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Reality cheque

Does the money you spend reflect the values you hold? At tax time, life’s balance sheet is revealed.

By Richard Wright

Money talks, but what does it say? Volumes, if you listen carefully. And that’s why I like tax time.

Most human acts are related in some way to an invoice, a cheque stub or a credit card slip. As a freelance writer, I need to keep careful track of expenses that can be written off against income. In addition, since times have become so tight, meticulous records help me budget better. So tax time is the moment when I review all those documents and when all the money, down to the last eloquent penny, speaks to me about the way I live my life. Self-awareness can lead to self-improvement, so preparing my taxes is a kind of meditation or spiritual journey, like performing the Stations of the Cross or following the eight steps to Buddhist enlightenment. My annual “reality cheque” has just four stages. Here’s how it works.

1.  It begins with Data Collection. Whenever I pay a bill, the receipt goes into my left front pants pocket. When the collection threatens to overflow the pocket, the contents go into a cardboard box in my bedroom closet.

On Dec. 31, a fresh empty box replaces the full box, which is installed in a corner of the bedroom, from whence it exerts a gentle, positive pressure, like a conscience. Recognizing that the minutiae of my life are awaiting the all-seeing eye of the tax accountant is a bit like contemplating Judgment Day for the more conventionally religious. It makes me wonder what peccadilloes will be revealed. It has the salutary effect of discouraging me from lengthening the list of transgressions, at least in the early days of the New Year.

2  Some months later, when April is just a calendar leaf away, I arrive at step two: Data Preparation. The full box of past transactions is transported to a room with a large floor area or a massive table. Typically, I begin in the living room and migrate to the dining room, thereby putting a serious crimp in the normal domestic round. I roll up my sleeves and go to work. Layer by layer, I remove the hoarded wads of paper from their box, like an archaeologist, sifting the artifacts of the past year. Scrap by wrinkled scrap, my recent life begins to unfold.

3  The third step on my path is Data Sorting. I organize the pertinent scraps by category. In a row across the top of the table, stacks of receipts grow representing the basic household expenses: gas bills, hydro bills, phone bills, mortgage payments, house insurance premiums and now (a new and burgeoning category) the Internet. As I pile up these latter receipts, I begin realizing the degree to which I have become entangled in the Web, and pause to meditate on how this unwelcome change has come to pass.

The next row on the table-top is transportation and travel, gas for the car, parking slips, car repairs and maintenance. Still more insurance receipts. (Wonderful to contemplate how much one spends on catastrophes that, thankfully, do not occur. Is this evidence of prudent character or fearfulness?)

Next row: books, magazines, newspapers, art supplies, CDs and DVDs. At least this row of receipts reveals that the spender (me) has some acquaintance with truth and beauty.

At my right hand, the pile of restaurant and bar bills quickly achieves a revealingly substantial mass, easily outstripping the grocery store receipts. More early self-knowledge dividends: while I fancy myself an enthusiastic cook, this is plainly self-delusion. The crinkled evidence is all undeniably there.

4  The sorting complete, I step back and survey the  contour map of my recent life, but there is still one more step on the path to full fiscal self-awareness: Data Analysis. Gross heaps of receipts aren’t the full measure of the man. More telling is the monetary value they represent. So now each carefully assembled stack must be reduced once again to its individual components, each piece studied for the message in the faded print, each message yielding a number, each number recorded in the ledger of my life. This is where dollar values expose truths about values I hold.

These truths are bittersweet. I find sweetness throughout the heap of expenses related to my 11-year-old daughter. Each new scrap (excepting perhaps her dental bill) holds a happy memory. Item: $24 for the two pumpkins we carved for Halloween. Item: $75 for the two tickets from the ski hill where she discovered the thrill of speed and the satisfaction of physical achievement. These sums, small in themselves but wonderfully numerous, add up to $2,527 (my half of the total parental expenditure), incontrovertible evidence that a warm heart beats in my chilly WASP breast, I think.

But other memories invoked by the receipts are distinctly bitter. The extravagant restaurant bill ($287 plus tip) for the dinner my wife and I enjoyed in June to celebrate our wedding anniversary is one of those; just a few months later we split, as again evinced by a fistful of bills for the bachelor pad where I stayed while the dust settled at home. The short space of time between these events — the dinner and the dissolution — deducible from the dates printed on the receipts, gives rise to reflections on the powerful contribution optimism can make to self-delusion. What were we thinking celebrating our already irreparable union? That $287 would have been much better spent on the legal bills (part of a brand-new category of expenses entitled “Separation and Divorce,” a relatively small pile of receipts whose diminutive physical stature belies its large dollar value and major significance to my life).

Bitter, too, are the liquor store receipts that document, even beyond my great talent for denial, the rate at which alcohol suffused my life, reflecting and probably exacerbating the turmoil of this period. The demon rum is represented on the dining room table by a decidedly impressive heap showing expenses of $3,650 over the year, a sobering revelation. And when I compare that number to the grand sum spent on my daughter, the bitterness is only keener.

This, of course, is the bottom line of all this fiscal introspection: the contrast of how I imagine I would like to spend my life against what the dollars tell me I have spent them on. Here are other revelations from the balance sheet.

To the Western Wildlife Foundation, for their work to preserve the environment: $50. To my car, belching its greenhouse gases: $7,453 a year.

My excessive automobile use undermines my own physical health as well as the health of the planet, yet I use my car a lot. I often drive myself to the YMCA, four city blocks away, where I go to counter the effects of my too-sedentary life. To my YMCA membership: $756 per year, just one-third of the cost of gas alone ($2,568).

On books to improve myself intellectually: $63 per month. On the stupefying products of the small screen (cable plus Internet): $102 per month.

Groceries purchased for healthy meals made at home: $505 per month or $ 6,060 per year. Money spent on deep-fried, super-sized, transfat-laden meals eaten out: $623 per month or $7,476 per year.

An image of myself emerges from the fiscal facts out of joint with the fiction I cherish. I like to think I’m a book-loving, physically active, health-conscious, socially responsible fellow, dedicated to my daughter. The money says I may be, instead, a dedicated lout, devoted to caffeine and alcohol, an overfed, under-exercised, bar-hopping, net-surfing TV addict, an enemy of the environment, and a bad dad to boot. Money holds the mirror up. Time for a change.

It used to be that the only moral issue at tax time was whether or not to claim that golf game with my buddy as a business expense. What a wasted opportunity when so many more interesting questions are on the table. 

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