many people mocked Barry. Even when he knew he was the subject of a joke, he never let it get him down. Barry almost always had a smile on his face, and in the rare instance that he didn’t, a hash brown or putting his Backstreet Boys CD on the radio would cheer him right up.

Barry had many disadvantages in life, and I will never know whether or not he was aware that his challenges were different than others. What I do know is that Barry enjoyed every day. He never let the negatives bother him, and when something good happened, he made sure to enjoy it. He was truly happy. Isn’t that what everyone wants?

What does this have to do with student loans and debt?

Because I have an appreciation for how hard it is to earn a dollar, I make sure that I never spend one without getting the most bang for my buck. When it comes to student loans, that means paying your loans off as quickly as possible.

I also try and remember my time at McDonald’s whenever I am on the phone with any of my lenders. It’s easy to talk down to the customer service representative from Sallie Mae.  Its also easy to take out your anger towards Sallie Mae on this person.  Not only will it not get you anywhere, but that person certainly deserves better. You are how you treat people, and I am not the type of person who takes out my misfortune on others.

What was your first job?  Did you learn any lessons there that you still carry with you to this day?