There are words of such beauty. Silly words. Sexy words. Words to make you weep. And then there is "budget". Dour, stodgy, dull as dishwater. An utterly joyless kind of a word. Invoking not so much good times as a plate of slop. It is the no-frills, plain-packaging end of the English language.
At school my young daughter has been working on budgets. Her homework was to fill two columns, sorting want from need. We suggested she apply it to a trip we're planning to Queenstown later in the year. "Well," she said, "I'll need to ride a horse through the snow and afterwards drink hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream."
Most of us are guilty of confusing want with need. It is this inability to separate the two, which is, I think, at the heart of an email I received from Greta last week. Greta has been pondering the increasing wealth gap and was prompted to write by two conversations she'd recently had. "The first was an encounter with a woman I know, a multiple farm-owner, whose husband also works in a senior position. Yet she was lamenting how poor she is at the moment. The second was with a young man I picked up, hitch-hiking. A farm worker, he was trying to get to a Family Court hearing, as he's desperate to have some access to his daughter, to be a good father to her. He told me how when he was growing up he'd never know if he was going to get tea that night. So one has come from poor and is trying hard to make a life and family from the bottom up, and the other is clearly poor in reality and morals, but obviously not in wealth!"
There is nothing quite as odious as hearing the moneyed complain of how hard they have it. If I'm feeling kind I put it down to an unfortunate choice of words.
After a change in our financial circumstances earlier this year, we put our household on a budget. It was miserable and we felt terribly sorry for ourselves. I tried, though, to keep it in perspective, to be careful how we described our situation. For in the big picture, our sacrifices were not great. We had to scale back our wants. Downgrade our treats from long restaurant lunches to hot chips and icecream after a day at the beach. But our needs remained taken care of. We still had a house, food in the cupboards, hot water and more than enough clothes.
When we compare what we have, most of us look not to the family sleeping in their car, but to our neighbour who's putting in a pool in time for next summer.
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The trouble is, when we compare what we have, most of us look not to the family sleeping in their car, but to our neighbour who's putting in a pool in time for next summer. So rather than feeling grateful, we are left feeling bitter. And, of course, we all want different things. The diversity of our desires makes us human, interesting. However, when another's priorities do not match up with our own, it also makes us judgmental. The other day a friend was sharing her outrage with me that she does not have an iPhone 6, how her older model won't support the latest version of some app. How ridiculous, I thought as I walked off, returning to my own obsession with getting a new pair of black boots. Necessary, you see, as while I have high black boots and flat tan boots, I don't have flat black ones.
Several people wrote to me this week with fiscal concerns too great for the confines of this page. Paul is kept awake at night wondering if his two adult daughters will ever be able to get a foot in the housing market. He believes, "it's heavily influenced by the 'madness of crowds'," but despairs "whether property prices will ever revert to more sensible levels". What "troubles the hell" out of Vanja is the fact "women earn around 36 per cent less than men globally". "Frighteningly," she writes, "a huge percentage of women retire without enough savings to fund a comfortable lifestyle in retirement."
Having lived in Paris, where few young people conceive of owning their own home, I am not so fearful of my children living out their lives as renters. Property is not the only means to financial security. Vanja's letter, though, was alarming. For me, as the primary caregiver, but not earner, in our household. For my daughter, who dreams of riding horses in the snow.