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Riches to Rags
By Brandy Ferner
Web Exclusive - January 30, 2009
It's amazing how life can turn on a dime. One week I was rolling my eyes at all the coupon clipping my husband's great-grandma does, and the next, I was begging her to keep an eye out for deals on Newman's Own pasta sauce. My journey from riches to rags was really that quick—or at least my realization of it was.
As with many mamas, before my active and wonderful two-year-old son was born, I helped bring home the bacon. You may have heard the acronym for it: DINK, dual income, no kids. Looking back, that was the good life, and we didn't even know it. It was time to work hard and stow away the rewards of our labor?or travel to Japan, go to massage school, and occasionally remember to look at price tags. Part of me is furious with myself (and with my husband, too, for he was my partner in crime) for spending frivolously, but the other part of me knows that the places we explored and the things we learned in those years have made us who we are today. I don't know that I would've been able to give birth at home had I not been first introduced to the idea of the mind-body connection through those pricey massage classes.
My choice to be a stay-at-home mom gives me immense pride. But it does not give me immense piles of money with which to buy every little item that might seem like a necessity at the time. Wipes warmer anyone? Even though our household income had been cut in half, we were used to living a certain way. We did not take charge of our finances—we had other things to attend to. After a long day of nursing, laundry, playing, and cleaning (okay, I'm lying about the cleaning), we didn't want to look our checkbook in the face and accept that we probably couldn't afford to order in.
To make matters worse, my husband works freelance, and his monthly income is never guaranteed. He doesn't get benefits like health care and a 401K. As with most people working freelance, he lives by feast or famine. Now add to this mix the current economic climate. For us, these circumstances led to some pretty serious credit card debt. I cannot blame the economy for most of this. In fact, you could say that the economy is what finally brought the situation to our attention.
My husband nearly had a as we discussed the severity of our situation. After I calmed him down while simultaneously reading my son his bedtime story—"Clickety clack, clickety clack? it's going to be okay, we'll get through this even if we have to sell our condo? clickety clack...", we vowed to do whatever it took to get out of debt and start living credit card-free. After much hemming and hawing, we knew the only way to do it was to—gulp—change our lifestyle: eat cheaper foods, possibly sell one of our cars, use our cell phones less, buy and eat responsibly and sleep without the air-conditioning on.
What happened next shocked me. As I looked into how we could save money—big money—I realized I was actually enjoying myself. I was not in tears; I was calling my mom and celebrating every time I found a new way to lower our expenses. Not only did it feel like a scavenger hunt of sorts, but banishing those credit cards from my wallet was the most freeing feeling in the world. Sure, we hadn't technically paid any debt down yet, but we were on the right track, clickety clack!
We are still paying off our credit card debt, but I am happy to be able to share with you some of the lesser-known tips that have helped us so far:
- Stop what you are doing right now, and call every company who sends you a bill and ask them to lower your rate. Some will jump to accommodate you and some won't, but it doesn't hurt to ask. After making it past the annoying pre-recorded prompts and actually talking to a live human being, my spiel (and it was true) was, "I am having a hard time making ends meet and I wanted to talk to you about canceling our service." Our satellite provider sounded like he might cry, "Would it help if I lowered your monthly bill by $30?" Our Internet provider shaved off ten dollars per month. Our cell phone carrier wasn't able (or willing) to help us, but I managed to find a cheaper plan with less minutes. I haven't texted in days—and I'm not even having withdrawal.
- Assuming you have a credit card (or two, or three), call them and ask them to lower your rate. I have had this work in the past, too. If you can convince them that you are considering transferring your balance to another card with a lower rate, they most likely will give you a reason to stay with them. They'd rather continue to make money off you, even at a lower rate, than lose your business all together. If you are in a bad enough situation (as we were), some credit card companies actually have a hardship specialist department. If you can prove to them that you cannot pay your monthly expenses with your current income and that you are really trying to get on top of the debt, they can do such magic as lower your rate to 0 percent and lower your monthly minimum balance so that you can actually pay your debt down rather than just cover the interest every month. Every company's policy will be different, and be sure to ask how it affects your credit. Another helpful hint is to have all of your expenses and amounts of minimum payments on other credit cards itemized before you call (since you have to give them this type of information anyway). The guy I talked to sounded as if he nearly fell out of his chair when I had this information ready for him.
- If you have a mortgage, call your lender and tell them about your situation. Ask them if they can lower your interest rate. This was actually advice from a mortgage specialist at the bank that houses our loan. She instructed me to call the customer service number on my mortgage statement. I was then transferred to their loss mitigation department. My spiel with them was (and again, it was all true), "We are having a hard time making ends meet and we have not yet been delinquent with a payment and are wondering if you can do anything to help us avoid that." The mortgage specialist told me that because of all of the recent foreclosures, apparently lenders are willing to work with you on this because they'd rather not have another foreclosed house on their hands. They just want to get paid, even if it's a little less than what you're paying now.
- If you own your home, consider using a home equity line of credit to pay off credit cards with high APRs. The rate on our home equity line is half that of most credit cards. This might be tough to swing right now, though, since most lenders are reluctant to open lines of credit with the economy as it is.
- If you have an IRA, consider (I repeat, consider) withdrawing from it or at least stop contributing if you're not able to pay your basic monthly expenses. My parents are going to ream me for even saying this because they staunchly believe that IRAs (especially ROTH IRAs) are a great way to build a retirement fund with all that glorious compounded interest. And they're right, but if I can't pay my mortgage (or rent) now, my retirement isn't going to matter. I can't see the logic in living in a cardboard box now, but having a nest egg for later in life. Things to consider are: What penalties will you pay for withdrawing the funds? Are you willing to lose out on what you've invested so far to have some quick cash? Do you think keeping your money invested will reap you a profit even with the current economic downturn, or would this money better serve you in some other way (paying off debt)? If you are on my parent's side and want to keep your investments untouched, but still need some relief, something to consider is to stop contributing for a while—you can always start up again later. Yes, it's true that you will be missing out on the cheap price of shares right now, but in our case, we saved $500 per month by ceasing to contribute, and that really gave us the boost we needed. Totally worth it, in our opinion.
- I can't believe I'm saying this (you win, great-grandma!), but utilize coupons for groceries, household goods, health and beauty products, toys, and so on. There is an entire subculture of coupon clippers. If you play them at the right time—like when a store is having a special on an item you also have a coupon for—you can actually get things for pennies and sometimes for nothing at all (but that takes some mad couponing skills). Because knowing what's on sale where and when could be a full-time job, there are services out there that compile this information for you (some for a fee, some not). A very easy-to-follow site called www.grocerygame.com does this for you for a fee. There is www.afullcup.com that is free, but takes some time to master. If you don't have the time (or the energy) to find and clip coupons, there is www.thecouponclippers.com. Another coupon mega website with printable coupons is www.hotcouponworld.com. And those are just the tip of the iceberg. If it all seems overwhelming, even just using one measly coupon sans knowledge of store specials will put money back in your purse. It all adds up. I was in need of that aforementioned pasta sauce and went to www.newmansown.com and voila!—there was a printable coupon for it. Other manufacturers do this, too, such as www.organicvalley.com. It's enough to make you want to go out and buy a handy dandy coupon organizer—wait, I mean, make one out of recycled envelopes!
Who says that being frugal can't be fun? The first step is acknowledging your financial situation, then embracing it (which includes being gentle on yourself), and the last step is finding a way to make your newfound penny-pinching talents a positive, joyful part of your daily existence rather than an embarrassing nuisance.
Brandy Ferner is a freelance writer, mother and wife. When she's not entertaining her two-year-old son, she makes one-of-a-kind children's clothing out of recycled t-shirts for her new Los Angeles-based company, Violet Riot, www.violetriot.com.
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