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The Total Money Makeover: It’s All About Choices February 27, 2014

As I neared the end of my budgeting exercise, I began to panic. It was clear that I hadn’t been putting enough thought into the practical matters of life (like saving for the day when my truck finally gives up the ghost). But it was also clear that saving for those eventualities left me with far less to spend on the things in life that I enjoyed. How exactly was I supposed to make the most of my free time if I didn’t have a couple hundred dollars to spend on books each month? And what would life be like without Starbucks?

It was clear that if this was going to work, more than just my budget was going to require a “makeover”. While I acknowledged my relative wealth with my mouth (and with regular charitable giving), it was clear that the message had yet to reach my heart. I had enough, but I felt like I was impoverished. I had failed to recognize that the wise handling of money (just like everything else in life) is about our choices. Dave may have recommended that I dedicate a certain percentage of my income to retirement… but I didn’t have to. Budgeting money for the future was a choice I was making. Dave may have suggested that I consider spending less on food, but budgeting less was a choice. It was a choice between living with a sense that money controls me or that I control the money. The former brings a sense of slavery. The latter, an undeniable freedom.

Drawing a deep breath, I looked through my budget again – this time with an eye towards practicality and an intense focus upon the two categories to which my impulse spending was most frequently directed. Truthfully, there was nothing that prevented me from making coffee at home. Doing so would reduce my food expenditures by more than half and I could reduce that spending even more if I really tried. Likewise, I rarely had the time to read all of the books that I purchased. With the skill of a surgeon, I cut my budget to reflect the purchase of a mere two volumes a month. (If I needed more reading material, it was rumored that there was a nifty place in town called a “library” where I could go pick out books and take them home… absolutely free!)

I took Dave’s advice and put together envelopes for both of these impulse categories. With cash in each, I would be able to regulate my spending in ways that were nearly impossible when I used my “charge-it-to-the-credit-card-and-pay-it-off-at-the-end-of-the-month” method. Then, I gave the new method a try at the brand new health food store.

List in hand, budget in mine, I cruised the aisles admiring all of the delightful product offerings. I carefully examined my options for each item on my “needs” list and selected the most financially responsible products. Then, each time I picked up something that wasn’t on my list I asked myself, “Do I want to remove cash from my miscellaneous food envelope to pay for this?” One item after another went back onto the shelf, ear-marked for another day. I left the store having spent a mere pittance compared to the previous month… and each “treat” I purchased tasted twice as sweet!

I didn’t begin reading The Total Money Makeoverwith the belief that I needed help. By the end, it was clear that I did. Dave’s advice helped me to recognize that even those who handle money better than others, don’t necessarily handle money well. And that those who handle money well, can always be taught to handle it better!

The Total Money Makeover


The Total Money Makeover: Why Planning Matters February 20, 2014

We weren’t very far into Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover, before I began to feel just a twinge of conviction. While I was better at handling money than most of my friends, it was becoming quite clear that “better” is not the same as “good”. In fact, my money management skills were, to put it mildly, appalling.

I lived within my means… but not on a budget. To be honest, aside from a few monthly bills for necessities like insurance, I couldn’t tell anyone where the rest of my money was going. I kept a running tally of how much I made vs. how much I’d spent and made purchasing decisions based upon that figure. If there wasn’t enough money, I didn’t spend. If there was, I spent without discretion.

I had a retirement account… but I wasn’t contributing. Instead, I’d left funds contributed by previous employers to build on their own. I had set the investments on autopilot and had never given a moment’s thought to actually calculating the future value of the investment. I would have enough to take a cruise when I retired, but that was as far as my “planning” had gone.

I gave generously… but usually in a panic. Christmas and birthdays were always emergencies. I wanted to give the best to the people I loved, but doing so usually meant foregoing other things that would normally have consumed my funds.

The truth is that I’ve always been more of a visionary than a planner. (Dave refers to people like me as “free spirits”.) While my income was sufficient to meet my needs, I wasn’t handling it efficiently. To do so, I would need to engage in an ancient art with which I claim only marginal familiarity: planning.

This planning began with sitting down and writing out a budget. (Dave offers a great budgeting tool online at: http://www.daveramsey.com/tools/budget-lite/ if you’d like to try this for yourself.) I began with my income (a known quantity) and then carefully subtracted all of my regular bills and contributions. I then began to make my way down a list of things that, according to Dave, ought to be priorities… like saving for medical expenses, automotive repair, and retirement. This was followed by more “discretionary” categories like clothing (I can make due with what’s in my closet and not freeze or go naked) and food (I enjoy gourmet cooking and know full well that portabella mushrooms are not a “need”). It was here that my journey of discovery began.

As I looked over the figures for my previous three months (I had been faithfully tracking my spending in Quicken for over a year), it became evident that my claim not to be an impulse buyer was less than honest. No, I didn’t grab candy bars at check registers or make instantaneous decisions to purchase “discount” goods at the local retailers, but I did have two particularly weak categories: food and books. I admit to having been aware of the latter and even intentionally stayed away from the local book store when money was tight, but the former came as a bit of a surprise. It seemed that health food stores were also a form of kryptonite. Something needed to be done and now. (To be Continued…)


Astronomy, Debt, and The Total Money Makeover February 13, 2014

My first and last encounter with debt came during my transition from Jr. High to High School. I had developed an avid interest in astronomy and the local Sam’s Club was carrying a beautiful Bushnell, 4.5” reflecting telescope. At nearly 3’ in length, it was a monster and I couldn’t prevent myself from drooling over it.

Up until this point, I had been making due with a pair of 10×50 binoculars. They were strong enough to show the phases of Venus, the thin rings of Saturn, and Jupiter’s moons. I could make out binary star systems easily enough or see the vague, gaseous outline of the Orion Nebula, but I longed for so much more. What I really wanted (and wanted now) were the views I got through the telescopes of my big-league astronomy club buddies. I wanted to hold the heavens in the palm of my hand and I knew that this telescope would allow me to do just that.

Seeing the magnitude of my desire, my parents offered me a deal. They would buy me the telescope. It would be both my birthday present and my Christmas present and I would be obligated to repay half of it. I quickly determined that $250 dollars was not an insurmountable debt (at least not in comparison to the treasures it would unlock) and agreed to the arrangement.

Of course, in my eagerness to possess this wondrous new toy, I hadn’t really taken the time to consider just how long it would take me to pay it off… or to create a plan for doing so. Looking back, it should have been obvious that on an income of $2-$5 a week, freedom was not going to come any time soon.

At this point, it’s important to note that this lack of planning was not due to any failure on my parents’ part. They had taken the time to teach me about money and, in reality, I should have known better than to blindly indulge the seemingly irrepressible desire to own a telescope.

Over the next few years, I spent my time struggling with a stomach-turning sickness whose onset always seemed to coincide with my use of the instrument. My payments had not been regular (there were other things I also “needed” to own) and, though my parents were not charging interest, they weren’t making any indications that their loan was about to be forgiven. Tired of dealing with the sense of captivity which accompanied my debt, I set up a plan to pay off the telescope. In a matter of months I was free and made a vow that I would never go into debt again.

Unfortunately, my debt-free state left me with a sense that I was actually quite good at handling money and, in comparison with quite a few of my friends, I was. I lived within my means. I saved money whenever I intended to make a “big” purchase. And I had a nice little emergency fund which allowed me to shuffle the money around whenever disaster struck. When a friend expressed an interest in going through Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, I agreed to as well, but only in a supporting role. I didn’t need a “makeover”… or at least that’s what I thought. (To be Continued…)


On Speaking in Public February 6, 2014

“I wish I were a natural public speaker like you.”

I smiled and laughed. Despite having delivered an excellent presentation, I was feeling the same relief as everyone else. Public speaking is not and never has been my favorite activity. Even after years of teaching, I still get nervous before I present, and contrary to popular opinion, imagining everyone in their underwear has never helped. I feel the same knot in my stomach, the same nervous energy as everyone else. So why do I seem like a natural?

The odd transformation of an introvert into an enthusiastic speaker isn’t quite as mysterious as it may seem. The trick is in preparation, focus, and an ability to seize control of the few elements that I can control when speaking in public. A few techniques that have worked particularly well for me are:

  1. Speak twice as slowly as you would under ordinary circumstances. In the excitement of the moment, it’s easy to become so overwhelmed that you speed through your material – often without even realizing it. The result is an uncoordinated mumble which is often inaudible to those seated in the back of the room. While the slower pace may seem odd to you, it will likely sound quite normal to everyone else.
  2. If you forget what you were going to say, stop speaking, check your notes, and resume your talk. You aren’t the only one whose train of thought has derailed in the middle of a presentation. The difference between amateurs and professionals is that the former can’t stand the sound of silence and fill the empty space with nonsense words like “um” and “er”.
  3. Don’t forget what you were going to say. Most professionals write their speeches out verbatim. Instead, make notes using key words that will help you remember each of the concepts you intend to address. If you’re using a PowerPoint, print copies of the slides to set in front of you. (This also prevents the neck strain which accompanies ill-fated attempts to look both up and backwards at the same time.)
  4. Find advocates. Select two or three people to serve as your focal points during the presentation. (I recommend that they be people with whom you speak on a regular basis, since focusing on them will lend a conversational tone to your speech.) As your eyes wander between these friendly faces, you’ll appear to be making eye-contact with everyone else as well.
  5. Remember that people have come to hear your material… not you. Unless there is something glaringly wrong about your appearance (a giant leaf of spinach stuck between your teeth or mismatched shoes), most people won’t notice (or sometimes even remember) the presenter. They are there to learn. You are there to help them. You aren’t the main show.
  6. Smile. Just the act of forcing your face into a grin has a cathartic effect. The more you smile, the more your audience will smile. And the more your audience smiles, the more confident you will become.

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