Counting the pennies

A friend who grew up in rural Ireland in the 1940s used to tell of her mother’s keeping of the household accounts. They lived in a rectory in frugal times when clerical stipends did not allow for anything other than the basics and when every penny must be counted.

An old exercise book was kept for recording all expenditures and my friend used to notice that regularly recorded were the letters, NSPF. It being a clergy family, my friend assumed that the letters were reference to some charity or missionary organisation, but could never quite work out what fund they represented.

In later years, my friend asked her mother why they had made such frequent donations when they lived so frugally herself. Her mother was baffled. When reminded of the regular appearance of NSPF in the household accounts her mother had laughed. “That’s not a missionary organisation, that’s ‘Not Sure, Probably Food.’”

The keeping of carefully recorded details of housekeeping expenses seems to have been a habit encouraged in the post-war era. My mother keeps an annual tally, collecting every receipt and bill to tally her accounts at the end of the year.

An aunt goes further. Upon getting married in 1967, she opened an exercise book and recorded her expenditures every week, retaining each of the books she completed.

Even if there is the odd moment of uncertainty, the sort of moment when “NSPF” might be an appropriate entry, there seems something commendable in such careful stewardship. Perhaps the old maxim that if you look after the pennies the pounds will look after themselves is fulfilled in such careful accounting.

Hearing the jangle of coins in someone’s pocket this morning, I confessed that I had not used cash since the lockdown began on 23rd March.

“Are you afraid of infection?”

“No,” I said.

I didn’t attempt to explain.

Using a plastic card for everything has meant being able to keep a careful record of everything bought, credit card slips and printed receipts can be carefully tallied.  On the salary of a newly qualified teacher, it is probably sensible to be very prudent in budgeting, but there is something more than prudence.

There is a sense of empowerment in being in control of finances, however modest they may be, to manage the accounts so as to be in the black is rewarding. As Charles Dickens’ character Mr Micawber once commented, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

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