Home Economics

One of the things I have never been good at is budgeting. I am actually good with money, but not budgeting. There’s something about knowing that I only have $x a month to spend on something that makes me want to spend all of it rather than allowing any of it to roll over. This makes me sound impulsive and irresponsible, but it’s not that. Like I said, I’m generally good with money. Generally.

When I was a kid, I had an allowance. On top of that, I delivered the local neighborhood newsletter that Mom was the editor-and-chief of. First one route, then two, then three. On top of that, I convinced Mom to give me lunch money rather than a sack lunch. I didn’t eat lunch most days and just pocketed the money. The thing is, until I discovered comic books, I never had much to actually spend my money on. So I would save it. Once it was stolen from its usual hiding place, so I started hiding it behind the comic books hanging on my wall. Only, I’d forget where it was hidden. I considered this to be an altogether good thing. Having money that was out of sight and out of mind. Getting a treat when I pulled out one of the comic books on the wall and realizing that “hey, there’s $30 behind there.”

So maybe I was impulsive. Having the money made me more likely to spend it, so I hid it from myself. A little bit later in life, sometimes I would take paychecks and set them aside. Rather than feeling the need to put them in the bank right then, I’d collect two or three of them so that I could save myself trips to the bank. I felt that it was good for me to see my dwindling bank account. It prevented me from spending. It was my own version of a rainy day fund. Except that sometimes I would forget about the checks and they would be discovered only as I was cleaning out my desk. When you’ve just been laid off, do you know how awesome it is to find two or three paychecks?

Whether I was making $7.50 an hour or some multiple of that, rare was the case where I was actually running out of money. Some of this is indicative of the privilege with which I was raised. Some of this is indicative of the way I was raised. Buying flashy things was discouraged even if it was entirely with my own money. My father gave me dirty looks for two weeks after I purchased a CD player for my car with my own money. Half the time when I bought something, I would tell them that I was borrowing it or something.

All of this made the budgeting I can’t do somewhat unnecessary. I do keep track of my accounted funds (unaccounted funds being money I have stashed away so that I don’t realize I have it) very closely. But I approach it like a score. The more points I have, the better. This, along with my raising and the dreadful anxiety I get when I feel like I don’t have enough, keeps me from buying things I want. In some cases, things I want very much and can afford. Oddly, it helps to think of it as points on a slip of paper rather than money. If I thought it was money, I’d want to spend it and I would know that I could afford that thing.

Being married has resulted in a continuation of these strategies. My wife is not very much a fan. When she was in college, she had to count every nickel and every dime. Instead, I just look at the score. I give her bi-weekly reports of how much we saved or lost on any given paycheck. I do assemble reports on where our money is going, so if we find ourselves on the losing end of the bi-weekly calculations we have a better idea of where we can cut back.

How much I spend – or feel comfortable spending – depends on how much income I am seeing. It’s not a conscious process. It’s also very inexact. Now that Clancy is pulling in 75% or so more as we were when she was a resident, we’re not spending 75% more than we did back when. But we are spending more. When she goes to a part-time schedule, we will start spending less. How much less? It’s hard to say.

Where this strategy fails is when we have no income at all. That’s where my internal accountant starts getting very disoriented. No matter how good or bad I am, the score is going down. I get discouraged and lose my bearings. It is because of this that I have become increasingly non-judgmental of those who cannot balance their books. I may disapprove of this purchase or that, but I sort of do intuitively understand what it’s like to know that you are behind, you’re going to stay behind, and if you’re screwed you might as well get that new iPod. I don’t approve, but I understand. I can’t say that I would be all that much different – especially if I had not been raised the way that I was. But beyond that, if I hadn’t had the privilege of seeing that economic actions matter. Even when I was pulling down $7.50 an hour and I had rent to pay and there wasn’t much I could do except keep my head above water, I could remember a time when it was different. I still know that these things matter, that saving helps, and so on. I have seen the reward system at work.

Anyhow, our financial roadmap looks very rocky at the moment. Due to a tax quirk, the government is now taking 43% out of our paycheck rather than the usual 38%*. Clancy will be going on maternity leave, half of which will not be paid (the other coming out of her accumulated PTO). Then there will be a return to work, likely at 3/4 pay, followed by a couple months again of no income. Followed, most likely, by an even more reduced wage while she goes back for additional training. With, of course, a kid. We’re approaching no-win territory, where we are basically managing the bleeding for the next year or so.

And I don’t do budgets well.

* – Hopefully, we’ll be getting some of that money back. The uneven income should actually bolster our return even further. If there is one advantage to all of this, we pay less taxes!

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. I can’t bespeak to any one bit of this with any comfort except this:

    Once you have children, the things that you currently worry about will be different from the things you’re going to worry about, and really… until about the fifth or six week of sleep deprivation, you really don’t know what they are.

    So don’t worry about worrying right now. Save it for when you know you’re actually worried about something, instead of worrying about something that you might not be worried about shortly.

  2. Two suggestions:

    Dave Ramsey and Mint.com.

    Dave provides the wisdom (though you have to take him with a grain of salt) and Mint is a great way to track spending trends.

    And good luck! You’ll get it figured out.

  3. 1) for the love of god, don’t start a business until you can run your own household budget.
    2) as to how to learn, should you be interested? Master of Orion 2, Civilization — plenty of strategy games, and they’re all about budgeting.

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