- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

Most people have a system for handling the family finances. Some people use “tickler” files to remind them when the bills are due. Others use online bill-paying services, the newest trend in electronic banking.

My system is different. I know it’s time to pay the bills when my back goes out.

I’m not kidding. My back muscles monitor the calendar and gradually tense up from around the 10th of each month (the day the mortgage payment is deducted automatically from our checking account and sent electronically to the bank) through the 26th, the closing date on our cell-phone account.

If I haven’t set aside the time to organize the invoices, record the hundreds of debit-card receipts that fill the inside pocket of my purse, balance the checking account and pay the bills, the soft tissue surrounding my lower lumbar region seizes into a taut, tight muscular vise, gripping the adjacent nerves to send the “pain” message to my brain.

I’m even known for this. Not long ago, I stopped to see my sister. I gingerly stepped out of my van and slowly raised my torso to an upright position as she walked across her driveway to greet me.

“Ouch. Time to pay the bills, huh?” she said.

The good news is, I know exactly how to deal with this particular malady, but who would have figured the cure for back pain is monthly solvency?

Thus, I find myself sitting at my desk, calculator at the ready, embarking on the only task I can think of that is more painful than my wretched back spasms, but I can put if off no longer.

This month, the reason I want to avoid this task can be summed up in one word: orthodontia.

All four of our children — including our 8-year-old — require orthodontia, now in various stages. We have two in retainers, one in the “train track” phase and one whose future problems were so glaring we had to start her with palate expanders (essentially a “rack” designed to increase the size of the mouth while forcing moms and dads into the role of sadistic torturers).

Here’s a factor one should consider when seeking out a life partner with whom to create a family: What is my potential mate’s contribution to our dental gene pool?

I didn’t consider this — I just went ahead and fell in love with a guy whose acute underbite I overlooked because it gives him a strong, masculine chin.

Admittedly, he didn’t exactly get a fair shot at making an assessment of my impact on the teeth of our offspring. I had braces for three years as a youth, so all evidence of overcrowding was eliminated. My smile deceived.

Oh well. We probably would have married each other anyway on the assumption that crooked teeth skip a generation. I fill out check number six-gazillion-and-three, made payable to our orthodontist, tearing out the pay stubs from two payment books similar to the kind you get when you buy a house or a car.

Next, the stack of unavoidable household bills: garbage collection, water, electricity, cable service, pest control. (I tried to cut the pest guy from my budget once but discovered the mice in my neighborhood share information with each other about which houses are safe and which are not.)

Now to pay the insurance bills: auto, home, my husband’s life, my life. Every time I write the check for my life insurance, I remind myself to show Jim my bookkeeping system in case he ever is forced to do this job. (Come to think of it, he would rather die first than do this job.)

With each check, I enter a “payee” and “amount” into my computerized check registry, which makes the sound of a cash register when I hit Enter. Cha-ching. Clearly, this was someone’s idea of a cruel joke — someone who is young and unmarried and rich and works in Silicon Valley. Someone who probably doesn’t have to deal with the mundane task of paying for a refrigerator repair.

The superfluous water dispenser on the front of the unit broke, leaking 14 gallons of water into the kitchen until the valve to the water line was discovered.

I have just written a check for the refrigerator repair when my daughter comes in and asks for money to buy school supplies.

This is not a good moment to ask me for so much as a stick of gum.

“You do realize money doesn’t grow on trees?” I say irrelevantly.

Immediately I feel bad because it’s not her fault the fridge broke or that she is required to go to school with an assortment of materials in her backpack. Besides, she knows money doesn’t grow on trees; it comes from money machines.

After a lifetime of watching mom and dad drive up to a big box outside the bank, insert a plastic card and drive away with a walletful of greenbacks, children understandably are unaware that money doesn’t just spew from cash machines on street corners the world over.

Once, one of my children asked if we could do something (Go out for ice cream? Buy a convertible? I forget) and I said we didn’t have the money. “Go to an ATM and get some,” she said. “There’s always money in the machine.”

Would that this were true.

At last, the pile of bills is gone — for this month, at least. There’s not much left in the checkbook, but then again, at least my back doesn’t hurt.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. hicks@comcast.net.

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