Downsizing At The Dinner Table

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Like many Americans, I run a failing business: the family budget. Lacking the flexibility of most commercial operations (I can't exactly "downsize" my children), I took stock of my situation recently. I realized that if we were going to spend less than 100% of my salary every month, I was going to need the assistance of my entire household, all of whom regard themselves as fully empowered members of the family income disposal committee.

My children had already attended the required "We Spend Too Darn Much Money Around Here" lecture series, so I decided this time to move from the philosophical to the practical. Using my computer and a program called Quicken, I printed out a blow-by-blow accounting of every nickel made and spent by the Camerons so far this year, sparing no detail.

Showing my children this data took some courage. I was raised in a family in which income was never discussed. I was merely told that my physician father made enough for us to just "get by." As a consequence, I spent the first 10 years of my adult life learning that I would never be so well off as my dad.

My greatest hesitation about opening the books to my children was that they might not be sufficiently mature to appreciate the sensitivity of what they were seeing. I carefully stressed that I was entrusting to their care something so personal that to share it with others would constitute a violation of family trust.

Then I spilled the beans.

At first, my children were shocked to see how much money I made--wow, we were rich! But then I showed how much the government took off the top, how much we spent and how little was left at the end of the month. When they saw our credit-card balances, they actually got angry: Why hadn't I done something about this earlier?

The results of the family meeting were immediate. My children had always rolled their eyes when I suggested that not every single light bulb had to be turned on in an empty room; now they could clearly see the toll that utilities were taking on our monthly budget.

My kids now consider putting on a sweater a viable alternative to goosing the thermostat. They understand when we pass up pricey treats at the grocery store that it is not because their parents are determined never to have "anything good to eat," as the kids have charged, but because we need to feed the whole family for an entire month.

As an added bonus, they are starting to ponder their education and career strategies in light of what they have learned about how much it takes to maintain a certain lifestyle. It's information I wish I'd had when I graduated from high school.

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