Stealing Isn’t Good…I Think


I stole about $15 from a guy on my paper route. I forget the exact amount. He accidentally gave me the wrong bill as a tip. Instead of giving me a $5 he gave me a $20. The details aren’t important. I was a privileged middle class kid living in a suburban neighborhood and I had a paper route, an allowance from my parents, an allowance from my grandparents, and I regularly stole money from my dad’s wallet. Not to mention I dipped into the bank account that had my college savings in it whenever I really needed to make a serious purchase. Like a sweater. Or comic books. Without telling my parents who were depositing money in there to afford my college.

Life was good.

So now I had this extra $15 and I felt like I had earned it. Wrapping up papers every day after school and then riding around on my bike throwing the papers at the porches for 2 hours until the sun went down was finally worth it. The only reason I was doing this paper route was because of first Christine Cardinal, then Beth Mosesman, who lived on my route. Both of whom said “NO!” to my clingy advances although a bit more politely than that. The only other thing about that is Beth’s sister ruining our Dungeon’s & Dragons game by constantly making out with David Bender on the table with all our stuff on it. You can’t be a Chaotic Evil Elf Ranger with some girl making out on the Dungeon Master’s notes. Our weekly game disintegrated and none of us remained friends.

“Dad!” I said when I got home. “Mr. So-and-So” (I forget his name) gave me an extra $15 by accident. What an idiot, right?”

“Let me see that,” my dad said, and I took the bills out of my pocket to show him. Proof. I was making money. When I needed money, I made it. That’s the way I thought.

“Get in the car,” my dad said.

“What do you mean?” I said, “Why?”

Were we going to buy something so fast? I had only just made the money. I didn’t need anything. I had just bought that new kind of Rubik’s Cube that was a pyramid instead of a cube. I didn’t need anything else.

(I was the expert at Rubik's Cube)

“Just get in the car,” he said and he was very firm. I was a little scared. I never disagreed with my dad. My two daughters disagree with me all the time. I could yell at them and spit at them and they would just sit on their computers and ignore me. There’s some new “Facebook for Kids”. They are already sucked into virtual worlds that I can never be a part of. And they aren’t old enough to know what money is. How money stabs and hurts but you can also imagine bathing in it, perfuming yourself with it, having sex with it. They don’t know about any of that yet.

I got in the car. Mr. So-and-So worked for the State of NJ procuring computer systems. My dad sold software. Potentially Mr.So-and-So was a client.

We’re driving along and it suddenly occurred to me what was happening. I felt the fear right in my chest. I was Jesus being hung up on the cross. My dad was going to sacrifice me.

“Mr. So-and-So is a potential client. Maybe he gave you that money to test you, to test me. You are going to give that money back.

“No, “ I said, “I can’t do that.”

“You are doing it. I’m dropping you off there and I’m going to wait in the car until you do it.”

“No,” I said, “Please. I can’t do it. Please, Dad.”

We got there. I wouldn’t get out of the car.

“We’re not moving,” my dad said. “You need to be honest. You have to return the extra money.”

“Dad,” I said and I was crying, “I can’t do it. It’s too embarrassing.

“We’re not moving from here until you do it.”

(it's hard being a paper boy)

So I got out of the car. Rang the doorbell. Mr. So-and-So’s son answered. He was a year younger than me at school so we were kind of friends. “Is your dad here?”

“Uhh, yeah.” We had plans to maybe play in a band sometime together. He wanted us to get together where he would play guitar and I would play some sort of keyboard. It never happened. Nothing like that ever happened.

He got his dad. “I thought I paid you?” his dad said.

“Actually, when I got home I realized you accidentally paid me too much.” I hope that sounded like the truth. Like somehow I must have divided up all the money into little envelopes for each of the 100 houses I delivered to and then realized his envelope contained too much money.

“Oh,” he said, “ok. Geez, thanks very much. That’s very honest of you.”

And I gave him back the money.

“Don’t you feel better,” my dad said when I got back into the car.

“I don’t know,” I said.

The next day when my dad got home from work he said, “Mr.So-and-So called me and commented on how honest you were.” I guess I felt good then. I didn’t want my dad to think I was dishonest. Or dishonest with his clients. I wasn’t completely sure what the lesson was.  And now he’s dead and I miss him.

The next day was business as usual. I wrapped up the papers. I had a bag and I would throw each paper on the porch. If the paper missed I’d go, get it and put it carefully on each porch. Some guy in a suit driving past pointed at me and said, “you’re going to rule the world some day!” Because I guess there’s a long tradition of paper boys later on becoming the Emperor of the World.

With Beth Mosesman’s house I never just threw the paper on the porch. I would ring the doorbell. She had kinky Jewess hair. Red, thick lips. She was in 8th grade when I was in 10th grade. I had glasses, braces, acne, and weird clothes. But I was doing an honest man’s work.

“Here’s your paper,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said. And then she would close the door right in my face.


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  • Shivagirl77

    your dad must have really loved you …

  • Sean Wood

    When I was 4 or 5, I would ride on the bottom of the grocery cart, while my mom shopped (at Publix, the best store in the world).  I suppose that made things easier for my mom since she only had to look for me in one place.  The highlight of each trip was picking up pennies (or sometimes even a dime!).  One time, I found a $20 bill.  I thought about not telling my mom, but I did anyway.  She said “ask the lady behind us if she thinks it is hers”.  I said “No way.  She is behind us, so it can’t be hers and she is going to lie.  It is mine now.”  My mom agreed, but insisted on holding the $20 in her purse for safe keeping.  It made sense; I didn’t have a wallet or pockets and her purse was as good as a bank (and/or convenience store).  I wish I could go back in time and watch the whole scene from the adjacent checkout lane.  I’d really like to know what the hell she was thinking when she drove across the street to the gas station and filled up her tank with my $20.  I’m sure that she thought that I’d forget about it completely AND NOT that I would bring it up every holiday after we drain a few bottles of wine.
    So, I didn’t get the honesty lesson that time, but I also didn’t get to keep the money so I can only assume that my mom helped me build some character that day. 

  • Brooke Farmer

    Sadly, no. As soon as it became really apparent I wasn’t getting anywhere with the boys, I stopped trying with the game. 

  • Anonymous

    I had a paper route back in 1965, and my own $20 story.

    I went swimming one day at the only public swimming pool in Anchorage at the time – “The Spa”. (It doesn’t exist anymore, but there are lots of others now.) I had a $20 bill in my pocket that I’d earned on my paper route. I felt rich that day, to have so much money in one, big $20 bill. 

    But apparently, it fell out in the locker room when I was changing, and I didn’t realize it. As I was walking out the door, I heard some kid’s mom explaining to the attendant that her boy had found a $20 bill in the locker room, and wanted to do the “honest thing”, so “please be sure to let her know if someone found it missing”. 

    I gasped. I frantically slapped my hands into my pockets. I pulled my pockets out. My $20 was gone!

    Now everyone in the lobby was looking at me. I said “I think that’s mine!” 

    A look of disdain came over all the faces in the room. Total disgust. What a jerk of a young man I must be to jump so instantly in an attempt to steal $20 from an honest, unselfish kid. What a jerk! The attendant loudly told me to leave. 

    It was hopeless. Nobody in the entire place would believe me. Instead, they all despised me as both a liar and would-be thief. I left in humiliation, robbed of both my pride, AND my $20.

    I have no doubt it was really hard to lose the $20 you got by accident. It was gut-wrenching to lose the $20 I’d scraped and saved from my route (a LOT of money to me in 1965). But it was devastating to be publicly – and falsely – berated for dishonesty.

  • Anonymous

    I once paid for a brand new Dodge Durango that had somehow fallen through the cracks at the dealership. True story. When the payments never started I called my Credit Union several times and asked why they hadn’t sent a payment book and they kept telling me it was on the way. Five months later, they admitted that the transaction had never taken place as far as they were concerned. Went back to the dealership, they had already closed their books for the year and the Sales Manager admitted they would have never found it. They were a huge dealership, one of the nation’s largest Dodge dealers (Peterson’s in Nampa, Idaho) but still, to lose a car……

    They were very grateful I was honest to say the least. It would have been a pain to get the title, but still I coulda had a free car.

  • Anonymous

    At some point during the summer between 3rd and 4th grade, my mom told me we were moving that day and that I should go say bye to my friends in the apartment complex.  I was devastated and was going to miss a lot of good friends.  There was one fat kid in the complex that used to pick on me though.  That previous birthday I got a remote control car and he took the control out of my hands and threw it in the pool.  I hated this kid.  Anyway, my mom told me we were leaving in a few minutes so I ran to the courtyard one last time and saw fat bully playing with his friends.  He had his new baseball bat and glove sitting by a tree and I walked up and took them, and nobody noticed.  I walked to our car, threw them in the trunk and waited to leave.  We were gone a couple minutes later and I wasn’t sad anymore.  That night at the hotel, I threw them in the dumpster.  It was the perfect crime.

  • Whitney

    I’ve never understood dishonesty like that. It shocks me to see people who don’t understand the consequences of that type of dishonesty:

    (1) If a cashier gives you too much change, give it back. Sometimes $15 can be the difference between a cashier that has a job and a cashier that just got fired. And, no, don’t justify it with a “they deserved to get fired”. It was a small mistake.

    (2) Never dine and dash. That level of selfishness and inconsideration for the waiter is disgusting. You just ruined their day and their salary because you’re mad that your parents don’t love you and girls won’t talk to you.

    (3) Pay the god-damn parking lot attendant. If you can’t pay $2 you shouldn’t have a car. By speeding away, you’re contributing to the lot attendant’s mistrust and distaste for humans in general.

    (4) Don’t cheat on you romantic partner. I’ve seen people get PERMANENTLY messed up by this, then take it out on future partners, all because you were exceedingly selfish.

    I am as selfish as the next person, and I am not against lying. But don’t let your inability to think things through affect other people’s lives.

    • Tim Duffy

      I try to teach my kids that selfishness is the worst negative trait of them all. Think about it, every crime big or small, every sin, all the commandments…every one ties back to selfishness.

      • Whitney

        Maybe. I think it’s inconsideration that’s the big issue. Because I’m extremely selfish, but I am considerate and have a good amount of empathy, both of which keep me from being a thief.

        A certain amount of selfishness is necessary. We can’t live our lives for other people.

        • Tim Duffy

          I do see your point, we all have to be selfish to some degree. I guess the trick is trying to find the balance. Thanks for the perspective. 

  • doug graves

    I learned early on I didn’t have the stomach for stealing.  I always got caught.  Not a good skillset for thievery.  When I was six I stole $1 dollar from my mother’s purse and bought penny candy for half the neighbourhood.  Linda Van Riswyck let me look down her pants for a quarter.  When I got home my mother grabbed me and marched me up to the police station on the corner.  She got the cops to lock me up until my father got home.  It was Linda who turned me in. I’ve never trusted parents, cops or whores ever since.

  • Steven L Goff

    “There’s some new “Facebook for Kids”. They are already sucked into virtual worlds that I can never be a part of.”

    James please tell me more about this. I see a replacement for standardized schooling as we know it today using this concept above. Talk about getting the social interaction while home schooling via the web someday (SOON).

    Facebooks ultimate goal is to be the worlds national identity registry. This Facebook for kids as you say does so for minors. Of coarse to end to online anonymity must come first. And that is also (SOON)

  • FX

    ” Some guy in a suit driving past pointed at me and said, “you’re going to
    rule the world some day!” Because I guess there’s a long tradition of
    paper boys later on becoming the Emperor of the World. ”


  • Stone

    I had two paper routes. I had to get up extra early and finish one
    every day before school. The other I did on a Wednesday. The Wednesday delivery
    was a free local paper. I received the stack of papers during the day and when
    I got home from school, I had to dispatch them around my neighbourhood. I got one of my friends to help me deliver half the papers and I
    gave him quarter of my pay. General business or dishonest. Either way, he still
    doesn’t know.

  • manonthestreet

    James you should have a cartoon.

    • manonthestreet

      I meant that in the most respectable way possible…not taking a shot at you.

      • James Altucher

        Funny. was just reviewing the images for a comic I have coming out in December AND just writing a post about one of my favorite cartoonists.

  • North

    Another hit, James !

    I engaged in a stream of theft from the early age of 4 (when I stole candy from a pharmacy) until the age of 24 when an attorney successfully filed a search warrant quash motion and got felony charges dropped (nolle prosequi).  Over the 20 years I’d probably stolen more than $125,000 in cash, goods, and services, mingled with the NJ mob for a few years, and cost my family more than $40,000 in legal fees to keep my ass out of jail.  I seized upon that singular moment of freedom in court to turn my life around and use my “analytic talents” for good instead of figuring ways to work the cracks in the system.

    Stealing is not good, even if your act of theft is bringing justice on some asshole who deserves it.  It is true that we all reap what we sow.  I have lived an honest, ethical, and moral life for the last 22 years and sleep peacefully at night.  While I am not rich, my needs are met and life is MUCH more pleasant and easy.

    With all that said ?  I would not trade those thug years for anything.  Earned my Ph.D. in the school of hard knocks and the uncanny ability to read right through people.

    • James Altucher

      What was the biggest amount you stole at any one point? What happened?

      • North

        In dollars ?  Around $45,000 cash.  The biggest amount ?  Four bottles of liquor from a bar owned by the mob where I was working.  The owner found them in my refrigerator and taught me a strong lesson on why loyalty and honesty is important.  It came in the form of a discussion, then a period of “persona non grata” until I formally apologized and returned the bottles.  I value that lesson every day.

  • Steven L Goff

    You do know where you went wrong in this story back then…. right? You should have kept your MOUTH SHUT and not told anybody about the $20 bill he accidentally gave you. When committing any crime, your best co-defended, conspirator, accomplice, whatever  is YOURSELF! Because you cant rat/confess on yourself….unless you want to. Or unless you are an idiot! Keep your mouth shut and dont ever commit crimes with other people unless absolutely necessary. Fool

    • James Altucher

      Reminds me of a chess tournament I was once in. $10k was the first prize. Out of 100 or so people I was tied for first in my section with one other guy in the last round. He destroyed me in about 15 moves.

      Afterwards I was going over the game with one of the Washington Square Park hustlers who came down for the tournament (the tournament was in Philadelphia but the hustlers would hang out in the blitz room where all the action was).

      He, Poe, said to me, “you know what your mistake was?” after we went over the game.

      “No,” i said.

      “You didn’t make a deal before the game started that you’d split the first and second prizes”. Everyone around us agreed with him.

      Turns out the guy who beat me cheated. he was really the champion of Nigeria and had understated his ranking. So I ended up winning more. But Poe taught me the more important lesson. Everything’s a deal.

  • Raul Gallardo

    I don’t know why the past weekend when I was in the US ( I live in Mexico) after three days if shopping non-stop for my soon to be born daughter I began to develop this theory about how most experiences in the US tend to be for short term satisfaction like masturbation. 

    Sorry for the context, there is a point here, I thought about you James, with all his articles and your idea for a “dear sally” column, my suggestion would be to talk about how you lost your virginity or your first sexual experience, because for what I have read you have suffered a lot in order to find love. I believe many can relate to feeling alienated for not having tons of sex when most of the advertisement and propaganda tell you it’s so easy. Well perhaps it was not as hard  in your teen days. 

    • James Altucher

      Correction: in my teen days it was IMPOSSIBLE.

  • Steven L Goff

    And technically what you describe above makes the title of this post all wrong. their was no malicious or premeditated intent before hand to do so. This wasn’t stealing or theft in anyway. Unless on ones own  moral fiber front or on personal ideals and philosophy. In essence, all you really did  was not make another human aware of their poor money managing practices (by them overpaying you). It could have been a generous “no word needed tip” for your outstanding services I am sure.

    You should have kept two thing > One, the money….two, YOUR MOUTH SHUT!

    And if Linda Van Riswyck let someone look down her pants for a quarter…..Just imagine what $15 would have got ya!  

  • SueMC

    This is a great post at many levels, James.  I love the imagery of your dad and you in the car and your face when you realized what he was doing.  I love remembering paper boys.  I miss them.

    Today, adults who are desperate for money deliver papers in a car that barely runs and is held together by rust — no hubcaps.  They are quite good at tossing papers out the window to land at the bottom of the driveway.  I mean no disrespect to these individuals.  I’m glad there are people still willing to make money this way.  But it’s a far cry from a young boy on a bike, pedaling around a neighborhood, learning the value of a buck from hard work.  Makes me nostalgic.

  • David Marquardt

    There’s one thing that researchers have proven time and time again. Humans compartmentalize morality every single day.

     Ministers never tell a lie and don’t steal but somehow rationalize
    fooling with little boys, church ladies attend church every Sunday (not
    that attending church is at all moral) but drink like fish the rest of
    the week.

    Me thinks stealing can be justified on a sliding scale like anything
    else, sometimes it’s wrong sometime it isn’t, sometimes you’ll never be

    Life is full of these shitty grey areas…

    • Steven L Goff

      “Humans compartmentalize morality every single day.”
      That is pretty well said and I like how you wrote it! I am going to use that in my future writings….if ya dont mind?

  • james

    oh god. dat jewess hair.

  • Phil B

    I think it’s certainly best to be honest with the people in your community, people you see a lot. Or even strangers, you never know who you might impress. Unless you’re in Libya now, people don’t generally leave valuable stuff lying around, or if they do they realize and come looking for it. And thankfully these days we have cameras, DNA etc. to help. This isn’t altruism, it’s just being worried about being found out/hunted down doesn’t sound like fun. The UK rioters are now finding this out the hard way.

  • GW

    My paper route experience was quite the opposite of yours.  I started at a young age, probably 12, and delivered the paper 7 days a week and had to wake up at 6 AM on weekends.  I was good at what I did and took pride in it.  I would walk around Tuesday and Wednesday nights and collect money from the people I’d delivered to.  Most paid on time and were appreciative, but there were more than a few that were rarely around or chose to find excuses for not paying weekly.  When a customer had 3 weeks or more passed due, I would make a conscious effort to stop by at different times and collect the money I was owed.  But when told by the adult that they thought they only owed for “X”, or confidently paid for one week as if that was all that they owed, I accepted payment even though I knew it to be incorrect.  Even though I was only 12, I wish I had  spoken up and explained that I was being “short-changed.”  Anyway, as an adult I’ve realized that I’m still a similar person that wishes he spoke up more and will more often than not relent to a stronger willed person.  I try to please too many people even if it’s at my expense.  I think and hope I have finally come to the conclusion that it’s been a hindrance in my life that has held me back and I have to be more assertive to get what I want, and more importantly, deserve.  Keep posting so I can keep learning, mostly about myself.

  • Sjpoct04

    Great story! I think everyone has all kinds of situations like that in life, I know I have. There’s a fear that comes with doing the right thing in situations like that, isn’t there? If you get too much change back at the store and know it, there’s always a reluctance to be honest that has nothing to do with dishonesty or a desire to screw someone over, it’s weird.

    I once embezzled all of my collection money from my paper route to see “Raiders of the Lost Arc” 12 times in a week. My father made it whole. I’d probably do it again. Some things are worth stealing for.

  • Jerry_Lucke

    For my paper route, I had to go down to the “factory” every two weeks and pay your bill for the papers they provided you . One week my bill was $ 59.40 so I decided to make things simple by going to the bank with all the $ 1’s and change and turned them into 3 $20 bills. I go to counter to pay the nice lady for my papers and she gives me 60 cents change while leaving the 3 $20 s on the counter; she turns aroung to mark my bill “paid” while I stick the bills in my pocket. I get my receipt and walk out, but then hesitate and tell myself I do not intend to steal this money.  It was not fear of being caught because the till would not have been off by my $ 59.40 making it easily detectable but by $ 60.60 that, back in those days would have slid by.
    So I go back in and give the lady the money……………and her thanks to me was to call me a bastard!
    I still haven’t figured out the moral to this story?

  • Jeffrey Roberts

    Beth is My sons mother sorry your dad cost you some cash with the good old “thats how they get ya” routine any Jew that feels he is being treated like Jesus by his own father should surely question the world as he knows it.