A little accounting software is a dangerous thing

Mike Royko

December 18, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

THIS IS THE story of a once-happy, middle-class couple who have come to marital grief. Out of respect for their feelings, I withhold real names. But the story should be told as a warning to others.

It begins innocently enough. Joan, as I'll call her, was Christmas shopping. As always, she had trouble finding something for Mel, as I'll call the husband.

A successful man, he had all the material possessions that were dear to him: graphite-shafted golf clubs, a snow blower, his favorite CDs and more neckties than he could ever stain.

Joan was in a mall to buy another golf shirt and sweater Mel didn't need when she paused at a computer store. In the window was a software program for designing dream golf courses.

She remembered the computer in Mel's home study. He bought it a couple of years ago because everyone he knew was buying them. He hooked it up, wrote a few letters, turned it off, and it had just sat there since.

On an impulse, she bought the golf software. But it seemed a small gift. So she talked to the salesman and he showed her several other programs. She selected a war game and, on a whim, a home accounting system.

"If he doesn't like them," she told herself, "he can bring them back."

When he opened the gifts, Mel seemed pleased. At least they weren't more ties. And his interest in the computer was rekindled. On weekends, he began spending hours in his study, poring over the manuals and jabbing at the computer keys.

Then one Saturday Mel asked Joan if he could see the ledger she used to record checks.

She was surprised. Mel had never taken an interest in household finances. He earned a comfortable living and left such things to her. Why did he want it, she asked? He said he just wanted to play around with the accounting program.

He took the ledger and stayed in his study until dinner time.

The next morning, he asked if she would dig out their credit card receipts. Not just current bills, but for the past year. Once again, he didn't emerge until she looked in and told him dinner was ready. He was furiously rapping at the keys.

He wolfed down his food and returned to his study. Hours later, Mel came into the living room.

I'll let Joan tell the rest:

"I asked him if he had designed his dream golf course. He shook his head. Then he unfurled a computer printout. It had to be 6 feet long. And he had another one that was even longer.

"He said: 'This is incredible. Do you know what we've been spending eating out?' And he showed me this row of figures with every restaurant we'd been in for the last year.' And he said: 'Look at this.' I asked him what it was. He said: 'That's what I was going to ask you. There's no way we can be spending this much on groceries. There's enough here to feed an army.'

"He had a printout of every check I've written at the supermarket. I told him that when I pay for groceries, I make it bigger so I'll have cash for other things. You know, gas, the carwash, the baby sitters.

"He said: 'Cash. Ah, very good. I can easily set up a cash account. All you have to do is make a note of how much of the check is for groceries, and how much is for cash.' Then he went back to his computer and I didn't see him until morning.

"So I started doing that -- making notes on checks. But one day he comes out with another printout. He said: 'This isn't good enough. Just saying cash doesn't tell me enough. Look at this. In my cash account, I know where every nickel goes. I just put it in and the computer breaks it down and organizes it and adds it up. See? At this point I know precisely what I've spent this year on lunches, cough drops, Kleenex, panhandlers, everything. But all you tell me is cash. Cash? That's meaningless.'

"I asked him what he wanted. He said: 'Everything. Every receipt, every item of cash flow.' I said, 'Cash flow?' He said: 'Right. How can my computer establish my total financial picture unless I have cash flow, net worth, the whole thing? All I need do is feed data in and this program tells me up to the minute what we are worth. Isn't that incredible?'

"I asked him why in the world we had to know what we are worth up to the minute. We've always had more than we need. He had this strange look in his eyes and he said: 'Please, just do it for me. In data there is knowledge, and in knowledge there is life.' I didn't ask him what that meant.

"So I did as he asked. He has every receipt from the dry cleaners, drugstore, supermarket. And it's a nightmare. He has every purchase broken down, item by item.

"He says to me: 'Do you know what we spend on toothpaste? Do we eat it?' He saw a pear that no one had eaten. It became overripe. He ran to his study, poked his computer, showed me a printout and said: 'Look! This is what that pear cost me. And that doesn't include the interest I could have earned.' Then he handed me a printout. He said: 'Here's what your hair has cost this year. Compare that to my haircuts.'

"I don't know how much I can take. His computer is tracking toilet paper. He says there is something suspicious about the 32 percent decrease in the roll in our guest bathroom, since we haven't had any guests this year."

Next Christmas, buy him golf balls.

"I already bought him two dozen personalized golf balls for his birthday."

Good. Did he like them?

"He set up a program to see how many times a ball is hit before it is lost."

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