Are you one of those people who stick to a budget for the month? Do you have labelled envelopes of cash in your cupboard — or do you have an excel sheet to tell you just how much you can spend on groceries and other necessities and what amount you should not exceed in eating out or splurging on shoes?
I think it is great to prepare a household budget for the month whether one is single or part of a family unit. You know what amount has come in and what is going out and what is left over — and you feel more in control of your life than if you just hand out cash here, there and everywhere or swipe your debit card without a second thought.
Despite coming from a home where both parents were meticulous about keeping accounts of where their money went, I somehow didn’t learn how to stay in control. No, I didn’t throw money around — chiefly because I had none to throw, but on the rare occasions when I did find my purse full, I just happily went about emptying it and had no recollection of where the money had gone.
Even when we travelled abroad, with a fixed amount to spend and definitely no cards to swipe, it seemed a lot easier for me to forego coffees and teas and other “small” indulgences that could, when added up, eventually make a large hole in the pocket, than to write down what I should keep for each meal and each outing — and yes, the occasional coffee if I wanted one. The result of this method was that I usually returned from a trip with a nice little wad of foreign currency still unused — and the next trip abroad became a little “cheaper” as we had to spend less on buying Euros or dollars or dirhams or pounds.
A recent trip to the Balkans, however, forced us to budget with care. There were so many borders to cross and so many different currencies to handle that mere abstemiousness was no longer an option. Sure, I could stay clear of the coffees and teas and snacks, but then I would reach the next border with currency I could no longer use. And while we could certainly change Hungarian forints to Serbian dinars to Bulgarian lev to Romanian leu and so on, we would lose out with each conversion, and we were advised to try and purchase only as much of the local currency as we would need in each country.
Thus began our budgeting process — and amazingly, after a couple of hiccups (and a couple of double and triple scoops of ice cream at border towns), we were able to calculate our requirements right down to the small change needed for restrooms along the way.
A careful study of the prices at our first stop at a convenience store would give us a general idea of what things cost and we quickly did our calculations for our requirements over the next couple of days — meals, souvenirs for ourselves and our families, and a little cushion — and then we went ahead and bought the local currency.
One would imagine that our successful budgeting with a whole series of foreign currencies would have us slip confidently into preparing a monthly budget once we got back home.
But no, we didn’t.
Instead we relapsed into our slipshod ways — and to frequent visits to the ATM (and to the market) and thereafter to scratching our heads over where our money went.
Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.