I give someone a piece of paper. I push some buttons. I type a few numbers into a computer. I wave a piece of plastic near a small machine. Simple movements of my hands. That is all that's happening there. Or, more accurately, that's how my brain chooses to record certain things. Preferring not to think about what's actually going on, it logs such actions in the form of calmingly uncontextualised records of physical motion. On no account does it allow the words "money" or "spend" to be attached to any of them. This has been my general fiscal policy for some time thanks to my financial advisor, who is an ostrich at Bristol Zoo and was presumably rehoused there when the bailiffs came round to find him with his head in a plant pot next to a stack of unpaid bills.
Recently though, going freelance has created such a critical mass of doubt about when and if money might ever again travel the dusty road to my bank account (the outward road is a four-lane superhighway), that I've realised that something has to change. The penny finally dropped when I logged into my internet banking and assumed that the sum sitting off to the left in the main transactions section was an alignment error, when in fact it was the single lonely item in the "In" column and I was just unaccustomed to seeing anything written there. I decided it was time for action. As long as action was free.
The first step was to get a clear picture of how things stood, even though I suspected that they stood as shakily as my finance ostrich being ridden to debtors' prison by a drunk Mr. Micawber. Nevertheless, I made a tally of all my regular outgoings, assigned functions to my online accounts and renamed them to reflect their purposes. I laughably entitled one of them, "Savings", moved some money into it and then a week later, when it was empty again, relabelled it, "Unicorn Fund", on the grounds that that was closer to the truth. The second step, to my guilty delight, was to make a spreadsheet. On this I laid out anything I expected to earn, when I might invoice for it and when it might then come in.
I spent a considerable amount of time applying my enthusiastic amateurism to Excel, while studiously ignoring the mountain of more constructive things I could and should have been doing. I setup some conditional formatting and formula cells and got thoroughly carried away with making things add up, divide and change colour, based on various occurrences. After a couple of hours I sat back and surveyed my handiwork. It was perfect. Action had most definitely been taken. I now had a completely clear picture of my finances both in the present and in a likely enough version of the future. It felt good. It felt adult and responsible. It felt as if I had taken control of my life. Plus, now that the finance issue was sorted, I could moved on to other tasks. Except that I had forgotten about the third step, which just happened to be the important bit. The third step was the small matter of actually changing what I was spending, or earning. Without that step I had merely exchanged burying my head in the sand for lifting the sand up and carefully sculpting it over my face. More elegant perhaps, but no more effective in stopping yourself getting killed by leopards.
Somewhat hopefully, I went back to the spreadsheet. I had to really look at it. I needed to find out exactly where I could economise and then get on and do it. Suddenly the sheet seemed vague and unhelpful. I had to go deep. Cracking this was clearly going to require a microscopic inspection of all my expenses. Then I could staunch the superfluous spending in tiny, easy actions. I set to it. Another busy two hours passed. I sat back again. I was looking at a meaningless jumble of numbers and names. It was a mess. In trying to trace where I had gone wrong, I started by working back from the last point on the sheet where anything made any sense. I decided that this was just before I had labelled Column R as, "Average Daily Vegetables" and assigned its cells a value which appeared to be calculated based on the presumably once-meaningful acronym in Column G, "FMC" and Column S, "Veg Price - excl. avocado". Avocados turned out to be the single item on sheet two, "Non-recurring Fruit & Veg". With a sigh, I printed the spreadsheet and went in search of help.
Up at the zoo, I threw the hard copy over the fence into my accountant's enclosure. He seemed upset that I'd discarded his primary strategy of avoidance, but offered me some sound advice that I could have taken if I had either the ability to run at 40 mph, or some spare skin that could be made into surprisingly expensive leather goods. I had neither of course, and suspected that they wouldn't really have helped unless I needed a handbag or Lloyds Bank had taken to releasing an angry black horse to literally pursue you for your debts. Ignoring the doomed spreadsheet and the one piece of sound financial advice that I've heard from even the stupidest ostriches, I got a takeaway coffee and sat down to think it all over. I decided that I had to repeat steps one and two, but make sure I did step three and stop before that fourth step took me over the edge of a financial and mental abyss. So I returned to the spreadsheet. I pared it back. I accepted its clarity. Then I bought a sandpit.
Published by Chris Elmes