It’s time to count your clams

If you’ve been using the tiny spiral notebook I suggested to record all of your expenditures, down to the penny, you’re getting a good picture of where your cash goes: vending machines, coffee, parking meters, breath mints … the whole shebang. Pull out your checkbook and your credit card statements, along with any automatic deductions from your paycheck or checking account, put all the figures together with your notebook’s, and you’ll have a decent snapshot of where it’s going, going, gone.

(And what’s a major credit card, you ask? Any one that most stores accept, naturally.)

As you tally how some of those little items become expensive over time, you may well need to apply the emotion-related insights you now possess — to say nothing of a moment or two for prayer. Remember, each of these is the result of a decision.

I’ve usually had a pretty clear picture of where my change was going and am quite aware how easily we can be “nickel and dimed” out of our cash. Still, seeing it all at once can come as a shock.

Up to this point, we’ve been learning to speak more openly about our experiences with money. But now we’re turning to some essentially private work, done in several stages. This is where the action really begins. As you get your act together, it’s also where the fun really begins. Seriously. It’s where those earlier considerations come down to the bottom line. It’s the recipe where all of our ingredients become a dinner or a dessert. It’s where we get ahead of the bills.

It’s what’s usually called budgeting, though holistic CPA Lu likes to give it a more positive spin, referring to it as a Spending Plan. Either way, the gold-standard guideline for this is set up in Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly.

Usually, when we think of budgeting, it’s along the lines of dieting. What do I have to give up to lose weight or reduce expenses?

Joe and Vicki have a nifty series of steps around this. They have us look at each purchase and then ask about our satisfaction level with it. Can we get as much pleasure by spending less on that item (buying a less expensive bottle of wine, for instance) or, if we spent more, would our enjoyment rise correspondingly? They also introduce a concept they call “gazingus pins” — pet expenditures we indulge in, for our own pleasure; we’ll look at these and other “toys for adults” in a bit.

Taking your snapshot, break out your monthly spending by categories — housing, utilities, transportation, food, clothing, and so on. Within each one, what is essential and what is discretionary? (In my old yoga circles, this was seen as “needs” versus “desires.”) In their system, you then make a plus sign or minus sign for each item to indicate ways to adjust your spending level. Yes, you’re allowed to say you want to spend more on something. This doesn’t sound like dieting, does it?

You then match this against your monthly income. The goal, if you’re interested in financial independence, is to increase the amount you’re saving.

There are two ways to do this. One is to increase your income. The other is to reduce your spending.

Their book contains a nuts-and-bolts approach to budgeting and planning — or, as they put it, to achieving the American Dream on a shoestring — and you really should take a look at it. Other spreadsheets are available — feel free to tell us of ones you’ve found helpful or of ways you’ve tweaked Joe and Vicki’s.

As you look at your spending, what items surprise you? Are any out of line with your expectations?

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While that deadline is still looming, take a deep breath

Don’t tell me it’s not emotional. A few more tax deadline questions, while the issue’s still on your mind.

Do you file your returns early? Or do you wait till the last minute? Is there a reason for your timing?

Do you file online? Or with a trip to the post office?

Do your tax dollars fund services or activities you find morally offensive?

Have you ever openly refused to pay a portion of your taxes? Do you know someone who has?

Are you afraid of an IRS audit? Prepared? Relying on yourself? Or a tax accountant?

Tax-time travails on the money path

Of course, one big time when we feel the weight of accountability comes with a deadline attached each year: April 15. It’s also a good place for us to observe just how close the interplay of our emotions and values can be.

Most Americans face some degree of anxiety around tax time. It is to be expected; the system is set up and operated in a way that is intended to instill a degree of fear. Filing an income tax return is a mandatory citizen responsibility. We’re expected to deal with incredibly complex rules. There’s even an “honor system” to report our income and pay our taxes, although there are stiff penalties if we don’t and are then caught.

Fear, loathing, and distrust are widespread. Some people worry about being audited, doing it wrong, or unexpectedly being ordered to pay a lot more taxes. Others fret over having their return done on time and insist it be absolutely correct. Some are far more willing to take risks, while others willing overpay in the hopes of being “audit proof.” Others can’t sleep at night if they think the Internal Revenue Service is getting one penny more than it must. They obsess over finding every possible deduction. And then there are all kinds of stories to back up those claimed deductions.

Lu, our holistic accountant, had a wealth of examples regarding tax phobias and obsessions — the ones that can result in the April 15 deadline coming and going without the tax return being filed. Her advice: “Here, you might do well to go ahead and file the tax return on time, even though you believe it is not absolutely perfect. Later, when you discover the extra deduction or special rule, it will be relatively easy to file an amended return to correct it. By the way, filing an amended return does not mean you will be automatically audited. Although each amended return is processed manually, by a human being, we have never seen an audit of the whole return result from filing such a correction.”

The important thing, then, is to avoid being jammed by your values and emotions. When you can openly discuss these, you’ll discover you’re not alone. A lot of your friends have big tax secrets, too, and they are eating a hole in their stomachs. Try talking about it, laughing about it. It appears to be part of the human condition. Go easy on yourself. The April 15 deadline is not really as ominous as you make it out to be! If your return isn’t filed on time, it may just cost you a little more when you finally get it in.

How do you feel about paying taxes? Do you think you pay too much? Not enough?

Do you feel you get your value’s worth?

Name three public services you value highly. Name three you think are wastes of money.

Let’s cut through money’s mumbo-jumbo

As Lu put it, the most common way we keep from dealing with our money issues is to cloud our relationship with their existence. We, as a society, have found many ways to keep the reality of money at arm’s length. We have developed effective words and phrases that keep us from really talking about money. And we have mystified personal money management so much that someone like a certified public accountant may seem superhuman.

Even a holistic CPA like her. OK, I’ll go along with that.

She added that we know any change can be difficult and will usually be resisted by those around us. So, we have lots of excuses not to do it. Keeping money unreal also lets us continue to avoid our responsibility for the money that flows through our lives. Most important, though, it helps keep us powerless. When we are ready to change, to take responsibility for our money energy and to take back our economic power, we can we do it by getting real with money.

That’s the thrust of her work — step by step identifying all the ways we cloud our relationship with money. Once we are aware of our “mind games,” we can choose to change our participation in the games, one at a time.

She would start with some of the ways we manage to avoid even touching the stuff. Remember, money or currency developed to make the barter or exchange of things easier. As she said, without it we had to accept a lion’s pelt in exchange for a bunch of our baskets when what we really needed was a few beautiful seashells to decorate our headdress. Somehow, though, gold and other media of exchange got a bad name, so we developed paper substitutes.

Writing checks to pay for things we need or want is very different from the feeling of paying with cash. At least, though, we are encouraged to keep track of where we sent our money and how much we have left.

Several decades ago, the plastic industry set a goal to put a piece of plastic in everyone’s pocket, and the credit card was born. This made it possible to completely ignore the connection of working for money and spending it! The ultimate disconnection comes from our Automated Teller Machines. Lu heard a child respond to her mother’s comment, “We don’t have enough money,” with, “Oh, no! We can just go to the Money Machine!”

It must be that money is dirty. That’s why we’re trying to hard to keep from touching it. That may also explain why we aren’t supposed to talk about it, either. We have developed a lot of handy sayings about money that enable us to avoid expressing our real feelings about the money in our lives.

For instance, we may say “Money doesn’t grow on trees” instead of talking about our real struggle to earn enough to provide for our family. We tell our children, “We can’t afford it,” rather than explaining why we choose not to spend our money on what they want and why we have to spend it on other things instead. We perpetuate the misunderstanding that “money is evil” instead of taking responsibility for what we are really doing with the money that comes into our hands.

Perhaps more powerful are those big words used to describe the ways we are supposed to keep track of our money, such as: reconciliation, statements, disbursements, amortization, debits and credits, invoices and vouchers. Lu apologized from the bottom of her heart for the great disservice her profession has wrought with this language.

Well, that gives you an idea of Lu’s approach.

Sound familiar? What especially strikes you?

The circle shifts

Embarking on this project, I kept coming upon authors addressing different facets of the field but nothing that presented a cross section of their remarkable findings. As a novelist and poet, I’ve been called a Mixmaster of diverse elements, and I was wanting to do it here, too.

Barbara and Mary found their own interest shifting away from continuing their money workshops. They wanted to do more with spiritual direction — altogether fitting, since they both had seminary degrees. As their blessing, they gave me all of their materials and told me to use them in any way I wished.

That led to a book-length manuscript, which got an encouraging response from two publishers, if I could build some cred. Remember, I’m not a money manager or even a financial columnist — just a writer who jumped into this line of thinking and developed a few related exercises of his own.

One way the publishers suggested was by expanding the workshops across New England and beyond for the next year or two and incorporating those responses. The only problem there was that I had a full-time job, and a double-shift on Saturdays, the best time to travel to conduct such sessions. Setting those up and promoting them would be another job altogether.

Another way was to gain a co-author or two who had relevant credentials. Who did I know?

That’s when Barbara and Mary introduced me to Lu Bauer, a holistic certified public accountant in Maine. By holistic, she meant taking the emotions into account, rather than just the numbers. And much of her practice involved helping people dig out of financial difficulties.

As a joint project, our venture didn’t pan out, for various reasons, one of them being that we both had full-time jobs and other interests to attend to. Another was that we differed in our ultimate direction. And then, I remarried and kids entered my life, and for the next 15 or so years, this project was set aside to gather dust.

With her hands-on daily practice, though, Lu opened my eyes to more ways these issues moved in the lives of everyday people.

And the one thing we all had in common was a deep respect for the revolutionary personal budgeting developed by Joe Dominguez and his colleagues. We’ll get to it, I promise.

Are you talking about these money issues with anyone else? Who’s in your circle?

A string of missed opportunities

My grandparents lived across town. We saw them mostly on Sundays after church. The dinner conversation often turned into rants about how the world’s going to pot. Labor unions and Democrats got a lot of the blame. It’s hard to admit, but let’s just say bigotry came in hefty portions before and after dessert.

Grandpa owned a plumbing outfit. The office was behind the kitchen, reached by a hallway to the back door. The office reeked of the bookkeeper’s cigar. Walter. A slam of the screen door and we’d be playing atop stacks of pipes at the rear of the yard. The small barn behind it was filled with supplies and a pipe-cutter. I still remember the sharp oily smell of its interior. He rented garages along the alley for his small fleet of trucks.

On occasion, I’d get to ride along in Bessie the pickup or his Chevy as he made his rounds of plumbing supply houses and sites where his men were working. It could have been a great opportunity for teaching me about the workings of money, but I never asked the questions — and he never prompted them.

I do remember one time when he let me open the mail and there was a check for something a little over $600. I got to handle it. It could have been a million, I was so impressed.

This would have been a great opportunity to teach me about the meaning of that figure. What his crew had done, what they were paid as wages, how long the project required, what the parts cost, how he figured in other expenses like the trucks, office support, Social Security, insurance, and taxes. Instead, all I saw was the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow — and his glee in being seen as rich, however fleetingly.

He didn’t believe in advertising, either. The sole exception was the calendars he mailed out every Christmas. I remember when we all pitched in to help around the kitchen table getting them ready for delivery.

After my dad’s death, though, I set out to learn more about my grandparents. I done the genealogy but largely skipped over them. The ancient history seemed more interesting. We had even owned a gold mine in North Carolina, back before the Civil War wiped everything away. (That part of the story can be found on my Orphan George blog.)

I’m still surprised that Grandpa’s education ceased after eighth grade. He was needed to work at the farm. Later, he moved to the city and took up plumbing through his brother. They would have gone into business together but, as I was told by several sources, that didn’t happen because their wives didn’t get along.

As kids, we used to play in the attic, too. As I learned more about my grandparents, I read of Grandpa’s going on fishing trips with his buddies and then remembered there had been a section of gear stashed under the rafters. What hit me was a realization he could have taught me to fish — even if I didn’t want to — and it would have been a great bonding moment. But he didn’t.

Maybe years later, when I lived along one of the top ten trout-fishing streams in the country, I would have been grateful to have the skill.

There were other things he might have related. The fact he had his diggers go six inches deeper than code required in laying a new line — something that paid off for his customers when the city had its coldest temperature in decades and many other pipes started freezing and bursting.

What did you learn about money from your grandparents? About work, too.

My own childhood money impressions

I’ve been asking you a lot of questions. It’s only fair for me to respond as well, as I would if we were in a workshop together.

Much of my childhood remains pretty fuzzy, as far as memories go. But one that stands out was when I was three or four and in a supermarket aisle — the A&P, if any of you recall one. I picked out a toy and put it in our cart, only to be ordered, “Put it back! We can’t afford it! We’re poor!”

The memory still stings.

My parents were both children of the Great Depression, and it had been a factor in the divorce of Mom’s parents. She also carried a lot of Southern attitudes toward money — it wasn’t something you talked about in public. Later, when I was in elementary school and had to sell flower seeds or whatever as a fundraising project, she instructed me that you don’t approach friends with a request to buy them. Neighbors were a different matter, especially if they were further down the street.

Dad was a dutiful accountant for a major corporation. I’m surprised I didn’t learn more about handling money from him, but maybe that’s where I got my frugality. I learned to type on the back side of discarded invoices. And Mom didn’t even know how much he earned, only that it wasn’t enough. One thing I realized much later was that I never got to see the inside of his office, the very place in put in so much unpaid overtime. Even when I had my driver’s license and had to pick him up in exchange for using the car, I had to wait outside.

I don’t remember my earliest encounters with money itself or whether I was ever allowed to hand it to the cashier — any of that sort of thing. I suppose there were times when I had to pay something to a teacher for a special event or, around third grade, the city bus driver for my trips to swimming lessons at the YMCA downtown. Oh, and eventually, on a real splurge, getting a grilled cheese sandwich at the coffee shop on the adult side of the building. (Now that’s a dish that remains a guilty pleasure, though not one my cardiologist would endorse.)

Well, that does bring back a memory of special days when I had a nickel to put in the vending machine at school and get a little carton of chocolate milk. Believe me, I knew that was a treat, nothing to be taken for granted.

Somewhere along the line, I learned to keep a ledger. I even earned an accounting merit badge in Boy Scouts. And a paper route would have also demanded record-keeping, along with weekly collecting rounds of the subscribers. (My, how we hated that! It meant ringing doorbells and asking for money, right?) Apart from the three-speed English bicycle I bought with my paper route earnings, I don’t think I got to spend any of it on personal pleasure — it certainly would have gone into my savings account, the one my parents set up at Gem City Savings when I was born.

We did have a garden, and in summertime we’d pack up little paper bags of tomatoes using a baby scale to measure the weight. It was Mom’s idea. Then I’d go door-to-door through a nearby apartment complex selling them. I don’t think I got to keep any of the revenue or that it went for a family treat.

Allowance? Mine was the smallest of my classmates, and it was given as a weekly reward for doing my chores — not for being a member of the family. No, it was a bribe. If it weren’t for the buck Gran slipped me many Sundays after church — to the consternation of Mom — I wouldn’t have gotten far. In high school, my allowance was upped to the equivalent of what cafeteria lunches would have cost. I had a choice, to spend it and eat there or to pocket it and pack my own lunch. I had enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a lifetime, thank you, but I also got a start on my record collection, most of which I still own.

Let me add clothing as an extension of my early lessons about money. Mine never fit. I was always too tall and too skinny for what was available at our local department store, at least on our annual back-to-school trip. The Metropolitan across the street was another matter, but it was more expensive, so we never went there.

By the way, my sister and I never, ever, took anything out of Mom’s purse. We were thoroughly shocked when we learned a cousin always raided Grandma’s.

That gives you an idea of my early impressions regarding money, work, and possessions. Not very positive, is it? No wonder I needed to take up this project.

How does your experience differ?