"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Paying Peter

My heart is racing. My hands are steady. I’m READY!  It's the first of the month and my packet of bills are ready to pay. I might have said, “ready to mail,” but I went paperless two months ago. I’m probably the last person to go electronic, but I actually felt bad for the USPS and I wanted to do my share.

In our household, I do. Growing up, my mother kept the farm books, and that included the bills. My mother-in-law owned a business, so my husband was totally up with the idea. Actually, his specialty is long-range planning and his sub-specialty is delegating, so it works for him.  

In the early days, some of my girl friends' husbands acted like I was uppity. Usurping my male’s masculinity, and all that. But now, a lot of the wives have changed their minds. Some are divorced. Some couples take turns. Some split their bills right down the middle. One pays electric, telephone and garbage; the other pays television, insurance and phone. Dutch treat for date night.

Being responsible for myself is something I took away from an assertiveness class in the ’70s. I entered the room and took a seat along with five other women, each in their late fifties or early sixties, about the age I am today. But I was thirty-two back then. I saw a room filled with overweight old women and I thought I had entered the wrong door. The arrogance of my over-educated ego kicked in. As a college graduate I was embarrassed to be sitting next to these “career housewives,” admitting by association that I didn’t have all the answers. After all, isn’t my baby boomer generation heir to the kingdom?

But when they started to talk, I shut up and took notes.

What I remember about those divorced women is that they shared a collective unaccountability for their finances. Many didn’t know their exes’ Social Security number. Some were still reeling from IRS liens on tax returns filed by their husbands that they hadn’t read or understood. Some didn’t even remember signing the document that nailed them as co-conspirator in a tax-fraud scheme.

Later, I took an H&R Block tax course and worked for two seasons as a tax preparer. It helps to understand the way the tax system works (or doesn’t. I’d love to see a flat tax.) Before we send it out, I stick our tax return in front of my husband and give him a line-by-line review.   

According to experts, on-time bill paying is a great way to hang on to your earnings. Another is having on-line banking ability to track your balance. It keeps you out of those check-cashing store fronts. Like Grandpa used to say, “Pennies make dollars.”

 In the process of writing my first memoir about my grandparents and our farm heritage, I found their bank statements from the ’40s and ’50s. Nestled inside skinny little brown envelopes, each statement contained six or seven cancelled checks made out to the grocery store for $5.63, J.C. Penneys for $3.20, or a seed company. Even in the 50s, their monthly outlay was tight, with no excess or frivolity. I noticed that Grandma signed the checks.

Prying into someone else’s life changed me. I wanted to be more like them and less like I was, a spontaneous shopper with lots of shoes in my closet. In my memoir, I wrote about them and included the part about the checks to honor their frugality. I’m proud to say that the lesson took (well, sort of.)

Thanks, Grandma. And thanks, Marian, Claire, Rose, the ladies in the assertiveness workshop who showed me that financial savvy isn’t a man’s responsibility.

To be honest, None of them had the temptations that we do, today. But we work with what we have and we do the best we can. So it’s the first of the month and I’m going to try to pay Peter without robbing Paul. And, if I’m honest, I’ll make a promise to do better next month.

How are you about paying bills? Hate it? Love it? Avoid it?

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