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by Patricia Tokar, CPA
I’ve watched that scene in my accounting practice many times over the years. My standard answer has always been “How far out of balance are you? Which section is off?” And the answer was often, “I don’t know.” So I would send the clerk back to the calculator or computer to find out.
When the numbers won't balance and the error is not evident, it can make the whole project seem messed up. All the columns and entries seem potentially in error. It can seem like an unsolvable mystery.
We often begin finding a bookkeeping error by cross-checking to find out which of the sections of the project are in balance. For example, we may be able to use other reports to determine that the sales section number is correct, so now we know that the error is in the expense section. We can further narrow it down by using other reports or totals to find out which areas are correct.
Once we also take the steps to know the exact dollar amount of the imbalance, it is much easier to find the mistake. Sometimes it’s as easy as just glancing at the rows of numbers and the imbalanced amount just leaps out. Other times it takes a bit of detective work, but knowing the amount almost always proves to be a time saver.
Knowing the amount of the error gives me guidance on where to look for the error in the first place. It has not been unusual for me to spend a harried and frustrated time trying to find an error, and then finding and correcting it within minutes of calculating the exact amount of imbalance. Once the correction is made, all the numbers just click into place and what once seemed a hopeless tangle of possible errors is now perfectly balanced.
It occurred to me that this lesson can be applied to life.
When you are feeling that you are way out of balance - too much stress, too full of a calendar, too little pleasure in everyday life - it may have a domino effect. You may have trouble sleeping. You may overeat. You may use your tight, high-pitched voice every time you talk to the kids. You may be so self-absorbed that you pay little attention to your spouse. You can begin to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with anything.
This is the time to take a breather and do some examination. Exactly how far out of balance are you? Where is the imbalance? You may surprised to find that it is really something simple that started your chain reaction of stress. For example, maybe everything is actually under control, except you have six loads of laundry to do. Or maybe the week looks great except that Tuesday is looming in your mind because you have to take the kids to the doctor, then to swimming practice, stop at the store, and then screech home to supervise dinner and homework.
Once you can hone in on the real imbalance, then you can concentrate just on that problem and its possible solutions. For example, maybe on Tuesday, Grandma can watch the kids' swimming practice while you go to the store. Or maybe you can stop at the store on the way to work. You might even decide to take some of the homework to the doctors office and get started on it during the wait. Or you may just accept that Tuesday, and really only Tuesday, is going to be a hectic day. It makes your attitude toward Monday, Wednesday and Thursday much calmer.
You may even need to figure out the imbalance by going backwards. This is actually a pretty pleasant way to get to the problem. Start by recognizing everything that is really in order and going fine. For example, maybe you feel that you could be doing a lot better job raising your kids and you’ve been berating yourself on this. Figure out first what’s going right. Maybe the kids are doing well in school, and are getting along fine with their friends, and have plenty of clothes that fit, and aren’t really watching that much TV. Once you’ve set those things aside, maybe you’ll realize that you’re letting them play too many video games, or perhaps you’re not being sure that they eat enough vegetables, or you may even decide that the feeling of inadequacy is just because you haven’t spent much time talking with them lately. But by now you also know that you’re doing a lot of things right and just have one or two problem areas with the kids.
So next time you feel that your whole life is out of balance, start by asking yourself, “Just how far out of balance am I?” Approach the answer forwards or backwards, whichever seems right to you. Figuring out the answer to this question can help you to easily figure out how to put things back in balance.
Patricia Tokar is a CPA with a private practice in Elkhart Indiana. She has been in business for over 20 years and specializes in small businesses, individuals, and estates.
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