“Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck!”

Yes, we’ve all heard, and chanted—and perhaps even believed—that little rhyme.

But I’m somewhat ashamed to say that there was a time in my life, in my early adulthood, when I was too proud to bother picking up pennies—or any small change, for that matter—that I happened to find lying on the ground. If it was less than, say, a quarter—I would practically scoff, figuring it wasn’t worth my time or effort to stop, bend over, pick it up…

But during my life, two specific events had a profound impact on me, forever changing my attitude about this particular practice:

Waiting Tables

The first one happened while I was in my late twenties. I was working a full-time job, Monday – Friday, at a manufacturing firm, and had taken an evening job waiting tables to supplement my income. Anyone who’s waited tables understands that your income is reliant upon your tips; our hourly pay was only $2.10/hr, and since we were required to report our tips to the company, then the income tax on our tips was also deducted from our tiny paychecks—so the bi-weekly checks were generally rendered insubstantial, almost an afterthought. Our nightly cash tips was where we made our money.

As for me, since I was single, and was already working a full-time production job—with decent health benefits and such—the cash I made every evening waiting tables was just “blow money” or “beer money”, whatever you want to call it. It didn’t mean much to me, just a little extra cash on the side.

So one evening, I had a big table full of really rude people (not unusual), who “ran” me the entire time they were there. By “running me”, I mean instead of taking advantage of each time I visited the table, and all of them letting me know what they wanted or needed—enabling me to make one complete trip for everyone—only one or two would of them would mention they needed something, and I would run to get it and return, then somebody else would ask for something, so I would run to get that, return, then someone else…on and on and on.

And, if I happened by the table on my way to another table, somebody would turn and stop me, again asking for something.

Whenever you get a table full of people like that, not only is it extremely difficult to serve the table well, but it also diminishes the quality of your service to the other tables—which translates to lower tips across the board. If one table gets bad enough, sometimes you just have to let it go, basically forfeiting any tip you might have gotten from that table, in the interest of maintaining quality service to the others, thus preserving your tips there (and besides, there seems to be a fairly high correlation between rude and inconsiderate people, and low tips or no tip at all anyway, regardless of the quality of your service).

And sure enough, after they ran my ass off all evening, they up and left, leaving just a handful of pocket change on the table as a “tip”. I was furious.

So I grabbed the change, marched to the bussing station, where several of my co-workers were working away fixing drinks and grabbing silverware and dishes and whatnot, stepped through the doorway, and flung the change into the air, shouting, “Anyone want a TIP?!”

The coins jingled to the ground, bouncing and rolling everywhere. And to my astonishment, my co-workers—as it happens, all girls at the time—stopped what they were doing, crouched to the floor, and began quickly picking the coins up and shoving them in their pockets.

You have no idea the impact this scene had on me.

I quickly realized that many of them were single mothers, with kids to feed. Unlike me, they weren’t too proud to accept small change. I could only imagine that in their difficult circumstances—likely much more difficult than mine—every tiny bit probably helped.

I felt absolutely ashamed of myself, and was suddenly very appreciative of my own circumstances. So from that day on, I decided to better appreciate what I have, what I receive from others, and stop acting like I was too good to accept small change—which is always better than nothing.

Becoming Homeless

I won’t go into all the events, poor choices, and circumstances that transpired in my life, over the course of about fifteen years, eventually causing me to become homeless; that’s not the point of this article. Suffice it to say that after my last divorce, in which I lost a good portion of my life savings and was unable to finish flight school after leaving my career job and relocating out of state to do so, I entered a slow death-spiral, from which I never recovered. Things got worse and worse, and my ability to cope continued to diminish, until I finally hit rock bottom. Unemployed, broke, and entirely dysfunctional at that point, I got kicked out of where I was staying, and had nowhere left to go.

But, just in the knick of time—with one foot in the street, preparing to enter the life of a homeless person—I was offered an opportunity to get some help, make some changes, start anew. With no pride whatsoever remaining to inhibit me, I seized the opportunity—and that moment marked the beginning of my slow, upward spiral of rebuilding my self and my life.

That was over six years ago; I spent the next five years climbing out of the massive hole I had dug for myself. Then I stabilized, or “plateaued”, for about another year, and finally, this year—2015— I’ve begun to actually move forward.

So, though I didn’t quite make it into the streets as a homeless person, I had accepted the reality of my situation, and had started the process of mentally and emotionally preparing myself for the homeless life.

And I was terrified.

And though I got really lucky—was plucked out of that circumstance at the last possible moment—I’ll never forget the feeling, the terror, of facing that hellish lifestyle.

I can tell you from experience that when you reach that point where you have absolutely nothing, you develop an acute sense of appreciation for anything and everything—especially anything you receive from others. You come to the realization that nobody owes you anything, so anything they do for you, or give to you, is a gift—and should be treated accordingly.

Anyway, the relatively recent experience of near-homelessness, along with that bussing station incident many years ago, changed my attitude toward everything I receive in my life. I’ve learned to appreciate what I have, appreciate what others do for me, give to me—understanding that these are all gifts, not obligations.

And this is true for even the tiniest of things, like finding a penny or nickel on the ground; but for me, it’s even more than that—for I’ve turned that simple, random event into a ritual.

My Ritual

After turning my own life around—with an immense amount of help from some of my family and friends—let me tell you, there’s absolutely no way I could’ve done it by myself—I made a conscious decision that from now on, whenever I find a penny or other small coin on the ground, yes—I stop to pick it up—but not simply out of appreciation; rather, because I’ve turned it into a ritual that I perform, in order to acknowledge and appreciate everything in my life.

So whenever I find even a relatively worthless coin on the ground, I use it as a reminder of what I’ve been through, and the help I’ve received from others, and the gifts I’ve received, and how lucky and fortunate I really am, how good my life really is. Picking up the coin, I make myself stop and take a moment—regardless of how busy I think I am, how much of a hurry I think I’m in—to reflect, to consciously appreciate everyone and everything in my life, and to give thanks.

And pretty much every time, my day goes much better.

That’s why I always pick up pennies.