Several years ago my husband and I were in quite a financial fiasco. We were behind in payments on our housing, autos, utilities, and installment loans, and creditors were calling us constantly. Our young marriage was rocky at best due mostly to the financial stress. After much hard work, though, we managed to dig ourselves out of the hole we were in, and I’m happy to say we are now on a much firmer financial footing. I’ve tried to put together an outline of how we improved our financial health. I put them in some sort of order, but many of them must be done simultaneously.
Change your attitude
This was the first, and most crucial, step in turning our financial life around. We had to accept responsibility for the choices we had made and make a conscious decision that we no longer wanted to live that way. We wanted a better life for our family with less stress. Though we didn’t realize it at the time, the change in attitude in one area of our life slowly overflowed to all other areas and many of the problems we were facing seemed to disappear. Now I look back and realize how much of an impact our attitudes had on our lives and marriage.
Preferably with your spouse so you can work together. As I learned in the early part of our marriage, it’s very difficult to get anywhere when resources are spent trying to go in two separate directions. And if you don’t set a specific goal, like saving for a down payment, paying off credit cards, or going on a family vacation, you are less likely to actually set the money aside.
Starting with the monthly bills and getting right down to the little things like the candy bar at the gas station. The simple act of writing down everything you spend (and your spouse) for thirty days can be a huge eye opener. I resisted for years, and when I finally stuck with it for 3 months I was amazed at the potential savings I had overlooked for so long.
Start slashing costs
How drastic you need to be depends on how desperate your circumstances. Start with things you and your family are least likely to notice and that will provide motivation to continue.
Research, research, research
There is information everywhere on every subject imaginable. Check out books at your local library and do online searches for finances, saving money, living cheaply, or a specific area you want to save money on. Find like-minded people who you can share with and learn from.
Make and stick to a realistic spending plan (aka budget)
Do it simple or fancy, just get it done. Write down all the income and the bills and fill in with the extras like groceries, gas, allowances, clothing, etc. It must work on paper before it will work in real life! Dave Ramsey and Mary Hunt both have excellent advice on budgeting and getting out of debt.
Start paying off debt
Of course, you must stop buying things with credit if you ever want to pay it off. Most of our problems were old bills we had let lapse into collection. Once we had adjusted our attitudes and set up a plan, I started paying the bills off one by one. I started with the smallest ones and paid those as the budget permitted. There was a great sense of achievement after the smaller ones were gone. Then I moved onto the larger bills, which required making phone calls to creditors whom we hadn’t been in contact with for some time. Those calls were extremely difficult! Not only was my pride a little bruised, but I often had to deal with rude people. After having my feelings hurt on more than one occasion by what I felt was a lack of helpfulness, I finally started asking to speak to a different person. If that didn’t work, I simply hung up and called again until I was speaking with someone who wanted to take my money without insulting me. And one last note: Save records of everything you pay off! This is especially useful when cleaning up your credit report.
Plan, plan, plan
I don’t believe in unexpected expenses; I simply think they are unplanned. Everyone gets sick, the car will eventually break down, the dog will have to go to the vet. Just make sure you set aside a little bit at a time on a regular basis and the money will be there when you need it. Mary Hunt calls this a Freedom Account. Planning also applies to purchases of all kinds. Amy Dacyzyn, author of The Tightwad Gazette, says you should plan purchases in such a way that you get them before you need them at the lowest possible price. If your kids need winter clothes for next year, get them this summer at yard sales.
Clean up your credit
This should not be an immediate concern! If you are serious about getting out of debt then you don’t need to worry about how great your credit is. However, it should be done eventually since it takes years for bad stuff to disappear, and you may want to buy a house down the road. I didn’t tackle this until we were paying our bills on time and had paid off the collection items. It was a huge undertaking that took up a lot of hours over a couple of weeks. First I went to a link from Dave Ramsey’s website and ordered a 3-in-1 credit report so I could see everything at once. I did a rough read through to see what was immediately incorrect and then started digging deeper. My records from paying off old collection bills were very helpful. Once I had a list of all the items that needed to be corrected I went to the credit agency’s website and filled out a dispute form. They responded to each item I questioned and sent me a new credit report after all the changes were made.