Saturday, August 06, 2011

Household Austerity Plan

In C.S. Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a vignette that, I think, is an entirely appropriate metaphor for the dire economic situation the U.S. finds ourselves in now. Those who know the story will remember that Edmund and Lucy have entered Narnia with their altogether horrid cousin Eustace and met up with King Caspian X and the crew of the Dawn Treader whilst the ship was on a voyage to find the missing Lords of Narnia.

After a storm beat the Dawn Treader and broke it's main mast, the ship anchors at an island to make repairs. Eustace steals away to avoid any of the labor involved in the repairs and stumbles upon a dragon taking his last breath. Eustace steals the dragon's bracelet and falls asleep on his pile of gold, only to wake and find that he has turned into a dragon. Eventually, Aslan appears and helps Eustace become human again...both literally and figuratively.

In this process, Aslan tells Eustace to scratch off the dragon skin, which Eustace does willingly. However, Eustace's efforts do not amount to much as he is shedding a single layer at a time. Only when Aslan pierces all of the dragon skin with his claw, draws blood, and rips it open, is Eustace able to get free of the curse.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with economics?

Our household has recently undertaken the relatively novel (for us) task of actually engaging a budgeting process and determining the difference between need and want. Our austerity plan was initiated when our household income shrank by 40% this month.

I will be the first to admit that we have been very fortunate and have had the benefit of secure jobs, decent pay, good benefits, and the kindness of friends and family when we needed it. We have also been fairly careless with our use of credit...for the life of me, I can't imagine how we built the debt we have. My inability to comprehend the thing does not make it not so, though, and while we have been good credit customers--that is, paying every month--we seem to continue to build our debt even when we have made cursory attempts to cut spending.

Before tightening our belts, we were putting about 50% of our monthly income to credit debt service (mind you, that does not include educational debt). Our budgeting processes helped us understand how much we were really living outside of our means, and though painful, has helped us discover a clear path to freedom from that debt. Our strategies have included cutting our satellite tv service, setting the thermostat higher, and not watering the grass.

Perhaps the most noticeable change has been in how we spend money on food. Before we often ate out several meals a week even with a pantry full of food. Now we have a meal planning meeting each weekend before we go grocery shopping and we have a very finite amount of money to spend at the store. The amazing thing is that we are enjoying the shopping trips...they are like a strategy game and our evenings are so much richer because we share a family meal at our table...and we all eat for the same amount that we used to pay for each person to eat out.

We are still putting about 40% of our reduced monthly income to debt service, but we have a plan to get it paid off in two years. While we still have not had to make tough choices like some others--like which bill do we not pay this month, or choosing between putting food on the table or gas in the car--the experience reminded me of Eustace's story because what seemed like massive efforts at curbing spending before pale in comparison to figuring out exactly how valuable $5 is at the grocery. It makes me a little nauseous to think about how much better off we would be and the sort of professional freedom we would enjoy had we been better stewards of our money before, but at least we've figured it out in enough time to model it for our boys. Thank God for his mercy and for such a blessing as learning to trust Him in all things!
Once abba Arsenius fell ill in Scetis and in this state he needed just one coin. He could not find one so he accepted one as a gift from someone else, and he said, "I thank you, God, that for your name's sake you have made me worthy to come to this pass, that I should have to beg.

Wisdom of the Desert Fathers

No comments: