Radical Changes

Yesterday, we looked at Dave Ramsey’s 7 baby steps; these are steps almost everyone can follow. If you have an income, a reasonable level of commitment and some patience, you can make some real progress at becoming financially secure.

So what if you really want to go crazy with this thing? If you have a very early retirement as your goal, you might want to read what Jacob Lund Fisker has to say. Mr. Fisker has a 21 day makeover plan to get you on the path to save 75% of your income and retire extremely early. This guy is really smart. His is also way out under the long tail of our graph.

If you are willing to start questioning why we live they way we do; try:

The forest versus the trees Early Retirement Extreme: — written by Jacob Lund Fisker

In this blog Fisker explains how the actions of his deliberate and planned frugality interact.

Dump Stuff is a suggestion that Fiske makes early in his 21 day plan. He contends that a too big, too expensive house or apartment is one thing holding people back from achieving their goals. People buy or rent too much home so they have a place to put their stuff.

Small & Close are the words to have in mind when looking for a place to live.

Save Time & Money – Live close to work, recreation and shopping. You will save time and money on your commute and may be able to get down to one, or no cars.

Be Happy & Healthy – Walk or bike that commute to decrease your stress and improve your health. Spend some of that saved commute time cooking healthy real food.

Each of these actions has a benefit by themselves, but done together a real money saving synergy is created.

If we look at the opposite of the life he describes, we have a huge house in the suburbs, where no one can walk to anything.

Both parents must work to pay the mortgage, insurance, taxes and upkeep of our big house.

Commute times and costs are so high that three nights a week dinner is from a drive through.

The kids spend more time in the car shuttling from school to activity than they do playing outside.

At night the family zones out in front of their 52 inch 212 channel TV. No one has time to nurture relationships and everyone’s health suffers from lack of exercise, stress and poor diet.

How about that, we started off trying to save your money and instead we might just save your life.

Who is this Dave Guy?

For those of you that do not know, Dave Ramsey is a New York Times bestselling author, a radio host and the guy behind my enthusiasm for this new debt free life.

You can download his radio show as a podcast at itunes. Give it a listen; this guy is a hoot.

I’ve read lots of financial management books, because I read a lot and because I’ve always been involved in small business and money. By far, Dave’s is the simplest most straightforward advice out there. He doesn’t just tell you the theory, he has a very definite step by step plan and he motivates his readers to actually follow the plan.

After I read his book, The Total Money Makeover, we attended the 13-week class, Financial Peace University that many churches host. Still not having enough of Dave, I attended his week long, very intense counselor training.

The average family, while going through Financial Peace University, pays off $5,300 in debt and increases their savings by $2,700!

The foundation of Dave’s plan are the seven baby steps:

STEP 1 – $1,000 to start an Emergency Fund

Making a commitment not to borrow money requires that you have some other method to pay for life’s little emergencies like the busted water heater or the bad alternator on your car.

STEP 2 – Pay off all debt using the Debt Snowball

List all your debts, except for the house mortgage, smallest to largest. Pay minimums on everything except the smallest and attack it with everything you’ve got. When the first debt is paid off, take what you were paying on it; add it to the minimum on the second and work like crazy to pay it off. Keep that snowball rolling until all of the debt is gone.

STEP 3 – Build an emergency fund of 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings

$1000 is not enough money to handle a real emergency. Loss of job, prolonged illness or a death in the family may require much more. Almost universally, money experts recommend 3-6 months of expenses.

STEP 4 – Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement

If you were in debt when you started the program, Dave recommends stopping all retirement, college and other saving temporarily until you reach this step. Now it’s time to re-start your retirement savings.

Step 5 – College funding for children

While maintaining your 15% retirement savings, start saving for the kids college.

STEP 6 – Pay off home early

Now put all you can into paying off the house.

STEP 7 – Build wealth and give!

You have no payments. No car payments, no credit card payments and no house payment. You can really afford to build wealth and give.

Golden-Crowned Flying Fox

Recently while doing some research, I read a parent’s statement about teens and student loans, “Very few if any teens have any conception of what it means to have a loan or repay one. It’s just magic right now, you sign your name and money appears.”

I totally agree but I think we can amend the statement to read “Very few if any teens people have any conception of what it means to have a loan or repay one. It’s just magic right now, you sign your name and money appears.”

Teens are not the only ones that make life-altering decisions armed with almost no knowledge of the subject. Adults do it all the time.

How do you know what you know?

If I asked a group of my friends what they know of the Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox, most would reply nothing but let me google that.

Ask that same group what they know of student loans or home mortgages or car leases and they would admit to some knowledge on the subject. After all, these are things they’ve done, their parents did, their friends and neighbors do.

When I amended the statement to read, “Very few if any teens people have any conception of what it means to have a loan or repay one.” I didn’t mean most people have never had loans. Most people have taken out loans and most people have paid off some debt. However, most people, maybe even you, have never sat down and studied what that debt costs them.

Being familiar with a subject is not the same as being knowledgeable.

If you’re thinking of leasing a car, have you actually done a cost comparison? Put real numbers on a spreadsheet – including risk.

If you think keeping your mortgage is smart because of the tax break, have you computed those savings?

Let’s assume you have a $200,000 balance on your mortgage at an interest rate of 5%, that’s $10,000 a year that you pay to the bank. If your income puts you into a 25% tax bracket, then not having a mortgage (or interest to go with it) means you pay $2,500 to the government on that extra $10,000 in the form of taxes. Do you really think it’s smart to pay the bank $10,000 so you don’t have to pay the government $2,500?

When it comes to your future security and freedom, you need to treat every decision like the subject of the Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox.  You don’t know enough. Get online, get out the calculator or the spreadsheet and prove to yourself what you think you know. Read differing opinions and make your decision based on real information.

Turning a Dream into a Nightmare

My kid rode home from the hospital in a car seat – an approved, properly anchored car seat. The electrical outlets in our home were carefully covered with plastic safety plugs. I read him books and checked his homework and made sure he held my hand when crossing a street. I tried to limit his soda and french-fries and I encouraged him to drink his milk and eat his vegetables.

I bet you did the same with your kids.

As parents, we do everything we can to ensure the safety, success and happiness of our children. We want to give them every possible advantage.

Yet most of us stand by and do nothing when the financial aid officer offers them a student loan. It’s not that the parents or the students are stupid, they are just sucked in. We’ve been taught that it is normal to go to college on a student loan.  If NYU is your child’s dream, it seems that at the time it’s worth anything to make that dream come true.

It is not. The four year dream can become the 10, 15 or 30 year nightmare.

Do you remember you first debt?

What if it was a student loan in the amount $97,000 for a degree in Religion and Women’s Studies?

Let’s think about this a minute. Cortney Munna, the Religion and Women’s Studies graduate, will be making payments of over $700 for 15 years. How many recent college graduates do you know that have $700 a month available in their budget?

She will have to make these payments no matter what. Unlike credit card debt, student loans normally are not discharged with bankruptcy. And unlike a car or a house there is no asset to repossess. It is nearly impossible to have a student loan forgiven. It does not matter if Cortney should face a spell of unemployment or if her spouse or child should become ill, the payments are due and if she doesn’t make them her loan will be in default. Defaulted loans continue to accrue interest and collection charges.

Defaulting on a student loan can have very serious consequences. Garnishment of wages is one probable result. Additionally, the government can intercept your tax refund and/or take a portion of your Social Security disability or retirement benefit.  Another crippling consequence of a defaulted federal loan may be the inability to renew a professional license. View the excellent graphic The  Student Loan Scheme.

Even if Cortney is never late on a payment, she has started her life as an adult in a huge hole with tremendous risk.

So how could this have turned out different?

We have to love our children enough to say NO. NO you cannot cross the street alone when your 5, NO you cannot drink and drive and NO you absolutely will not go $97,000 in debt for a degree in Religion and Women’s Studies.

Would she have listened? If it were life or death, you could make your adult child listen.

This is life or no life; find a way to get through. Get her to talk to 5 recent grads in her field; look up starting salaries; make a budget of what life will be like after graduation. Work together and explore ways of getting the same results without the debt.

The Two Yous

You suffer from a split personality.

There is the “Thinking You” that wants to lose weight, stop smoking, read books or save money.

Then there is the “Impulsive You” that eats cake, smokes- but only when drinking, watches hours of mind-numbing TV or can’t resist a $6 Starbucks on the way to work.

The “Thinking You” is always yelling at the “Impulsive You”:  “Have some self-control.”

“Smart You” may win for a while but when you’re tired, or hungry or lonely or sad, YOU are going to lose.

Keeping a grip all the time is exhausting. It’s no fun and it doesn’t work. It is true that once new habits are well established things get a lot easier, but in the beginning before your desired behavior is a habit, it can be a battle.

So, how do you win?  Easy, you cheat.

If you need $150 a paycheck to go into savings to cover those non-monthly expenses like insurance, taxes, vacation and Christmas you have two choices. You can cash your check and wrestle “Impulsive You” for the $150 or you can, either through direct deposit or automatic transfer, have the money put where it belongs before you ever see it.

If the morning Starbucks is not in your budget but you routinely find yourself there, try one of these solutions:

  • If you can budget one a week you may be able to pacify “Impulsive You” by saying we’ll stop on Friday.
  • If your to-go cup is full with really good home brewed coffee when you leave the house, there is less reason to stop.
  • Can you take another route? Maybe pick up a co-worker on the way and enjoy some conversation instead.

Nobody knows “Impulsive You” like “Thinking You”. Plan around your temptations. Self-control is not an endless resource. At any given moment you’ve only got about a cup of it, use it up and you are at “Impulsive You’s” mercy for the rest of the day. When you know a situation saps your self-control, avoid it. Automate important or difficult processes so you don’t need to re-make your decisions every month.

Remember the kids that stared at the marshmallow? They ate it. They used up all their self control and the marshmallow was still sitting there, so they gobbled it up. The successful kids distracted themselves by looking away or singing songs.

Take a lesson from the 4-year-olds and learn to distract the “Impulsive You”.

Need a ride?

This is a graph.

Let’s call it our “How People Get to Work Graph”.

Most people live under the big fat part of the graph. They are driving financed or leased cars to work. They are obligated and indebted. They are normal.

Normal Sucks. (Please remember this highly technical financial phrase; it can make you rich).

If we move just a little to the right, we find people driving their paid off cars to work. These people are not entirely normal, they are not indebted (at least not for their car) and they have given themselves a chance to win. Dave approves of these people’s transportation.

Out to the right a little further, we might find two or more people car-pooling, sharing their transportation expense. Most of you are still with me here, that’s a scenario that you can wrap your head around.

But let’s go way out under the long tail. Here we can find people who have sold their car. They don’t have a car. They don’t have car insurance or maintenance or parking or gas expenses. They don’t have finance costs or depreciation draining their net worth. They are car-free. These people are way Beyond Dave.

Could you do this? Before you answer please notice I have my fingers in my ears. Go ahead a rattle off your 52 rationalizations why this is crazy and the people who do it are nuts and why it would never work for you. Done?

The average American spends nearly 20% of the income on transportation. Twenty percent, how much is that for you?

Edmunds True Cost to Own can give you an idea what it really costs to own different models.

These people without cars plan to live without cars. They live relativity close to work. This means not only do the save on transportation costs, but they may also save on commute time as well.

What would more time at home mean to you?

Would it mean you could get a load of wash done in the morning so everyone is less rushed and stressed in the evening? Would it mean you could cook dinner more often instead of picking up unhealthy and expensive drive through food? Could you get an extra hour with the kids?

Add this value to your twenty percent.

So, how do you get to work if you don’t have a car?

Buses, trains, subways and car pools work in some places.

Electric Bikes, bikes and walking work in others.

A combination of any of the above works in even more places.

I commuted by bike 10 miles each way for a number of years. I usually rode at least 3 days a week. It was good for my health and good for the budget. It wasn’t as good as being car free but it was much better than normal.

How far can get you from normal?

I Stepped in Something

Phew! I can tell. Go clean it off and let’s keep walking.

Simple, right? You make a mistake, fix it. You make a mess, clean it up. Not later. Now. Set things right so we can keep going.

When it comes to money mistakes, many seem to be reluctant to clean up their messes. They stick their head in the sand and wait for the problem just to go away.

The stupid new car purchase is a decision that many make and refuse to correct. The ridiculously high payments strain their budget, their relationships and their lifestyle. Rather than taking the hit and getting out of the mess, some people continue doggedly watching the resale value drop. All the while, their ability to get some traction on their goal is lost.

Maybe you’ve made the “too much house” mistake. If your house or rent payment is much more than 25% of your take home pay, you may survive but you cannot prosper. If in the near term you cannot increase you income you’ve got too much house. The real question is what are you going to do about it?

The same question must be asked of credit card balances. You can rant about the increased interest rates, about the higher minimums and the unscrupulous companies but what are you doing to get out?

If you took out a student loan last semester and now are starting to  understand this may not be  smart, don’t automatically accept one this semester. Just because you started down the wrong path doesn’t mean you can’t turn around.

Mistakes happen. If a lapse in judgment allowed you to make a money mess, forgive yourself, clean it up and let’s move on.

Bad Dog

Quick, you’re in a dark alley in an unfamiliar part of town. Which would you rather meet up with, five yapping Chihuahuas or one big, mean pit bull?

Me? I know I can deal with the yappers. They definitely can aggravate with their incessant barking and they might even nip; but they can’t eat me.

Welcome to debt consolidation. This is where you take all your little aggravating debts and create one big monster. You might even put the big vicious thing on steroids by consolidating all your debts into your home equity line.


This is what people do when they can’t stand to listen to the yappers one more second. If you’re here, unplug the phone and find a way to get a quiet moment to think.

You cannot borrow your way out of debt. No way, no how, it will not happen. If a consolidation lowers your monthly payment, it does it by stretching out the term. You will be in debt LONGER and it will cost you MORE- even if the interest rate is lower.

I have read many articles by so-called money experts that advise taking out a home equity loan to pay off credit card debt. YIKES! This advice is so bad I have to believe they are getting kickbacks from the credit card companies. Thankfully, these loans have become much harder to get. Can you think of anything more stupid than to risk your home for the shoes, TV, or dinners that you bought with your Visa?

If you are so sick and tired of carrying your debt; that the late-night TV promises of the debt consolidators are starting to sound tempting, what should you do?

1.       Know you are not alone. I can’t say it was smart to get into this position but at least you are in good company.

2.       STOP borrowing. Cut up the cards; freeze them in a block of ice; do NOT carry them in your wallet under any circumstances.

3.       Make a rational and reasonable plan to live on less than you make and start paying off the debt.

You knew all along that it would take discipline, commitment and hard work to get out of debt. It was only when you were tired and alone and ashamed that you wanted to believe the to0-good-to-be-true promises of the debt consolidators.

5 Ways to use your Money to Ruin your Relationships

  1. Hide spending, income or debt from your significant other
  2. Give the kids everything they want or might want someday
  3. Co-sign a loan for anyone you care about
  4. Loan money to someone you love
  5. Wait to be happy until– (you’re out of debt, you’ve saved enough, you make more etc.)