High Definition for Under $500

Back in 1998 I did something stupid and got myself a Visa card. By this time I had $8,700 in student loans debt, worked at Burger King three days a week, and had very little experience with any proper management of money1. That said, the Royal Bank of Canada figured that I was good for a $750 line of credit and sent a card almost straight away. As one would expect from a 19 year old with two paycheques worth of money available, I immediately went to the mall. What I bought, though, was anything but frivolous.

Shortly after my father remarried in 1992, I was brought an optometrist. My step-mother had noticed that I would squint a lot when looking at something far away or otherwise use three specifically-placed fingers against my right eye muscles in order to gain a bit of clarity. She wasn't nearly as patient with this as the rest of my family was and insisted my eyes be checked. Sure enough, the results showed that I was near sighted and needed glasses. Money was a bit tight as a result of the recent marriage and moving expenses, so I was told that I could have any pair of frames I wanted so long as the total cost of the glasses came in under $100. The lenses themselves were $30 a piece, which left very little for anything else. So little, in fact, that there were just three frames to choose from. One for women. One for girls. One for males.

And it was ugly as hell on my face.

My pleas were ignored as my step-mother "chose for me", going with the thick lenses and large, faux-gold pilot frames that looked like they were designed specifically to ensure anyone under the age of 70 wearing them would be teased to the point of tears. A week after the order was made, the unwelcome visual aids were ready and I was expected to wear them at all times … "or else".

Funny thing about saying "or else" to a 13 year old: it only hardens their resolve.

At first I would wear the glasses only around my step-mother. They'd come off my face the moment I stepped out the door for school or she went out to run errands. While better vision eliminated many of my headaches and regular bouts of eye strain, it was not worth the price. As the months went on, though, I would wear the uncool spectacles less and less. Only when a parent or relative would specifically insist I wear them would they come out of hiding. This pattern of avoidance continued right into high school, where I would just leave the glasses in my locker to be ignored under a pile of old handouts and school club fliers. At the end of my second year2, though, I think I accidentally threw them out when cleaning my locker.

I say I think, because I never saw them again. At the end of the year students are asked to clean out their lockers. This generally means that the school has additional garbage bins put in the hallways for the kids to fill with all the refuse that's collected over the course of a year in the 30cm-wide by 45cm-deep by 190cm-tall metal box. Given that this happens when the weather is lovely, who in their right mind would want to carefully go through all the crap that's collected at the bottom of a locker in order to sort out what should stay and what should go? If it's at the bottom of a locker, it clearly wasn't important to begin with … right?

Well, I think my glasses were sandwiched somewhere in the midst of all the A4-sized paper that was shoved in the bottom-most section of the locker, generally reserved for shoes. When locker cleanup time came, the stack of paper was grabbed all at once and deposited into the waste bins.

The next few years were spent avoiding meddlesome adults who insisted I wear my glasses. Because money was always tight while growing up3, I would have been subjected to endless guilt-trips for losing "something so expensive" and expected to wear a replacement pair that would — at best — be just as uncool as the originals. The plan was successful for the most part.

But in 1998 I wanted to do something about the headaches and eye strain. Some money was being set aside from every Burger King paycheque, but young Canadians generally can't save worth a darn4. After a few months of half-hearted effort there was less than $150 in the account. The credit card made it possible to make a larger purchase.

According to my accounting records, the first purchase on my Visa card was at LensCrafters at Lime Ridge Mall in Hamilton on Wednesday August 26th, 19985. For $492.87 I bought two pairs of prescription glasses; one tinted and the other not. Much like my current pair, these glasses were more rectangular and used very thin frames.

The world looked incredibly different from that day forward. No longer did I need to live in a world of symbols and general shapes. Now it was possible to see detail at a distance! When I walked outside it was shocking to read signs a hundred meters away as though they were on paper mere inches from my face. Buildings and cars were less generic. Trees had leaves. The ground was filthy with cigarette butts and Tim Horton's cups. I could see!

Since this fateful day more than 20 years ago I've had several newer pairs of glasses, but only once has my prescription changed. My 40th birthday will be in April and one of the things I've asked for is a new pair of prescription glasses. The ones on my face have worked decently well for the last five or six years, but it would be nice to get something a little better.

Should my kid(s) ever need glasses, I'll be sure to work extra hours to get them a more stylish pair … within reason, of course.


  1. I spent way, way too much money on anime-related things that first year of college.

  2. Also known as Grade 10 in that part of Canada

  3. I am the oldest of 6 kids, or 9 when including the kids that joined when both parents remarried. Money was a very controlled resource.

  4. From the articles I read on Canadian news sites about the growing public debt levels, it seems adult Canadians can't save worth a darn, either.

  5. Yes, I have personal accounting records going back to 1997. I started keeping close track of my debts when the student loan was approved and haven't stopped.