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A Budget is a Boundary

By John Rose

I’ve written in detail about boundaries before. I’ve spent a lot of time on the concept because boundaries were a key piece of healthy functioning I never understood or had before I was 50, and that lack caused constant problems and stress in my life.

This week I came across some questions about budgeting from Seth Godin that really caught my eye and started me thinking about boundaries again. Budgeting is much in my mind as we transition into our new house, new systems, and a new routine for everything from cleaning out the cat boxes to paying the bills.

A budget, in essence, is a boundary. I never thought of it that way before, but a budget is a framework we agree to stay within as we manage the resource of money. Boundaries are not specific to money, and three of the questions Godin proposed can be applied widely:

  • Are you able to understand yourself and your needs well enough to put boundaries around them? If you don’t, are you aware enough to know what you need to learn so you can?
  • Are you willing to be on the hook for managing your life so you don’t exceed your resource (time, energy, money, etc.)?
  • Can you embrace the imperfect nature of life and plans as you lean into boundaries and flex when appropriate?

Godin comes at this as a businessman, but the idea of budgeting (effectively managing financial resource) can be expanded to include any resource.

It strikes me budgeting is adulting. It requires a clear picture of expenditure and income, the ability to think ahead, the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know and need to learn. Whether we’re trying to shape a more effective life or remodel a bathroom, the process is the same. What’s not working? What are the needs? What are our options for change? What will the project cost in terms of resource over a period of time? What do we need in terms of resource for learning what we don’t know? Are we investing our resource wisely? What’s the starting point?

(This circles back around to showing our work, the subject of last week’s post.)

If we can’t dig into these questions, we can’t become a professional adult.

Budgeting also requires responsibility. Are we willing to be on the hook? Are we willing to make written commitments to ourselves and others? Are we willing to build in consequences for failing to meet our commitments, both to ourselves and others?

Lastly, perfectionism is not resilient. Plans, budgets, and boundaries are frameworks. They support us in meeting our goals and functioning effectively and appropriately. While we’re making plans and drawing up spreadsheets, however, life happens. Pandemics happen. Economic changes come and go. New technology comes onto the market. We often need to flex, consider new information, accommodate change, deal with delay and unexpected events.

None of those inevitabilities are excuses for abdicating from creating boundaries. If we care enough to take charge of our own lives or dive into a project, clarity and boundaries are essential, including a budget. It’s not good enough to fly by the seat of our pants, to say contractors won’t work within a budget anyway, or budgeting ruins the fun, or we’re unwilling to compromise in order to maintain our boundaries.

If we won’t take responsibility for our endeavors, why should contractors or anyone else? If we can’t manage boundaries around our lives and resource, why should anyone else respect our needs? If we won’t do the up-front planning and work and communicate it clearly to those we’re engaged with, how can we expect to meet our goals?

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Moving into a new house invariably results in needing skilled tradesmen like plumbers and electricians. Such people are not easy to find, especially in a small city. Obviously, one wants someone who is skilled, but I’ve also been reminded how important it is to find someone who runs an effective business. Liking and appreciating people who do work for us and being pleased with the work done doesn’t balance out lack of written bids, receipts, invoices, contracts, etc. I can’t budget if I don’t have good information. I can’t plan payments. Flying by the seat of one’s pants is not good business. It leaves both customer and service provider in the dark. Fortunately, I keep good notes and records, but there’s a big difference between a handwritten (by me) list of dates and amounts paid (Labor? Equipment? Was this the outside faucet or the leaking sink? How much more will I owe? When is the final total due?) and a professional invoice indicating costs for equipment, labor, the work that was done, and payment status.

Budgeting and boundaries. What an odd couple. Recognizing budgeting as a boundary makes me determined to embrace it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. I know all too well the result of having poor boundaries.

Doing it Right or Doing it Real

One of my favorite minimalist bloggers gave me something to think about last weekend with this piece. In it, she proposes we work on doing things real rather than doing them right.
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As a reforming perfectionist, she got my attention. When I imagined approaching my life with the ultimate goal of authenticity, the relief was stunning. On the heels of the relief, though, I felt appalled. How can doing things real ever be good enough? As I’ve thought about this the last couple of days, I’ve realized this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Maybe the most effective goal in most cases is to be authentic and do things right, whatever that means. Surely balance between the two is possible? The difficulty lies in defining the word “right.” Who decides what’s right? How do I know when I’ve done things “right?” I hate the answer. The answer is I know I’ve done things right if people are pleased. Back on that cursed slippery slope! A dear married friend said to me recently, “My life would look very different if I was on my own.” My friend’s honesty and the quiet sadness with which the words were spoken touched me to the heart. How do we recognize ourselves, our real selves, in the confusion of our lives and relationships? How do we balance authenticity and cooperation? How do we mitigate the damage to our connections when we choose to be right (what the other wants) rather than real for the sake of those same connections? It hurts me to ask these questions. I can’t begin to answer them. I admire authenticity when it doesn’t trample over the needs of others, but what about when it does? What about people who appear to have no regard for those around them, who are unwilling to hold space for any authenticity but their own? I don’t want to be one of those people.
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Doing it right, which is to say making choices based on what others view as appropriate, seems at first glance to be an excellent way to stay safe. The truth is, such a practice tears one apart in very short order, because there are too many onlookers and we can’t please every one of them. Here’s an example. When I’m teaching a private swim lesson, do I work effectively and appropriately with the student; please the onlooking parent or adult (in the case of a child); please my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom are very fine teachers and at least one of whom watches from the lifeguard stand; please other staff, patients and patrons who might be present; or do I forget everything but the connection between the student and myself for those 30 minutes in the pool and just be real and please myself? Teaching, for me, is like swimming or writing or dancing. It’s a place where I don’t try to do it right. I do it real. Real is a long way from perfect. Right seems closer to perfect than real. Real is intuitive, experimental, frequently messy, uninhibited. When I choose to be real, I choose joy. I try not to think about what that looks like to others. I try not to care. I rest in it and feed myself with it and feel fully present and alive when I’m being real.
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But then, so often, out of nothing and nowhere, comes the message: “You didn’t do that right.” No. Of course not. I almost never do. But I did it real, and for a few minutes I was happy there. This is not about an inability to accept feedback or instruction. People close to me will tell you I frequently ask for feedback, for someone to teach me a new skill, for someone to help me improve. Feedback is not the same as being told I’m doing it wrong. I’m always interested in doing it better. What’s curious about right vs. real is so often I run into this with trivial things, things like ironing, or washing dishes, or opening a can. They way I organize my stuff. The way I store my clothes. The way I live in my space. As I live my life, when someone tells me I keep the broom in the wrong place, what I hear is I’m wrong. I’m broken. I’m Failing To Please (again. Yawn.) Why can’t I store the broom in the right place? Usually, I acquiesce. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the relationship. Because it doesn’t really matter, after all. I can be flexible and adaptive. The difficulty is living inauthentically is an unbelievable amount of work. Everything is effortful, because I don’t do anything naturally. I repress my authentic impulses and desires. I feel numb, apathetic, and cut off from myself. It’s entirely disempowering. But it keeps things peaceful. It pleases others. It’s cooperative. I comfort myself with the fact that my willingness to do it right (according to them) makes others happy. I don’t believe my realness will ever make anyone happy, except me. I’m willing to hope for a balance, though. I have no idea how to find it, or even if I can find it. Maybe my real is too wrong to ever balance out? Doing it right or doing it real? My daily crime.
Photo by Diana Măceşanu on Unsplash