Nick and Amy have been married for seventeen years and for seventeen years they have continually disagreed on the way their money should be saved and spent. Every November, just as the weather gets cold and the first heating bill of the season arrives in the mail with a noticeable spike in the amount owed square, Nick decides that effective immediately the family must commit to a strict budget to ensure they won’t go bankrupt during the holiday season, or worse, not have enough money when they retire in twenty-five years. All this is well and good and responsible, but Amy likes to stroll through the aisles at Target where the candles and holiday hand towels speak to her and, more importantly, she doesn’t like to be bossed around about how to spend her money.
“Stella! Grab the mail, would you please?” Amy hollers down to her sixteen-year-old daughter blowing in through the front door on a cold front with snow flurries.
“Too late!” Stella yells back, yanking off her beanie at the same time her mother’s head appears at the top of the stairs. “Dad’s already got it.”
“Shit,” Amy mutters under her breath as her husband steps into the foyer, his dress coat covered in a thin layer of delicate snowflakes. “Hi, Baby. You’re home early. How was your day?” She hustles down the stairs, almost colliding with her daughter going in the opposite direction, in hopes she can still intercept the mail before he opens anything.
“Amy, this utility bill can’t possibly be correct. Take a look at this and tell me I’m crazy,” Nick speaks through gritted teeth, a single leather glove in their bite, the stack of envelopes and the opened electric bill in his other gloved hand. “I’m going to call the utility company and fight this. They are robbing us blind!”
“Shit,” she mutters again, and she hears a faint chuckle from her daughter upstairs who has witnessed the beginning of this exact scene many times.
Amy sighs and peeks over his shoulder from the bottom step. Slipping her arms around him from behind, she runs her hands across his chest and kisses his neck, trying to distract him and minimize the level of meltdown. When he continues to read the numbers on the page in front of him instead of responding to her touch, she gives up and prepares for a confrontation.
“No honey, you’re not crazy, but that’s correct. In fact, that’s better than what I was expecting. It’s been incredibly cold lately and the heat has been running non-stop this month,” she replies and tugs the bills from his hand, praying this might be the end of his rant.
Without taking off his coat or shoes, Nick breaks away from her and stalks over to the thermostat on the wall. “Here’s the problem right here! This is set too high, that’s why!” he balks and punches a button a few times.
“What? Nick, it’s set at sixty-six. Any colder and the kids will need to wear snow pants to bed! Now you’re being crazy!” Amy marches over to the thermostat and taps it back up to where it was.
“The kids can wear sweatshirts,” Nick demands and attempts to bump it back down, but Amy stands defiantly in his way.
“This is absurd, Nick. It’s already chilly in here and we do wear sweatshirts. The bill isn’t even that high and we go through this every year at this time.”
Amy stares him down for a minute more, warning him with her icy glare he should leave the thermostat alone. Satisfied he’ll behave, she finally heads to the kitchen to start dinner. With his eyes on Amy’s back, Nick quickly taps it down two degrees before he follows after her.
“Amy, we’ve got to get our spending under control,” Nick begins as Amy begins to slice carrots and onions. “We’ve got three kids to put through college and that’s not cheap. Plus there’s school expenses and vacations and I’m sure some of them are going to get married some day and that means paying for a wedding. We want to retire too someday, right?”
Amy lets the paring knife she’s holding clatter to the countertop, so she doesn’t do something she regrets as he drones on about expenses that are, according to him, right around the corner.
“Every damn year,” Amy thinks as she takes a deep breath, hell bent on not taking the bait this time. She’ll just keep doing these Lamaze breathing exercises and biting her tongue with her back to him and she won’t be drawn into an argument.
“And if we don’t do something about it soon, we’re not going to have enough money to live on and we will be forced to sell this house. If we insist on keeping the house the temperature of a sauna, it’s only a matter of time before we’re on the street! Is that what you want?”
Non-reactionary Amy lasts a whole six seconds before she whips around and screams something equally nonsensical about how she would rather rip the thermostat from the wall and use it as kindling to start a fire in the living room if it means not having this discussion ever again. The back and forth bickering is interrupted by their thirteen-year-old son Peter sauntering into the kitchen and grabbing a carrot stick from the pile Amy is cutting.
“Dad, it’s freezing in here! I checked the thermostat and it was set at sixty-three, so I tapped it back up to sixty-six, the highest you said it could go.” Crunching on his pilfered carrot, he casually strolls back out of the kitchen leaving Nick and Amy staring at each other, breathing hard and their eyeballs bulging.
“Okay, I’m now remembering the conversation when I said the thermometer could stay on sixty-six,” Nick finally admits sheepishly, holding his hands up in defense, slightly afraid his wife might lunge for his jugular. “But can we revisit that and agree to a degree cooler?”
“No!” the kids yell in unison from the living room. “We’re freezing in here, Dad!”
Amy points to the other room, “The kids have spoken. They don’t want to freeze to death and we’ve already agreed on a number. Please let this one go and we can fight about the air conditioner in a few months.”
“Fine. But I’d like us to sit down tonight and make a budget,” Nick says on his way out of the kitchen. His wife responds by softly banging her head on the cabinet door repeatedly. “I’ll take that as a yes then?” Nick nods and starts upstairs to change his clothes.
“Dad, don’t forget! I need ten dollars for my class field trip and you said you’d give it to me tonight,” Stella calls to Nick from where she’s lounging on the couch.
“This!” Nick bellows as he climbs the stairs. “This is the reason we need a budget. Ten dollars here for a field trip. Fifty dollars tomorrow for a college application fee. A hundred dollars because you guys all eat so much, and I suppose one of you needs new shoes soon. Just take all my money. Let’s just flush money down the toilet!”
“You’re being ridiculous, dear!” Amy yells from the kitchen.
“Dad, I do need new basketball shoes!” Peter adds. “Thanks for reminding me.”
“If you’re flushing money in the toilet, I want to watch,” pipes up ten-year-old Sophie and Amy chuckles in the kitchen as she dumps the vegetables into a pot.
“None of you are remotely funny!” Nick complains loudly from upstairs.
After the kids had gone to bed that night, Nick appears in the kitchen with a sheaf of papers in one arm and a bottle of wine in the other as Amy is loading the dishwasher.
“Are you ready for some fun?” Nick asks as he shakes his hips at Amy and blows her a kiss across his spreadsheets. Rolling her eyes, she tosses the dish rag into the sink.
“I’ve got a headache. I’m tired. I’ve got diarrhea,” she says flatly and walks past him, but he catches her by the hand.
“I’ll get you some aspirin and some Pepto. Also, did you think diarrhea was going to scare me off? Please. Come on, we can make this fun,” Nick promises, letting her hand go and reaching over her head for the wine glasses.
“If we’re doing this, we’re going to need something more than wine,” Amy retorts and swipes two shot glasses instead. “Get the tequila.” Wagging his eyebrows at his wife, Nick throws his head back and laughs at this unpredictable creature he’s married too, but he takes the bottle they brought home from their anniversary trip to Mexico from the liquor cabinet and settles down at the kitchen table.
Grabbing for the bottle, Amy unscrews the cap and fills each shot glass to the brim. As Nick reaches for the glass Nick assumes to be his, Amy swats his hand away and picks up both shots and downs them quickly, one after the other.
“Wow!” Amy hoots, sticking her tongue out in response to the strong aftertaste. Wasting no time, she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, pours two more shots and nods to her husband.
With a grin on his face, Nick promptly pours both down his throat and leans across the table to plant a kiss on Amy’s mouth.
“Nope,” a single word answer from his wife. “I’m doing this under protest. You know I hate talking about budgets.”
“But this is fun!” Nick argues, gesturing to the papers in front of him. “I’ve color coded it by category and everything.” She shakes her head in frustration, then pour two more shots.
“Okay, let’s look at how much we spend on groceries. I’ve noticed we waste a lot of money on lettuce that goes bad before we can eat it. What do you think about…”? The swish of tequila down Amy’s throat drowns out the rest of his suggestion and the conversation is fuzzy shortly after that.
The blinding light of early morning pours in through the kitchen windows rousing Amy from where she sleeps, hunched in a chair at the kitchen table with her cheek pressed against the cold, hard table. The inside of her mouth feels like cotton and tastes like tequila and she groans, rubbing her aching neck from sleeping at such an awkward angle all night. Lifting her head, she sees Nick slumped in the chair opposite her, arms and legs dangling uncomfortably over the sides, head lolled back and snoring loudly.
“Nick,” she whispers, nudging him awake, and her head begins to pound.
“What the hell?” Nick jumps awake before grabbing the back of his own neck in pain. “Ouch! What happened? Everything after three shots of tequila is a blur.”
“Well, we made a budget,” Amy smiles weakly and pushes a piece of paper across the table. Nick’s writing is scrawled all over it, numbers scattered here and there. “According to this, you promised to leave the thermostat alone. Here’s where we agreed to only eat salad in the summertime when we can grow it ourselves to save money on the grocery bill, and I think this part here is where I traded sexual favors for a weekly trip to Target.” Squinting at his writing and then his wife with the half empty bottle of tequila beside her, Nick shrugs.
“I guess a deal’s a deal. Is it possible to get advance payment for those Target trips?” he ventures, wagging his eyebrows at Amy and motioning to their bedroom.
“Can we be done talking about budgets?” she asks.
“Till next year,” he replies.
“Then yes,” Amy smiles and beckons for Nick to follow her upstairs.