Saturday, May 26, 2012

Leave finances to those who can count

When I was single, I had a simple budgeting system for monthly expenses. It had to be simple because I don’t have a math/computer science/war strategy brain. I have more of a Where The Hell Are My Car Keys? brain.

But my system worked and it involved peanut butter. Creamy, of course. Crunchy would have thrown off the whole financial dynamic.

I saved the plastic jars, ran them through the dishwasher (at least twice. Peanut butter would probably make a good Spackle if it didn’t attract mice and small children), and labeled them “Laundry,” “Groceries,” “Entertainment,” “Utilities,” “Rent,” “Gas,” and “Beer.” You know, the important stuff.

I put x-number of dollars into each jar and when the money was gone, it was gone. This way I could tuck the rest into savings, and if I held off on laundry and didn’t drive anywhere, I could roll over any leftover cash into the dusty jar marked “Hooters.”

Enter my soon-to-be fiancé people now call Mrs. Offutt. Poking through the kitchen cabinets of my tiny apartment, she found various plastic jars that rattled with loose change.

“What are these?” she asked, and I told her.

“You’ll never follow this,” she said, laughed, shut my cabinet and crushed any desire to be responsible with my money again.

After 10 years of marriage, she sat me down to go over The Plan.

“I want to pay off the mortgage early,” she said flatly, almost accusingly. I too wanted to pay off the mortgage, early would be nice, but I wouldn’t have thought of actually doing it. She did.

“OK,” I said. OK works nicely in most marital situations. It can be interpreted as ‘I agree with you,’ or ‘I recognize and appreciate the fact that you’re talking to me.’ You can use either one to get out of trouble when your spouse realizes you’re not listening.

“I have these envelopes,” she said, holding them up as visual aids. “They’re labeled ‘Grocery,’ ‘Family,’ ‘Gas,’ ‘Entertainment,’ ‘Beer.’” I almost teared up; she’d thought of me. “I put x-number of dollars in each envelope and when the money is gone, it’s gone.”

Unlike déjà vu, I knew where I’d experienced this before.

“Peanut butter jars,” I said.


“Before we were married I had this same system, but I kept the money in peanut butter jars. You said I’d never follow it.”

She shrugged. “You will now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, brandishing her visual aid. “It’s envelopes.”

I will never stand in the way of my wife’s financial plans because, frankly, if I walked out the door with our life savings, I’d come home with magic beans.

Later that day, while getting cash for the envelopes, the bank teller told her a lot of customers used this system found in a popular book, and asked my wife if she had the planner that came along with the book.

“No,” my wife said. “If you really want to save money, why buy the book? Just check it out at the library.”

And that’s why she handles our money. I’d have bought the book.

Jason Offutt’s column has been in continuous publication since 1998 appearing in newspapers and magazines across the United States. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheJasonOffutt.