An aunt tells a story of household economy. Married in 1967, a week after her wedding, she bought a school exercise book: on one page she recorded the income for each week, on the facing page she recorded expenditure. By 2002, her collection of exercise books had reached thirty-five.
Inspired by my aunt’s story, financial management here over the past five years has been through columns in exercise books. Lines drawn down a page separate an ‘items’ column from ones for ‘budgeted’, ‘credit card’ and ‘cash/cheque/debit card’. At the right hand side, the balance is recorded.
The electronic transactions are all detailed, but a certain vagueness creeps in under cover of ‘cash’. “What was that €60 for?”
“I dunno, bits and pieces”.
It was pleasing to find a Charles Handy story where ‘bit and pieces’ has its own acronymn:
Words and money mattered . . . in the Irish rectory where I grew up. Each week my parents would prepare and exchange their personal accounts, in an attempt to keep some track of their spending. It was a weekly agony for my mother who could never remember what she had spent on what. I used to try to help. ‘Why,’ I once asked, do you spend so much sometimes on the SPG when we are so poor?’ A child of the rectory, I knew about the SPG; it was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, a famous missionary society. ‘Hush,’ said my mother, ‘and never tell your father, but SPG really stands for Something, Probably Grub.’
It was my first realization that accountancy can sometimes be more of a creative art than a science. Looking back now I think that my father always knew and she knew that he knew but they both realized that ‘keeping count’ was a valuable discipline, even allowing for the SPG.
Perhaps there is something of the Gospel in ‘bits and pieces’ or ‘SPG’; Jesus was never a rigorist. He gets into trouble over his disciples’ vagueness in keeping exactly to the rules:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
There is room in life for both discipline and a relaxed attitude. When it comes to budgeting, as with many other things, it is the discipline that makes space for being relaxed.