This is a difficult one for me. It's funny -- I can cheerfully admit to sexual shenanigans that would shame a stripper, I'm happy to discuss my health (both mental and physical) with all the strangers who might be reading my unprotected journal entries; but admitting that I have serious problems managing my money is somehow much harder, much more embarrassing. However, it's reached a point where I need to say something about it, if only because admitting to other people that there's a problem is a necessary step for me in admitting it to myself.
[NB the following cut-text is very long and a bit rambling.]
Okay, let's start with the basics: I earn £16,750 (gross) per annum. My bank let me have £1500 overdraft, of which the first £500 is interest-free. I'm usually floundering around near the limit of my overdraft. I have over £800 to pay on my credit card, although I'm trying to transfer that balance to a different account so that at least I'm not paying interest on that for another 6 months.
Where does the money go? Well, £450 per month goes directly into the joint account to pay towards the mortgage, council tax, utility and phone bills. Approximately £60 per month goes on my martial arts lessons (£15 per lesson, one lesson a week). Other than that, my outgoings aren't fixed -- we don't have a set system for agreeing who pays what towards food and other sundries for the house, and so far I haven't been contributing to the petrol (well, diesel) or other costs of running and maintaining sion_a's car; I'd be happy to do so, but sion_a doesn't mind that I don't, since I rarely use the car and frankly the amounts involved would be trivial if I paid proportional to my usage.
That doesn't account for much of the money, does it? So where else does the money go? Basically, I'm a compulsive shopper. I've been thinking seriously about what I spend, and the trivial pointless things that I spend it on -- and how short-lived is the pleasure it affords me -- and come to the conclusion that if I had the same kind of relationship with drinking alcohol, I'd be seriously considering seeking help for alcoholism. Or, more likely (which is more analogous to what I've been doing lately, financially speaking) slowly drowning in an alcoholic stupor, and in my brief moments of hungover sobriety vowing that I'll give up completely -- starting tomorrow.
I go into town most Thursday lunchtimes -- one of our only perks at work is a free bus into town once a week, and I nearly always use it -- and it's not unusual for me to come back laden with purchases. Books, food (either comfort food, or exciting new ingredients that I plan to use -- but rarely do), CDs, and clothes are the most frequent purchases; and somehow I always seem to be able to justify the purchase at the time when I'm buying it. You see, that neat little blouse in the Cancer Research shop would be useful as something to wear to work, and it's only £3.99, and the money goes to charity; and that book will teach me exciting new things (not that I ever get round to reading half the books I buy, particularly with my mind in its current diffuse state), or complete a series that I'm collecting; and that CD is something I've been meaning to buy anyway to replace my taped copy (and after all, it's practically a moral duty really to get rid of that pirate copy and buy the real thing); and as for food, well, I need to eat, don't I?
More recently, the purchases have been getting bigger and bigger, and more impulsive, and more reckless as I start to work on the logic that I'm in debt anyway, so a bit more that I'm not going to be able to pay won't really make much difference... and that's a slippery slope. Okay, so the set of three samurai swords was good value, but I still didn't have that £100; it's just added to the pile of increasingly unpayable debt that my Visa card is accumulating. And as for the dangers of internet shopping... it's so hideously easy to fill in those innocent little numbers, click that button, and have SHINY THINGS delivered to your door... and only the spreading columns of red on the bank statement testify to the actual money involved in the transaction. (And, well, it's hardly worth looking at the bank statement if you know you hardly have any money.) So it's all too easy to say yes, I can afford those books; yes, I can afford half a dozen red roses for my fiancé (when a better token of my love might have been to actually contribute something useful to our household); yes, I can afford those tickets for that show; yes, I can afford those pretty things that will make my friends happy. Of course I can. I click the button, and the things arrive! If I couldn't afford it, that wouldn't happen... right?
I've been torn as to whether to say all this because I don't want to make my friends feel guilty for me spending money on them. I like spending money on other people; I so often see things and think "oh, [whoever] would love that", and I love it when I can buy something, however daft, for somebody just to show that I thought of them, something to make them smile or laugh when they're feeling stressed and tired and miserable. But more and more I've found myself wondering whether I'm really buying these things because I want to make other people happy -- though I do think that's a big part of it -- or just because I like buying things. I particularly like the feeling of getting bargains -- that book that I've wanted for ages for "only" 2 quid in Galloway and Porter, or that rainbow tank-top for "only" 10 quid in the Miss Selfridge sale, or six Muller corner yoghurts for "only" £1.49. And the "only"s add up; the pennies flow easily, and the pounds seem to flee all by themselves. The feeling of buying lovely things (whether for myself or for others) is like a drug ... and, as with most drugs, the rush doesn't last very long, the amount required to get the desired effect increases with usage, and there are all kinds of potentially dangerous side-effects.
I also worry if pleasing other people is a kind of addiction in itself -- having started buying things for people, I feel like I have to continue; and, subconsciously, I feel like I'll be worth less to other people if I don't do that. Not to mention the social pariah that I feel like I'll become if I don't stand my round, or if I always insist on dividing up the bill at restaurants rather than "just throwing 20 quid or so into the pot". Which probably means that, at least at some level, I'm spending that money because I'm desperate for people to like me, terrified that I'll lose my friendships.
Don't get me wrong, intellectually I don't think that my friends are so shallow that they'll start hating me just because I can't keep up with their spending power. I know they're better people than that; they wouldn't be my friends in the first place if I thought that they only valued me for what I can spend, what I can give. But at the same time... I want to contribute. I want to give unexpected gifts. I don't want to have to nit-pick about the division of the bill in restaurants, because it's embarrassing, and it makes me feel like I'm being petty and small-minded. So there always seems to be some kind of moral justification for spending money I can't really afford -- I'm doing it to make people's lives easier, to make other people happy. Of course, in the Grand Scheme of Janet's Screwed-Up Values, making my life easier (by not getting myself even deeper into debt) doesn't come very high up the priority list... so deep down I guess it's all a self-esteem issue. Now there's a surprise.
I've mostly dealt with the question of the money so far; I also want to address the issue of the things that I spend it on. Why do I want those things? Is it just that I'm addicted to the process of buying things, or am I addicted to the things themselves? (Am I just a material girl in a material world?) I've thought about this a lot recently, and I think it's a bit of both. There's a number of issues here -- first, I'm aware that to some extent I'm valuing myself by the things I own. I like owning beautiful things, I like having them admired. I've long claimed to try to stick to William Morris's maxim: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful"; it's a good rule by which to live (and shop). Unfortunately for my finances, "beautiful" is a fairly broad church in my world; and when assessing whether something is "useful" I seem to be able to wilfully ignore the fact that there's no such thing as objective absolute usefulness: if I never use it, it can't be all that useful. It seems simplistic to suggest that I'm hoping to transfer that beauty and usefulness from my possessions on to myself -- to become beautiful by owning beautiful things, and so on -- but I think it's probably not that far from the truth. I'm trying to create the identity I want through my possessions -- but I want so many different identities, so I end up buying so many different things, and sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly restless, it feels like the crazes and fads and identities fly past so fast I barely have time to get the new image out of the wrapper before I've moved on to something else.
This feeds into the second branch of my reasons for wanting to buy things -- self-improvement. If I buy books on time-management, I will be able to become more efficient! If I buy books on decorating and interior design, I will be able to make my house a place of calm and beauty! ... All of which seems to neatly evade the question of when I'm actually going to read all these books. Yes, so my shelves are full of books on an eclectic and esoteric variety of subjects, but the important question is: how many of those books have I actually read? "I'll buy that 'Teach yourself Cantonese' book, it's only cheap, and it would be fantastic to be able to speak/read/write Cantonese." But money doesn't buy knowledge; it doesn't buy the long hours of learning required to acquire these new skills. (I feel that it was a major turning-point in the acceptance of this when I resisted the urge to buy a book called "De-Junk Your Life", for only a pound -- I realised that the best way to "De-Junk my life" was preventative, i.e. resisting "Junking" my life in the first place with books that I never read.) I often feel like I'm skating over the surface of a million ideas, a million subjects, things that I genuinely do want to know, want to learn, but I won't admit to myself that I never have the motivation (or, perhaps, the skill) to learn those new things. So I buy the book, and somehow never quite get round to actually using it. But hey, I bought the book. ... To go back for a second to a comment I made in response to jiggery_pokery's livejournal recently, it's like buying souvenirs of a place I've never visited -- but it's the journey that makes the difference, not the destination, much less the cheap plaster models of the landmarks you see there.
The only thing I can definitely say about the solution is that it's not going to be easy. Giving up any kind of addiction is hard, and the way I usually do it (e.g. when I've given up caffeine) is to simply stop it -- if I try to "cut down" first, I know that it's all too easy to slip back into old habits. After all, a little bit won't hurt... and then a little bit more... and then by that time I might as well not bother about having given up. But with spending money I can't just "stop it" -- there are some things that I do need to buy, and drawing a line between "essentials" and "non-essentials" seems to be virtually impossible for me. For example, food is an essential, but where do we draw the line between "necessary" food and "luxury" food? Is a birthday card for my grandma "essential", since she'll probably be offended if she doesn't receive one and I don't want to hurt her? Is that train journey to see a friend I haven't seen for months "essential", or should I just effectively tell my friends that seeing them isn't worth the cost of a train-ticket to me?
The problem is, that while there are grey areas, I know I'm semi-consciously using the existence of those to avoid even the obviously black and white areas. Yes, perhaps that packet of dried fruit (a snack for work, a slightly-healthier alternative to the otherwise-inevitable biscuits) is a grey area; but I know another slightly different shade of silver nailvarnish isn't "essential" by any rational definition. I know there's no sense in buying more books that I don't have the time or energy to read when I haven't read half the books I already own. I know that I don't need to buy more clothes when I can't fit the ones I have into my wardrobes and drawers, and hardly wear half of them anyway.
Basically, I need to be ruthless with myself; I need to ration the amount I spend, and I need to make a real effort to clear the debt that I've already amassed -- because it only gets bigger and bigger, even if I don't add anything new to it, as a result of the interest I'm paying on it. As I said, I'm trying to move my credit card balance to an account that will be interest-free for 6 months (if only First Direct will hurry up and sort out my application), and that'll help; but it will only help if I actually pay off the debt. And I don't want to have to resort to cutting up credit cards, or leaving debit cards at home when I go shopping; but if that's what I have to do to get my finances under control, then that's what I'll do. The money I earn should be adequate for my lifestyle (and while I am looking for better-paid jobs, that's treating the symptoms rather than the cause), and if it isn't, I'm managing it badly.
I've tried to do this once before; I kept a note of everything I spent during a week, and during the six weeks or so that I managed to do this I found that the mere process of tracking the expenditure made me more careful about what I spent. I was horrified at how much money I was casually spending, and how quickly it all added up, and for a while (even after I stopped recording every expense) I was much more careful about how much I spent... but the carefulness began to lapse; then there were several holidays and suchlike during which I felt it would be impossible to keep track (ironically, since these were all occasions when I ended up spending far too much money) -- there was Glastonbury, then there was BiCon, and then Reading, and then the Cambridge Folk Festival, and then a week in Dublin... and then Christmas was the final nail in the coffin of economy.
However, I think it was a worthwhile thing to do, and would be a worthwhile thing to try to do again. Starting tomorrow (just like that diet), I'm going to keep a note of every penny that I spend, and see if this will force me to be a little more careful. I'm also going to try to remember that saving a little is better than saving nothing at all, and if my willpower fails and I buy something unnecessary, this shouldn't make me give up on the whole idea.
Anyway. I'm saying all this in public for a number of reasons:
1) As I said above, admitting the problem it to other people is an important step in really accepting that there's a problem.
2) If I say it here, my friends may be less surprised and more understanding when I have to turn down social events for financial reasons. Although I really hope they won't start feeling guilty about the things I've bought for them recently -- really, I still think money spent on making other people happy is better spent than money spent on buying myself more pointless stuff with which to clutter up my life.
3) External accountability -- if people see me enthusing about new shiny things that I've bought, I hereby give them full permission to remind me that I'm supposed to be economising. I reserve the right to argue that the purchase was fully justified, but please do feel free to remind me anyway -- at least it'll make me think about what I'm doing.
(Phew. That wasn't easy.)
Having said all that, it seems crazy and contradictory to say that I'm in the process of buying a car; however, this is something I've been meaning to do for a long time, and the money isn't coming out of my current account, it's coming out of savings that I've been setting aside for years for "something big and important". I decided what kind of car I wanted, I knew roughly what budget I had to work with, and now I've found my dream car -- went out to Haverhill to look at it on Saturday -- and I've decided that I'm going to buy it. This is another good reason to start being sensible about the trivial things that I buy -- I suspect I'm going to need substantial amounts of my spare cash to look after the new arrival. (I'm not going to tell you what kind of car she is until I've actually got the keys and can supply .JPGs, but she's gorgeous, and I'm utterly in love with her.) I realise that there are a lot of expenses involved in running a car, but I think I'm being realistic about these: the insurance, believe it or not, should only cost me something in the order of £100 per year; I won't have to pay road tax (from this you can extrapolate at least one fact about the car); and since the terms of the insurance will probably include a mileage limit, I hope the petrol expenses will remain at a manageable level. It's the maintenance which is likely to be the biggest problem, but this is actually another incentive for me to be careful what I spend elsewhere -- if I want to keep my utterly beautiful shiny car functional (and shiny), then I'm going to have to make sure I have the money available for parts and servicing.
(I'm picking the car up next Saturday. Watch this space...)