Here is this week’s National column published on new year’s eve.
As the year comes to a close, one of my perennial resolutions rears its head and commands me: take better control of the household budget. The talk at a global scale of bankruptcy, poor credit and downgrading has made the resolution ever more urgent. Where are my slippery and elusive pennies going?
Don’t tell my Dad about this confession, he will give me a stern look and tell me that he taught me better, that money doesn’t grow on trees, that a man one penny in the red is a poor man, and a penny in the black is rich. I know I ought to know all this, but before you make me blush, are you able to account for your expenditure down to the last penny, cent or fils?
The pessimism I feel about my financial management is exacerbated by the fact that it seems ever more important to get a grip on it. Somehow, the fact that the world’s leading economists, and in particular the European leaders, found themselves in difficulty this year while trying to manage a successful budget for their countries, suggests that I should try to do a better job in my own little domain.
But if all those clever people overlooked the flaws in their financial systems, how am I supposed to manage any better?
I’ve done what all aspirational budget managers have done: I’ve created an extensive and detailed spreadsheet to list out all the outgoings. And there are a lot of them.
It’s easy to spot where I can get better deals on regular household expenses – although it will take some time to work through the changes. But the main struggle is in adjusting lifestyle: do I want to give up the enjoyable holidays? I love buying pretty clothes for my baby. And what harm is there in a pleasurable if slightly overpriced cup of coffee a couple of times each week?
Therein lies the crux of my challenge: getting the best deals is a straightforward if tedious task. My bigger challenge is deciding what kind of life I’d like to live: frugal to the point of asceticism? Cautious and sacrificing some pleasures of daily life? Sensible but enjoyable? Carefree, tomorrow will take care of itself?
To me, these questions raise the issue of identifying a deeper truth about who I am and who I aspire to be.
I often think that we could easily live in a much smaller abode, with fewer things and less obligations. Isn’t that the right approach for someone who wants to spend time nurturing their spirit rather than their bank balance?
On the other hand, our home offers sanctuary for the family, a place of exploration for our child and an enjoyment of the good things in life.
There’s no profligacy or extravagance. A car, a good school for baby, smart clothes (but not designer) to be well presented, the education of seeing the world on our travels: I see these as blessings we are able to afford. I see these as to be balanced with work for the community, charitable giving and constant thankfulness for all that we have.
My spreadsheet may help me to balance the books. A spreadsheet can never help me to build a balanced life: for that I need constant reflection, a generous helping of wisdom and a selfless love of those around me.
Most of all what I need is an appreciation of the value of all that I have, and I am fortunate to have a great deal. What a wonderful way to start 2012. Happy New Year!