8 Money Lessons I Learned Selling Office Supplies


My first real job came when I was 16 years old and landed a position at one of those large office supply stores.

As jobs for high schoolers go, it was not a bad one. I earned some money to get through the summer, kept myself busy, learned a lot about varieties of printer ink, and made some friends in the process. I also took away some solid money lessons that have proven helpful over the years.

So as we enter summer, let me offer these financial bits that I learned from my first job.

1. Work Isn't So Bad

Everyone fantasizes about not having to work. But by having a job at the office supply store, I realized that being employed isn't a bad thing. A job gives you income, which is a pretty important thing to have if you want do stuff. And working at a job allows you to learn and enhance key skills like communication, reliability, and even mathematics. A job, to put it simply, can give you a foundation for life.

2. Investing Is Better Than Spending

I can tell you for sure that the cash from my first paychecks did not go into a Roth IRA, or even a savings account with a decent interest rate. No, it went to movies, trips to Burger King, Stone Temple Pilot CDs, and baseball tickets. If I had enough money leftover for gas in my car, I was happy.

I had fun as a teenager, but if I had saved more of my earnings and invested them, the total stash would have grown tremendously, and I'd have a lot more money in the bank now. Even just $1,000 invested in an index fund in 1996 would be worth about $4,000 now. If I had somehow managed to save $5,000, I'd have about $20,000 today.

3. The Government Get Its Cut

My first job meant my very first paycheck, which meant I got a glance at the amount of money Uncle Sam takes away. And it certainly seemed like a lot! By looking at my first check, I came to understand that you can only plan your spending based on take-home pay, not your gross wages. Later on in my work life, this understanding of the tax man led me to learn about 401K, Roth IRA plans, and other tax-advantaged ways to invest.

4. You Can Always Haggle

Everything for sale has a price, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's what you have to pay. There's very little downside to asking if you can pay less for an item if you believe it's overpriced. Often, stores will have price-match guarantees that aren't advertised. And you can always ask a manager to adjust a price if you think you have a good reason. When I worked at the office supply store, we had a small refrigerator for sale that had a damaged handle. It otherwise worked fine, but the manager agreed to cut the price in half simply because the customer asked.

5. Never Stop Learning

When I worked at the office supply store, we had many high-schoolers and college students on staff, but also a number of middle-aged and older employees who had been there a long time. Seeing these older workers made me realize that I did not want to find myself employed as a stockboy at an office supply store for the rest of my life. It was important for me to continue with school and develop a wide range of skills that would give me career options and the chance to earn more money over time.

6. Salespeople Want You to Part With Your Money

Though my primary job at the office supply store was to help with customer service, I also helped with sales of office furniture. I was encouraged to convince customers to buy our brand of chairs, desks, and shelves.

Keep in mind, my job was not to ensure people ended up with the best product. It was to get them to believe our product was the best, whether that was true or not. I became a master in the art of spewing baloney, and it somehow worked a lot of the time. I earned a bonus each time a customer bought a product I helped sell.

Remember this: A salesperson does not work for you and does not have your best interests in mind.

7. Everything Goes on Sale at Some Point

I worked long enough at the store to know that just about every product was discounted at one point or another. It wasn't always easy to predict when items would go on sale, but I learned that if you waited long enough, a lower price would come around. And certain items went on sale at certain times a year. There were usually deep discounts, for example, on many items at back-to-school time. And the holidays usually meant big Black Friday sales and other promotions.

I learned that the most patient shoppers were the ones most often rewarded with bargains.

8. Americans Love Their Credit Cards

As a teenager, I didn't have a credit card. And my parents were rather frugal people who used cash whenever possible. So it came as a surprise to me when, as a cashier, I would see most customers using credit cards, even for small purchases.

It's possible that many of these customers were only using cards to collect reward points or cash back, but I can't help but think they were racking up considerable amounts of debt.

We're up to about $1 trillion in credit card debt as a nation, and I can't help but think a portion of that is the result of people using cards for small purchases when they could have used cash.

What was your first job? What did it teach you about money?

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