How My Monthly Budget Looks in 2005

In each year of my experiment with tax resistance I have, for one month, carried around a pen and a little notebook and have made note of every time I have spent money. I’ve then combined this with a record of my bill-paying from home and of any yearly expenses that didn’t come directly to my attention during the month in order to create an estimate of my budget.

In the Picket Line archives, you can see my results for and .

What I found this year, based on my spending in , is that my lifestyle costs me about $40 a day:

CategoryDaily expense
Food (groceries)$6.86
Spanish lessons$3.00
Health insurance$1.88
Food (eating out)$1.03
Internet fees$0.44
Cat food$0.31

Here’s how this compares to years past (I’ve had to rejuggle the numbers a bit so that the categories remain the same from year to year):

30-day totals
Total (minus untaxed)$1,164.94$901.97$1,129.81
Yearly (minus untaxed)$14,183$10,981$13,755
* tax-deductible now that I’m self-employed
Food (groceries)$149.99$98.92$205.80
Health insurance*$231.25($330.00)($55.50)
Food (eating out)$48.61$113.11$30.90
Internet fees$12.61$12.61$12.61

My rent, utilities and grocery bill have all gone up as I’ve moved from the less-expensive Oakland to very-expensive San Francisco. I’ve started getting some Spanish tutoring again, which is a new hunk of spending (but in addition to a one-on-one Spanish tutor who charges me a per-lesson rate, I also exchange English for Spanish instruction with a fellow from Panama who wants help with his pronunciation). I’ve lost the habit of getting lazy and going out to eat, so that expense has gone way down (which also explains in part my increased grocery bill). The best news is that I’ve got a new health insurance plan that is much more reasonably-priced.

To cut to the chase: if is a typical month for me this year then I’m still living within my means at a federal income tax-free income level (to do that with my current method I need to keep my taxed expenses under $15,000).

Being able to live sustainably without dipping into savings isn’t just something I’m doing for the sake of argument. Because I have a high-deductible health insurance, I need to keep a few thousand dollars in reserve in case something goes bad. And there’s always the possibility of some huge unexpected expense like, oh, a natural disaster or something. And I’d like to be prepared in case some year it is harder to find contract work than it has been in the past. Also: I hope to spend some money on travel, and I’d have a hard time justifying that if I had to dip into my savings just for day-to-day expenses.

Is there still room for more economizing? Plenty, I think. I do a lot of my grocery shopping at a nearby corner market because of the convenience, but if I hopped on my bike and went across the park I could find better prices up in the Clement Street area. Alas, bus fares rise in San Francisco by 42% (for token users like me) , so I’ll have a hard time keeping my transportation expenses down even if I do rely on the bike more. About a quarter of my caffeine/alcohol budget last month went to buying a round of beers at a baseball game my sweetie took me and her mom to ($8 a cup!), but even so, I could take a chop at the remaining 75% by dropping my caffeine habit or cutting down on my beer consumption (harder to do now that I’m brewing myself and I want to show off my creations to every visitor). I could cut out the Spanish lessons and try to find more exchange-based tutoring. And that’s all without considering something like moving to a lower-rent area.

But right now I’m pretty comfortable where I am and this looks to be another successful year.

In an issue of MANAS that I ran across in , I noticed that the pacifist tax resister Ammon Hennacy trod a similarly-annotated though much more frugal path:

Ammon Hennacy, militant pacifist, one-time Tolstoyan, and now, as he says, a “Catholic” anarchist, is a man who likes to make things simple. He is also a vegetarian, which contributes to simplicity of diet. Here is his budget for (with his comments):

Whole wheat flour, 25 lbs.
(could grow own wheat)
Vegetable shortening, 3 lbs. .68
Cornmeal, 5 lbs.
(could grow own corn)
Oleomargerine, 2 lbs. .38
Rice, 4 lbs.
(price is too high)
Raisins, 2 lbs..23
Syrup, 5 lbs..47
Yeast, salt, sugar, etc. .50
Electric light bill1.00
Bundle of CO and CW’s 2.40
Postage stamps, haircuts, etc. 2.05

At , Hennacy was making about seventy-five cents an hour as a farm laborer in Arizona. His theory, then, and ever since, was that if he worked by the day, no withholding tax would be taken from his pay by his employer. In this way Hennacy frustrates the government’s plan to use some of his earnings for the preparation for war, for the design and manufacture of H-bombs and similar devices. Hennacy is bound and determined that none of his labor will contribute to the military program of the United States, and he is probably the most successful man in the country in carrying out this resolve. He calls himself a “one-man revolution,” and if someone asks him if he thinks he can change the world, he admits to some uncertainty, but replies that he is making sure that the world won’t change him!

…Incidentally, while working as a day laborer in Arizona, he put his daughters through college, living on ten dollars a month, himself.…

And of course, there’s the example of Thoreau, who began his experiment in Walden with an accounting:

The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:—

In all$28.12½
Boards$8.03½mostly shanty boards
Refuse shingles for roof and sides4.00
Two second-hand windows with glass2.43
One thousand old brick4.00
Two casks of lime2.40That was high
Hair0.31More than I needed
Mantle-tree iron0.15
Hinges and screws0.14
Transportation1.40I carried a good part on my back

These are all the materials, excepting the timber, stones, and sand, which I claimed by squatter’s right. I have also a small woodshed adjoining, made chiefly of the stuff which was left after building the house.

I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one.

I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually. If I seem to boast more than is becoming, my excuse is that I brag for humanity rather than for myself; and my shortcomings and inconsistencies do not affect the truth of my statement.

I became curious about this need to fill in a ledger that Hennacy & Thoreau & I had. Although this is the third year that I have published an accounting of my budget, I still have to overcome an inhibition that discourages me from doing so.

In part, I think this inhibition comes from a taboo about discussing detailed money matters with others — it would be easier for many people to blog about the follies of their sex lives than about the line items in their budgets. In part also, I worry that it is a particularly boring form of exhibitionism (people would probably rather read about your sex life than your checkbook, too).

But there is also a sort of lingering feeling that matters of money and economics are themselves shameful. In the same way that everyone has bowel movements but it isn’t polite to bring it up in conversation, everyone has a budget but nobody is supposed to really talk about it. If you pay too much attention to money it must be because you’re poor, or stingy, or greedy, or obsessed with money in a vulgar way, or something shameful like that.

This is too bad, because the part of our lives that we hide in this way is a big part of the lives we live. Somehow in the course of history, while we were acquiring tools like money and credit and capital and commerce to supplement and amplify our ways of living, we were also shoving a lot of how we live behind a veil.

The irony is that these same tools give us a convenient notation for quantifying and reconciling much of our incomes and outgoes, the heartbeats of our economic health — it’s as if someone has handed us binoculars and we responded by putting on a blindfold.

This taboo has some big disadvantages — it means that we don’t compare notes and learn from each other’s experiences, and also it means that we often do not look at our own economic behavior very closely, even by ourselves from behind the veil. We wander around, spending money with our eyes closed, stumbling into debt, wondering why things don’t quite work out according to plan but ignoring that we’re blinding ourselves.

And because we hide our true economic health from each other, we evaluate each other very superficially — we judge someone’s well-being by sizing up their bling because we know no better and aren’t supposed to ask. We envy people whose sparkling debts are crushing them and pity people who would rightly fight tooth and nail not to trade places with them.

It’s hard not to entertain conspiracy theories when confronting this. After all, it’s easier to make a profit off of customers who can’t tell whether or not they’re being ripped off, and it’s easier for a government to tax people who won’t bother to translate that lost money into lost time and energy because they don’t know any better. There are powerful people who benefit from this money taboo.

But whether the wool was pulled over our eyes or whether we put the blinders on ourselves, we can’t expect someone else to come along and restore our sight. We have to, and we ought to, do that ourselves.