It seemed impossible that this woman — who worked as a hospital nursing assistant and chose to raise me and my four siblings without accepting welfare — could save any money. But at least 10 percent of every dollar my grandmother earned was deposited into her credit union account every single payday — no matter what.
She saved even when my grandfather drank up most of his paycheck on his payday. She saved as our growing bodies required more food or larger clothes and shoes.
Saving was like breathing to Big Mama.
Lo and behold, I’m just like my grandmother.
Whenever I cried broke during my college years, my best friend would just laugh.
"Michelle, you're never broke," she would retort. "You always have something saved."
She was right. I had a backup reserve when my main savings account would dip too low.
How and why I’m a saver often makes me think of the debate over nature vs. nurture. Is our behavior — instincts, personality, even financial habits — determined by the environment in which we are raised or dictated by our genes?
It's probable that it's a combination of both. Still, I have always given full credit to my grandmother for making me such a fanatical saver.
That was until I recently played a game of blackjack.
Maybe savers are naturally born.
I decided while on vacation to sign my family up for a blackjack tournament. It was a friendly contest that didn't require any exchange of money to buy into the game. It was just for fun with fellow vacationers.
Two groups of seven people played three rounds each. We were playing only against the dealer for the chance to win a $20 resort credit.
Every player started each round of blackjack with a fake $2,500 in chips. Each round consisted of 10 hands. There could be only one winner, so you had to topple the player who won the most chips in the previous round.
Under the rules of this game, you couldn't carry forward any chips. This meant there was no use betting small or holding on to chips. I watched as other players made aggressive wagers and won and lost. They would shove forward red chips worth a fake $500 or green ones that represented an imaginary $2,500. But for me, my bets were initially a safe $100 chip at a time, because that was the minimum you could wager.
During the first round, after a few winning hands, I had accumulated an additional $500. Being the saver that I am, I set aside $3,000 — enough to beat the woman who won the first round with $2,600. Then I played only with the extra chips I won.
By round two, people started to significantly increase their wagers after a string of winning hands.
"Don't get overconfident," Dan the dealer said. "What the game gives, it takes away."
He didn’t have to warn me. I fully understood that in blackjack — just like with investing — past wins do not guarantee future results.
During one hand, I bet $700 and nearly had a nervous breakdown. I lost, of course, and moaned as the dealer quickly swiped away my chips. No more big bets for me!
Others, who went all in long before a round was over, just laughed it off when they lost all their chips.
Throughout the entire tournament, I never went all in — even on the last hand of the round.
It’s crazy, in retrospect, because I wasn’t playing with real money. I had no chance of being the top winner if I didn’t bet big. Yet it was important to me to end each round with some chips.
My son won the second round, finishing with $7,600. One player, in her third round, shoved all her chips in on the last two hands — and ended up with $14,500.
My husband got lucky and doubled down after pair splitting one hand (seasoned blackjack players know what I mean). He ended up the champion, winning $15,500.
The dealer said he could either use the $20 credit toward resort purchases — such as a round of golf — or to reduce our overall charges at checkout.
The choice was obvious to me.
“Honey, save it toward the bill,” I urged.