I'm starting to hear some talk about another economic stimulus package. I've got one for ya. How about a little Home Economics stimulus package?
Don't get queasy, but when's the last time you balanced your checkbook? I mean really reconciled it with your bank statement, not just glanced at your on line balance?
Okay, I'll go first. I balanced it yesterday. To the penny. Pious much? Does that really sound like me?
I used to be the kind of person who balanced to the penny and accounted for every purchase. Even though I don't consider myself a "math" person, keeping books and accounting work make up for a significant part of my employment history. So you can imagine my distress as I slowly started loosing my grip on my balance. Makes for an interesting life metaphor if you think about it.
The beginning of my unraveling was when we got damn debit cards. For years I cut them up when they came in the mail and didn't discuss the option with Matt. Until he started saying that it seemed like everyone else's bank offered a debit card and he wanted one.
"I think I'll go in and talk to our bank about it." Damn. Not wanting him to look like a dumbass I told him I'd been cutting them up all these years because I didn't trust us to keep track of all the little receipts. No problem. We set up a system. A basket by the door. Then an envelope on the headboard. Then another envelope in the car. None of it worked and I became more and more frustrated before finally throwing my hands up around the end of my pregnancy and deciding to deal with it later.
I just didn't think it would be more than a year later.
For those of you are solid on your accounts and do not get nauseous thinking about this stuff, hats off to you. Really. For those of you who have never done it, or for those like me who used to, meant to and plan to again someday … how about now?
If you're unsure where to start – and granted I might be an unlikely source for how to get back on the wagon having fallen off myself, or am I? – here are some suggestions that worked for me.
- If you share your finances with a partner, pick a point person. And–this is important–pick a mutually agreeable plan for communicating about money. Matt and I decided on a cash allowance carrot (I'll explain in a minute) where we sit down together every other week to go over our finances and when we're done we get the cash.
- Start over by getting a new check register – either from a box of checks you last ordered or your bank.
- Make today your starting point. My system is banking on the fact that you utilize your on line banking – sorry – so take the balance the bank shows at this moment. Track your bank's balance and transactions very carefully for a couple weeks, noting anything you didn't have receipts for from now on – do not try to go backwards or you will get too overwhelmed. **
- Let the past go and from now on enter every transaction at your earliest opportunity. USE the register for tracking purposes - write down not only where you spent the money but why, e.g. "Lowe's – plumbing" or "Mac Pharmacy – Lucy aspirin" or "Target – staples and retail therapy." If you get a few too many of the last kind at the end of the month you'll have a good starting point for creating your own economic stimulus package!
- Some other register basics: date, type of entry be it: check number, ATM, Deposit, or automatic transaction, carry your balance and double check your math. I usually add up the column I just did to make sure it equals my prior balance.
- Regularly commit to balancing your checkbook, reconciling it to your bank statement - hell, you can do this by muting the commercials during your favorite shows is you want. Weekly seems like a manageable goal. You'll likely develop your own system but I use a circle in my register to track what has yet to clear and a check to mark what has. I add up the circles, add that amount to the balance MY register says and that should equal what the bank says.
- Troubleshooting: double check your math if you're off – really, turn down the volume for a minute. Compare your register to the bank statement in case you missed anything.
- Since it's impossible for some reason to get all our receipts in one place so I can keep track of them, and also because it makes me feel like a SuperNag if I keep asking Matt for his and neither of us wants to feel like we're be controlling about money, we settled on a cash allowance system where every pay check we each get some cash to spend as we wish until next payday. We are working on tweaking the amount to keep it reasonable but still useful. The other benefit of this system is no million receipts for small purchases.
- Finally, when implementing something like this, it's nice to have someone to talk to as you make the changes … hopefully you have a friend who is happy to talk all things organization with you. Ahem.
The bottom line is, it's your money. You work hard for it. Know how you spend it. Who cares if you didn't do this before today? If it makes you feel more in control of your spending and confident financially, that's a good thing. And hey, obviously it's no magic solution to put more money in your pocket, and yet, when you are conscious about how you spend money, you can't help but make better choices resulting in what? Yeah, more money, baby!
**If you use a lot of checks and know you have quite a few outstanding, leave a page blank for those and go on line, change the date range to six months out and sort by check number. You'll see which ones are outstanding. Know that until those clear, your account isn't exactly right but hopefully you have an idea if they are big or small amounts – account for that as you make big purchases.