Just One More Level…(okay, maybe one more)

“Don’t waste your time chasing things that will never be beneficial to your future.”

April Mae Monterrosa

I used to consider myself a gamer. I love RPG (roll playing games) like the Final Fantasy series or The Legend of Zelda. Knowing this, my wife purchased “Twilight Princess” for Playstation 4 for me for Christmas one year. I thought it was a great gift, finally a game for Dad! I began playing immediately and was automatically hooked. Graphics were great, controls were easy to use, and the story line was exhilarating.

It was also LONG. I played this game every night for two to three weeks until victory was finally mine. The end of the game is always satisfying when it’s been challenging, and I considered that game formidable. I watched the cut scenes glassy eyed, satisfied with the long, hard, magical quest that Nintendo had programmed just for me and considered myself quite the champion. I could sleep knowing all was well with the world. Until….

Programmed into the game is also a timer to tell a gamer how long it took play to the end. Much to my surprise, my time came to a whopping FORTY HOURS! Reality suddenly started crashing down around me. I couldn’t believe it. An entire work week was spent after I got home from my real job to play a fantasy game that was both entertaining and fun, but didn’t change my life in the slightest. There was no education, no Bible reading, no growing closer to my wife and kids by acknowledging they exist, no contributing to the common good of man; it was just a bunch of pixels on a screen which fed some chemical high I had at the time. I don’t think I’ve played video games in quite the same way since.

I started this journey, by taking the time to look at my budget, and it revealed a couple of areas where I needed to spend some extra time. I was able to see exactly what my monthly costs were individually. Cell phones and car insurance were crazy high at $173 and $228 per month respectively. I needed to lower those numbers and I’ve covered cell phone charges in a previous post.

On to a different insurance broker to get a new rate quote on car insurance to save some money (I realize how much that sounds like a Geiko or Progressive commercial). All I needed was a declaration statement from my current provider to send to those providing the quote. Once it was sent, I was glad I did, because I found a local business that provided a quote that will save me not only $500 on my car insurance per year, but another $100 on my mortgage insurance per year (with more coverage). That’s an extra 50 bucks a month in my pocket! Changes will be made as soon as possible.

Most people, when they see their expenses monthly, simply see a number that is going to decrease their income and whatever is left is considered “mad money.” Money they can just spend. They’ve done their due diligence once, and maybe at one point in life the costs to do business to comply with the law, like car insurance, is acceptable to pay, so they do so happily, and that’s great. Then years slip by, as masses of people are being entertained, or chasing some high, like me, before they realize that there’s other companies out there that might give them a better deal.

Successful businesses understand time is money. Why can’t we as individuals? Every single day, countless numbers of people are zoning out through watching television, playing video games, trolling social media and not paying attention to what time it is, or how much time they’ve spent being entertained, rather than expanding their minds or doing something more productive. Turn off the TV. Make a budget. Call another company. You might be glad you did.

I’m sorry, can you repeat that?

A collection agency contacted me today. This major disappointment came about 11 am, right about the time I found my mojo. I remember the all to familiar lines that bill collectors spill just before they proceed to annoy you with information you more than likely already know. “This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained on this call may be used expressly for that purpose…blah blah blah.”

This year has been expensive for our family as far as medical issues. I hate to admit they are mainly mine. In February I had some kind of attack where I was sure I must have had gall stones, or kidney stones, maybe even river stones, but it hurt! The trip we took to the emergency room revealed I had a “mild” case of diverticulitis. I was given antibiotics, pain killers, and an excuse to stay home from work for the next week. The bill that came along with it, after insurance, was roughly $1800, nice.

Normally, I tend to want to get my bill paying over with quickly. “Take it from savings! That’s what the emergency fund is for!” But we didn’t use our emergency bills for emergencies. We used it to pay bills over years and months because we didn’t budget. Karen shook her head because it wasn’t there, and I made payment arrangements for $104 per month and started to kill it with every extra dollar we had, but it didn’t die.

Today it sits at about $600 when my Indian friend called to inform me of his self incriminating recorded line. Then he lets me know that there’s an ADDITIONAL $1538.46 for “doctor’s services” much to my chagrin. Apparently ER facilities bill on one bill, while doctor’s services are invoiced on another. “Why do hospitals not include it all on one bill?” I ask. “Why am I just now hearing about this?” Apparently these are all questions for philosophers; for my foreign counterpart could not answer. I asked him to send me a statement via email and not to call me back between the hours of 8 am to 5 pm because he’s bugging me at work. He agreed, but not before asking me to make payment arrangements…I didn’t make payment arrangements.

billsI find there is a very primal emotion that comes about when I speak with people from collection agencies. It used to happen a lot, long before Karen and I were married. I think it may be a very natural reaction to be upset and defensive about bills a person can’t pay. There’s a very “fight or flight” mentality that comes with it. This heated reaction is exactly why I knew to get what information I could as quickly as I could and get off the phone. I’ve knowingly made payment arrangements for bills I knew couldn’t pay in the past. I wasn’t about to make another emotional decision.

After investigating, I found I do owe this bill, and I’ll pay it; but it won’t be because they backed me into a corner when I was upset about it. We can’t afford to pay it right now, “you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip,” someone once said (probably while talking to a bill collector). we have to take care of food, transportation, and housing, the basics. When a thousand dollars for emergencies  is saved in our account, this bill will be added to a debt snowball and it will be paid. Until then, I do not intend to speak to this collection agency again. Will it ruin my credit? Maybe, but right now I could care less. I don’t plan on using credit in the near future, or maybe ever. It’s not worth not taking care of my family now, and I would rather have the integrity of doing that AND paying a bill I owe, later.

What Causes us to Fall

Some of us, if not most of us, are at the bottom of a mountain looking up for one reason or another. It may be because we’ve never tried to climb one because we are intimidated by the thought of trying something new. Another may be overwhelmed by how daunting the task is. Others may have tried, but realized the persistence needed is just something that they didn’t have, and gave up. Then there are those who have climbed, got too overconfident, and came crashing down.

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Proverbs 16:18

My wife said something interesting to me when we decided to record our journey. She said there were warning signs she recognized; and she mentioned them a couple of times to me before, but I never listened. The funny thing is, I don’t remember her ever saying anything to me, which probably proves her point. There have been times in our marriage where what may have been gentle reminders from her, were mistakenly taken as harsh criticisms by me. When perceived criticism causes anger, or a blown off reaction, it’s easier to just not say anything.

Such is life with a prideful person. It’s difficult to talk to them, it’s even more difficult to reason with them when they are in the wrong. I know this because I fell into this category for many years of my life and my marriage. It helped lead us into where we are now: staring at the top of the mountain while trudging in the foothills.

Married people MUST communicate, and sometimes they must let each other know that there is a problem. If one is too prideful to admit they are not perfect or make mistakes, it will only lead to disaster of some kind. I’m glad she was patient and forgiving enough to let me hit the bottom so I would finally listen.

So what to do if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t talk to your spouse about money problems, or any other kind of problems? What do you do if you find yourself in a dilemma where your stupidity got you and your loved ones in a bad spot today? I would suggest for starters, looking up past the mountain into the sky. That is where King Jesus sits on His throne, and prayer is where humbleness begins. Prayer is like an about-face, like a prideful Prodigal Son coming to his senses and realizing there is a better life out there, but first he must change and be humble (Luke 15:17). Once that happens, the Father is there waiting with open arms. Chances are, if done with the same humble attitude, so is your spouse.

In the end, life’s not about the money, security, fancy cars, big homes and lots of travel. It’s about kneeling before Jesus, hearing Him say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant,” because He is well pleased with what you have done in this life for Him and others. Doing for Him would be giving your life over to Him and trusting what He has for you…humbly. Doing for others? Why not start with your spouse? An attitude of gratitude and not being above it all will help start getting through that foothill snow, and giving you a partner to climb the mountain with for a lifetime.

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Staying Sane Through Saving

One of the problems in life is the perpetuity of it. We all have routines. Those who brush their teeth twice a day will continue to do so twice a day. If you chew with your mouth open when you eat, chances are it will take an act of God to keep you from noshing with annoying noises. Non-morning people have a hard time getting happy before 9 am, while morning people can’t stop annoying non-morning people. The circle of life seems to spin at a dizzying rate, while we continue to do the same things we’ve always done day in and day out. It takes conscious effort to change.

Karen and I woke up to this fact. It took emergencies to kick us in the butt and realize that one more and we were down to zero. So we changed our mind about the way we spend money on not only non-essentials, but also the essentials. It was time to trim any fat hanging out, and there seems to be plenty. An emergency won’t look so forlorn while trying to do something different. Doing the same things over and over got us into this mess, so we started looking at bills that didn’t have to be the same over and over.

Gas: it’s been the bane of anyone who has a forty-five minute to an hour commute or longer every day since 9/11. There just doesn’t seem to be any getting out of spending the same amount of money on gas week after week if you commute quite a distance between home and work. Or is there? Better gas mileage is what I need!

Many of us start thinking more efficient gas mileage means getting an oil change, or maybe a new car! It’s crazy how we can justify it, but we do. For some reason people think getting a new fuel-efficient car justifies the car payment; as if the $60 savings in gas every month will eventually pay the $230 car payment every month, but it doesn’t..the math doesn’t work. That’s probably an entry for another day.


Why not cut the gas mileage in half on a car I already own by car pooling with someone in my neighborhood? I’m not sure why I’ve never taken the idea seriously before, but I haven’t. “I don’t want to bug anyone.” I think to myself. FYI, if any readers out there want to bug me by telling me they can help me save $720 a year, feel free. By the way, that’s a calculation I figure I will be saving carpooling between me and my sister-in-law, who works across the parking lot from my office. I literally can throw a rock and hit her office window from the parking lot. We both need extra money, she gets off the same time I do almost every day and it helps take a whole extra car off the road (for all you environmentalists out there). I had to think really hard to find a reason NOT to car pool. I have to get up a little earlier, but I probably should be anyway. I’m one of those non-morning people.

Next up, phone prices. Yeah, if you have AT&T or Vorizon, you know what I’m talking about. They have good service, but they’re proud of it, and you’re paying for it. When my phone bill is higher than some car payments I’ve had in my life, there’s a problem. So my wife and I looked at some of that precious data and decided that we would be able to get by on 2 GB less. Shared data of 3 GB for us will save about 20 bucks. Since AT&T have put out a new promotion for no more overage charges, we are happy to let them help! So, multiply that by 12 months and we’ll have saved about $240.

Between the two, I’m looking to save almost $1000. This will meet the first of Dave Ramsey’s baby steps for us. Have a thousand dollars for emergencies. It will mean scraping up and NOT SPENDING the amount that we save, but it will be there. I’m starting to get used to the idea that it will take a while, but I also know that it will be here before I expect it, because good behaviors like this will compound and have ripple effects. It won’t just be all the money we save, but the integrity we receive by continuing the fight this fight. To some, $1000 isn’t much, but for those who feel we are sacrificing our privacy on a ride after a long day, or a few pictures or videos of our favorite media, for normal people – like my wife and I, it will be well worth the saving.

Staying Constipated…I mean, Consistent!

Certainly constipation is what I would call my cash flow right now. It’s not going up, but most importantly, not going down. Part of what I’m learning through this fairly new process is that it’s going to be slow going. VERY. SLOW. GOING.

My problem is I’m too impatient. I mentioned in a previous post that my wife and I have been through Financial Peace University. Props to Dave Ramsey I give of course, his program was an answer to a prayer I had years ago. Again, I’m too impatient. K (my wife) and I were talking the other day, and I found that a big part of my problem is I want this hard, painful, not knowing what to do next part to be over. It feels like we’re starting all over again and we should be so much further than where we are right now. I’m finding the only thing I can do now is sit and wait on the next paycheck to come in so I can pay more bills, and try to maintain what I consider the meager balance that is in the account. Sitting around does little for one’s patience.

I have found that I am a highly analytical person, I find it difficult to move on to one task when another is left unfinished. A task unfinished, for instance, is not having enough saved in my checking account to cover an emergency if needed. I get stuck, and I pour over it and worry over it until it drives me crazy. So occasionally, I have to step back, sometimes I have to break down, or work out, or go running, or just have a good blubber on my wife’s shoulder. Stress relief I’m finding is a must these days, so I decided to write a blog about it.  It helps me analyze the situation and sets in concrete accountability to whoever may be reading this. It sounds like an analytical solution to me.

We do of course, in the midst of discouragement, have to move on. One cannot sit in the dark and pout, or drink, or take pills, or eat, or do whatever escape one craves. Life must be lived, money or not. So I have tried to start developing some habits that people who do have money have developed. Besides writing about it, another habit is to read or listen to some kind of instructional wisdom or advice, at least 30 minutes, or 10 pages, every day. It’s a habit developed by wiser men than I. A presidential hero of mine, Teddy Roosevelt, was hardly seen without a book during his administration. Dave Ramsey talks about reading nonfiction books consistently on his radio program. Even Mark Zuckerberg has set a goal of reading a book every two weeks according to Business Insider. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. The most recent book I have found is an audio book I listen to by Darren Hardy. It’s called “The Compound Effect.”

img_1821The premise of the book is that small, minute, almost minuscule good habits done consistently enough times over the course of time will lead to a person’s ultimate goal. Small steps like avoiding vending machines, not buying the kids McDonald’s for the fifteen hundredth time, and spending less than you make will eventually lead to a trimmer waistline and wealth. While if you did those same repeated habits negatively over the course of a lifetime, it could leave you fat…and broke. I’m closer to the fat, broke guy right now with my habits.

The catch for me: It takes a long time. It takes work that no one sees until it’s suddenly just there, but it takes a long time for that to happen! I’m impatient, remember?

This whole situation feels constipated, like nothing’s moving, “icky” as four year old daughter might say. Consistency, that’s key. I’m willing to take another rich guy’s word for it. My bad habits have gotten me where I am today. If I want out of the situation of living paycheck to paycheck, I have to do things differently. I have to start making better decisions and forming better habits to start building some kind of wealth for my family’s security and our dream of not only living well, but giving well. I have to do a mental flush if this constipated time of life is ever going to end.  Until then, I’ll just have to live life consistently well, maybe bloated, but consistently, for now.

The Foot of the Mountain

Lost. That’s how I feel when it comes to our money, and our budget, absolutely lost.

It’s different when my wife and I have just graduated from Financial Peace University, created a budget, paid our bills and put money in the bank. Life is good during a time like that. We got some extra income in because we are reaped what we sowed. Then we decided we are ready to buy a house because we had some extra cash, and it’s probably the next best thing to do. After all we don’t want to be retired and still trying to pay off our mortgage. Along with our sons who were getting old enough to be pretty independent, we just had a new baby girl, I had to put her in her carrier in my truck to move the last load from our little rented duplex to our new four bedroom home. I was all smiles.

Looking back on it now, I can see where our mistakes were. We should have stayed put. Karen just had the baby and we had forgotten how expensive it was to just do that. I should have let life reach some kind of equilibrium. I should have let the money we received grow in a bank account somewhere and used it as a down payment LATER, when we were ready. Life could have been different. The moment we signed those papers, we started rolling down hill, and we never recovered, not really. The utilities were different, the travel was different, the money was different, we never set the budget in stone again, and we spent crazy amounts of money to make an older house half way livable so we weren’t spending so much on energy bills and the kids had a warm, or cool place to sleep depending on the season.

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Now as I take a very clear look at our REAL money, not what I think is there, not what I think we spend, but what we actually do, and I see what we actually have. Now, five years later I’m staring at a budget that looks like this…
I’m pretty stressed. I’m pretty horrified.

Loki’s our dog by the way….

 

 

 

When I look at this budget and list, it’s not a huge deal, at least I don’t think it is. There’s nothing on here that is just crazy, other than phones and car insurance that I will be posting about later on. To be honest, we have been coasting so long with what we had, and it may have been just enough, that when an emergency hit (I’ve had some medical issues that needed some attention), and the car broke down in the same week, well, the avalanche stopped. There’s not really anywhere else for it to go; we are at the bottom of the mountain. Oh sure, we have a little in retirement accounts, but we know that if we go there, that’s just going to prolong our perpetual bloodletting.

We have decided enough is enough. This blog is a tool my wife and I are using to get our bank accounts back under control. It’s not about sympathy, we are suturing our wounds, and plan to make this blog our accountability check. I plan to give at least a report two or three times a week on what we are doing to crawl from a money hole back into the light. If you are family and friends, encourage us. If you are someone just like us, follow our lead, it’s time we get wise about spending and do what needs to be done to stop the madness. It’s time to start crawling back up the mountain to conquer it. We hope and pray that as we find hope, and we will, that you do too. We’re starting with a budget of $20 for savings. If the Lord’s willing, and I believe He is, it’s time to make it grow.