How Not to Go Insane Over Household Spending

I confess right up that I’m one of those people who usually worry over every penny being spent, and have serious debates with myself about whether something is absolutely necessary.  Blame it on some Scottish blood.  My problem is trying to keep on top of it in the long-term (monthly rather than daily).  Differentiating between ‘essential’ and ‘essential bargain that must be purchased before it goes back to regular price’ is another.

Isabella Beeton advises that “A housekeeping account-book should invariably be kept, and kept punctually and precisely.”  For the last ten years I’ve actually kept one, but just how punctually or precisely is another matter.  Especially since moving in with my financially-challenged boyfriend, I’ve collected receipts and kept a track of how far our monthly € 400 household budget goes.  (This excludes bills and rent of course).  The €400 covers groceries, home-made lunches for work, and cat food.  With two not-so-large incomes, we (I) figured €400 was a reasonable figure to aim for.  However, I more often than not have a minor heart attack when we tot up our monthly expenditure.

Part of the problem is finding enough time to keep the account-book up-to-date (thus being more aware of outgoings before hitting month-end).  Unfortunately, the receipts tend to build up as I tell myself “I’ll do them tonight’’ and then tonight turns into the next night and so on.

Isabella Beeton assigns this responsibility to the housekeeper, and suggests that evenings are the best time to do the accounts and prepare the shopping list.  At the end of the day when I’m totally knackered, it’s the last thing I want to do.  Here’s a snapshot of a typical day:

5.45am Wake up (cursing the alarm)

5.50am Feed 3 x cats.  Switch on the coffee maker so boyfriend doesn’t  resemble an ogre when he gets up. Unload dishwasher. Make toast, tea and cereal for me.  Eat said toast, tea and cereal.

6.05am Quickly tidy up overnight untidiness caused by feline antics. Get out meat to defrost for dinner.

6.15am Flick through a book or magazine, jot down ‘top up’ shopping list.

6.20am Shower, get dressed and ready for work.

6.50am Leave.  Get tram to work.

7.30am – 3.30pm/4pm Work (numerous scheduled / spontaneous meetings to support German colleagues with English tasks).

4pm – 5.30pm Tram into town. Buy ‘top up’ groceries, run errands, potter around.  Sometimes buy English magazines /books from bookstore or central station.  Tram home.

6pm Switch on heating.  Quickly tidy up daytime untidiness caused by feline antics.  Give cats attention and treats.

6.15pm Cook 2 x meals (same sides, but 1 main with meat and 1 without).  I love cooking, so this can be a passion-infused activity.  My boyfriend cooks too sometimes.

7.10pm Feed cats so they don’t bug us during dinner (or that’s the plan anyway)

7.15pm Eat.  We don’t have space for a dining table so we tend to eat round the coffee table or (I cringe to confess) at the PC (whilst watching frivolous but amusing clips on YouTube).

7.35pm Load up dishwasher and clean kitchen.  Set aside left-overs for next day’s lunch.

7.50pm Evening activities (usually a mix of reading, watching something on the internet, playing board games, etc.).  Clean (mid-week we vacuum and mop as well).

10pm – 11pm I tend to crash around now.  Quickly set up kitchen for the morning (prepare coffee filter, set out cat bowls and tinned food, get out cereal bowl, plate and spoon; fill kettle; pick out clothes if I remember).  Bed.  Boyfriend gleefully hits the PC games and stumbles into bed around 1am.

Weekends are more of the same (minus work of course).  Saturday is my busiest day (market in the morning to buy fruit, veg etc.; do the ‘big’ shop; laundry, vacuum and mop, etc). Sundays I tend to go crazy in the kitchen early in the morning (when my boyfriend is still snoring blissfully and I have ‘’me time’’) and make preserves, cakes, biscuits and whatever else takes my fancy.

So as it stands right now, all this leaves me with little time to do up the accounts as often as Mrs Beeton advises.  I eek at the thought of how I’ll fit it in with kids on the scene one day.

The plan for keeping household accounts, which we should recommend, would be to make an entry, that is, write down into a daily diary every amount paid on that particular day, be it ever so small; then, at the end of the month, let these various payments be ranged under their specific heads of Butcher, Baker, &c.; and thus will be seen the proportions paid to each tradesman, and any one month’s expenses may be contrasted with another.’’

You make it sound so easy, Isabella.

After hawing and humming for a while, I just sat down with the rather hefty pile of receipts that have built up over the last 2 weeks (since I last did the accounts) and tried to approach it with this advice in mind.  Trying to do this with one cat sucking away at an ankle-hem on my track pants (she has ‘’wool sucking syndrome’’ and the other attacking the receipts as I enter them, doesn’t exactly speed things up.

The account-book doesn’t allow for too much detail, so I restrict it to the headings ‘Shop’ and ‘Total’ (I tend to go to certain shops for certain types of grocery anyway). Once entered, I haven’t any clue as to what individual items I actually purchased, which can be a problem when I’m trying to figure out if I’m spending on unnecessary items (“Chocolate’s on special, I have to get some.  And look, that mince is half-price.  20c off cat food?  I’d better get a few extra tins while I’m here”.  Blame the Scottish blood for this too).  With such a tight budget to stick to, I need to find a solution that works.

In the spirit of Mrs Beeton, I’ll go out today and buy a proper accounts book that will let me list individual purchases (rather than just shop and total).  I’ll also try to update it on a daily basis.  I guess the first thing to do is re-think how I’m breaking down my day, so I’m not so tired at the end of it.

Any suggestions are very welcome.

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