Understanding Budget

Today I decided to try a new way of coming up with a topic for the newsletter – Writing Topic Tarot. No it’s not really a thing, but it’s how I picked today’s topic. A few years ago, one of my ideas for a book was a series of essays about various lessons I have learned over the course of my career. Then I wrapped a rubber band around the stack of cards and tucked them in a drawer. I found that stack of lessons a couple of weeks ago and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since. I still don’t know if there’s a book in there and I have no idea what the single letters in the upper left hand corner of each card was supposed to signify. However, when I sat down to write this newsletter with no specific topic in mind, I decided I’d try the writer’s equivalent of tarot. Shuffle the deck, pull a card and see what it has to tell you. Today’s card: Understand budgets. Not the most awe-inspiring message but practical, very practical.

In college, I spent three summers and four semester breaks working in the accounting office of Church’s Fried Chicken. Not only did I get a discount on chicken lunches, I picked up some useful skills. I added ten-key (an adding machine) by touch to my touch-typing skills. I had my first experience working with computers and I learned to balance a bank book to the penny. Every one of several hundred chicken stores across the country had a local bank account into which they deposited earnings. And all of those bank statements were shipped to the main office to be reconciled against the store accounts. When I arrived in mid-May I was shown the boxes and boxes of unreconciled bank statements and put to work.

People do surprising things with their records. Not criminal, just unexpected. After struggling to make the numbers work in one account, I discovered that one store manager had given some of his deposit slips to the manager of a different store. They hadn’t paid attention to the pre-printed account numbers and were randomly depositing in both accounts. Once I sorted that out, I was well prepared to deal with the store manager who had been using deposit slips for the local U-Totem. I sorted out the money and the banks, though I never did learn how the manager had ended up with those deposit slips.

This summer experience taught me more than the need to balance my own checkbook regularly. It taught me that understanding the mechanics of money management is a skill to be learned like any other. Most of us aren’t born with it we have to learn it. But how and from whom? Budget and finance courses in graduate school tend to focus on the big picture, the politics of funding, and policy questions. All of these are important, but, at least in my experience, they really don’t help new professionals understand the realities of a budget. I’m often amazed at how many people don’t even understand the financial value of their own benefits package, let alone understand the complexities of payroll within their departmental budget.

Then there are the various rules for various ‘kinds’ of money. You may disagree with university decisions regarding building construction of course, but it’s important to understand that often funds used for construction can’t be used for salary. At least that way, your opinion is more informed. Understanding the dollar amount and type of money in your departmental accounts is important but it still doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about your ability to use those funds. You also need to understand the budget decisions and philosophy for the entire campus. For example, I had more flexibility within my budget as an AVP and Dean at SMU than I did as a VP at Trinity. And none of this kind of information was ever discussed in a class and was only rarely part of a professional development session.

We often learn lessons the hard way – by making mistakes and learning how to recover from them. But mistakes in the area of budget and money are costly – in more ways than one. When we finally get to the place of leadership and responsibility, the errors are even more costly and often we’re afraid to ask the necessary questions. After all, we’re supposed to know these things, aren’t we? After we’ve been in leadership for a while, we can forget that others don’t know the things we have learned throughout our experiences so we forget to teach what we were taught. After all, if you don’t balance your own checkbook, how will you ever discover you’ve been using the wrong deposit slips.

What do you still need to know about budgets and finance? Who can you find to teach you? What do you know about budgets and money management that you can teach others? It might just be worth the time on this basic, but oh so complex part of our work.

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