I’m sitting in the mediators office listening to my sons’ father smugly tell me that he can’t increase his maintenance payments by the amount I have painstakingly worked out I need from him to cover the costs of two growing sons, since his escape to Pretoria almost a year ago, because his cat got sick and had to be hospitalised. Apparently he is paying off his vet’s bills. I look at the mediator who seems to be taking his job of not taking sides very very seriously. I’m expecting him to leap up in outrage and declare this reasoning ridiculous to say the least, and demand he pay all of what I am asking for after what was surely the world’s worst excuse not to. Instead he just blinks a few times then looks at me. I’m having difficulty trying to find the right response, as I tell myself that I’ll probably lose points by swearing, laughing out loud or using sarcasm, all of which in my mind are highly appropriate responses. I am beginning to regret laughing at the friend who suggested I replace my nerves of steel with knives of steel, “Far more useful, unless you’re on a roller coaster, then you should probably swap them” she had said deadly seriously. This is certainly not a McCartney/ Mills settlement we’re talking here, for the record, what I’m asking for is just enough to cover inflation, increased school fees and the extra ten days I have the kids every month now that he has absconded almost as far north as he can without actually leaving the country. I’m not asking for Spa treatments or holidays, although God knows he owes me at least that. But we’re discussing his cat, and his monthly expenses which as far as his kids go, is currently half their school fees and a packet of Nik-Naks each. As it turns out, a mediator is not the equivalent of a shared lawyer; he is just a very expensive boxing referee. His job is to say nothing unless one of you gets the other into a verbal (or physical) headlock, then at the end of it, metaphorically raise the hand of the bloodied and bruised winner who contrary to what Swedish song writing has led us to believe, most certainly does not ‘take all’, but rather the dregs of what’s left after vague expenses not excluding a sick cat, which admittedly rhymes a little more awkwardly with ‘loser standing small’. Anyway, I’ve got all the facts and figures with me, which took months to gather, as I am no good whatsoever at budgeting. Although in my defence that’s like drawing the plans for a house when all you have to build it is a single wheelbarrow full of bricks. The money goes in, and in less than the time it takes for me to get the text message from the bank announcing its arrival, half of it has gone, leaving just a one liner on my bank statement to prove it was ever there. The rest takes only slightly longer than a Cal-C-Vita to dissolve.
The first step to wherewithal budgeting is to exercise restraint, and note every cent you spend, apparently. If this is achieved, you can go on to trade successfully on the stock markets. The restraint part is laugh out loud not hard, when almost every cent is spent on a necessity, and no, I don’t mean absolutely ‘gotta have those shoes’ necessity. I mean the real kind, like petrol and food and my once a week domestic worker. The closely observing spending part was a little more difficult, but I can do that I think as I stuff another receipt into a ‘special pocket reserved for receipts and other’ in my bag/wallet/jeans. What I wasn’t admitting to was the fact that I avoid at all costs (pardon the pun) looking at the receipt the ATM spits out, let alone where that cash goes. The best thing the bank ever did was give me the option of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to receiving one at the end of a withdrawal. I can just choose option ’no thanks’, and mentally subtract the current withdrawal to what I think might be left which makes it a less stressful exercise altogether and a much less panic inducing sum if mental maths doesn’t go so far as to include debits of any kind, namely five grocery shopping trips since the last ATM visit. I did go so far as to buy myself a pretty notebook and a really nice pen though, and felt proud of finally feeling ready and prepared to tackle the Monster of Cash Flow, that was drying up the cash before it had a chance to flow. Almost immediately after writing down the cost of the pen and the notebook as my very first entry however, the pen disappeared. I remember hurriedly signing a homework diary and a ‘pink slip’ (which was basically me promising, but not meaning it, to find the time and money to get my son a haircut within the next two days) and that was the last I saw of it. Two weeks later, the notebook is full of shopping lists and To Do lists but apart from the stationery, not a single other expense entry. With that budgeting option clearly off the table, I thought I could just once a month sit somewhere quiet, and maturely go through the latest statement sent to me by the bank. Finding the time and somewhere quiet was the first problem, but when I eventually found myself outside the school gates 45 minutes early on my day off work, and absolutely nothing to procrastinate with, I fished out the statement amongst the post shoved into my cubby-hole (basically my filing system where everything files itself, in its original sealed envelope exactly as it arrived from the bank/traffic department), then I found an old pen and my notebook to press on. Unfortunately my heightened sense of maturity at finally taking control was instantly curtailed when I saw that on paper, one withdrawal looks just like another and that I would have to rely on memory to be able to balance income with expenditure. That conversation with me went something like this:
“Rent – check, School Fees – check…Right, so two hundred rand withdrawal on the 4thth. When was that?” Check the calendar on my cellphone. “ A Tuesday?! What the ..oh wait I do remember making a withdrawal to pay for a school outing. Ok that makes sense..so 45 bucks went to school….that leaves one hundred and fifty-five rand. Erm…where’d that go?” Visions of emergency trips to the garage at 7am to buy milk for cereal and bread for school snack, handing over twenty rand for civvies day and the cake sale, or money for a sandwich from Tuck-Shop because the garage was out of bread flashed before me, and right there the exercise was over. There was no order in any other area of my life what hope did I have of bringing any into my finances. Good effort though, I thought as my attention shifted to possible ways of increasing earnings part time as an obvious problem-solver. I re-filed the bank statement and opened up my notebook, pleased with myself for at least having followed advice to carry one everywhere for when good ideas strike. By the time the school bell had rung and bags were being thrown on the back seat and howls of near death starvation complaints meant my time was up, the list looked like this:
Waitress no time or childcare or friendly disposition
Tupperware not bubbly enough for sales pos. (or serious about this one)
Barperson no time or night childcare (free drinks though! = downside serious alcoholism threat)
So little progress there then, apart from having the right food to cover the next 12 hours.
But in the interests of what is good and fair, I really tried to get the best idea I could about how much it actually costs to keep two sons alive, and by the time the meeting date arrived, I had managed to put together a fairly impressive looking spread-sheet including back up documentation, thanks to my habit of hoarding old school notices amongst other things in a kitchen drawer. He arrived with a bank statement he had printed out the night before in order to prove his poverty status (after mystery expenses). Contrary to what one would believe, it was still an extremely tough battle which left me only briefly mildly victorious. And by victorious I mean after three hours of intense negotiations I was not particularly kind-heartedly handed approximately six more bricks, and by briefly I mean that two weeks later he declared via text message any agreement null and void due to some other increased expense not relating to his kids. So again, I am left with not even enough for a complete brick shi house. Yes, look how easy restraint is… But all that budgeting research, advice and effort only to stay at square one?
What I really needed was the advice to go in there with nothing but a sheet of paper completely blank under a heading Amount left per month if our children or God forbid our cat gets sick’ and the strength to hold a verbal or (probably ten times more useful) physical headlock for long enough. Simpler. Better. Way More Satisfying.