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Long Island

Having no money is no fun, but a little help goes a long way

I bought myself a $10 scarf on impulse and did serious damage to our monthly budget. Forty-five years later, I still feel a little guilty.

Got 400 bucks?

If the answer is yes, count yourself lucky.

Incredible as it may seem to those of us with a little something tucked away, nearly half of our brother and sister Americans — 44 percent to be exact — could not put together $400 in case of emergency. They would borrow the dough or sell something to raise the cash. No choice. The way it is.

This information comes from a survey by the Federal Reserve System — the nation’s central bank — which also said 23 percent of adults are unable to pay their monthly bills and 25 percent missed medical appointments for lack of funds.

And these dreary numbers do not apply only to folks who you think might be struggling — minimum-wage workers, part-time employees, people battling illness or with a disability.

In a piece for The Atlantic magazine last year, film critic and author Neal Gabler — he was on the old PBS show “Sneak Previews” — said he fell short of the $400, too.

“I know what it is like to be down to my last $5 — literally — while I wait for a paycheck to arrive and I know what it is like to subsist for days on a diet of eggs,” Gabler recalled. Worse, he added: “And I know what it is like to have to borrow money from my adult daughters because my wife and I ran out of heating oil.”

Wow. There but for fortune, right?

No question, there are lots of reasons why people like Gabler — and the millions without his name recognition — run into trouble. But at a time when holiday shoppers pack the malls and every downtown is twinkling with Christmas lights, it’s easy to imagine that the $400 folks are not exactly swept away by yuletide cheer.

Tight money is no fun. I remember.

My wife, Wink, and I married young, had four kids in five years — “Stopped at two, twice,” we’d joke — and moved around a lot. This is not a proven formula for wealth accumulation.

Into middle age, we lived paycheck to paycheck. We didn’t have a savings account until our late 50s. Neither of us came from money — no trust funds awaited. There wasn’t a nickel to spare. Once, on impulse, I bought myself a $10 scarf and did serious damage to our monthly budget. Forty-five years later, I still feel a little guilty.

What would we have done without Winnie?

This was my mother — long gone, now — as generous and selfless as they come.

She didn’t have a whole lot. My father, who died in his early 60s, was a bread deliveryman in South Brooklyn. Mom worked in a secretarial pool on Wall Street. The three of us lived in a third-floor Brooklyn walk-up. Close quarters but no complaints.

One afternoon, my father came home with a $200 paycheck, fat with overtime. He didn’t stop at the bank to cash it. He wanted to show Mom and me first. Two hundred! We passed the check around and cheered. Boy, Dad said, I wish they were all like that. Not a chance.

In retirement, Mom moved to an even smaller apartment. With a pension and Social Security, she had enough to get by and then some. When we were up against it — maybe the washing machine conked out or the kids wanted something special — Mom came through. Most times, we didn’t have to ask. “Let me help,” Mom would say.

Christmas was no different.

Without mentioning it, Mom kept Christmas Club accounts — $50 for Wink, the same for me. Every November, the checks would come. A hundred dollars in the 1960s and ’70s, boy, you could put plenty of packages under the tree with money like that.

As time went along, worries eased for Wink and me. We weren’t high rollers but had decent jobs — I was a newspaper reporter, Wink a social worker — and then, all of a sudden, the kids were on their own. We caught our breath.

Now, if the plumber comes to fix the pipes, or brakes go on the car, or the roof springs a leak, we can handle it. As the Federal Reserve survey showed, plenty can’t. I’m thinking of them this holiday season, the $400 crowd. I hope things get better in the New Year or at least that someone turns up to lend a hand. I hope when they need it most, there’s a Winnie.

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