Case of the Budget Buster

I made my withdrawal and was about to walk out of my hometown friendly bank. Sure, they may be a little less convenient than Big Bad Bank, but at least you get to talk to a person instead of some automated message telling you to push 5, then 7, then 8, then wait for the next menu. That really pushes my buttons, babe.

Right as I was walking out, a 20-something lady was walking in. Her pace was quick and her eyes were red. She was crying hard, clutching her checkbook. I decided to hang around. I saw her plunk down in front of the teller and watched the two of them go over her books. I could tell just by looking that whatever the teller was telling, the girl didn’t get it. After a few minutes, I saw her start to leave. As she walked out the door, I walked out with her. Time to go into action.

“What’s the matter, babe? Your face is longer than John Kerry’s after the election.”

She must’ve been waiting for someone to ask her that, because she broke out right there.

“I just don’t understand why I can’t get control of my checkbook. It seems like every week I get a new letter in the mail saying I’m overdrawn. I put in overtime at work to make up for it, but I can never seem to get ahead. I never have any extra cash!”

“Maybe I can help,” I said.

“Who are you?”

“I’m the DEBTective. If you’re money’s on the run, I’ll help you catch it.”

“Well, no offense, but I don’t think you can help me. I’ve been trying to fix this for months and I still can’t figure it out,” she griped.

“I think we can settle this, babe. Let’s head over to Mel’s Diner. Lunch on me.”

I jumped into the Debt-no-bile. She got in her car and followed me over there. On the way, I looked in my rearview mirror and checked out her car. It was a sweet ride; a candy apple red convertible, maybe just a year old. Deep down, I wondered if her problem was right there. For now, I let it slide.

We got to Mel’s and grabbed a table. The waitress came right over and took our orders, then hustled off. I pulled out the Crusher and was ready to go to work. Turns out, I wouldn’t need it.

“Here is my checkbook,” she said, handing over the goods.

I looked at the book while the cook was cookin’. I saw the usuals: water bill, electric bill, television, health club membership. Then I saw the unusuals: video rentals, ESP, visits to night clubs.

“You got your bank account statements with you?” I asked her.

“No,” she said, like it wouldn’t help her even if she did. “I usually don’t have time to look at those.”

“Don’t talk to me about not having time, babe. It takes 10 minutes. Do you at leastcheck your balance when you open it?”

“Well, I haven’t really done that, either.”

I looked at her like she was loony. Talk about a stupid mistake; this was five-figure stupid just looking for a place to happen.

“You don’t even open the envelope?”

“No,” she said, looking at the ground.

I thought for a second. I looked at her checkbook. The last thing she wrote in was 10 days ago. “What joints have you shopped at in the last week? Do you keep receipts?”

“Oh, yes sir. I do,” she said. She went into her jacket pocket and pulled out a handful of crumpled-up paper. I was starting to think Enron kept more accurate books than this dame. “These are some of the places I’ve been. There may be one or two others that aren’t in there.”

Some of the places? This thing was getting so ugly it would make an onion cry. I checked the receipts. There were seven of them, and not one was marked down in the register. I had just about had enough when I asked one more thing. “Hon, what does “ESP” stand for?”

“Oh, it means “Error Some Place”. Sometimes I try to balance my checkbook but I’m usually off, so I just write in the new balance and start over.”

I think Dave Ramsey would agree … stupid tax doesn’t even describe this one.

“That’s where your problem is, babe. You don’t create a budget … a personal budget … you’re just keeping a sloppy checkbook. I haven’t seen this many ESPs since I watched the Psychic Friends Network. You gotta make a personal budget and follow it daily. You spend money at 10 different places and wait 10 days to write it all down. By that time, you’ve thrown away your receipts and forgotten where you went in the first place. That makes things messy.”

“On top of that, because you’re not being careful with this thing, you’re bouncing checks at 30 bucks a pop. And the more you do that, the more you’re working overtime just to get out of the hole. The extra cash that you make isn’t going to you, it’s going to the bank.”

Just then, lunch arrived. I might as well have eaten everything, because she’d lost her appetite. She was stunned. After a minute, she got done feeling sorry for herself.

“I really want to fix this, but I don’t know how. What do I do?” she asked.

“Just remember, this all starts and ends with you. You can straighten this thing out in a week or two, but you have to make a plan and stick with it. You need to create a budget and live small. Pay with cash wherever you can. When you buy something, write it down right then and there. Balance your checkbook every week, and I mean down to the penny. You gettin’ this?”

“Yes sir, I am. Thanks for showing me what to do.”

“I showed you what to do because Dave Ramsey showed me what to do. I’m just passing on the knowledge, babe. You catch Dave on the radio, and he’ll give you As to all your Qs.” I grabbed my napkin and smiled at her. “When we’re done here, I’ll show you how to balance the checkbook. Now eat up. It’s gettin’ cold.”

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