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"Does Your Budget Budge Much?" from Better Homes and Gardens

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Better Homes and Gardens
Does Your Budget Budge Much?
by Ellis Parker Butler

Laugh with Mr. Butler in this article, and then give a sober thought to training your child in money matters. How do you approach this subject?

Mrs. Clara Ingram Judson, an authority on budgets, talking before a section of one of the state teachers' associations, told her audience this:

"An allowance for a child is a good thing, because practice in spending develops judgment in the use of money.

"It is a question with many parents just when to begin giving an allowance. I think the proper time is when the child first asks for a penny to spend. I believe in paying the amount in pennies, because he can count them out with so much pleasure. It is not well to dictate to a child just how his money is to be spent, but it is wise to suggest firmly that one who has money always saves something and gives something. Thus a baby girl of five learned to drop one of her five pennies in her bank, to put another one in the collection plate, perhaps, and she was free to spend the rest in riotous living if she saw fit!"

An older child, says Mrs. Judson, knowing that she must buy certain necessaries out of an allowance, learns to balance one vanity against another, one need against another. And that, after all, is all a budget helps one to do, isn't it?

One of the wisest men I know -- he is the man who asked me to write this article -- wrote me the other day and said: "I'm not much on statistics, but I imagine that 99 44-100ths percent of average Americans probably spend as much time thinking about the money question as about anything else."

I differ from that man in one respect. I am "much" on statistics. I eat 'em alive. They are the principal part of my diet and I thrive on them, because I make my own. This is the best way to get your statistics, because the ready-made variety does not always give satisfaction or prove what you wish to prove, and that is all any statistics are good for. The statistics I make for my own consumption look well, trot well in single or double harness and never fail me in a pinch.

I may, for example, wish to prove that it is better to put sheep manure on the lawn in the fall than to put it on in the spring. I don't waste time digging into a lot of books and tables and charts that will, as everyone knows, be discredited in a year or so and supplanted by quite different ones. I merely look my opponent in the eye and raise my voice until it is loud and convincing.

"Yeh!" I shout. "Oh, yeh! You talk about fertilizing the lawn in the spring, but do you know what the statistics are? You don't, hey? Well, I'll tell you. On 16,879 lawns in 36 states east of the Mississippi treated with an average of 207 pounds of sheep manure per lawn in the fall of 1921 the new growth of grass was 654,849,903,542 blades of grass the next summer. On the other hand, taking 14,875 lawns in 41 states in the same territory treated with an average of 265 pounds of sheep manure in the spring of 1922 the new growth of grass that year was only 574,980,093,412 blades of grass! What about that? Now what have you got to say?"

That shuts him right up. He hasn't anything to say. I win every time. And if I fooled around with a lot of statistics printed in books I might lose every time. So I say, frankly, that I think my friend is wrong when he says 99 44-100ths percent of the Americans think about the money question most of the time. My statistics show that 100 percent of the Americans think about the money question all the time. And at night they dream about it and big salt tears run down their cheeks. And I don't blame them. I feel the deep pathos of the subject every time I think about my own money affairs. Making the family money meet the family desires is like a nude man in a cold room trying to cover himself with a table napkin when the temperature is 30 below zero and all three windows are open. If he does it he is a dandy. In my own experience I have found that when I pull the family money up under my chin my feet and legs stick out, and when I tuck it in under my feet my chest is bare down to the place where I wear my belt.

The cure for this, in nearly every family, is -- of course -- the budget. Before mah jongg came into existence the family budget was the greatest home amusement ever invented. To set up a family budget and thus have enough money to run the home sweetly has long been the Great American Infatuation. It is generally believed -- the statistics show that out of 768,978 white and colored citizens in 23 states, one-eyed men not counted, 768,977 so believe -- that if the family could just begin keeping a budget everything would be all right. I have not found it so. I have found that if I'm trying to cover a full-sized man with a table napkin on a cold night it does not do much good to get a blank book and write at the top of one page "Feet" and at the top of another "Neck" and then make figures in the book. If a table napkin won't cover me when I am in bed on a cold night it does no good to cut the napkin into pieces and scatter them around according to a budget plan. It is all well enough to start a budget book and cut the napkin in two, and swear to devote one-half of it to "Feet" and the other half to "Neck." That can be done. But it leaves a man awfully bare in the middle. It really doesn't help much.

That is the trouble with most budgets started by American families; they are started because the family income is not big enough to cover all the family desires. So much has been written about budgets -- I have written a lot about them myself -- that it is supposed they have some mystic quality that will cure the family money ills. They don't, and for two reasons. The first reason is that incomes don't stretch and a budget can't stretch what can't stretch. The second reason is that no one keeps a budget long enough to do any good. I have statistics that show that in each decade (10 years) 985,042 families start keeping 65,879,021 budgets and that before the end of two months 985,041 families say, in a tone of disgust, "Oh, thunder! What a lot of bunk!" and stop keeping budgets. My statistics show that of 652,987,049,128 family budgets that were started between 1902 and 1923 (fiscal year beginning January 1st) the average life of the budgets was two weeks and four days. After that the budget books were used to keep the laundry lists in, for curl papers and -- on pages torn out -- to write excuses for little Eddie when he was home from school with a sore thumb. In the case of 453 budget books nothing was ever written in them but the owners' names.

Off and on I have kept dozens and dozens of family budgets. I am always trying to make my income do a Rolls-Royce job when it is only a flea-bit burro with one sore hoof. I begin by buying a book on the last day of December, resolved that the glad new year will not see my money whiffed away in the regardless manner it has been whiffed heretofore. I then open the book, take a pen and get out my old checkbooks. This is so I can list what I spent last year for the similar months, because unless I know what I spent and where the leakages were it is no use trying to save anything. I might make out my new budget and put down, as the amount I must not over-spend for the purpose, "Sickness and Ill Health $1,056.78," and then find I had allowed too much for that. The result would be that I would have to eat a lot of green apples and get myself sick enough for a doctor's attention, or I could not spend the whole $1,056.78 for sickness and ill health during the coming year. And a budget is no good unless it is adhered to strictly.

So the first thing I do is go over my checks and see what I spent for each purpose in January of the year just past. It usually stacks up somewhat like this:

January: Self, $4; heat and light, $13; furniture and fixtures, $1.50; taxes and insurance, none; telephone, $4; cash, not specified, $764.64; sundries, $112.50.

I can see at a glance that this is not what one might call quite exact. I know I spent more than $4 on myself in that January, and it must be in the $764.64 cash and $112.50 sundries. So I go on to February and discover, by my checkbook, that I spent $1 on myself, and that the "cash" expenditure was $814.75 and the "sundries" $4.30. There is nothing in either month for "Sickness and Ill Health." By the time I have listed and footed all the checks I drew during the year I find that for "Sickness and Ill Health" I spent just $12.50, while "Cash, Not Specified," totals $7,682.75, and "Sundries" comes to $1,127.64. It begins to look as if the family would have to do without any pleasant little spells of measles and appendicitis during the rule of the new year's budget, but we are going to be able to spend a lot for cash and for sundries.

After working for three or four days on last year's expenditures -- during which time I might have made four or five hundred dollars at my regular work -- I decide there is not enough data available to reconstruct the expenditures of last year, and I tear up the sheets of paper I have been putting the figures on and put them in the wastebasket. I then make the entries in the new budget.

For this purpose I have carried in my pocket a piece of cardboard on which to enter the money I spend in cash. The items are "Clothing and Shoes, 1 pr. shoe laces, 5 cents"; "Provisions, bunch of parsley, 2 cents"; "Furniture and Fixtures, 3 picture hooks, 5 cents." I count this up and find it comes to 12 cents, and I had $45 cash in my pocket on the first of January. I now have $2.50 in my pocket. To save my life I can't think where the rest of the money went. For some minutes I try to decide whether to make the entries read:

Clothing and Shoes...................... $ .05
Provisions................................ .02
Furniture and Fixtures.................... .05
Self.................................... 42.38


Clothing and Shoes...................... $ .05
Provisions................................ .02
Furniture and Fixtures.................... .05
Cash.................................... 42.38

It annoys me dreadfully. I can see that if I use the first classification the budget, by the end of the year, is going to show that I spent nearly all the family money on myself. On the other hand, if I use the second classification, I might as well not keep a budget.

"And after all," I say to myself, "why not? We can't do with less food. We can't coax the telephone company to let us use their telephone free of charge. If we are going to be expensively sick the bills will have to be paid, budget or no budget. As a matter of fact, Mr. Butler, sir, the items are all as small as they ought to be, or smaller, except in the items that a budget won't control. One of these is the money you carry in your pocket for your own spending. And you know you don't spend enough that way to keep up your end with the other men in your set. You're the cheapest skate in the lot and many a time have you been ashamed of yourself. This budget idea is all nonsense."

In my own case I know why my expenditures always eat up too large a proportion of my income, leaving too little for savings. It is because I am an author and want to live near New York, where most of the publishers are. That means large expense for taxes and other things that are lower in places more distant from New York. If I want to economize enough to amount to anything a budget won't do it; I must leave the vicinity of New York and go where living is cheaper. I can't live more cheaply here; I have established my grade of living and shame prevents me from living on a lower scale while living here. This is not mere imagination. If I quit living as I am living and live like a ditch digger I am admitting I am a failure. I am "throwing up the sponge." No man ought to do that. I say it again -- no man ought to do that! And I don't mean to. When you hear that I have sold out my house in Flushing and have gone to the Berkshires or to California it will be because I want to write a novel of the Colonial days in Columbia County or have enough money so I can afford to live a few years at a distance from my publishers. It will never be because I am admitting defeat.

This feeling of mine is a general American feeling; I have the statistics to prove it, or can make some up at any time. It is un-American to lower the flag. This may be unfortunate but it is a fact. There is a reason why this reluctance to retrench broadly is so prevalent in our splendid country. Since the Pilgrims landed in 1620 this country has been advancing continuously in wealth and prosperity and everyone has had a chance to live better and better -- and everyone has indeed lived better and better. For generations every family has expected to live better than its forebears, and has done so, barring accidents. So it is not too much to expect a family today to wish to hold its own, to live as well today as it did yesterday. The trouble is that too many of us jump ahead to larger expenditures a little too quickly when times are good with us. We increase our style of living promptly, even to spending a little more than we are taking in, and then we hate to retrench. The bills begin to worry us; presently life is nothing but bills and worry. I claim -- and I can cook up a batch of statistics to prove it -- that 50 percent of our American families are living nothing but worry, eating worry, sleeping worry and drinking worry, from one end of every year to the other end of every year, because money won't stretch. Their financial feel or chests are always out from under the cash bedclothes.

Now, I ask you, as friend to friend, if your greatest annoyance in life is this matter of dollars-and-cents figures isn't it foolish to think you can lighten the annoyance by dragging in a lot of other dollars-and-cents figures to fret over? That is all a budget does in most cases, it adds to your real money troubles a lot of theoretic money troubles. It is like giving a man a picture of a bad tooth and expecting it to cure his toothache.

About a year ago I began giving my wife a stated sum per month for food expenses, exclusive of ice. We made this amount slightly more than we had been spending for food. This amount is a food budget as far as I am concerned, and it is all the budget I want to bother with. My wife seems to save quite a little out of this stated food money, and has bought linoleum, papered several rooms, and so on, out of it. That is fine and it shows she is a good partner, but if she could not supply the family food on the sum she receives she would have to have more money for the purpose. Our stomachs determine that budget item. And it is so regarding most other budget items in American families. Sickness comes; who can budget its cost in advance? A daughter is sent to college; the expense is always less than some other daughter in the same college is costing some other father. The coal dealer, the gas man, the electric light man -- these make our Light and Heat budgets for us, and what can we do about it? In general, I think American family finances are run about as well as they can be run.

The great American distresses come through saving money to buy worthless stocks and through unfortunate business adventures of other kinds. No one can foresee these or budget against them. No farmer can foresee his crop failures. The worries of home financing come, not through spending too much cash, but through making too liberal use of the credit everyone offers us. A mink coat that has been bought and paid for does not break our heart; it is the unpaid bill for the absolutely necessary coal that keeps us awake at night. I ask you, dear Clarence, how much do you worry about anything you bought three years ago? If we all lived so that every bill could be paid at the end of every month our financial worries would be ended and the miserable and useless makeshift of a budget would never be considered. What we need is some new and greater Patrick Henry to arise and shout, "Let Business be done on credit if necessary, but as for my home, give me Cash Purchases or Give me Death!"

The lady of the house will appreciate this; she knows the worry of unpaid bills. The man of the house will appreciate it; he knows that often his greatest business worry is the fact that, however his business is going, he feels insecure because he does not know what bills are being run up by the home. The only budget for the home worth considering can be outlined in two words -- Pay Cash. By "paying cash" I mean buying nothing that cannot be paid for within thirty days.

Aside from this I would put no restrictions on the home finances. If the money permits it I would go practically the limit. A trip to Europe, if it can be afforded and paid for, is no extravagance; neither are automobiles, solid gold andirons, diamond-studded flatirons or platinum dishpans. The best is none too good for an American if -- but IF -- IF -- IF -- he can pay cash for it.

In these days when everything else is budgeted the home should be free. There, if nowhere else, the widest latitude for expansion and contraction should be maintained. The only budget for the home should be the cash in the hand, the money in the pocket and the balance in the bank.

I remember a tobacco-guzzling specimen of the genus homo who used to hibernate around the pust-offus. Among his other accomplishments was the sublime thought that it was smart to force his "woman" to ask him for money. He never provided much, but every woman knows that even where money is unknown, there are times when it is necessary to have a little.

He took a strange delight in compelling the weary and worn partner of his life to seek him out in the public loafing-places and ask for the ten cents, the quarter or half-dollar so necessary to meet the day's problems.

One had only to look at her to know the humiliation back of the act; how she would work herself to the bone to avoid it; that only necessity of the direst sort ever forced her to do it. In time, there was no shame in her manner -- just a certain weariness and a vacant stare. For her soul had been starved and had gone out.

Once a spectator said: "Tom, why don't you leave a little change with the Missus? No need to worry about that woman squanderin' any of it!"

"Not by a jugful, by Gar! I wear the pants in my family!" Then, he settled the dust with a great quantity of nicotine, wiping his lips with a broad, lazy thumb. "Jest you remember that!"

I've met others like Tom in the intervening years. Some wear skirts and force the male of the species to do the humble act. Others forget the children altogether. The youngsters have a sense of pride, too, you know. In either event, this spirit is a spirit of tyranny and it ought to be drained out of our lives.

In this first month of the new year, when we are all making resolutions -- nine-tenths of them about money -- let us get the proper viewpoint towards the weekly paycheck.

You, Mr. Wage-Earner, are not the sole owner of that check. It is yours to hold in trust, until expended, to see that every need of your family is nourished to the limit of your ability. As a trust officer, your first duty is to discharge faithfully your obligation. If you are selfish and tyrannical, you will beget misery and deceit for your pains. If you are honest, fair and equitable, you will bring peace, contentment and happiness into your own home. And you must bring them in, Mr. Head-of-the-House, if your trust-relationship is to survive.

I do not hold that the paycheck should belong to the "pants" or that the petticoats should usurp this function. The paycheck, rather, belongs to the whole family. It is a community interest for family consultation like the measles, mumps or the annual vacation. -- Editor.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:11:24am USA Central
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