Thursday, September 08, 2005

steps out of the money pit

i received an email while on vacation that asked if i knew any good debt counseling companies. i explained that we received debt counseling through our old church, and they used crown financial services. i told her though that i would put out a call for recommendations if you have them. please - only if you've actually used the company/ministry, or can lead her to someone who has - this is a scary time in a person's life and falling into the wrong hands can be more wounding than no help at all. just leave a comment or email me and i'll happily forward them on to her.

i also committed to writing about how we climbed out of the hole that was our financial lives.

while all of the book work and all of the advice is helpful, the best motivation is actually desperation. i'm going to give some of my history first so that things make as much sense as possible.

i grew up in a home with white-knuckle, dry alcoholics who were never taught to care for their money. my father made a good wage, but he couldn't keep up with my mom's keeping up with the joneses and money was always a source of stress and frustration in our home. i regularly remember her saying 'the checkbook doesn't balance, lets go out for dinner'... great logic, eh?

looking backward i realize that my mother had the same processing disability as i and my daughter have, and so math (and cooking) were (and are for me too) very overwhelming. this was her way of 'simplifying life'... little did she know she was training me in some very broken behaviors.

our financial counselor would say 'bobbie - just balance your checkbook!' - (he was convinced that i was the detail person of the marriage - he was right, but that coupled with my 'mad math skills' made for a lethal combination). i'd look at him and say 'if i could balance my checkbook i wouldn't be here.'

you see we were in financial counseling - but it wasn't remedial enough. we were in primary school, but i needed to go back to 'pre-school' - so i did. unfortunately i didn't have a teacher. i had to construct the most basic financial foundation possible. it works, but you've got to work it. you will not be using any computer programs for this process - this is a re-learning of the basics. yes, there are easier ways to do it, but if they worked, we'd be using them already, right? this really works. it's not easy, but it's not hard either.

Supply list:

8 1/2 x 11" printer paper
3 ring binder - make it unique, easy to spot, not bulky (no trapper keepers please!)
3-hole punch
refillable pencils w/ refillable erasers
mini stapler
cardboard file folder box w/ lid

step #1 - admit that you are powerless - it works for every other kind of recovery - financial recovery is no different. 'i can't do this god, i have made a mess of things'. (follow other steps in the process - if you don't know what they are you can find them here.)

to encourage you i'll add these:

the AA promises say:

• If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through.
• We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
• We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
• We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
• No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
• That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
• We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
• Self-seeking will slip away.
• Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
• Are these extravagant promises? We think not.
• They are being fulfilled among us-sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.
• They will always materialize if we work for them.

(Big Book - pages 83-84)

i've bolded my favorite ones - especially that one about intuition - it's true, and really does happen. i LOVE that!

step #2 (or 13 if you're counting...) this is going to be the most difficult - but the discipline that comes from this will make you stronger and more committed to the process - consider it boot camp. you need to find out where you are in your checking account. i know that this is so hard it will make you want to quit before you've even started - but you can do it.

stop writing checks - i know it seems impossible, but it's temporary. let everything clear.

step #3 - look back over your statements and make sure that all of the numbers are in sync - with none missing. this might be hard if there are some missing and you have no record of checks written - did you void them or are they still out there?? what you need is a clear date and a clean number to start with so you can keep records from that point.

if you can't do this on your own your bank will help you with this. i know that it will take some wallowing through the shame to go to the bank with your account in hand, but they want to help you. just pray for a really helpful person and not one who wants to show you how smart she is...

find out what hasn't cleared and make a real list on a real sized piece of paper. total it if you can and minus it from what the bank says you have in your account. if you can't you still need that paper - DON'T THROW IT AWAY. punch 3 holes in it and put it into your binder.

WARNING - i know people will say 'oh just open a new account, start over' - PLEASE DON'T - easy never teaches us anything - it will be 4 months from now and you'll be in the same stew - but now with TWO disorganized checking accounts (because we never bothered to close the other one....) it's only the hard job of actually doing the work that forces us to maintain things. once we know how hard it is to get out of the hole it reminds us that we don't want to go back. monthly maintenance is easier than starting over.

the best friend you will have in this is SIMPLICITY - you are going for the most basic type of money management - one account - keep is simple.

rule #1 - you must have a paper trail. this means carbon checks - this is the ONLY way you will get out of this hole. if it was easy everybody would do it. it's not. and we aren't disciplined enough to actually write down every number in our checkbook ledger - so this is the first way to begin to give yourself that trail.

i know you'll think 'but i have all of these other checks here, it would be wasteful to throw them away'. tough, throw them away. find an online check company (don't go through your bank, they are too expensive. i have used promise checks, they don't need to be pretty, just make sure they are carbon.

rule #2 - throw away that cheap little check book holder. find an inexpensive wallet that has checkbook holder in it - you need a good large zipper pocket in it because you are going to save every piece of paper you touch. (receipts that is). (warning - don't let your partner carry the check book - putting it in a pretty wallet stops this most of the time - but if you are the person doing the work, you are the person with the checkbook).

and here is the hard part, especially if your partner has a.d.d (like liam). they MUST save them too. the only way to do this properly is to have a real paper trail, honest.

i threated liam all of the time that i'd have to take away his debit card and put him on a cash allowance if he didn't take this seriously. we've been doing this for over 2 years now - it really works.

step #4 - create a place in your home that can collect the paper - that file folder box needs to be accessible, i know it's not pretty, but neither is financial chaos. create a space and a routine that allows you to begin that paper trail.

rule #3: mail must be opened daily - remove bills and mailing envelopes, throw away original envelope and all of the junk that comes in each mailing. unfold the bills, clip the mailing envelope to it and highlight the due date. put organized bills into the file folder box too. nothing goes into the box that hasn't been opened though - i know bills are painful - but facing reality head on will get you farther than avoiding it. look at them, touch them, feel them, and feel the effect that they are having on you. it will help when you are making shopping choices to remember that feeling.

i think we'll stop here - there's lots more - i'll keep this going. i've wanted to organize this process for a long time, this is helping me to put it from 'start to finish' - as we didn't maneuver through this so cleanly. much of it was trial and error - but this is the best of what worked for us. please know i'm praying for you as you read this. you can do this.

my favorite line from a movie (and i can't wait to get it exactly right - will have to wait for the dvd) is from charlie and the chocolate factory where grandpa joe asks 'why would you let something as common as money spoil your dreams?' you are in control - money doesn't control you any longer. be brave, feel the emotions this brings to the surface - you are strong enough to feel them and get to the other side where it is safe to stand. god's peace.

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