Turning Over a New Ledger Leaf

by Robert Benchley

from Of All Things

New Year's morning approximately ninety-two million people in these United States will make another stab at keeping personal and househould accounts for the coming year.

One month from New Year's ther will be approximately seventy-three of these accountants still in the rack (all started). Of these, sixty will be groggy but still game and willing to lump the difference between the actual balance in their pockets and the theoretical balance in the books under the elastic heading "General Expenses" or "Incidentals," and start again for February. The remaining thriteen, who came out even, will be either professors of accounting in business schools or out and out unreliable.

This high mortality rate among amateur accountants is one of the big problems of modern household efficiency, and is exceeded in magnitude only only by the number of schemes devised to simplify household accounting. Every domestic magazine, in the midst of its autobiographical accounts of unhappy marriages, must needs run a chart showing how far a family with an income of $1,500 can go without getting caught and still put something aside for a canary. Every insurance company has had prepared by experts a table of figures explaining how, by lumping everything except Rent and Incidentals under Luxuries and doing without them, you can save enough from the wreckage of $1,200 a year to get in on their Forty-Year Adjournment Policy.

Those publications which cannot get an expert to figure out how much you ought to spend per egg per hen-day will publish letters from young housewives showing how they made out a budget which in the end brought them in more money than they earned and had the grocer and electric light company owing them money.

The trouble with all these vicarious budgets is that they presuppose, on the part of the user, an ability to add and subtract. They take it for granted that you are going to do the thing right. Now, with all due respect to our primary and secondary school system, this is absurd. Here and there you may find some one who can take a page of figures and maul them over so that they will come out right at the bottom, but wo wants to be a man like that? What fun does he get out of life, always sure of what the result is going to be?

As for me, give me the regular method of addition by logic; that is, if the result obtained is twelve removed from the result that should have been obtained, then, ergo, twelve is the amount by which you have miscalculated and it should, there fore, be added or subtracted, as the case may be, to or from the actual result somewhere up in the middle of the column, so that in the end the thing will balance. And there you are, with just the same result as if you had worked for hours over the page and quibbled over every little point and figure. Ther is no sense in becoming a slave to numerical signs which in themselves are not worth the paper they are written on. It is the imagination that one puts into accounting that makes it fascinating. If free verse, why not free arithmetic?

It is for the honest ones, who admit that they can't work one of the budget systems for the mentally alert, that the accompanying one has been devised.

Let us take, for instance, a family whose income is $750,000 a year, exclusive of tips. In the family are a father, mother and fox terrier. The expenses for such a family come under the head of Liabilities and are distributed among six accounts: Food, Lodging, Extras, Extras, Incidentals and Extras. For this couple I would advise the following system:

Take the contents of the weekly pay envelope, $14,423.08 (if any one is mean enough to go and divide $750,000 into fifty-two parts to see if I have got it right, he will find that it doesn't quite come to eight cents, but you certainly wouldn't have me carry it out to any more places. It took me from three yesterday afternoon until after dinner to do what I did). Take the contents of the envelope and lay them on the kitchen table in little piles, so much for meat, so much for eggs, so much for adhesive plaster, etc., until the kitchen table is covered. Then sweep it all into a bag and balance your books.

Balancing the books is another point in the ideal system which often makes for trouble. Sticklers for form insist that the two sides of the page shall come out alike, even at the expense of your self-respect. It is the artificiality of this that hurts. No matter how much you spend, no matter how much you receive, at the bottom of the page they must add p to the same thing, with a double red line underneath them to show that the polls are closed.

But since this is the accepted way of doing the thing, we might just as well conced the point and lay our plans accordingly. First take the sum that you have left over in the household exchequer at the end of the mouth [sic]. Put it, or its equivalent in check form, on the table in front of you. Then, working backward, find out how much you have spent since the first of the month. This sum is the crux of the whole system. Divide it into as many equal parts as you have accounts. For instance, Food, Rent Clothes, Insurance and Savings, Operating Expenses, Higher Life. If ou can't divide it so that it comes out even, tuck a little big on the Higher Life account. And as the student of French says, "Voilà" (there it is)!

Perhaps you have wondered what I meant by "Higher Life." I have. It might be well to state it here so that we can all get it clear in our minds. Under the "Higher Life" account you can charge everything that you want to do, but feel that you can't afford. If you want to take in an inconsequential theatrical performance and can't quite square it with your conscience, figure it out this way: By going to that show you will become so disgusted with the futility of such things that you will come out of the theater all aglow with a resolve to do a man's work in the world just as soon as you have caught up with your sleep. Surely that comes under "Advancement" or "Higher Life".

Insurance budget helps always include under "Advancement" money spent for lectures. Now, it may be that I have drifted away from the big things in life since I moved out into the country, but somehow I can't just at this moment recollect standing in line at a box office for a lecture. But then, my home life is very pleasant.

By way of outlining beforehand just what you can spend on this and that (and it is usually on "that") it might be well to take another family with a representative income. Let us say that ther are four in the family and that the income is about $1,000 per year too small. If such a family would sit down some evening and draw a chart showing father's earning capacity with one red line and the family spending capacity with one black line, they would not only have a pleasant evening, but they would have a nice, neat chart all drawn and suitable for framing.

There is one little technical point that the amateur accountant will do well to remember. It gives a distinction to the page an shows that you are acquainted with bookkeeping lore. It is this. Label your debit column "credits" and your credit column "debits." You might think that what you receive into the exchequer would be credited and your expenses debited, but that is where you miss the whole theory of practical accounting. That would be too simple to be efficient. You must wax transcendental, and say, "I, as an individual entity, am nothing. Everything is all; all is everything." There is a transcendental Account, to which all other accounts are responsible, and hence money turned over to the Cinnamon Account is not credited to that account, but rather debited to it, for Cinnamon hereby assumes the responsibility for the sum. As money is spent for Cinnamon, its account is credited, for it is releived of that responsibility. Don't start wondering where the responsibility finally settles or you will throw something out its stride in your brain.

"They would have a nice, neat chart suitable for framing."

Some people profess to scoff at the introduction of bookkeeping into the running of the household. It is simply because they never tasted the fascination of the thing.

The advantage of keeping family accounts is clear. If you do not keep them your are uneasily aware of the fact that your are spending more than you are earning. If you do keep them, you know it.