Paychecks and Planning Part I

13 Jun

I wasn’t very old when my mother began teaching me the art of budgeting and, thanks to her training, it wasn’t long before I was allocating dollars like I knew what I was doing. (“Like” being the operative word.) Each year, I sat down with a list of the previous year’s expenses and made a curiously inaccurate guess as to what I might spend in the coming year. I divided that figure by twelve and voila, I had a budget! (In retrospect, I think I may have taken away very little of what my mother was attempting to teach… but then numbers never really were my thing.)

I quickly grew quite skilled at this practice which I rather dubiously labeled: “financial planning.” I was great at categorizing expenditures and moderately efficient when it came to recording receipts. In theory, each pay check was parceled out with portions allocated to gas and groceries, medical expenses and movie tickets. There were pigeon holes for nearly everything and I was quite adept at creating new ones whenever the need arose.

Reality, however, was a little different. I lived within my means, but I had a bad habit of “fudging” on my budget. I was paid hourly and that meant that the amount of my paycheck was inconsistent from one pay period to the next. My spending mirrored that inconsistency.

To be honest, aside from a few monthly bills for necessities like insurance, I couldn’t tell anyone where the rest of my money was going. I kept a running tally of how much I made vs. how much I’d spent and made purchasing decisions based upon that figure. If there wasn’t enough money, I didn’t spend. If there was, I spent without discretion. The result was that, despite my not-so-carefully planned budget, I usually felt a bit tense when it came to my finances. There was always one more unexpected automotive repair to be made or another doctor’s visit to cover. I was staying out of debt, but I also seemed to be teetering precariously close to the edge of a personal fiscal cliff.

The solution to my problem seemed like a no-brainer: I simply needed to find better employment. A more demanding job at higher pay would resolve the ongoing “crisis” of paycheck to paycheck living. So I began my search.

It wasn’t long before I’d found what I was looking for and not much longer than that before I discovered that I still wasn’t making “enough”. Clearly, the obvious solution to my problem had not been the correct one. It was time to pull out the big guns and place the blame where it belonged: on the government, on society, on the fact that I was a woman, on the price of gasoline… on just about anyone or anything except myself. I had become a victim.

The truth is that I’ve always been more of a visionary than a planner. I think in broad swaths of color, not in the intimate details of individual threads. Yet it’s those details that make the difference between financial chaos and effective money management. My income was sufficient to meet my needs at each of my places of employment. I just wasn’t handling it efficiently. In order to do so, I had to acquaint myself with an ancient art with which I claimed only marginal familiarity: planning. And learning the art would prove to be a challenge. (To be continued…)

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