How Saving Pennies Helped My Brother Go to College

Loose change really does add up.

Photo credit: Kristina Zuidema, CC BY 2.0.

My first semester of college was an economic disaster. It took around one month for me to burn up all of my summer job savings by buying as much pizza and ice cream as I desired, which left me scrounging around for quarters to buy some soap. I was unprepared for how much essentials cost when my parents didn’t purchase them for me, and soon enough I was looking at an empty bank account while hoarding toilet paper from the Student Center.

Around October I picked up a part-time job working as an after school program assistant, but the pay was nowhere near enough to pay the bills. It took me a whole semester to figure out how to get my limited finances straight—along with the adjustment of moving to a new state, juggling 18 credits, and trying to figure out who I was as a person. The economic stress made adjusting to college life quite difficult.

When I finished my freshman year of college and moved back home to work my summer job, I told my younger brother about my initial money struggle. The conversation got bleak pretty quickly, and I could see him envisioning being in the same situation after he graduated from high school in six years.

“Don’t worry, that’s not going to happen with you,” I told him.

The next day I got a five-gallon water jug and dropped some pocket change into it. I taped on a label, dubbing the jug the “College Bucket,” and swore to add to it every day. My goal was simple: by the time my brother graduated from high school he would have $1,000 in the bank earmarked for adjusting to college life.

I saved slowly but steadily. A leftover quarter from doing laundry, my change from buying lunch, even a dollar bill if I could swing it. I put in holiday money, extra tips from odd jobs, and anything else I could part with from my wallet. Saving change had become second nature to me. I always thought, “what can I put in the bucket today?”

It was satisfying to hear the reverberating clunk of pennies and nickels hit the bottom of the jug every time I deposited change. After a few months I heard an even better sound: the change dropping gently on a layer of dollars and dimes. After around a year and a half of saving steadily, I covered the entire bottom section with dollar bills and change. Looking at my progress encouraged me to do more; if I could get that far in a year, how much could I fill within the next six months?

Even when my bills were large or I wasn’t bringing in a lot of funds, something always went in the College Bucket. For me, saving for my brother’s future was the top priority.

Occasionally I was tempted to dip in to the bucket and pull out a little bit just to make ends meet. During one winter, the heat in my apartment broke and the landlord blamed my roommates and me because we “didn’t know how to fix it” ourselves. I spent hundreds on an space-heater-based electric bill while spending way too much time persuading my landlord to send over a mechanic.

Other times I would look at the College Bucket and get a little bitter. Maybe if I wasn’t saving all of this money for my brother I could get that new dress I wanted, or I could go on an awesome Spring Break trip. My parents were saving for his college education too—why couldn’t it just be their job, and why couldn’t I go to Cancun?

However, I shook those ideas off pretty quickly. As an older sister it’s my duty to take care of my little brother. With our large age gap, I’ve always felt responsible for helping him grow up. I was the one who showed him comic books, who took him around the mall without uncool parent supervision, and who gave him my car when I moved to the city. Whenever I wanted to dump out the bucket and buy a plane ticket to somewhere better than where I was, I took a few moments to remind myself that family was more important than a beach tan and that I made him a promise I needed to see through to the end.

This spring my brother will graduate from high school and join the collegiate world. Over the winter holidays we sat in the basement rolling change and counting bills for hours while listening to Blink 182 and talking about his future. I told him how he’d obviously have to get a job through college, but this money was supposed to make his life easier while he adjusted to his new identity as a college student. We talked about how to save money responsibly, and how to stretch a part-time job paycheck while still having enough funds to go out and do fun activities.

There were piles of pennies, nickels, and dimes on different sections of the floor and the whole place smelled like metal and rust. Our fingers were stained with dirt and grime from all the change I picked up off the street before putting it in the bucket, and we went through three packs of change rolling wrappers. The whole time all I could think was, “wow, those wacky Penny Saver articles were right—saving change does really add up!”

After several snack breaks, we finally finished counting the contents of the College Bucket.

The final tally: $1,035.

For me, my change saving project was an incredible success! Though this is not a major amount of money in the grand scheme of things, I saved over $1,000 to help someone I love grow their future. I was lucky to have the privilege to save up this much money, and I’m happy that it all worked out the way it did. When my brother starts his first year of college in the fall, I know he will not be as stressed and worried as I was.

After handing over the contents of the College Bucket, I had to figure out what to save for next. The idea of saving was already ingrained deeply in my psyche and I was determined to keep up this good habit.

I thought about it for a few weeks before landing on a decision: this time I’m saving money for me. I’m not sure what the future will hold, or where I’ll be financially in five years, but I am sure that whenever I get there it won’t hurt to have an extra $1,000 in the bucket.

I took the “College Bucket” label off of my water jug and put on a new label: “Sarah Beth’s Future.”

I’ll check back in in five years and let you all know where the funds go.

Sarah Beth Kaye is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can reach her on Twitter at @oheyitsSBK.

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