What would you do if a cashier gave you an extra $20 bill by mistake? Would it matter if your kids were there?

Today I confronted a small dilemma that was easily solved because I am a mother.

I gave a clerk a $100 bill for a $20 purchase, and she had to go in the back to get change. When she returned, she handed me a stack of bills. Before I put them in my pocket, I looked at them and counted them. Five $20 bills. I counted again. She gave me back my $100. She didn’t charge me the $20 she was supposed to.

My son was standing nearby but didn’t notice. I told him anyways. I showed him the change she had given me, and told him I was going back up to the counter to pay the $20. I told the clerk she gave me $100, and she acted flustered and embarrassed in front of her co-worker as I gave her a $20. She said she forgot I hadn’t paid. She hadn’t even rung up the transaction. She processed the transaction and put the money in the cash register.

As is the case for a lot of people, money is tight in our household and $20 is a lot of money to me. It would have been nice to keep that and figure no one would ever know. But 15 years ago, when I was pregnant, I faced a similar dilemma. I was at a grocery store and the clerk gave me the wrong change. She gave me $10 too much. In the past, I would have quietly put the money away and smiled inside that I had saved a little extra money that day. After struggling for years to pay bills in college and after college, I was always (and still am always) looking for ways to save money. I was raised to know right from wrong, but when we hear about how greedy corporations are always ripping us off, many Americans feel that we don’t owe companies our honesty.

That’s how I used to feel — until that day in the supermarket when I looked down on my pregnant belly. I had a hypothetical flash forward, imagining my baby-to-be was actually standing next to me and in elementary school and saying, “Mommy, isn’t that the wrong change? Shouldn’t you give it back?” I decided right then and there I didn’t ever want to be caught in that hypocrisy — teaching a child right from wrong and having them question a parent who is not living by the guidelines taught, no matter how small the infraction.

I want my kids to do as I say AND as I do.

I made a conscious choice from that point forward to ALWAYS make the honest and ethical decision for the sake of my child — whether he was born yet or not, whether he was with me or not, whether he would notice or not — because I needed to be sure this would be my new habit. I left behind my old habit of thinking: I don’t have to reveal a mistake in my favor if no one will be harmed by it but I would be helped by it. I created a new habit: I will always reveal a financial mistake, whether it benefits me or hurts me.

At that point, before my first child was even born, I began the journey of becoming the OverAchiever Mom I strive to be today. Like millions of other moms, I juggle kids, spouse and career every day — and do all of them to the best of my ability. But it’s not easy, because we confront new and different challenges constantly, and that’s why I am seeking support for a news magazine show devoted to helping OverAchieving Moms.

During my 15-year ongoing journey of parenthood, I have made many other conscious choices about my behavior specifically to fit with my ultimate goal — to be the best role model I can be. I realize that telling my kids to do something has much more weight and likelihood that they will actually pay attention and implement it in their life, if they see me also doing it. That’s one reason why I eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, why I exercise regularly, why I get my work done first and then enjoy entertainment later, why I try not to blame others for my own mistakes, why I try my best to be on time and not save projects until the last minute. (I am so much more punctual as a mom than I was before kids, because I don’t want them to face the kind of setbacks in life that I did due to lateness and procrastination.)

There are many of us — the OverAchieving Moms who are now as devoted to being good parents as we were to developing our careers out of college — who still wonder every day if we’re getting it right, and now we can finally be part of a  news magazine show specifically focused on Working, Married OverAchiever Moms.

It’s not easy to do the “right” thing when the alternative takes less effort or tastes better or is more relaxing or more fun. But I have the added motivation of knowing that I am doing those things not just to improve my own life but potentially to improve the future lives of my children. It have to trust that my role modeling will have an impact later, because I often don’t see the impact now. It’s something they may never thank me for, but hopefully it could make them happier, healthier and more successful as adults.

So with all those rewards, why do we even question doing the right thing? After the incident today, I wondered if I would not have faced such a dilemma if I was wealthy. If $20 wasn’t the difference between bringing snacks in the car on a hectic night of shuttling kids to activities instead of letting them have a meal at a restaurant drive-through, perhaps I wouldn’t have even paused before handing back the extra $20. But honesty and integrity aren’t defined by what’s in our wallet but what’s in our heart.

And besides, the wealthy people I know probably wouldn’t have even counted the change. Many would have just shoved the stack of bills into their wallet, never knowing the clerk hadn’t taken out the $20 for the purchase.

Later, I asked my husband what he would have done. He paused and looked up at me sheepishly, not knowing if his answer would get him in trouble. I told him to tell me the truth. He said it would depend on his stress level that day. Some days he would have kept it, and other days he would have brought it to the clerk’s attention. Though financial struggles caused me considerable stress several years ago (so much so that a doctor told me they were causing physical pain), I have made a conscious decision to stop allowing money to degrade my health, my mood, and my positive outlook on life. But my husband continues to be much more worried about money, perhaps because he feels a greater pressure to produce enough for our family to live comfortably due to traditional social mores.

So if I worked full-time and made more income, would that reduce his stress? Perhaps. Would that reduce his likelihood to consider keeping the $20? Maybe. Would that reduce my tendency to pause and reflect before giving back the $20? Perhaps, but not necessarily, because if I worked full-time, my stress would be harder to manage. I’ve taken on more workload than I could handle while also juggling my roles as parent and wife, and the result was disastrous for me. While working 50 hours a week, I refused to give up doing all the things a stay-at-home mom does or a caring wife does, and that left me without enough time to run my household, causing all sorts of issues from extreme clutter to lots of stressed-out yelling to late bill payments to lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in my frig.

So I don’t blame my brief flirtation with keeping the $20 on my lack of a full-time job. I’ve made a conscious choice to live more frugally and work in a freelance capacity, and I don’t regret that choice. And though I cite my children as the reason I want to continue to be diligent in always doing the right thing, my son didn’t even notice today’s incident. When I pointed it out to him, he told me embarrassingly, “Quiet down. If you’re going to do it, you don’t have to tell everyone about it.”

But even after I quietly gave the clerk the $20, I continued to wonder about all the reasons why someone might or might not make the same decision. I read an article a while ago about why it is good to teach kids that you aren’t ALWAYS supposed to follow the rules. The article said that the kids who learn to buck the rules and fight the system are the ones who can change society for the better. Rosa Parks began an effort that caused great hardship to the bus companies that lost fares from riders. Ralph Nader championed an effort that caused auto manufacturers to make costly changes to vehicles. But breaking the rules changed society for the better in their cases.

When I believe a company is not treating me properly, my kids know I am very vocal about it. We recently took a plane trip to see our son perform with his school band, and the return flight was cancelled due to weather. Though planes were taking off the next day, Spirit Airlines refused to put us on one because they were “full.” After a couple days of dealing with very uncooperative customer service agents, Spirit Airlines refused to give us a confirmed seat on ANY flight until FIVE DAYS AFTER our original flight. We could not wait that long to get back to work and home, and were forced to pay out of our own pocket to rent a car and drive 18 hours — despite plane tickets in our pocket and all planes flying again in clear conditions and good weather. My kids heard my repeated complaints on the phone with the airline and my insistence that I would be escalating my complaints to the BBB, FAA, and DOT.

So I hope I am teaching them by example that companies deserve our respect when they make a mistake, just as people do, but companies also need to be respectful to us and should be held accountable when they are not.

And now I know why I have such a hard time getting my kids to bed at a reasonable hour. One of my biggest vices is staying up late and sleeping late the next day. I sometimes feel I am most creative and productive after midnight. So while I am screaming at my kids that they should not be getting to bed at 11 pm on a school night or 2 am on a weekend, I am quietly going downstairs to manage my business, catch up on email and write after they go to sleep. I guess I’m never going to win the bedtime battle until I go to bed at the time I tell them to every night. And for me, that will be much harder than giving up a $20 mistake in my favor!

What would you do if someone gave you $20 by mistake? Do you think your reaction has changed because you are a parent?

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