A Penny Saved

Yesterday we got our ComEd bill. I’m not ashamed to tell you all, I’ve been anxiously awaiting it.

I don’t know when it happened, though if I’m honest, it was probably somewhere around when I began making above-the-poverty-line wages, but I’ve turned into an old man when it comes to finances. Scratch that, I’ve become some sitcom’s idea of what an old man is. I live for winning when it comes to the bank account and bills, and the game is on, 24/7. I am sure this is a phenom novel in real life, though probably not with Type A’s like myself, but this battle I do with our finances just feels like I am joining a grand fraternity of freedom fighters who refuse to let one precious cent out the door without a fight.

I mean, if I come home and notice we left a light on upstairs, I actually mutter a loud expletive, endearing myself to the neighbors, and exposing myself as the odd duck that I am. I can’t help it. That light translates into money I can’t spend in a way that I want. And while I want electricity, I really do, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for electricity that I’m not actively using.

I am a joy to live with where this is concerned, believe you me.

Since moving in, I’ve been holding my breath. When you move into a two-story home from an apartment with rooms as big as the expanse of your dining room tables – something I realized this morning, as the rug that spread the width of our entire office in the old place now serves as a decorative piece under our rickety old dining room table. It was disconcerting to realize that my husband and I spent the majority of our time, together, in the space of what constitutes that rug. – planning for the utility bills can be tricky. Despite a few summary statements we received from the sellers at closing, it was tough to get a gauge on the situation. This meant that I wasn’t actually going to be able to budget and plan until the bills started rolling in.

And oh how I hated that. I live for budgets and planning.

From the moment we crossed the threshold, I have been relentless about lights and heat. I grew up in a cold, old house. And, while we’re at it, there are two sorts of people. The kind who grew up in a temperate home, where comfort was a given and you never needed to pile on too many blankets nor peel off too many layers. Then there are the kinds who grew up in a home that either mirrored the tropics or the tundra. While the Shea home wasn’t exactly the tundra, it’s tough to heat a big, old house, and so the thermostat was never cranked up high, no matter how much we might have complained as kids.

If you are the type who grew up in a house of extreme temperatures, you either mimic this behavior or you fly to the other end of the spectrum. I, for one, am a mimic. Anytime I see the thermometer above 65, I suspiciously eye my husband and wonder what he thinks he’s trying to pull, heating the house like this. Of course, I’ve dictated to him how the thermostat should be set, so if it’s reaching a tropical temperature of 68, it’s because I told him to. And because I’d probably hit my head the day I gave the order.  But I live in a constant state of wondering if we couldn’t be just a bit more uncomfortable in this house. Sixty-five degrees just feels a bit too luxurious for my taste. I am of thick-skin. I could totally take 62 degrees.

So I got the ComEd bill, and it was $20 less than what I’d budgeted. When I opened up that envelope, I felt the sort of breathy elation that you only read about in Victorian-era novels. I should have had fainting couch nearby I was that swoony. Plus, I WON. This round, anyway. I was so excited to share this with Scott.

Erin: Hey guess what!

Scott: What?

Erin: We got our electric bill!

Scott. Hmmm.

Erin: And it was only $63!

Scott: Ok.

Erin: That’s it? That’s all you can say?

Scott: What?

Erin: I need a wife who will celebrate these things with me.

It’s not that my husband doesn’t have these battles of his own. These days, he can’t remove snow from our driveway without feeling as though he’s Zod and we should all be kneeling before him. It’s just that when it comes to my battles, he’s really not that emotionally invested. He’s appreciative, mind you. Weekly he thanks me for the work I do in keeping our house in order.  But he doesn’t feel that swell of victory that I do when we come up under budget.

I signed up for Mint.com, and I spent the majority of New Year’s Day playing with it, but it isn’t real-time, which sucks for an obsessive like me because if it was, together we could celebrate, develop strategy and reveal in our budgetary awesomeness whenever I wanted. Sadly, it operates about a day behind. That doesn’t mean I’m not using it, just that it’s delayed gratification and I love watching those automated bars fill up. It’s as close as I can get to a partner who gets as nutty as I do about saving money.

I have a problem, I know.

Lest you think I don’t know where this comes from, I do. And of course I’m speaking in hyperbole to a certain degree. I’m a control freak, and I have worried about money for as long as I can remember, and these two make for a lethal combination. But I’d like to believe that what I’ve actually done – and I mentioned this in my end-year wrap-up – is finally get a handle on an area of life that, when unwieldy, effects every second of your day. I remember when I spent the majority of my day worrying about how I was going to get gas in the car, much less food in my frig. After my divorce, I broke down in tears on a regular basis because of money. It wasn’t that I wasn’t making enough money to live, though things were tight, it was that I had no idea what was going on with it.

For as much time as I spend obsessing about our budget, it’s not with the same sad, soul-sucking energy that I used to obsess about money. If you’ll excuse the vulgar sentiment, money is my bitch now, not the other way around.

I started out simple: I read people like Suze Orman and Jean Chatzky and then adopted some of the advice they dispensed. I downloaded Excel spreadsheets with macros built in so I could plug the numbers and plan. I examined my credit and cleaned up my score. I opened up ING accounts and had percentages of my paycheck automatically removed (I paid myself first, as they say). I planned meals and wrote up grocery lists and didn’t go in there hungry. I identified things I could live without – bi-weekly mani/pedis, unlimited iTunes purchases, trips to Target – and worked hard to break the habits. I got a financial adviser. I had the maximum taken out of my check and put into my 401k.

I am now a firm believer that we’re all way more wasteful than we realize, and it really is true that we take far too much personal stock in money and materials. If that wasn’t the case, sacrificing daily Starbucks or trinkets at Target or even fast-food lunches would not be sacrifices at all. Oftentimes we’re just not willing to do the work that financial freedom, as most experts call it, requires.

Of course there are realities. One of my new mantras is that having good jobs doesn’t mean we get to spend more. It means we have the luxury of being able to save our money and have security. When Suze talks about savings eight-months worth of expenses, and she does so during a time when most folks don’t have a job and no savings to begin with, it’s all very daunting and scary and panic-inducing. It’s insulting to massive swaths of people who would not only love to save, but have tried hard in any way they can. It’s not always possible to save like the experts want you to, and when you tell them they should have eight-months liquid on hand, it can screw with a person’s self-worth. Plus, and my sister and I are forever having these talks, sometimes you just want to buy something nice, and sometimes it’s more than the experts say you should, because, dammit, you only live once and you can’t take that money with you.

So I know all of this, and I respect it. I’ve just found a way to declutter my brain of the majority of sadness that used to occupy it, and it’s worked for me. To be fair, I also did something that the experts suggest and I went out and found a better paying job. I find that advice a bit, well, ignorant, since it’s not that easy for most folks to just go out and increase their income like that and it’s certainly not a readily achievable goal in a climate of 10 percent unemployment. But it’s only right to point out that I did get a job making more money and when I did, I used that money to better organize my financial house. And I point this out at risk of people hating me for it, because it’s easy to talk about saving and planning when you have the money to do it, but I have to point it out because it was hard to do. It really was hard to sock that cash away and not spend it after years of, literally, scrapping up every penny I could find to pay for the necessities, much less things like new shoes or whatever.

But now we have a house, not the same shitbox apartment filled with a bunch of crap from Target that we would probably have tossed in a year anyway. And if you would have told me just four years ago that I was going to be a homeowner in a neighborhood I loved, I would have never believed you. But I’m proud of myself, proud of my husband, and while I know that we’ve been blessed with good health and luck, I’d like to think I’ve provided a buffer for my family for when things do go bad.

Because they do. They always, always do.

For now I do a happy dance in my layers of clothes, my furry slippers, filled with hot tea and coffee, as I open envelopes from Peoples Energy, thumbing my nose at The Man, turning off light after light in the spartan rooms of our home.