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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Counting pennies doesn't make cents

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

You can never be too rich or too thin, they tell us. With money as with food, the way to deal with not getting all you want is crunch the numbers and get what you can.

You get so many calories per day, say. Every bite eats into your allowance. Celery is a free ride. Anything yummy is gonna cost you.

Same with budgeting.

Assign your hopes a number, divide it all up and put it into envelopes. Entertainment: envelope. Mortgage, food, gas: envelopes. On payday, your envelopes are all full. Feels good, eh? Then every little thing you do is going to drain your stash.

In the end, there is supposed to be that one, slow-growing envelope that will lay the golden egg: a down payment, an IRA, a hedge against life's cruel blows.

Great. But at what cost?

My financial goal, I decided after a period of scribbling every bus fare into my spending diary, was never to have to count money again.

"I am the Count — I love to count things," the Sesame Street character would wiggle his stuffed digits with

delight. I liked to count, too, and feared it was another perverse pleasure I would have to give up, like tugging up my underpants at nursery school.

It felt so good to count — like everything was under control. If I knew how many, and kept track, they wouldn't disappear. Something in life had a handle.

The problem with this approach is it puts a dollar value on everything, from healthy snacks to Mama's love. Since you only get so much (not enough), you've got to cling — though you get no value until you let go. Money is always about loss.

Shopping for new shoes? Ouch — it's gonna hurt. Joining friends for lunch? The envelope doesn't think so. And what of the purely generous impulse to pick up a check or give to a bum? The wind whistling through your envelope is enough to make your gut clench and nip that little happiness in the butt.

When every action you take is tallied, every squeeze has to count. Every dollar has to gauge the distance from where you'd like to be, the terror of where you might end up.

Needless to say, this frame of mind hardly swings open the gates of abundance. Bean counters see a route to prosperity only through accumulation because they can do the math.

Compulsive saving seems as empty, in the end, as compulsive spending. Both attempt to squirrel away what cannot be materialized.

If you've ever faced a life threat, you know what I mean. The only hedge we have is friendship and love, character and something that matters more than it.

People who cling to money don't think they can depend on others, or don't want to. But that's all money is — the ghostly trace of a dependent relationship.

You can count it until you grow stuffed digits and fangs.

But you can't count on it.

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.