Living within one's means
If there is a more succinct description of the effects of living in debt than the one supplied above by the late Mr Dickens, Lady Bracknell has yet to hear it. From her earliest childhood, Lady Bracknell was trained up by her esteemed parents in the precepts of living within one's means, and she is proud to report that she has never fallen into debt, not even during the period she spent as a bluestocking at one of our fine universities. (This was some decades prior to the introduction of student loans but, even so, her ladyship's refusal to entertain the concept of an overdraft was most unusual among her peers.)
Lady Bracknell therefore deplores the insidious encouragement she receives from the media on a daily basis to live in constant debt. She can, apparently, purchase soft furnishings of a singularly dubious quality and pay nothing for them until 2006. She is particularly encouraged to do this every autumn so that she can be in possession of a new sofa over the Christmas period. Not only would Lady Bracknell defer her purchase of a new sofa until she had saved up enough money to buy one outright, she simply cannot understand why the fact that Christmas is imminent would act as a spur to her to replace the one she has. Sofas do not, in Lady Bracknell's experience, break down. The need to replace one which has perhaps grown somewhat shabby can thus surely never be so immediately pressing as to legitimise buying one 'on tick'. A refrigerator can change in seconds from working perfectly well to having not the slightest capacity to keep food cold. A replacement must be found, and found quickly. Should the purchaser not be in possession of any savings, he or she would be able to justify buying the new one on credit. But sofas do not suddenly lose the capacity to support the human frame.
This example leads neatly on to the point which Lady Bracknell wishes to make, which is that persons of finite means will be better able to live within those means if they can distinguish between the things that they genuinely need, and the things that they merely want to have.
Some years ago, Lady Bracknell attended a training event from which, at this remove, she can remember only two salient points. The first is that, if one does not speak within five minutes of a business meeting beginning, one is unlikely to make any contribution to it at all. One's initial comment to the room does not need to be an erudite one: one needs only to have one's voice heard on a minor point.
The second, and the one which is pertinent to Lady Bracknell's current purpose, was that those attending the training were encouraged to analyse the motivations behind the things which they felt they 'must' do. For example, a lady might say that she 'must' visit her parents at the weekend. But wherein does the compulsion lie? If she thinks about it carefully, the lady in question might rephrase her original statement thus: "I choose to visit my parents this weekend because I know that they are looking forward to seeing me; they will be disappointed if I don't go; and I have no wish to be thought of as someone who breaks social engagements on a whim".
Looked at in this way, very few of the things which we resent because we 'must' do them turn out to be entirely externally imposed on us. Lady Bracknell woud encourage her readers to apply a similar technique when deciding whether they really need something, or whether they simply want it.
Many expenses are unavoidable. We must pay to keep a roof over our heads, and to keep our homes warm and lit. We must keep ourselves fed and we must have running water if we are to live in reasonably sanitary conditions so that we may remain in passable health. In the 21st century, very few of us would consider it possible to survive without a telephone. Those of us who have chronic health conditions requiring treatment which is not available on the NHS need to pay for that treatment. Persons who are in employment need to travel to their place of work. Council tax bills must be paid.
Almost everything else on which we spend our money is something we want, rather than something we genuinely need. We may like to have cameras, mobile telephones, computing devices, DVD players, CD players, books, holidays, fine fragrances, weekends in the country, twenty pairs of shoes, regular visits to the hairdresser, membership of clubs, evenings out, fine wines, and wardrobes full of amusing two-piece suits (with matching gloves and bags). But we do not actually need them.
Readers should note that Lady Bracknell is advocating neither excessive frugality for its own sake, nor a hair-shirted rejection of all those things which add pleasure to one's existence. Her purpose is to assist her readers in avoiding unecessary - and expensive - debt. She recommends that persons whose income is finite sit down with a pencil and paper, and
- note down their monthly incomings;
- note down their unavoidable outgoings; and
- subtract the total at 2 from the total at 1.
The new total thus attained is their 'spending money' for the month. They may spend this on whatever takes their fancy, and they may spend it as quickly as they like, providing that they remember that they can spend it only once, and that, once they have spent it, it is gone. Unless their incomings are so straitened as to be insufficient to meet their unavoidable outgoings, as long as they can distinguish between the things they truly need to spend money on, and the things they merely want to spend money on, they will be able to remain debt-free.
Lady Bracknell doubts that her views on this issue will be greeted with universal approval, but offers no apologies for holding strong opinions on the subject.