Ask Stacy: How Can I Get Out of My Financial Hole?

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What you’re about to read will be the easiest column I ever wrote. That’s because I’m not writing much of it. I’m simply going to print an email from one reader, then another that arrived within hours of it from a different reader.

The first came from a single, 56-year-old woman, while the second came from a single, 55-year-old woman. I’m printing them in their entirety to illustrate how the greatest tool you have to destroy debt or otherwise improve your place in life isn’t money. It’s motivation.

Here’s the first email…

While I have taken a 30-percent-plus pay cut in the last several years and have had to deal with increasing expenses, taxes, etc., I have done my best to keep my head above water. I am a single female 56 years old. If it weren’t for occasional help from my “retired” parents, I’d be sunk for sure.

After I subtract expenses (i.e. mortgage, utilities, gasoline, car insurance, phone, and internet) I find I am left with $20 a week to cover groceries. I’m not even going to think about personal incidentals, miscellaneous household items, or any medical/dental expenses or car repairs that may come up. Let’s just focus on food. How do I live on $20 week for food? Seriously, I’m open for suggestions. All I can come up with is Ramen noodles and water.

I will mention that I have NOT stayed on budget at all and have now found I am short for car insurance, ended up needing a root canal, and don’t have the deductible for that and also need a crown on a broken tooth that will now have to wait until next year since the root canal has used my entire limit for dental insurance.
— Peg

Now, read this email from a similar woman…

Hello! I am a 55-years-young divorced woman with a stable job, making $43,000 a year, have never owned my own home, and I have a similar story to the one sent in your newsletter today. [Note: She’s referring to “How I Wiped Out $37,000 of Debt in One Year.”]

After a divorce, I found myself shackled with what felt like a mountain of debt, most of it old. My credit score was dismal, and my priorities were out-of-whack. I could only focus on short-term wants to make myself feel better. But instead, each new purchase just made me feel worse.

I have always been very goal-oriented in my life — training for and running a marathon at 37, graduating from college cum laude, and changing careers at 45. However, facing my finances seemed impossible. After a year of living on my own, I decided to empower myself to take responsibility for my own financial health. I set the previously impossible goal of owning my own home as the end product of this effort.

I knew that it would take a while, but it took years to get into this situation. I began in January 2011 by taking a realistic look at my finances and tallied up my debt. Not including student loans (I went back to college when my daughters were in high school) and my car loan, I owed $13,837. Two of the “accounts” were with a family member and a former business associate and totaled $4,700.

Many debt reduction plans tell you that these should be your lowest priority, but it was important for my self-esteem, seriously eroded by the end of my marriage and my dismal past financial performance, to pay these accounts off first.

I also contacted my creditors and began making regular monthly payments, albeit small ones. I let my friends know that I was available to do any odd jobs that they needed done. Some have rental properties, so they began hiring me to clean and paint vacant units. I have my Cosmetology license from a previous career and do some of my friends’ hair for tips. I have done gardening work. I was recently hired as a “gal Friday” for a disabled lady who is living nearby for the winter.

I don’t have a lot of time to myself these days, but I am reducing my debt. In the last year, I’ve paid off more than $8,000. With the exception of my student loans (currently in deferment) and my auto loan, I will have the rest of my debts eliminated by August 2012.

I am no longer late on payments for my car, rent, or utilities EVER and spend a great deal of time each week on learning about debt reduction and credit repair. So far, I haven’t seen a tremendous improvement in my credit score, but now that I am paying off my other debts, I believe that will change.

By the end of 2012, I will have $3,000 in savings and plan to have $10,000 by June of 2013. I am hopeful that, by then, I can be approved for a mortgage and buy my first home.

It is not easy to face what seems like an overwhelming task, but my self-esteem and confidence has improved so much in the last year. I know that sometime in the next 18 months, I will be sitting in my own home looking back on this experience and knowing that it was all worth it.
— Lynda

A tale of two pities

I love meeting people. Often, when I meet someone new and find them interesting, I’ll suddenly interject with a question that sounds like it comes from left field: “What obstacles have you been forced to overcome?”

I learned a long time ago that virtually everyone you ever meet has overcome major life issues: death, divorce, disease, drug addiction, you name it. And if you think I’m exaggerating, try it. The next time you’re attracted to someone or otherwise find them interesting, stop and ask them what problems they’ve had. You’ll see what I mean.

Both these women had money-related problems. But one was systematically destroying hers while the other was being destroyed by hers.

Don’t think I have no empathy for our first writer, Peg. I feel for Peg and everyone else who’s gotten the short end of the stick — and thanks to the economy in the last decade, there are millions of them. But here’s something that Lynda knows that Peg needs to learn: It’s not the number of times you fall down that matters, it’s the number of times you get up.

You can write and tell me that you’re eating Ramen noodles and taking handouts from your parents while also mentioning that you haven’t put much effort into sticking with a budget. But realize the only solution — the only thing I can do for you — is to somehow give you some of what Lynda has. If only I knew how.

What would you say to Peg? To Lynda? Share it on our Facebook page. And if you have a question, comment or inspiring story of your own, drop me a line!

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

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