I still remember the feeling vividly. Wind in my face, pedaling hard, weaving back and forth across the street. Using a sidearm technique, which I was quite sure I had invented, I threw newspapers the way other kids skipped stones. The perfect throw was when the paper gently landed on the stoop, but with enough force behind it to slide up to the welcome mat.

That was the good part of paperboying: that Zen-like feeling of being at one with the elements, the bicycle, and the newspaper. The not-so-good part was nearly everything else. By signing on as a newspaper boy, I had taken a front-row seat in a classroom at the school of hard knocks. The customers didn’t want to pay their bills, much less tip. The newspaper company always wanted more for less.

When you are working every day and have an income of $32 a month, even at 11 years old you have a deep understanding that you are on the bottom rung of the employment ladder. From that rung you look up, both literally and figuratively, to all your clients and bosses. It’s a perspective that still deeply affects me today.

As in any endeavor, it’s the best and worst that you remember years later. My oldest customer was my favorite; he always treated me with great respect and paid on time. He never missed an opportunity to remark, “Mike, what a fine young man you are growing up to be.” He lived on the top floor of an old two-story farmhouse. I could have thrown his paper on the bottom step but never did. Every day, I got off my Sting-Ray, walked halfway up the steps, and threw the paper on his welcome mat. I felt privileged to be his paperboy.

Down the street from him was a well-to-do family that rented a home and was a constant hassle. A classic example was the time the woman of the house telephoned, interrupting my dinner, to say that a paper hadn’t been delivered. Her house had a carport directly in front of the door, so I asked if it was possible that someone had parked on top of the paper. She angrily replied no and demanded that a paper be brought to her right that minute. I left the dinner table and pedaled over to the house, where she waited, fuming, at her front door. “What took you so long?” She was one ticked-off woman.

I crawled under the car, where the newspaper lay. I crawled back out and handed the woman her paper. She snatched it from my hand and without saying a word shut the door in my face. She had been lazy and rude…because I was young and little.

I knew right then that she could not be trusted. After that incident, I always collected payment from her on the 25th of each month. Payment wasn’t due until the 30th, but I now knew that she would move without paying me and never give it a thought. Since most families move on the last day of the month, I wasn’t going to give her a chance to skip out on her bill.

Being a newspaper boy taught me to think about what could go wrong and how to protect myself. It also taught me how to negotiate for what I wanted. After I was on the job for a few months, I felt that I deserved more money. My paper route was a difficult one, with several major streets to cross and a business district. I used that information to negotiate a raise. I wanted 20 cents more per customer, the newspaper offered 10 cents, and we settled on 15 cents. My income increased to $42 a month.

Several months later an easier, better-paying paper route became available, so I applied for it. The district manager said he wouldn’t give it to me because it would be too tough to replace me on my current route. I used that information to negotiate another raise, and my income increased to $48 a month.

By becoming a smarter consumer, I was able to make even more money. I found a local bakery that would sell me its misprinted plastic bags for about half of what the newspaper charged me for its rainy-day bags. I found a wholesaler that beat the newspaper’s price on rubber bands. Now my monthly income was $52.
My experience as a newspaper boy set up the rest of my life. Here are the most important things I learned all those years ago:

• Trust everyone until they do you wrong; then watch them closely.
• When negotiating, be fair and know what you want.
• There is always a cheaper place to buy anything.
• The cross-body sidearm Finney Pitch is the only correct way to throw a newspaper.

Author's Bio: 

By Michael Finney Author of Consumer Confidential

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