Monday, June 10, 2013

Wore the Wheels Plum Off

I bought the calculator on top two and a half years ago when I threw in the towel and hired a budget coach to teach me how to take care of my financial life. I'll admit it - I was a mess. I didn't know where the money went, just that it went, and I was facing a number of harsh realities that I didn't know how to fix.

The most intimidating of these was that I knew I would soon be living on my own - and in charge of my financial decisions - for the first time in 25 years. There would be no one to blame but myself if things didn't work out - and no one to bail me out, either. Also, I would be facing a steep reduction in income at a time when we barely making it on what came in.

There's nothing like terror to motivate you. You probably already have experienced this in some corner of your life. When things are just plain uncomfortable, it's tempting to procrastinate doing anything about them, to bury your head in the sand and hope things will fix themselves. I think this is how credit cards creep up toward their limits, how we find ourselves "forgetting" to make our quarterly tax payments, how we somehow fail to calculate whether we can really afford a new purchase.

But I was facing the very real possibility that, soon after striking out on my own, I'd only be able to afford the first two weeks of every month. So I gathered my wits and courage and made a number of very smart decisions.

1. I Admitted I Didn't Know What I Was Doing
I told my close friends and asked them for advice. In this way I got the name of a financial analyst who was vetted by someone I trusted. It turns out that he felt I wasn't anywhere near ready for his level of service, and referred me to Kathryn Amenta. I didn't know anyone like her existed. She's coach, therapist, and accountant all rolled up in one.

I also discovered that I wasn't the only person who'd let their finances get out of hand. I will never forget the kindness of a dear friend who took a deep breath and told me her own story, which got pretty dire before it improved. Just knowing I wasn't alone did wonders for me. She listened while I shared my fears and embarrassment, and told me it would be all right. I don't know if I could have taken the next brave steps without her.

2. I Hired a Professional
It seemed counterintuitive to spend a considerable sum to hire a professional when I was already flat broke, but it was the right choice.  I met with Kathryn once a month, driving an hour to reach her office. I'll tell you right now that I think she saved my ass, and I recommend her to anyone in the bay area who needs to take control of their financial life.  Here are a few reasons why this worked for me.

  • Kathryn made me start with the basics. Despite owning accounting software and doing my banking online, I didn't know where my money went. Kathryn had me use a paper ledger to keep my balance so that I knew at *all times* exactly what I had in the bank and what I had spent. I still use the ledgers today, even though I think I'm now pretty competent. It gives me a sense of power to know exactly where I stand.
  • She taught me to look at my whole fiscal year - just like a company would. In our business, income and expenses are unpredictable, and it's all too easy to just throw up your hands in frustration. But Kathryn and I worked to wrestle my spreadsheet into the ground, adjusting as we went.
  • She informed me I would have to make some steep sacrifices and reminded me that I really can do it. Somehow, it was pretty hard for me to throw a temper tantrum about having to give up my expensive shampoo when Kathryn asked me if it would kill me to use the drugstore brand.
3. I Learned to Say No
I found it excruciating to deny my kids at first. But it soon became apparent that it was *helping* them to have to hear no. I had spoiled them in many ways, and I wasn't doing them any favors. Now that they're both headed to college, I know they have the skills to figure out what they can afford.
     As for myself, I was embarrassed at first to tell people I needed to choose a more low-budget option for dinner or entertainment, or opt out altogether, but I soon discovered that most people are happy to adapt. Many of them are counting their pennies, too. 
     I also learned that if something was important enough, it would still be there the next month or the one after that. Waiting to purchase things made me aware that I used to use shopping as an immediate-gratification reward, something I've stopped doing.

4. I Re-Vamped My Entire Lifestyle
I'm really proud of this one! It's given me no end of delight to discover how much cheaper it is to live in my apartment and drive my little Yaris than it was to live my old lifestyle, with its $600 heating bills and costly European auto repairs. I gave up my Nordstrom habit and discovered thrift stores and Grocery Outlet. Instead of being mortified to be caught shopping there, as I expected, I found that my kids and I love bargain hunting *and* I still get to splurge on ridiculous things now and then, because I plan for them.

5. I Identified What Luxury Really Means - and How to Get It
Before I made all these changes, I spent some astonishing sums on things: $500 purses, $35 brow waxes, a maid who cost $120 every other week. Oh, and that shampoo, which I'm too embarrassed to admit how much it cost. Now I still have plenty of delightful things, but they are on a scale that I can manage and that I plan for. Whole Foods olives, for instance, or a hardback book I simply can't wait for the trade version. Drinks with a friend, or an iMax movie with the kids. That's the good stuff.

So, back to the calculator...I used that blue one until I killed it from overuse. I didn't even know it was possible to wear out a calculator! So I upgraded...I bought the pink one which cost a couple bucks more (I think it was $7) and hope to get a few good years of service out of it.

I'll leave you with this picture - I recently bought this dress at my favorite resale shop in Phoenix and wore it for my library address. It was less than $20, as was the amazing dress I bought for Thrillerfest. As was the pair of never-worn Coach sandals I'm wearing as I type this. Score!


Nicole Peeler said...

You are my hero in so many ways. Love you and your courage, mama!

Also, the word I have to type to prove I'm not a robot is SCOTCH. I think the internetz knows us.

Robert K. Lewis said...

I bought my first smart phone, AND a customized bowling shirt for Thrillerfest. Does this count for managing my own finances?

Also: you look really grand in that dress! :-) Good on ya!!

Rachael Herron said...

I love everything about this post.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Love this post! I've been wrestling monthly expenses by calling and renegotiating my wireless, cable, newspaper and phone bills and while the endless wait times on customer service lines are killing me the savings are astonishing. How did they creep up so high? I need that calculator!