Now that we’re over the spendthrift euphoria of securing a very respectable full-time salary (a rare thing indeed here deepest mid-Wales), a cursory look at our bank balance has revealed some unsavoury truths.
– The ends don’t seem to meet.
Admittedly, we haven’t been working to a budget but we’re not exactly last of the big spenders either. Our biggest monthly outgoing? Food. This is no surprise, but because we buy in bulk, cook from scratch and waste almost nothing, I’d been working on the basis that there must therefore be no wastage in our food budget.
Not so it seems.
It appears we need to almost half our monthly food spend… Where to begin? What shape will our new ‘budget’ lifestyle take? Are we really forced into the ‘Tesco Value’ corner? …or can we improvise creatively on an organic diet that consists predominantly of carrots and potatoes? (Until we manage to grow our own, that is).
We feel poised on the brink of ethical sell-out and it’s clearly about far more than food. We wince as we weigh up possible compromises – short term ethical ‘transgressions’ for the greater good of long term sustainability goals: organic wholefoods vs. external wall insulation, organic mattresses vs. established organic vegetable beds, homemade clothes vs. solar panels, stockpiling useful materials, bulk buys, homemade preserves vs. the cost of building an extension… We’re being forced to recognize that even within this exceptional rural community, time is money and every choice comes with a price tag. It’s all a big juggle: the demands of aforementioned fulltime post, money we might pay others to speed our energy descent, the potential financial savings of DIY building and maintenance vs. the astronomic cost in terms of family sustainability/sanity, supporting local businesses vs. cheap ethical internet suppliers, local resilience vs. sustaining personal ethics… and on and on… It seems an unsolvable riddle, a double-bind of aspirations and reality.
But the idea of having to afford sustainability surely just doesn’t wash – well, at least not in economic terms. Certainly, for each of us, our particular situation defines what sustainability might mean, but the real challenge lies in choosing how we achieve it, not whether we can. Budgeting is an exercise in checking value beyond the solely monetary. To make sense of our spending we have to examine our own values, their implications, their origins, their relevance to where we are now. That involves looking at our position within the global economy, but also involves turning inwards to check-in with our intrinsic notion of wealth.
For my part, our household budget is an interesting, and challenging, place to be. It is where the ‘outside world’ that my husband deals with in his working day perhaps most tangibly mingles with the home world that he comes back to. It’s important that he and I spend some time there together, recognizing the emotional, financial, temporal, physical, not to mention marital, implications of the way our day-to-day worlds collide.
It is about so much more than money. The common conflation of economic and monetary concerns might recognise the inextricable relationship between home economics and the world of global finance but it fails to recognize those domestic economies that ‘slip under the mattress’, evading interactions of a monetary kind altogether: Favours from family and friends, gift economy, bartering, foraging… spending time with one another rather than buying that precious time with things. It is here, I suspect, that real savings can be made, at least in terms of family value.
This may all sound a little romantic, but as we work our way through the categories on our ‘outgoings’ list, it is clear that we should challenge convention in terms of what, financially and materially, we actually need to live comfortably. Working backwards from ‘food, shelter, warmth… love’, the complexities of our outgoings each month seem outrageous, reinforcing my conviction that so many of the things we’re led to believe we need are entirely optional, depending on how we choose to live our lives (nappies are a good example…).
So, it seems financial budgeting finds a corollary in de-cluttering. I am minded of friends who live very simply in a yurt, tempted to run away from all our stuff and do the same. But we have to ‘start from where we are’. I’m finding this a really useful ‘not-as-obvious-as-it-seems’ notion because I suffer from a strange kind of inverse nostalgia: I have a tendency to imagine reality, anticipating, as if they’re practically ‘here’, spatial/architectural improvements that will actually take years, rather than planning for them constructively. It’s a paradoxically optimistic outlook that only causes frustration. Recognising this has been hugely empowering. We’re bringing everything in our lives ‘now’ to account, placing value on things material and immaterial. It’s an exercise essential to recognising our current, true wealth, and by working through our possessions with our needs ‘now’ in mind, it is suddenly blindingly obvious that ‘things’ relate to ‘interest’ and a price per square foot in terms of mortgage, wages… family time. Whatever their potential value, these things are not all paying their way.
So… it looks like some of my wool stash will have to go…
For the last week I’ve been keeping an account of everything that leaves my purse. Just that very act seems to have had a profound effect. There’s a tangible thrill at the end of the week when we see how much less we’ve managed to spend.
It all begins on the fridge door: A running list of what we need and then just one shopping day per week. Even if it means some rather avant garde meal concoctions towards the end of the week, and some hastily made homespun gifts and cards, it means we can ‘feel’ the budget – and we haven’t exactly starved. The season helps – there’s been a good flow of birthday money for treats, and Summer means we’ve been donated vegetables by neighbours with a glut… and then there’s the ‘back garden‘ with free crops of berries. I’ve discovered too, for example, that a bulk bag of organic almonds can replace separate bags of ground almonds and pricey almond butter. All these things I can make myself…
However I am wary of a comment from a wise and thrifty fellow mum to the effect that this kind of labour can be hard to sustain…
…watch this space…