Counting Chickens


I was barely bigger than a Boise spud when our family began visiting my grandparent’s small farm in Idaho. With all that the wide open spaces and roaming cattle had to offer a little girl from the suburbs, nothing thrilled me more than getting a tap on the shoulder from Grandpa as he gestured towards a shiny, wire-covered coop out back.

“C’mon! Let’s go count the chickens.”

I’d squeal and grab his hand, pulling him as fast as my pint-sized strength would allow. He would unlock the gate and a sea of clucking, white puffballs would surround my feet. The joke was that I could never actually count all of the chickens. They seemed to multiply before my very eyes! I would chase them and laugh and dance in the rainfall of feathers…

…until the summer my Grandpa added a new rooster to the hen house.

Like clockwork, I ran to the fence doorway, ready to commiserate with my farmyard friends, but as soon as Grandpa opened the coop, Big Red had me in his sights. He jumped on my back and scratched with his claws. I can still feel his wings flapping furiously against my face. He sunk his talons into my fluorescent orange hoodie (apparently an infuriating color to roosters). It felt like forever until my Grandpa finally freed me from his grasp. I ran screaming from the pen with some pretty nasty gashes down my back, and a brand new—very real—fear of birds.

I swore off every winged creature that day and never looked back. But for all my talk of leaving the birds behind, I realized that I was still metaphorically playing that childhood game by relying on one of the oldest clichés on the planet: Counting my chickens before they hatched.

In the recent past, I was an expert at liquidating money before it even hit our bank account. Future bonuses, side jobs or tax returns were long spent before they even reached my hot, little hand. They were my golden parachute anytime I overextended the budget. I’d smile sheepishly each time my husband would be going over our accounts and point out an extravagant receipt,

“It’s okay! We’ll just use (fill in the blank) to cover it.”

But there are only so many “fill in the blanks” to go around before you find yourself in the Hen House of Debt, struggling to keep track of the slippery chickens you were so sure you could count on.

When the Christmas budget was bursting at the seams, I’d earmark incoming monetary Christmas gifts to cover it- until I remembered that the Christmas money we knew we’d be receiving was already slotted to cover the new rug we purchased to match our freshly painted living room. From there, I’d look even further to a bonus coming four months down the road. It would easily clean up the Christmas mess, but would leave us with next to nothing for summer vacation. Maybe we could use the following quarterly bonus for that? But wait—weren’t we using that money as savings for next Christmas…?

Round and round we went.

Luckily we escaped our “fowl” habits (I had to!) with only a few scratches. Our scuffle with the consequences of relying on money we didn’t yet have has instilled a healthy fear in us that rivals the impact of Big Red’s talons.

As we nurse our wounds from mistakes of the past, YNAB is helping us stay accountable to our current financial status. While there is freedom in how we disperse our money within the categories, we are pulled back into reality every time the numbers don’t add up. (You’ve all seen the bright red, “over budget” warning up in the corner of your YNAB spreadsheet, right? Terrifying!)

It’s not easy patching up what remains of our careless choices and poor planning, but the alternative is far worse.  So we wait and save and plan for a future where all the chickens are properly hatched……and at least 500 feet away from me. 

Tell me, my fine, feathered YNAB friends: Are you “playing chicken” with your budget? Do you find yourself scrambling to escape the Hen House of Debt? Have you scuffled with spending money you didn’t yet have? How did YNAB free you from the financial albatross around your neck? (Ten bonus points if you use a bird pun!)