Budgets and gratitude

May 7, 2007

Have you ever seen one of those rap videos where the artist is sitting on some sort of throne, perhaps with a bejeweled crown on his head, wearing about five gold necklaces and throwing $100 bills around while he raps about how much money he has? Well, I finally got caught up on data entry in Quicken last night, and when you look at how much money we spend you’d think that we live our lives out of one of those videos. I’m sitting here with a stack of Income and Expense reports from the past few months that would lead one to believe that our financial advisor is Chamillionaire.

Morning sickness followed by the flu followed by a move left me woefully behind on reconciling our bank statements, and in the meantime our spending has been creeping up and up to a dangerous level. As I flipped through the categorized spending reports last night, making sounds like, “Wha…?” and “Huh…?”, it occurred to me that there’s a big connection here to the whole gratitude thing I was taking about on Friday.

The problem is that I’ve been way too conscious of the cutbacks we’ve made in our lifestyle over the past few years, too busy patting myself on the back for moving out of the downtown loft to realize that Target and HEB probably have our family listed as a line item on their corporate revenue report. As I was explaining to my husband my bewilderment at how far off the budget our spending had gone, I heard myself focusing on all the little “sacrifices” we’ve made (“But I don’t shop at Whole Foods anymore!” or “But we got these used cars and don’t even have a car payment!”) and looking right over the many needless luxuries we still indulge in. We still go to restaurants a couple times a month for date nights; I don’t worry too much about buying meat on sale; if I need some little housewares at Target I go get them, usually picking up a couple other small items (that I didn’t even need or plan on getting) while I’m there; etc.

Yet I never worried about these things blowing the budget because, the way I saw it, they’re “small” things, not luxuries. “I’m not buying jewelry or getting manicures and pedicures, ” I’d tell myself, “I’m just picking up some decent ground beef to cook for dinner.” Rather than feeling immensely grateful that I’m sitting in front of a meat aisle that would have made a king’s jaw drop in any previous era, realizing how luxurious it is to have someone else grind the meat for me, I sort of look at it like it’s air or water: some very basic thing that I need and deserve and should not have to worry about what it costs.

I need to redefine what I consider “the basics”. Coming from a small family, middle-class American background, I have a really warped view of what my family’s basic needs are. Just last week I went to Target and got a napkin holder and a new pillow, spontaneously picked up a laundry hamper for the baby’s room while I was there (I “needed” it since I’m currently using one for both kids), and swung by the grocery store to get some cheddar cheese (Kraft, because I don’t like the way the store brand tastes) and some olives. Honestly, I didn’t feel particularly grateful for any of these things. Sure, I was happy to have them, and I am using them, but it felt in no way special to acquire these “basic” things. And that’s the problem.

When I wrote in that last post that I need to start appreciating the overwhelming riches all around me, I didn’t realize how timely that insight was. The reason I’ve been over-spending for the past few months is not because I didn’t have time to reconcile the statements and certainly not because the budget is too restrictive. It’s because I’ve completely overlooked what “the basics” really are in life.


UPDATE: Just after writing this I came across this post on Take the Poor With You (a great new blog worth checking out). It gave me more food for thought on the subject, in particular as it relates to my grocery shopping, and the book she links to looks fascinating.


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