How $16 Changed My Life

change my life

Carry out a random act of kindness, with no expectation of reward, safe in the knowledge that one day someone might do the same for you.

– Princess Diana

Before going any further into this post, I want to clarify two things:

  1. This is not a product or promotion I’m pushing that costs $16
  2. This is a very low point in my life that I haven’t shared with many people

Now, with full disclosure out of the way, I’ll tell you what the title is all about.

In the summer of 2008, I worked as a sales trainer for a small marketing firm in Nashville, TN. Although during my career there I would work in over 7 different campaigns, at the time I was selling and training salespeople for a retail promotion involving At&t’s home services inside their cellular stores. Do you remember going into an At&t store and someone coming up asking you about your home phone service? Could have been me or someone I trained.

The money was good, usually, though not very consistent. I would have 4-figure weeks; and occasionally $100 weeks. No base pay, no car allowance, and no guarantee. I am very grateful for the experience I received working under these conditions because I learned that I can survive on my own without a “steady paycheck.”

This lesson didn’t come easily to me and it didn’t come without pain. Lots of pain, coupled with lots of fun. You see, managing my finances was never a big concern of mine. I lived in a cheap apartment with a roommate. I didn’t buy cable TV. I didn’t waste electricity. I had no car payment and very low insurance. In fact, much like now, I had almost no bills at all.

I did have one main vice: restaurants. I love to eat and back then my idea of a perfect night was a pretty girl across the table at a nice restaurant. The level of niceness depended largely on the previous week’s commission check. I assumed that when I had a good week at work I could afford to go wherever I wanted. I didn’t look at my bank account much and never cared about saving. Life was short, so I figured I should go ahead and enjoy it!

My biggest week ever came: $1,600! That was a lot of money for six days work and a kid with no college education. And I had a blast! I went on four very nice dates that week, each with a different girl. I sent the one I liked the most a very nice bouquet of flowers. I bought myself a video game system. I even used a little bit of common sense and paid the rent. Things were booming. To top it all off, I was already well on my way to a $1,000 check for the next week.

Then, as so often does when we grow cocky and careless, the bottom fell out.

To briefly explain, part of our training process was to take new reps into the store with us to teach them how to work with customers. Also, since this was a straight commission job, we wanted them to know exactly what we do and that it is possible to make good money doing it. I believed this and was doing it already, so I enjoyed training the “newbies.” If a trainer wasn’t making money, that trainer didn’t get to train, so this was also something of a status symbol to us.

On this particular day, I took a very enthusiastic, though somewhat scared, trainee out to a small town roughly an hour from the office, to work in their At&t store. For lunch, I offered him a treat: I would take him to the Farmers’ Family Restaurant, a gigantic, high-fat, quite delicious, southern-style buffet. I am a very healthy eater now, but at the time I loved nothing more than a huge plate of greasy food finished off with a couple of desserts. He hadn’t made any money yet, so I offered to pay.

We really enjoyed our meal. I remember I had some homemade lasagna and creamed spinach, finished off with two pieces of pie, pecan and apple, and topped with ice cream. It’s funny what the mind retains, over four years later.

We walk up to the counter and tell them we had two buffets with two sweet teas. The cashier told us our price was $15.63. To this day I remember that number, partly because of what happened and partly because we ate there a lot when we went to that town to work.

I handed the cashier my card, she swiped it, and then the dreaded words popped on the screen: “DECLINED.”

I was shocked! How could my card get declined? My card had never been declined before. Besides, I had just had two back to back awesome weeks. Of course there was money in my account!

Visibly shaken and obviously trying to figure out how I would pay for lunch, I searched my pockets for cash, even though I knew I didn’t carry any. Not knowing what to do, I said I would go out to the car and grab some money. I didn’t have any money. To this day, I’m not sure what I would have done. There’s a good chance I would have driven off without paying and asked not to be sent back to that store again. I was humiliated.

A man sitting at a nearby table with his family stood up, pulled out a $20, handed it to the cashier and said “I’ll take care of his bill. He looks like a nice young man.”

I looked at him with tears in my eyes and could barely utter “thanks,” before rushing out to my car. I composed myself on the way and when we got in I told the trainee “must be something weird with my card. I’ll call the bank when we get off.”

I could tell he didn’t buy it; he didn’t show up for work the next day.

That night, I called my bank. I was overdrawn and now had to pay over $200 in overdraft fees. My cell phone bill, set on auto-pay, had gone through and knocked me in the red. I had 7 pending transactions which were each charged a $26 late fee. How could I have been so stupid?

I cried myself to sleep that night. As proud as I had been about my ability to sell and earn, I was so foolish to let it all slip through my fingers. I made a vow that day which I still honor: I will never be careless with my money again. To this day, I still feel a slight twinge of fear every time I use my credit card, as if being declined could happen randomly. It’s a fear I am getting over, but not quite there yet.

Sometimes in life, it’s the hardest lessons that teach us the greatest truths. I don’t know who that man was, but he taught me a second, more important lesson that day: You never know how a single, small act of kindness will change a life.

Thank you for listening to my story. If you have a similar experience you would like to share, I would love to hear your story below. If not, go out of your way to do a small kindness for a stranger today. Your small act could leave a profound impression for a lifetime.

Photo by Andreas Øverland

52 thoughts on “How $16 Changed My Life”

  1. Powerful story, Trent. It’s amazing to see how important that moment was to you and I am glad it was a valuable learning experience for you. A lot of people don’t realize the importance of maintaining a budget. The majority of people in my lives spend very carelessly and even after a few credit cards being rejected they still don’t learn.

    I still remember the first time I saw someone in my family get their card declined. My step-dad was buying me Tennis shoes. He was angry, but I could tell he has been through it many times. By then, I already knew that both my mom and step-dad had spending issues. They both spent too much and often times never even used or touched any of the things they bought. They never learned the way you did.

    1. Thanks Vince(that’s my little brother’s name too!)

      Yeah, it was a great lesson God gave me.

      I didn’t learn quite the lesson I needed to from this, as far as money, but I did get much better with my finances. After that, I checked my account daily.

      The worst part was the constant fear of my card being declined. I can understand why your step-dad became angry; it’s much easier to be angry than scared.

      Thank you for reading and sharing your story with me.


  2. I enjoyed reading your entry, it reminds me a lot of me. I’ve had a lot of times when people help me without even asking for it and I just try to pay it forward when I can. Small acts of kindness are huge in the life of someone in need.

    1. I agree Pam.

      I love Mother Teresa’s quote “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” When we put love into the smallest kindness it becomes a great act.

      Thank you for reading my post and sharing your thoughts.


  3. Great story Trent. It feels great to see how small things can make you learn big lessons of life. Isn’t that remarkable. Some people show such act of kindness which make you feel so special in life.

  4. Oh, I SO enjoyed reading this post! If I may mention it, I’ve worked for banking (and so has Peter, I think)
    If you can recall the bad times in your life and talk about them with a sense of humor, you are in great shape! I’m happy for you. (Just make it a habit to check your Mint account ;) )

    I think all true kindness is random. If it’s calculated, it’s not a kindness, but more like a tactics to get something back.

    1. Hi Akemi(love your name. how is it pronounced?)

      I need to get Mint. I’ve still not really learned how to use a lot of the online services. I do excel spreadsheets and as my business grows, I need to improve my systems. Any suggestions for me?

      I do agree with your statement about only random kindness being true, to a point. I make it a point to do one kind thing for someone every day, so it’s not random all the time. Sometimes I hear something which gives me an idea for someone and I will do that later. That’s calculated, but not a tactic. What do you think?


      1. Hi Trent, thanks for the response. (My name is pronounced just as it’s written, like, a-ke-mi)

        Mint, or if you only use one (or few) financial organizations, just checking their online statement would do. And keep a baseline cash level for safety, so you don’t have to worry about every single payment. Yes, perhaps easier said than done, but it really saves your energy.

        Oh, your way of practicing kindness is great. As long as you are not expecting something back, it’s pure kindness. And you are right, we need to learn how to actually express our love through action.

        1. Thanks for the tip.

          I’ve found what works well for me is having two accounts: one bills/investment account and one “spending” money account. I check my spending money account all the time to make sure I can go out, but when it’s low, I cut back. There’s always enough in the bills account to pay for everything.

          Works for me, but everyone is different. That’s what makes it fun :)


      1. Trent: I definitely recommend that movie. It’s one of my favorites! In fact, I’m getting ready to load a list of uplifting movies onto my website, and that will be one of them.

  5. I love the story Trent.. and really inspired.
    Really little act of kindness can sometimes make long lusting impact in people’s life. But should be done for nice people like you. Not every body love to learn from their first mistakes, and remember who helped them (even a little) at their tough situation.

    1. Hi Armaan,

      I wasn’t really the nicest person back then. I was very suspicious of people, actually.

      Events like this have made me reconsider my opinion of people and now I believe most people are genuinely good people.

      This has made me much nicer, and happier.


  6. Trent, this is a very humbling and powerful story. Thank you for sharing this. It’s very easy to fall into pleasure traps with our money. Now a days we work so hard and believe we deserve to treat ourselves for what we’ve earned. I myself love to eat out with friends. Since I’ve gotten more serious about my writing I find that I would rather save my money for writing projects than eat it all away.

    As a fellow believer in magic I really enjoyed this post and hope to pass on the kindness that the gentleman passed on to you.

    Thanks again for sharing,

    Melody M. Austin

  7. Me and little girl went to get gas to make it up a huge hill being on e in this situation was
    scary so me and Jordan gathered all the change in the truck we almost got to a dollar
    we waited in line and she wanted everthing she saw in the store I tried to explainthat we didn’t have the money the lady working gave her a treat and then saw me with tears in my face as I handed her the change she said pump five I couldnt believe what I heard I ran back inside and thank her! what a kind Lady!

  8. Thank you for sharing Jessica. It’s very scary when you don’t have the money for basic needs. I’ve come to the belief that God always provides enough. Sometimes “just enough” but enough.

    The world is full of ladies like the one who helped you. I believe you are that type of person now too :)


  9. Enjoyed reading your entry. Money was a past problem for me as well, and I too feel the twinge whenever I use my debit card–as if it might get declined, eventhough I know my account can handle my purchase.

    Thank you for sharing. I have to pass this entry along to my young nephew that lives in Nashville too. He’s young with a great job, but saving seems to pass him by. I hope this provides him a lesson about giving and being mature with his spending.

    Nice writing. Your storytelling style kept me interested.

    1. Thank you Sonya.

      Nashville is a great city. I live in Antalya, Turkey right now, but sometimes I find myself thinking of Nashville.

      What does your nephew do?

      What really helped me straighten out my finances was the decision to buy my first home. My credit was a wreck and my agent put me with a mortgage broker who helped me repair it in three months so I could purchase a home.

      This was my first experience with a “coach” and I’ve been using one ever since. :)

      Thank you so much for reading,

  10. Trent, I was so moved by the way that you told the story that I was near tears when the man pulled out his wallet to pay for you. Great writing.

    I love how paying it forward works. I bought Girl Scout cookies which we don’t eat. I was trying to think of someone who might like them. We brought them to the cafe where we write, and I gave them to the man who delivers the food and cleans the tables. He is always so nice to us. He told us the next day that his kids loved the cookies and that he found them in the middle of the floor with cookies all around them. He was so thankful for the cookies, but it was the smile on his face as he was talking about his kids that really got me!

    1. Tammy,

      That’s an awesome story! I would imagine that man will be telling his friends about your small gift for years.

      You mentioned you write at a cafe. What kind of project are you working on?


      1. Thank you for asking, Trent. CJ and I write and blog at the cafe. We are currently writing the story of the transformation in our marriage – from wishing our days away to a fun, wacky little life. Who knew that life was actually for living? ;)

        Hope you’re having a great day!

  11. “I will never be careless with my money again” on this you are right. people worry about not having enough money all the time. I needed $1 once and I was short of 5cents but then I found 5cents on the street I pick it up and bought myself an ice cream. to this day every time I see money on the streets regardless of the amount i pick it up without any care in the world if people laught at me or not. good karma to that person who paid for your lunch and thank you for sharing your story and encouraging us to value life and everything it offers. by the way last week i found $20.00

    1. That’s awesome!

      T. Harv Eker in “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind” advises us to pick up every piece of money we see, even pennies, and yell out loud “I am a money magnet!”

      Cigdem (my fiancee) and I have started doing that, and we actually find more money on the street. It’s weird, but as long as it works, right? :)

      Congrats on the $20,

      1. Trent,

        Thanks for the excellent guest post.

        Funny you mention that book… I was listening to an interview with Cliff Ravenscraft the other day and he said that was one of his favorites. Do you recommend it as well?


        1. Highly. Harv has a very straightforward approach, which I love.

          My favorite line in that book ends with “You’re broke!”

          When you read it, you will see what I mean.

          He’s also got his seminars on Youtube. Those are good to watch as well.

  12. what a powerful and humbling story of transformation of your life and kindness shown towards you by a stranger. thank you fr sharing such a wonderful lesson.
    It has happened to me a few times when I lost my wallet or did not have the money to take a bus home. I went around asking strangers for help and God never fail to send kindness my way.


    1. I agree with the God statement completely. My fiancee and I have set aside a budget for our wedding. Filed my taxes last night and my return was exactly what we needed to finish the wedding.

      He always takes care of us, even when we don’t see it.

      Thank you for sharing your story Tim,

  13. Thanks for sharing this. I know it can be hard to share the vulnerable moments in our lives, and I appreciate you sharing it with us. I notice that we don’t always learn from our mistakes, but it looks like you took your lessons to heart and changed your life for the better.

  14. Wow. That is a powerful story. Thanks for sharing. I love the takeaways and I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we all were a bit kinder to each other and payed more attention to the sorrows/worries/troubles of those around us! Great post!

    1. Thanks Anne-Sophie.

      I think if everyone in the world focused on doing at least one random kind act for a stranger every day, we would have very few problems.

      I believe we’re often raised in a “take care of yourself first” attitude and it makes it hard to give when we feel we don’t already have enough.

      I have found that the best time for me to give is when I don’t have enough. That’s when my blessing seem to start dropping by :)

  15. That story was absolutely wonderful! I used to live in Nashville, TN from 1999-2001 and I had some experiences with very kind people that I will never forget. Its glad to hear someone tell their story and it’s great to see the impact that it has on other people. Bravo! Very nice.

  16. What a great reminder that we sometimes need to fall hard before we are willing to even see the need for change.

    We had our “down to our knees” moment several years ago when my husband and I both faced surgical/medical procedures in January, and would owe $5,000 within 60 days for our medical deductible. It was an eye opening, scary and humbling moment for a couple who thought they were pretty frugal and decent at money management.

    We took action, enrolled in Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, got debt free, and have never been happier. We will be selling our home and moving soon, and have decided to not take on a new mortgage, so we will spend only what we have in cash. Wise money management allows us much more freedom, especially to give in ways we couldn’t before.

    Thanks for sharing your story, and I hope it inspires others to kindness and getting their own finances in order!

    1. Kim,

      Living in Nashville, near DR headquarters, I have several friends in his organization and they have all had success using his strategy.

      I’m glad it worked for you. What’s creating the need to move?


  17. That’s a great story. I can remember a small act that someone did for me, it wasn’t monetary but it changed my life. My grandfather always told me when something good or bad happens, “Keep living”. Helped me learn that tough times and blessings come and go, but the self, the piece of the universe that I occupy, remains. Taught me to make my life mean more than just my day-to-day.

    1. Thanks for sharing Jai. This reminds me of the Bible quote “Without vision, the people perish.” We always need something bigger than ourselves to work toward. Without that, life is kind of gray.

  18. A good story on random acts of kindness. It’s good to know there are kind people in the world. Hope you learned your lesson on being financially responsible.

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