Mark Harvey — It might be time to separate your needs from your wants

It’s the “Ides of July,” for those of us who might be feeling vaguely Shakespearian, but for most of us who aren’t, it’s just the 15th of July – And most of us aren’t.

A lot of us would happily settle for just getting through the rest of July – never mind, the rest of the summer – in one piece, metaphorically speaking. And the one piece that many of us would like to stay in is one FINANCIAL piece.

I don’t know why this is coming up so much all of a sudden, but I don’t know that it matters. All of a sudden, a lot of us have money on our minds, and I’m not talking about “The economy” or “recession” or “the euro” or whatever else that we’re made to feel like we should understand; I’m talking about our personal finances, the day-to-day, month-to-month stuff.

I guess it’s because I go on and on about programs and services that might be able to save a “low income” elder a few bucks here or a few bucks there, but lately I’ve gotten a lot of emails and calls from civilians who don’t have much in the way of money and they’re looking for ways to (1) get out of debt, or (2) not get deeper in. Now, Lord-knows, I’m no financial guru – if I was, I’d probably take my best friend on an extended world cruise of warm, friendly places! You’ll note I’m not, which suggests that I’m trying to figure out the same stuff that a lot of you are trying to figure out.

So, do I have the financial bottom-line on how to do everything “right?” Hardly! But I’ll tell you what I see, over and over.

First, many of us have no idea where our money goes; oh, sure, we can tell you how much (or how little) is coming in, and we can tell you how much we pay for rent, utilities, transportation, insurance, maybe food, but the rest is a complete mystery. So, money comes in, we pay the big stuff, then we set about trying to get to the last day of the month, which often involves the use of credit cards because we had to make a credit card payment, and the wheel goes ‘round.

A suggestion: For a month or two, do something different. For a month or two — BEFORE that month begins – make a budget. Wait, don’t panic. You do not need a computer or fancy software or extensive expertise with spreadsheets or a degree in accounting. You need a piece of paper, a pencil and few minutes of relative peace.

Write down all the money that comes in, and when; then, write down all the bills that come in, when and how much. Now write down all your other expenses, like food – EVERYTHING, so don’t forget medical and prescription drug and…! – Now, subtract all the bills and expenses from all of the income. How’d we do? Got a little leftover? That’s sometimes referred to as “discretionary income,” which just means that it’s up to your discretion how you spend it, so – DON’T.

Right: Don’t spend it. Don’t buy that magazine at the checkout stand or the fancy coffee, and ignore the “sales” unless you really need something. Here’s the thing about “sales:” You still spend money.

If you do spend some of this discretionary income, write it down, then, at the end of the month, when you sit down (in relative peace) to do your budget for the next month, add all that miscellaneous stuff up and see where you are…Oh, so that’s where the money goes. Right.

So, now you can decide how you want to live: Do you want to put a little more toward the credit cards each month or go out to lunch four times per week? It’s your life, so do it your way, but at least you’ll know what’s going on.

Here’s the other side of that coin: Go back to where we were doing the budget, and I said, “How’d we do? Got a little leftover?” And your resounding answer was, “NO!” Oh…So, here’s another thing I see: A lot of times, we don’t know the difference between what we need and what we want – not because we’re stupid, just because that’s the way we’ve learned to live our lives. Here’s an example, from a friend in the financial world:

Most of us consider TV to be a “utility,” like power or water. We just assume it to be a “must have;” actually, it isn’t. It’s a “want.” Could most of us survive for a while without the cerebral assault of TV, in order to lessen the financial burden? Sure …. hmm…

There are always exceptions: If you’re literally confined to the house or a room or a bed (more-or-less, most of the time), is TV a “want” or a “need?” I’d be inclined to say it’s a “need.”

Magazine subscriptions? Hundreds of heart-wrenching solicitations for donations? The “too-good-to-pass-up” sale? The annual membership? The smart phone over the cell phone? The unaffordable loan to your daughter’s family in Wichita? Well…

You get it, and you certainly get that none of this is terribly complicated. It’s just a matter of making the decision and taking the time to see what’s actually going on, so we can make decisions based on what’s true, instead of how it all “feels” – Sometimes those decisions are tough! Sometimes, they’re not. Oh! Here’s another:

Funny thing about credit cards, but when we pay for something with one, it doesn’t feel like we’re spending money. Try paying for stuff with cash and see how that feels. It’s a different experience, really.

So, I doubt that any of this will make any of us rich, but it can take a lot of the stress – the fear of tomorrow or next month – out of life. I know this to be true because I’ve seen it done, over and over.

And it didn’t cost anything to do it.

Mark Harvey is the director of Senior Information and Assistance for Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He can be reached at or 532-0520 in Aberdeen, (360) 942-2177 in Raymond or (360) 642-3634. FACEBOOK: Olympic Area Agency on Aging-Information & Assistance.