Saturday, January 14, 2012

Too Much Stuff

We have too much stuff.

Let me be clear: by "we" I mean us personally. By "too much" I mean there’s more of it than almost anything else. And by "stuff" I mean miscellaneous items that don’t fit into any other obvious category. Mind you, I’m not referring to the various physical things you can find in our home. After all, we've lived in the same house for over 20 years, and raised two kids who are now 21 and 24. So there’s bound to be a lot of stuff from old clothes to board games to kitchen gadgets in every drawer and cabinet you open. True, we have too much of each of those as well, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Rather, the stuff I refer to is financial in nature: more to the point, while on the income side we have checks and deposits, on the liability side we have stuff. It’s all part of my feeble attempt to make sense of our monetary situation. As part of trying to keep track of what we spend, we generally try and use credit cards and checks as opposed to cash. That way we get a record of our transactions, and can sort it all out. So a trip to the grocery store is categorized as "food," a night at the moves is listed as "activities" and gas for the car is, unsurprisingly, "gas." Being self-employed, it also helps to calculate actual net income as opposed to gross: after all, post-it notes don’t grow on trees, and office expenses can be deducted as the cost of doing business. All this helps not only at tax time, but in a general way of letting us see where our money goes.

All of which brings us to now. Lest you think we are always good do-be’s, it’s not like we walk in the door and immediately run to the household ledger to enter every dime we spent in the appropriate column. Usually, when we balance our checkbook on a weekly basis, any checks get entered along with their appropriate categories. However, that’s actually a tiny portion of our outgoing cash flow. Far more is transacted on the aforementioned plastic. Those receipts go into a big tray, to be matched against the monthly bill when it comes... never a happy day.

Notice I said "matched." No assignment takes place. All we do is sync up the line-by-line listing reported by the bank against the myriad slips of paper which we have collected after every purchase. We make sure we were credited with any credits, that there are no apparent unauthorized charges, and voila! We have a rectified if not exactly balanced budget.

It’s left till sometime after December 31 to do the actual sorting. In the old days, I would take all the receipts, sit on the floor in front of the TV, and spend many nights making little piles of paper, category by category. That experience was one of the reasons I eagerly embraced an electronic checkbook early on; when you entered a check, you included a classification, which you subtotaled at the end of the year. And once the credit card companies enabled you to download that daily blow-by-blow into the same ledger, we had almost reached bookkeeping nirvana.

One element, however, remains if not labor intensive, then judgment intensive. I still have to go through each plastic entry and assign it to a category, making in any given year about a thousand "this goes here, that goes there" decisions. Most are easy, or even automatic... the aforementioned food and gas sorting, for example. But a disturbingly large number didn't seem to fit neatly into any category. Some are for multi-item purchases made on one receipt at a big box store, others from long forgotten online retailers with ambiguous sounding names. They aren't so easy to assign to "home repairs" or "restaurants." And so the catch all grouping of "stuff" was born. There’s just one problem: the stuff is starting to dwarf all other comers. More than telephone, more than automobile maintenance, more than clothes, it has grown and grown. And while we can eat out less, or stretch out an oil change for the car, I don’t know how to minimize what I can’t define. And so it grows, getting ever more blob-like all the time.

But I have a plan. No more stuff. From now on, I will insist that we note what’s on those receipts. And so starting today, I’m making a new category in our checkbook. I think I’ll call it "things."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is always amazed at how his income gets spent. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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