Here’s another digression from my Sunday column that got left on the cutting room floor:
But things like this always perplex me. I am not an economist, you see, nor a financial expert, which I’m told is something different. Nor am I any kind of a businessman. Put it this way: At my house, I am not allowed to try to balance the checkbook.
It’s not that I’m stupid, or can’t do math. I took calculus in school, and, for a guy who can’t handle a checkbook, got a ridiculously high score on the math part of my SAT. But something happens to numbers when they appear on a checkbook, or on a spreadsheet, or on anything where the numbers are meant to represent units of money. It’s like the fictional form of mathematics, found only in restaurants, that humorist Douglas Adams called “Bistromath.” One of his characters explained it this way: “On a waiter’s bill pad… numbers dance. Reality and unreality collide on such a fundamental level that each becomes the other and anything is possible.”
Checkbooks are like that….
I wasn’t just trying to be silly there. The numbers really do dance. Probably my biggest problem with keeping a checkbook is that I am determined to keep it to the penny, or not at all. Since I seldom actually write a check, but use my debit card, keeping the account up to date involves frequently logging the receipts that I keep in my wallet.
Of course, the actual account is never, ever up to date with what I have in my wallet, so I can almost never make a direct, one-to-one comparison between debits and credits as I know them and as the bank currently recognizes them — there’s never a moment when I can look and say, "Yep, that’s the total I have, too."
If you want to see the numbers really dance, of course, try letting your account get close to zero — which mine does at some point during every pay period. Note how lackadaisical your bank is about recording your debits most of the time, but how it will all of a sudden pounce with what looks like a year’s worth when it senses that you are within range of an overdraft. Financial institutions actually have this down to a science, although it looks more like an art to me.
And once you have an overdraft, then try getting it straight what’s actually in your account, what with trying to figure out when the overdraft fee is debited, whether you’ve actually paid the overdraft back, etc. At that point, I get dizzy.
Which is why my wife handles the accounts.
Oh, and on the SAT thing: I did better than Al Gore, but not nearly as well as Bill Gates. I’m not giving you the links (because my wife thinks telling people your SAT scores is really, really uncool); you do the "math."
My point is — at least, I think my point is — that the ability to handle money involves something other than pure mathematical ability. It involves being in touch, somehow, with the whole mystique of money. I suspect that it’s like Zen; I need to relax or something. Or maybe it’s the opposite — maybe keeping accounts requires a whole lot more effort than I’m willing to put into them.
I expect accounts to be really simple — far less simple than calculus — and to easily be computed. After all, it’s just adding and subtracting, right? Well, apparently not.