For a long time it has been the habit of many men, especially those engaged in business, to condemn in no mild terms the woman in the home who is in charge of expenditure and yet keeps no accounts. Her failure to do so is made to seem a moral delinquency. As has been intimated before, not one out of a hundred of these critics keeps an account of his own personal expenses, but let that pass. What is the need for accounts ?
The answer of most of the housewives who do not keep them is that they are of no value, since the money is gone, and it has been spent as well as they knew how. Quite true. What is the value of accounts unless they are to be used as a basis for future planning and as a check on the plan for the present? And they are of little use toward better judgment in future spending unless that better judgment is expressed in the form of a budget. On the other hand, the budget is of no value unless accounts are kept. A plan must be carried out, to have value, and the only way to find out whether the plan for spending the family money is being put into practice is to keep accounts under each budget heading. It is evident that the budget has no value unless accounts are kept and that accounts have little value unless a budget is made.
The housewife who has tried to keep accounts and given it up almost always declares that the last straw in what seemed to her a useless burden was the strain and worry of the daily balance. To spend minutes and gray matter hunting for three cents or eight cents usually ends in despair of the whole business. It has been usual in books on household accounts to lay great stress on this daily balance, treating the family expenditure on the regular bookkeeping basis. But this is a wrong stress. If a few cents are unaccounted for, what is there to worry about? At the end of the year that few cents and the others that are missing will have to be deducted from Savings or provided from some of the surpluses. But even five cents a day only amounts to $18.25 a year, and if the income is $3,000 that is only roughly speaking 3/5 of 1%. Frankly, that unaccounted sum is negligible in the face of the value of the classified account that has been kept, and is not worth the sacrifice of several hours and a good deal of peace of mind. From the accounting point of view this is heresy, but from the family point of view it is com-monsense.
Of course if the unaccounted amount is several dollars instead of several cents, and if this deficit occurs frequently, the matter becomes serious. The housewife beginning to record her expenditure would do well to make for a time at least a weekly balance. This is easy, with the system of accounts recommended here, as the little temporary notebook will show all cash expenditure for the week, and a page can be given to cash received, so that the balance is quickly made. Add cash on hand and cash received during the week, add cash expenditure, subtract the latter from the former and see how much of that amount is on hand in cash. If the difference is $1 a week, a daily balance should be tried for a little until the inexperienced accountant has trained herself to record expenditure more carefully. It is easier to look back over the expenditure of one day than over that of one week. When the week's balance is fairly even, change to a monthly balance and when that is fairly even, change to the yearly balance. There are those who temperamentally enjoy making or trying to make an exact balance, but those who dislike it and find it time-consuming should not feel pangs of conscience over their failure when the yearly deficit is less than 1% of the income. There are few even of those who find the balance most difficult who will not find the unaccounted-for sum lessened as they acquire the habit of noting expenditures. But household accounting may be entirely adequate to the needs of the family even if it would not pass as perfect with the bookkeeper.
The bugbear of the daily balance disposed of, let us go further and say that accounts should be interesting - even entertaining. They should not require much time; a half an hour a week is usually ample, aside from the jotting down of cash expenditure as it occurs. But the record should be so interesting that the one who keeps it is tempted to linger over and study it, to make little reckonings as to probabilities, and to find pleasure in working out possible choices and adjustments. To do this the accounts must not only be classified, as the adoption of a budget requires, but also itemized. It is not enough to enter under Clothing-Shoes
The entries should tell a story, like this
1 black shoe half-soled
An account should answer in the shortest possible time any question one wishes to ask about past expenditure. The rarest question of all usually is "How much have we spent altogether so far this year?" In the system recommended here that can be answered only by adding a number of totals, and will take ten or fifteen minutes. But "How much have we spent on food so far this year, or this month, or this week?" can be answered by a single addition, taking but a moment. "When did you get that brown coat? Have you worn it three seasons or four?" Clothing-Coats and Wraps for the individual in question answers that instantly. "How much stationery should we order to last until summer ?" is answered easily from the Stationery card, with its record of the date and amount of the last order. "What did the porch chair cost ?" Care of House-Furnishings tells you in a moment. "Have we overspent on Food so far this year?" is answered quickly from the Food account, and a little figuring as to the monthly allowance multiplied by the number of months that have passed. "When," "what" and "how much" - all questions beginning with any one of these words are answerable by good accounts. "Why" begins subtler questions, but questions and answers alike arise as one lingers over the story of the family life, told in the record of dollars and cents.
Those who are keeping a budget for the first time should certainly check up, even if roughly, at the end of the first three months. List all headings, just in pencil on a big sheet, and head two columns Overspent and Underspent. Add the amount under each heading, compare it with one-fourth the amount allowed for the year, put the difference under Underspent if the full amount has not been spent, under Overspent if there is an overamount. Put 0 in both columns for an account that exactly balances. Expenditure in many items must be irregular. If the accounts begin January 1 and the family pays its income tax in one amount, the sum for the whole year appears in the three-months account as three-fourths Overspent. But perhaps the fire insurance is paid yearly and in July, in which case on March 31 there is one-quarter of the whole sum in the Underspent column. When all are calculated, add the two columns. If Overspent is more than Underspent, run through the items and see whether this is justifiable. Perhaps the family expenditure January-March is legitimately more than in any other quarter, but it is well to make sure. If Savings is Underspent the difference between the amount saved and the amount planned should be treated as a deficit.
The time taken for this checking up is not great, and repetition at the end of the second and third quarters of the year will help bring a better result at the end of the year. Although this process is more necessary to the family inexperienced in budgets, it is one invariably of value to the experienced.
Many find it helpful to put on the accounts with the heading not only the budget amount (as directed in the next chapter) but also the monthly amount. Then checking can be quickly made at the end of any month by multiplying the monthly allowance by the number of the months recorded. As most people do not enjoy addition, multiplication and subtraction in and for themselves, it is well to adopt any device that lessens the amount of this work to be done. It is not at all a bad idea to ask the children to do some of this division. $125 a year for clothing sounds like a huge sum to Johnny, but when he finds that is only $10.41 a month and that his winter underclothing alone costs more than half that, he begins to realize that the item Clothing eats up a lot of money in other things than suits, coats, hats and shoes. And when he finds that at the end of the first three months his clothing allowance for that time is overspent by nearly a whole month's allowance, he may even grow more careful in the care of the clothing he already has!