As my brain gets older I rely more and more on the digital record of my life to help me with the remembering.
Every now and then, when I get overwhelmed by the duties of a household CFO, I scroll back in my Quicken account register to the very beginning.
The first entry is dated October 22, 1997.
I have always kept meticulous financial records. Even when I was in college and broke, or just out of college and broke, or a little older and digging myself into credit card debt to get more broke, knowing exactly how much money I didn’t have made me feel more in control of it. It may have been an illusion, but it helped me get over the anxiety of never having enough.
I laugh now when I think about what “enough” meant to me at the time.
I often muse about what my financial life would look like if I didn’t have kids. Or if I didn’t have kids who had to go outside and play sports and get new clothes and keep eating food.
Without their needs, I could just stay home all the time, read books I got for free at the library, and drink cheap red wine and sleep a lot. Oh sure I’d take walks every couple of days, and spring for a housecleaner at least once a month. But think of all the money I could save if I didn’t have these noisy, smelly sinkholes called little boys!
Funny. I had that exact life once upon a time, but I didn’t appreciate it. At all.
Clicking around in my checking account record is like flipping through a scrapbook. I can see how much (how very, very little) money I made as a production assistant for a tiny company in Santa Monica. I can see what it cost to fly to CT for my friends’ weddings. How much I spent on groceries. How much I borrowed – and paid back, methodically – from a more successful friend to cover the security deposit on my new apartment because I was too embarrassed to ask my parents, again.
Fast forward and I can track my rise in income as I gained more experience and transitioned to better jobs. I can watch as I stockpiled money after I moved in with Stewart (less than 30 days after we got engaged), and then rapidly spent it on the wedding of our dreams. I see the refinances, the kitchen remodel, the traveling, the reimbursible business expenses (a beautiful glass vase vaguely shaped like a penis for the background of a celebrity interview? Yes, please) the pet expenses when we got our dog, the baby gear, the preschool fees, the back-to-school shopping trips…
All the way up to now, when the record is dominated by the ever-mounting expenses in the category I labeled “Recreation,” which is really just a bottomless pit of sports league registration fees, karate tests and tournaments, and new cleats or basketball shoes for each child for each new season. Their feet grow very quickly. See also: the rising grocery expense.
My check register also shows glimpses of cultural history. Fees paid to photo development labs, when I used to send my 35mm film away and receive the prints in the mail in bright orange envelopes. I shopped for music at Virgin Megastore, the giant media store on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights. I remember walking through the store, being seized by a track the in-store DJ was playing, and hunting down his booth to find out what the track was so I could buy the CD. It was William Orbit, “Water From a Vine Leaf.”
The store is a gym now, I think.
The biggest transaction that I ever entered in the register was the deposit from the sale of our home in 2010, which we turned right around and used for the down payment on our current, very typical mortgage. But for a moment, we held that check in our hands, all six figures of it, and fantasized about what we could do if we turned tail and bailed on the new home purchase, packed our kids into a little motor home, and burned rubber on our very typical lives.
But most of the transaction amounts are small, the tiny financial moments that make up a modern life. If a stranger were to look through almost twenty years of my transactions, he would probably be able to figure me out pretty well.
I use my check register for practical recollections, too. What’s the name of that eye doctor I took Kyle to see five years ago? Search under “medical” and scroll back to 2007. How much did we spend on the last emergency plumber visit? Bam, right at my fingertips.
When I finally sit down to create my mileage report for my tax return filing, I use my calendar and my account registry together, and what should take an hour takes more like three over the course of a few days as I reminisce and remember what I did, where I went, and the fine people I encountered there.
Once upon a time (back there again), I kept a true check register, you know the one – the little book that comes with your checkbook in which you jot down your expense and its amount by hand. I filed all of my paper bills in a series of pretty photo-filing boxes (another outdated concept) and I kept a small paper calendar inside to schedule all of the due dates. Those boxes told the story of a young woman with college loan debt and an enormous phone bill who nervously charged her experimental “business lady” wardrobe expenses on credit cards.
But they exist only in my brain’s memory, those paper caches of preciously recorded data and memories. I shredded and recycled them years ago. There’s no way to recall, unless I can simply remember, my spending habits and what they say about me prior to October 22, 1997.
As my brain gets older I rely more and more on the digital record of my life to help me with the remembering. There are photos, blog posts, emails, Facebook updates and tweets by the thousands. This is one more way to remember. My financial records are just as revealing and full of personality as the stories I tell on purpose.