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What is the meaning of "behind by thirty-five cents" and "ahead by sixty-five cents" in the following sentence,

"Wait!" shouted Mrs. Proons. She opened the violin case and gave the farmer a dollar. "Your reward," she said and jumped back into the car. The farmer looked at the money. He looked at Millie. "This morning,' he said, "when we were paying our bills, we were behind by thirty-five cents. Now we're ahead by sixty-five cents. Doesn't that seem a bit odd?"

Does "We were behind by thirty-five cents. Now we're ahead by sixty-five cents" mean "We had less than thirty-five cents. Now We have more than sixty-five cents" ?

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It means that at first, they fell short of paying the full amount. The amount that was still due was 35 cents. E. g., they had to pay 50 dollars and 35 cents (for example, the rent is $50.35), but they only had 50 dollars. So they paid what they had (50 dollars), and they were 35 cents short—they still owed this amount. But then they found an $1 bill somewhere — and when they paid it, their payment was more than they needed to cover those 35 cents. So they became "ahead" by 65 cents in their payment to someone—meaning, they overpaid someone by 65 cents.

This way of speaking comes from thinking about sums of money as a sort of a progression in time. If you look at the image below, X is the correct amount that should be paid (if they pay it, they neither owe money, nor have they overpaid). If you've paid more than you needed to pay, you've sort of "run ahead" of your schedule of payment. If you haven't paid enough, you are "behind".

ahead or behind on payments

In fact, there is an idiomatic saying:

I'm behind on my bills.

It means that I have not paid all of my bills; I owe money to my landlord and/or to the utilities companies. One can be, for example "two months behind" (meaning, you haven't paid your rent for two months already). Or one can be X dollars behind (whatever sum you still owe to be all square on your payments).

  • I like your answer, especially the multi-colored graph, but I've never heard the phrase x dollars behind. Could that be part of a dialect maybe? – Ringo Mar 9 '18 at 4:14
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    @Ringo Well, technically, one should say "x dollars behind on something" (e. g. mortgage payments, rent, whatever). Lots of results. I'm seeing results from California, Oregon, Indiana, New York, so I don't think it is regional. Maybe no one ever felt comfortable admitting to you that they had financial difficulties, or these difficulties were exactly month-scale-related, so that's why you've never heard this phrase said. :) – tenebris2020 Mar 9 '18 at 4:26
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    @Ringo Here, the New York Times writes, "Each [man] was unemployed and thousands of dollars behind on his court-ordered child-support payments." This would have gone through an editor armed with the NYT manual of style. Definitely not a dialect then, or even colloquial. – tenebris2020 Mar 9 '18 at 4:38
  • @Ringo I agree with tenebris2020. To be some amount of money behind is not dialect, although it may be an American expression. – Andrew Mar 9 '18 at 6:41
  • I am obviously confused somewhat and sorry about that. What I meant to say is that I don't think "behind on my payments/rent" or "x dollars behind" are idiomatic phrases. "Behind" itself is an adverb used to describe someone who is late in payments. If you wanted to, you can say "I'm behind" as a complete thought. Whatever modifiers you use to describe how far you're behind (or how much you're behind) aren't a part of any idiom per se. Check out definition "3b" under "adverb" in the Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary: learnersdictionary.com/definition/behind – Ringo Mar 9 '18 at 7:23

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