5 Ways to Force Your Spouse to Get Frugal*

Communication is important in a marriage.  If you can’t communicate, how are you going to get your way?**  I’ve helpfully compiled the best possible ways to get your spouse on board with your budget plans.

  1. Don’t include her. When I absolutely, positively cannot afford to be working towards a different goal than my wife, I do my best to ignore her.  I don’t tell her how much we’ve paid off, how much we have left, or what we can afford to spend on groceries.   I think she enjoys not having to worry about the petty details like “Are we overdrawn?” or “Will we be eating Alpo next week?”   I’ll do anything to make her life easier.
  2. Nag. Nothing convinces my wife to do things my way like unending scolding.   If I just remind her, day and night, surely she’ll cooperate with my budgeting plans and ideas to save money, right?   Every body loves the attention, and, since we got a text messaging plan, I can shoot her a message every five minutes while she’s at the store.   In all seriousness, this is actually a problem and a source of friction at my house.   Reminding her every time she goes to the store is not an effective strategy.
  3. Whine. If nagging fails, I always try to take the advice of my toddlers and whine until I get my way.   “But Ho-uh-neee-eee!  Why’d you buy tha-at?”   It’s always been a big hit at my house.   My wife appreciates the effort I put into getting the third, screechy syllable into simple words, just to try to convince her to give up or see things my way.
  4. Obsess. This goes hand-in-hand with both #2 and #3.    If I never giver her the chance to forget about our goals, she can never stray from them.   A memo in the morning, hourly text reminders, and a daily summary of our account balances and month-to-date budget compliance just keeps us working together.    Everything we do can be tied back to our frugal choices and debt repayment, whether it’s a game of Sorry or a trip to a wrestling tournament.
  5. Yell. If all else fails, just turn up the volume.   If there’s a problem, I nag at level 10.   Whining loudly enough to wake the neighbors will convince her to comply with my wishes next time.  This has the added benefit of allowing my kids to receive the wisdom of my experience, even if they are in the basement playing games with their friends.

*This obviously isn’t a gender-specific article, but, as a man, I write from a man’s perspective and my pronouns match my perspective.

**Sarcasm.  Really.   Following these rules should result in divorce, NOT happy agreement.  If you are operating under this action plans, get therapy.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.


Fall From Grace

When you accumulate a certain level of debt, it feels like you’re wading through an eyeball-deep pool of poo, dancing on your tiptoes just to keep breathing.   Ask me how I really feel.Tip Toe

It shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m in debt.  We have gone over this before.   The story isn’t one of my proudest, so I’ve never talked much about how it happened.

Our debt was entirely our fault.  We messed up and dug our own poo-pool.   There were no major medical bills, no extended unemployment, just a strong consumer urge and an apparent need for instant gratification.  Delayed gratification wasn’t a skill I’d considered learning.  The idea of it was a thoroughly foreign concept.   Why wait when every store we visited offered no payments/no interest for a year?   We didn’t give much thought to what would happen when the year was up.

We got married young.   We bought our house young.  We started our family young.   We did all of that over the course of two years, well before we were financially ready.   Twenty years old, we had excellent credit and gave our credit reports a workout.   Credit was so easy to get.    By the time I was 22, we had a total credit limit more than twice our annual income.  We fought so hard to keep up with the Joneses.   A new pickup, a remodel on our house.   Within a month of paying off the truck, I got a significant raise and rushed out to buy a new car.

Every penny that hit the table was caught in a net of lifestyle expansion.   I was bouncing on my tiptoes.

Four months into my new car payment, I was laid off.  There’s me, hoping for a snorkel.  A week later, we found out our son was going to be a big brother.   Our pool had developed a tide.

We killed the cable and cut back on everything else and…managed.   Money was tight, but we got by.  I got a new job, but had we learned any lessons?  Of course not.   We got a satellite dish, started shopping the way we always had.  Times were good, and could never be bad.  We had such short memories.

Fast forward a couple of years.   Baby #3 is on the way while baby #2 is still in diapers.   Daycare was about to double.  Daddy started to panic.   I built a rudimentary budget and realized there was no way to make ends meet.   There just wasn’t enough cash coming in to cover expenses.   That’s when I made my first frugal decision:  I quit smoking.  That cut the expenses right to the level of our income.  It was tight, but doable.

There was still one serious problem.    Neither one of us could control our impulse shopping.   For a time, I was getting packages delivered almost every day.  It was never anything expensive, but it was always something.  Little things add up quickly.

Last spring, I realized we couldn’t keep going like that.   I started looking into bankruptcy.   Somehow, we managed to toss ourselves into the deep end of the pool.  We had near-perfect credit and no way to maintain it.

While researching bankruptcy, I found our life preserver.   We put together a budget.   We cut and…it hurt.     It’s taken a year, but every bill we have is finally being tracked.   We have an emergency fund and we are working towards our savings goals.    It hasn’t been an easy year, but we are making progress.    We’ve eliminated 15% of our debt and opened out budget to include some “blow money” and an occasional date night.   We are always looking for ways to decrease our bottom line and increase the top line.   Most important, we are actually working together to keep all of our expenses under control, with no hurt feelings when we remind ourselves to stay on track.

We are finally standing flat-footed, head and shoulders above the poo.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.


Investing Basics

If you’ve got your debt paid off, or at least paid down enough to start thinking about using your money for the future instead of the past, it’s time to consider investing your money.  If you invest your money, it can grow and start building wealth for you, preferably without your active intervention.   Passive income is the best income.

Before you invest in anything, you need to understand the investment completely.  In the words of Dave Ramsey, you need to own the investment.   There are some questions to ask to get to that level of understanding.

What kind of return can you expect?   Will the income come from renters, dividends, or interest?  Is the income reliable?

How risky is the investment?  Generally, more risk comes with the potential for more income, but that is merely potential.   It’s called risk for a reason.  If your renters leave, can you make the payments on the property?  Will you be financially devastated if the investment tanks?   Companies like Standard & Poor’s rate the risk of corporate and municipal bonds.

How liquid is it?   How hard will it be to get your money out of the investment?  Stocks and bonds can usually be sold at will, but CDs and IRAs almost always come with restrictions.   Property requires a seller before you can get your money back out.

Is there a tax advantage?  Some investments, like U.S. Savings bonds and municipal bonds, are exempt from varying levels of taxes.  Others, such as some IRAs, allow your wealth to grow tax-deferred and can, in some cases, be withdrawn tax-free.   Other investments, like a 401k paid out of pre-tax income, can lower your taxable income and actually increase your take-home pay while building your retirement fund.  Do you understand the 401k alternatives?

When you are looking at an investment vehicle, make sure it is legitimate.   Don’t believe get-rich-quick promises and always back away from high-pressure sales tactics.    Always take the time to investigate your investments.

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Debt Scams

When you are up to your eyeballs in debt, praying for a step-stool, sometimes life–more accurately, con-artists–try to trip you when you are vulnerable and look for a solution.  They aren’t muggers on the street.  They come at you wearing ties, invite you to a real office, with real furniture and a real nameplate on a real desk.   They are a real company, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to scam you out of the little money you have left to put towards your debt.

Yes, I am talking about debt management scams.  These scams come in 4 main varieties.

Debt Settlement companies instruct you to stop paying your bills completely and send them the money instead to be placed in a settlement fund.  When your creditors get desperate enough, they will be willing to settle for pennies on the dollar.

In theory, this can be a good strategy for some debtors.  Unfortunately, it has some drawbacks, even if the company is legitimate.   They tend to charge high fees as a percentage of your deposits.  Some take another fee when a settlement is accepted.   The entire time you are building your settlement fund, your credit rating is sinking, leaving you open to being sued or garnished.  The bad companies take the fund and run, while even the good companies can’t guarantee your creditors will play ball.

Ultimately, they aren’t doing anything you can’t easily do yourself.    If you want to go the settlement route, stop making your payments and funnel the money into a savings account that you will use to offer settlements from.  It takes discipline, but there is no upside to paying someone else for the same function.

Debt Management plans are used when you owe more than you can afford to pay. These companies work with your creditors to adjust interest rates and minimum payments and they try to get some fees waived for you.

A good company will work with you and your creditors to make sure everyone is working together towards the goal of eliminating the debt.   A bad company will tell you they are working with your creditors while ignoring any contact from the creditor.  They’ll tell you the creditor isn’t willing to negotiate while never stepping up to the negotiation table.   Another trick is to offer the creditor a set payment, with a “take it or leave it” clause.  Any input from the creditor is interpreted as a refusal to participate.   This, coupled with high fees paid by the debtor, make debt management firms a risky proposition.  Most states require the firms to be licensed.  Check to make sure they are before giving them any information.

Debt/Credit Counseling companies work with you to establish a budget and eliminate expenses; in effect, they are training you to be in control of your finances.  They are often organized as a nonprofit, but not always.

Some–the sleazy ones–lie about what they are doing, or attempt to misconstrue what you are agreeing too.   Be careful not to use your home as collateral to consolidate unsecured debt and don’t walk into a Chapter 13 bankruptcy without that being your intention.  Both of those are common debt counseling scams.  If the company isn’t able to provide all of the details of a transaction–company name, address, licensing information–or they aren’t willing to spend as much time as necessary explaining the details of the transaction, walk away.   This is your life, you are in charge of it.  Don’t let anyone bully or prod you into signing something you aren’t comfortable with.

Credit Repair is almost always a scam. There are ways to get correct bad information removed from your credit report.  If the information is correct, those methods are illegal.   There are two legal methods to repair your credit.  First, stop generating bad credit.  Make your payments on time and eventually, the bad items will fall off.   Second, write letters disputing the actual incorrect items on your credit report.  There are no quick fixes, and anybody telling you different is flirting with a jail sentence, possibly yours.

How do you avoid the scammers?

  • Be skeptical. If it looks to good to be true, it probably is.  There is no such thing as a magic wand to fix your credit and make your debt disappear.  Bankruptcy + 10 years of your life is the closest thing to magic credit repair in this world.
  • Only use a legitimate credit counselor. Verify them through the Better Business Bureau and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (1-800-388-2227 or www.nfcc.org)
  • Check the license. Most states require credit and debt counselors to be licensed.  If they’re not, run away and report them.
  • Read the find print.   Don’t sign anything you don’t understand.  Like every other piece of your financial life, own the transaction. Know what your are doing, or don’t do it.
  • Are they willing to work with you? If they’ve got a generic plan that doesn’t account for your specific situation, they are probably a con.  At the very least, they are a worthless company and a waste of both time and money.
  • Are they willing to work with your creditors? If not, they won’t be accomplishing anything for you.
  • How much do they cost? Higher fees may not be an indicator of a scam, but call around and find out if they are in the right ballpark.  Triple or quadruple the going rate is a sign of someone who will disappear late one night, with your hopes, dreams and savings in tow.
  • Above all else, trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.  There is nothing a counselor can do that can’t wait a few days while you check them out.

There is no magic bullet to kill debt.   You’re not fighting a werewolf, you’re fighting a lifetime of bad or unfortunate choices and circumstances.  It’s important to keep a realistic outcome in mind.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Debt Reduction.