Monday, December 31, 2007

Two books that are changing our financial lives

Warning: You may want to make a bowl of popcorn. You could be here awhile!

The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey

We have been drowning in our debt for several years and we always thought there was no other alternative because Dan was in graduate school and I was only working part-time, taking care of the girls. This book, first off, tells you that there is no other solution than hard work and sacrifice if you want to become debt-free and financially independent. Knowing where our money is going hasn't really been our problem; I have been tracking our daily expenditures in Microsoft Money for four years now. Our problem has been that there just wasn't enough income coming in to cover our monthly debt obligations. So we either needed more income or less debts.This book tells you if you aren't making ends meet, you have to cut down to the bare bones on your budget, and if that's still not good enough, you just have to generate more income. Sounds simple, I know, but it really is a conversion in your way of thinking.

Dan found out about this book while listening to Dave Ramsey's radio program (on 570am from 7:00-10:00pm in our area.) He was feeling frustrated about the fact that he had been out of graduate school for 6 months and our financial situation hadn't improved any. He checked this book out at the library and I was thrilled to see him taking an interest in finding a solution to our financial problems. I've been in charge of all the bill paying and money management essentially our whole marriage and it has been such a HUGE relief to finally share the burden and be unified in finding a way to dig ourselves out of our hole. As I mentioned earlier, it really is like a conversion when you finally realize that even if you can pay your bills every month, you're still broke if you aren't accumulating any savings.

Let me ask you this difficult question: If your whole household became unemployed, how long could you live? For us, the answer was not even two weeks because we have no savings and our credit cards are maxed out.

Dave's book lays out a simple plan, in a specific order, that you can follow to become debt-free and financially independent.

1. Figure out where your money is going and make a budget. This is the most painful part. It takes discipline and time you would rather spend doing something else to track every dollar and cent for a month to see what you are spending. Once you have done that, you can see where you are spending too much and where you can cut back. Dave's big message is that you have to become intense if you want to improve your financial situation.

I felt pretty sure that we were living pretty tightly, but we made some major changes and cut our budget by several hundred dollars. At the end of September we sold our Nissan Xterra. It took us about a year to decide to sell it because we had bought it new and finally paid it down below what we owed on it. We felt like if we could just stick out the payments for another 2 years, we'd have a paid-for vehicle that was very reliable. Plus you just hate knowing that you spent $4800.00 a year for the last 3.5 years and if you sell, you'll have nothing to show for it. But as Dave would say, "Broke people don't drive nice cars." So we sold the truck and now we share our 1989 Honda Accord. It ain't plush, but it sure is nice having the extra $400.00/month! In addition to no longer having our car payment, our gas expenses have drastically decreased. Our fuel economy is better, but we also plan our trips better and try not to drive anywhere unless it is absolutely necessary.

Dave suggests using a cash envelope system for all expenditures that aren't set payments, such as groceries, gas, entertainment, personal care items, babysitting, clothing, etc. Anything that you have to make a payment for, like your credit card bills, insurance, rent/mortgage, utilities, etc., pay out of your checking account. All other things you pay cash for, and when the cash runs out, well, you just can't buy anything! We started the cash envelope system at the beginning of December, and you know what, it totally worked! We cut our food budget by about $150.00 because I knew I only had a set amount for groceries so I shopped more carefully, and we ate out a fraction of what we normally do because we knew there was only $75.00 to last us the whole month. We cut our gas budget down to $100.00. Clothes? Only absolute necessities, which were nothing this month, but will include snow boots for Lily next month. We've cut our childcare items (diapers, wipes, etc) and toiletries and such down to only the bare necessities.

Dave's website has a quickie budget form and a monthly cashflow planning form if you need help getting started.

2. Get all of your bills current. If you're behind on anything, get caught up first before you start putting money towards anything else.

3. Save up a $1000.00 Emergency Fund as fast as you can. This is to be used only in the case of a true emergency, like the car breaks down or something. It's not for a great sale on camera equipment (that was a reminder for me!) Having an emergency fund in place enables you to stop turning to your credit cards whenever unexpected expenses arise.

4. Pay off all debts (except the mortgage) using the debt snowball. The basic idea is to arrange all of your outstanding debts in order of smallest balance to largest balance, regardless of interest rate. Once you have paid off the first one, you apply that payment to your next debt until it is paid off, and so on until you are debt free. And obviously you have to stop buying on credit. Conduct a little plastic surgery! You can read a great explanation and example of the debt snowball here.

We've figured out our debt snowball and if we stick to our plan, we'll be completely debt-free in four years. The thing with being debt-free is that you can really begin to use your most valuable wealth building tool, your income. Imagine how much of your income you could make accumulate wealth for you if you didn't have to make debt payments! And you don't have to make a ton of money to become debt-free in a relatively short period of time. Many examples in the book and callers into Dave's daily radio program get out of debt in 2-3 years on $60K/year or less.

5. Build a fully-funded Emergency Fund with 3-6 months of expenses. It's important to clarify that this is not 3-6 months of replacement income, but rather 3-6 months of how much it costs you to live. The average is $10,000.00 to $15,000.00. If you're self-employed, it's wise to save up towards the six month figure instead of the three month figure.

The remaining steps involve what to do once you are out of debt and can start saving towards retirement and other goals. The order is: save 15% of your income towards retirement, save for your kids' college education, and pay off your mortgage early. After that, be charitable with your extra money. The last thing the book teaches, or rather, what it teaches throughout, is to stop buying on credit and save for the things you want. Don't buy things, even cars, unless you can pay cash for them. Sound crazy? It's really not, it's just that society has trained us to assume that debt is a part of life. But it doesn't have to be!

We are on the path, and we will prevail!

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley & William Danko

This book is referenced in Dave's book a few times and as luck would have it, Dan found it among Mom's book stash. This book is awesome because it really gets you thinking about wealth in a whole different light. Being wealthy is not about what kind of house you live in or how much stuff you have or even how much money you make. Being wealthy is about how much money you have in the bank. Many people who appear wealthy are just as broke as the rest of us!

Many of us, me included, assume that you have to make a high salary to be a millionaire. On the contrary. There are many examples in the book of people who earn less than $100K/year and have still become millionaires (have a net worth of $1,000,000 or more.) They have done this by being frugal, plain and simple. And those who earn high incomes and are millionaires live by the same principles. There are two contributing factors to wealth accumulation: income and consumption. There's one example in the book comparing two physicians in their 50's who earn about $700,000/year. One lives a frugal lifestyle, in a modest home, and has accumulated $7.5 million in wealth. The other lives a hyper-consuming lifestyle, living in a super-nice house with all the latest and greatest "things" but only has a net worth of $400,000. If he were to retire, he could not maintain his standard of living for even one year! The book uses a great sports analogy about wealth accumulation. You can have a great offense (earn a high income) but you can't win the game unless you also have a good defense in place (live a frugal lifestyle.)

The goal is to be financially independent. Can you imagine living without money worries? Without wondering when or if you'll be able to retire? I guess I'm getting old because I'm starting to think a lot about that. When you're young, you just worry about providing for your lifestyle now. But what happens when you wake up and you're 65 and still living paycheck to paycheck? I want to be able to retire in dignity and in comfort. Not lavishly, but to own a home free and clear, have enough for modest monthly expenses, and to be able to travel. Dan says he'll work till the day he dies, but hopefully that will be out of boredom, not out of necessity.

I look forward to the day when we can say we are debt-free and we can start saving for a down payment on a home. Sometimes I get depressed that we have been married for almost 12 years and don't own a home, and won't own one for at least another 5 years. But I'd rather improve our financial situation now, before we get into a mortgage, so that we can live a life of financial peace. As Dave says, "Don't bother trying to keep up with the Joneses. They're broke!"


Jen & Daz said...

Thanks for this post Sue!!! It's just goes along with what I am thinking about and what I am feeling regarding money...I'm hoping to be able to find both these books here in Australia, but have a gut feeling that won't be happening...but I will get my hands on them some how! Thanks again for the interesting and informative post! Here's to a good year of getting out of debt for the both of us! Jen

Sue said... has both of these books. Or you can get The Total Money Makeover on Dave's website at
It's $14.95.

Josh and Jenn said...

Sue, I love this post. It's really refreshing to have somebody be completely honest about finances. Don't feel bad about your financial situation. I can guarantee you that there are many other people who have it a lot worse, and at least you are taking control and doing something about it. I think I am going to get these books too!

Becky in Wyo said...

Amen, sister. As I've been reading all the family blogs today, trying to get caught up, I've been thinking to myself, "what is my New Year's Resolution?" I think I'll develop a stronger financial plan this year, so we can get out of debt faster.