Blogging from A-Z – debt-proof living

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “D.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the Blogging from A-Z page here.)

__________________________

MaryHuntQuote

By the time I met Mary, she had gotten her family into $100,000 of unsecured debt … and back out.

She scratched and clawed (and prayed) her way out of the hole.

And, because she has been to the bottom of the pit and climbed her way back out, dirt under her fingernails, sweat on her brow, wisdom under her cap, she has built an organization out of helping the rest of us do the same – or, better yet, not digging that pit in the first place.Kids_noBG_noShadow_200

I’ve never really met Mary Hunt, as in face to face, but I feel as though I know her. She’s so open and honest about her experiences, even keeping a sense of humor about it, that a person can’t help but feel an affinity for her.

I like the likes of Mary Hunt. She took a bad situation – really bad – worked through it, dignity a little bruised but mostly intact, and decided to devote her life to being a lifeguard for others who were drowning. (Sorry if I’m using too many metaphors, but what would you call the guardian of a pit?)

I’ve been following Mary since 1994. That’s when, as a new homeowner (my first house!), I heard her on a radio program and signed up for her newsletter. Back then it was called Cheapskate Monthly, and it arrived on white, 8.5×11 paper (8 pages) via snail mail. (I still have all my back issues.) The newsletter has evolved with the times, though, and is now Debt Proof Living (still monthly), complete with a website, a blog, several books (I have most of them), reader forums and electronic tools that will delight the heck out of you – if, like me, you’re a geek. (But you don’t have to be a spreadsheet nerd to benefit from them.)

I love Mary’s no-nonsense approach to answering reader mail; she tells it like it is. (She can smell a rationalization a mile away, and she doesn’t let people get away with excuses.) When you’ve aired your dirty laundry for the world to see, you somewhat lose the need to tiptoe around the truth. As a practical girl (so I’ve been told), I can appreciate Mary’s practicality. If you were drowning, would you rather see Kevin Costner

TheGuardian

… or Robert Shaw? (Remember, he ended up as shark food.)

Jaws

And, while we’re talking about transparency, I need to tell you this: Two years ago, I signed up for Debt Proof Living’s affiliate program. It’s why (finally, last fall) I added the DPL icon to my right sidebar at Suzy & Spice. (Go ahead, look to the right.) This means that if someone clicks through from here to DPL via that badge and makes a purchase, I get a little token of Mary’s appreciation (a small deposit to my bank account).

This is the first time I’ve ever mentioned the DPL affiliate ad. I didn’t want it to seem as though the only reason I posted about DPL was that I wanted you to buy something. I wanted the next time I wrote about Mary to be a genuine, heartfelt story about good stewardship and living below your means. In fact, I’ve started and rewritten and abandoned this post half a dozen times. (If I had to make my living in sales, my husband and I would starve.)

But this month’s A-Z blogging challenge seemed to be the perfect time for bringing up DPL (starts with D, right?). So, if you do visit Mary’s site, please enter via the affiliate badge at the right. But if you don’t, you’ll still be welcome here. 🙂

But wait – there’s more!

I absolutely cannot leave you without talking about the other financial organization I’m in love with.

Navigate-DVD-Series-224x300I’ve been a volunteer budget coach for several years, and I need you to know about the ministry that makes it possible: Compass – finances God’s way.

Compass takes things one step further and talks a lot about biblical stewardship. (Mary Hunt does, too, but not in such a visible way. Think crawl space, where your plumbing, electrical and HVAC might be out of sight, but they are nevertheless present, foundational and keeping your home’s systems on an even keel. That’s Mary. Compass is more like the carpet on your floors – soft and comforting yet firm enough to walk on, and obvious to any observer who enters the house or peeks inside the window.)

Compass founder Howard Dayton has been talking about money matters for a long time, too. Early in his business life, he undertook a study of the Scriptures to see what God’s word had to say about handling money. He was astonished to learn that the Bible has more than 2,350 verses on the topic.

Compass was founded on the idea of small-group Bible studies and one-on-one coaching, as Howard had witnessed the impact of those teaching platforms in his previous ministry experience.

I’ve read most of Howard’s books and can recommend any and all of them (I’ll even loan you one if you’re local). He’s also a supernice guy (I actually have met Howard), has a couple of radio programs and podcasts (MoneyWise and Hey Howard), and has one of the funniest sidekicks/co-hosts east of the Mississippi. I don’t know what Howard would be without Steve. (Yeah, I’ve met Steve, too.)

You can’t go wrong with Mary or Howard. If you’d like to know more – especially if your money runs out before your month does – poke around their sites, follow them on social media or post a comment below and I’ll help you sort it out.

Don’t you think it’s time?

_____________________________

Monday: E is for Easter.

Follow me on Twitter: @OakleySuzyT

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A simple Christmas

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10, NASB

Christmases in the Oakley house are pretty simple. I would characterize them as more sentimental than material, and for that I’m grateful. Being “poor” in worldly wealth (but not in spirit) has its advantages!

These are some of the things that have allowed me to feel abundantly blessed this Christmas:

SHOPPING

Heavenly Treasures global market at our church. I bought gifts for all the women on the Taylor side of our family (immediately family, that is). All the proceeds go to small-business owners (which may simply mean one artisan struggling to feed her family somewhere in Cambodia, Vietnam or another area where poverty is the norm). Blessings: 1) We bought these gifts for a fraction of what we would have paid in stores; 2) they are handcrafted; 3) most of all, we helped someone who’s hurting in another part of the world.

I also took advantage of a clearance sale online and bought seven copies of a book I read years ago – a book I wish I could give to every woman I know: $5 apiece, one for each woman in the Taylor-Oakley clan.

My stepson, Courtney, who lives in Oklahoma, was blessed recently with a promotion and a good raise, and because one of my main missions in life is to help people be good stewards of their God-given blessings, instead of buying him a gift he doesn’t necessarily need, or writing him a check like we often do at Christmastime, we put money into his savings account at the bank where I work.

When I turned 50 last month, Bruce pooled his money with birthday money from my mom, and he took me to the jewelry store. (This is the type of splurge I rarely indulge in, but I figured a half-century was a special enough occasion.) He helped me pick out a beautiful opal ring. I’ve always loved opal, and this ring is so special to me.

So because we splurged at birthday time, we kept it simple for Christmas, although keeping it simple has always been our norm. We have such abundant blessings throughout the year, we don’t buy much for each other at Christmastime. We also have our anniversary coming up next week, so Bruce suggested we combine the occasions and buy a house gift for ourselves. We really don’t know what that might be, but while we were shopping Saturday for my brother and his stepson, we ran across a DVD copy of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” (Bruce is a mixture of realist and sentimentalist, and often the sentimental side wins – he loves the idealism of this movie, and so do I, although I fall closer to the realist side of the fence. And we both love old movies and the great Jimmy Stewart.) So here’s a recap of our conversation in the store when I picked up the movie:

Me: “Do we have this on DVD?”
Bruce: “I don’t think we have it on DVD or anything else.”
Me: “Household gift. Ten dollars.”
Bruce: “Great.”

End of conversation. End of Christmas shopping for Bruzy. Simple.

This type of Christmas spirit allows me to breathe during the holidays, because I hate shopping. It’s a little easier at Christmas because then I’m shopping for others, but I still would rather sit near a sunny window with a good book than fight the crowds at the shopping center.

MUSIC

I could listen to Amy Grant’s Christmas albums year-round. Oh, what am I saying – I do listen to Amy Grant’s Christmas albums year-round. You might hear “Tennessee Christmas,” “Breath of Heaven” or “Welcome to our World” in my car during the blazing heat of July. To me, these songs and albums are timeless and always a breath of fresh air. Each album is better than the last, and she includes some incredibly beautiful pieces in the mix. The last album, “A Christmas to Remember,” is especially full of pieces that cause me to stop what I’m doing (unless I’m driving), close my eyes and savor every note. I also tend to wear out my Christmas albums by: Collin Raye, Andrea Bocelli, The Carpenters, and John Denver & the Muppets. Heck, even the classically trained Bocelli sings with Miss Piggy on his album. My favorite Christmas song? “Oh Holy Night,” especially Martina McBride’s beautiful rendition. Bruce’s favorite? “Silent Night” – and John and the Muppets do a pretty good job of that, singing it first in German (the language it was written in), then English. Bocelli sings it in three languages.

MOVIES/TV SPECIALS

Since we canceled our satellite service in August, I didn’t get to watch wall-to-wall Food Network like I love to do between October and December, and I didn’t get to OD on the sappy movies on Hallmark Channel, but we still have the good ol’ standbys on VHS (taped from TV in the mid-1980s) and a few on DVD. Another challenge this year: Bruce and I had about four weeks to pull together the White River Christmas Half-Marathon & Relay (long story), and my only Christmas-special “viewing” would fall more into the category of background noise. Nevertheless, I got to listen to these as I did my half-marathon work or cooked for family: Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown (I love Linus’ soliloquy on “what Christmas is all about”), and my favorite, the Grinch (another lesson on the true meaning of Christmas, plus it rhymes!). I also had these movies in the VCR: “Christmas in Connecticut” (my favorite Christmas movie, but only the Barbara Stanwyck version) and “White Christmas” – “snow, snow, snow, snow!” I think I even listened to “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” early in the season. Oh, I almost forgot: I did get to sit and watch an entire movie, start to finish, when Bruce and I spent Dec. 23 with Mom watching the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The 1994 version isn’t quite as good as the original, but the cute little girl and the beautiful scenery [and wardrobe] make up for it.) Movies I didn’t get to watch: “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story.” (There’s still time, right?)

FAMILY (FURRY AND FOUR-LEGGED)

Our two fur-babies are … well, my babies. I have a stepson, but I never gave birth to children of my own, and Salsa and Pepper warm my heart every day, even 30 seconds after they’ve infuriated me by wetting the carpet, barking incessantly or begging for snacks. We call our girls The Spice Dogs, and when I created this blog in 2007, they were part of the inspiration for the name (I was also baking spice cookies that evening). They’re good help around the kitchen, too: When I drop a bit of food while chopping, mincing or mixing, they rush to help me clean it up.

FAMILY (HUMAN)

I’m writing this on Christmas morning, 10 a.m. (savoring a steamy and wonderful cup of coffee with my favorite flavored creamer). We’ve spoken to some family members by phone today but haven’t gathered for the big celebration yet. We’ll go to Mom’s later for a feast of food and fellowship (more on the food below). I look forward to seeing those I rarely see throughout the year because of busyness, physical distance or, dare I say, apathy (on my part as much as anyone’s).

Bruce has been sick the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been trying to figure out why this cold/sinus junk has caused me more worry than other recent minor ailments. And why I might have seemed to overreact yesterday when he wanted to run a longer distance than I thought he should. Could it be that we’re “overdue” for a Crohn’s flare-up? The average for Crohn’s patients is 5 years, and his latest flare-up started in 2007 (and I did not marry an “average” guy!). I realize that it’s insane to worry – God has us covered. I suppose it’s just an opportunity to flex my trust muscles; after all, He is the Great Physician.

On Christmas Eve, Bruce got an opportunity to be the social guy that he is. We started with an afternoon run with some dear friends, the Tuckers; a family member, Bill, from out of town whom we had never had the opportunity to run with before; an awesome running buddy, Rita – who is growing to be a great running partner for me because, even though she’s a lot faster, she is sweetly willing to hang back with me, the slow one. She and I have had some great conversations, and she’s really fun (yesterday, we conspired to pretend we ran up a crazy hill when we saw Bruce and Shane – and I swear it was her idea! Unfortunately, we topped the hill and the guys hadn’t paid a bit of attention to us!).

I should have a separate category called Family (Running), because our running family is really precious to us. No space today to count all the ways, but in the spirit of Christmas, I’ll mention the great run last Tuesday night before our Roadrunners club Christmas party. Again, the speedsters took off without Slow Suzy, but Rita stayed behind with me. (She has a good heart.) On another note, I loved being able to attend a Christmas party in my sweaty leggings, running shirt and sports watch. (That’s just the way we roll!) This was only three days after my work Christmas party, which was beautiful and wonderful (except for the slightly inebriated Santa), but for which I made a most unfortunate choice of shoes, one of which had to come off before the party was over because my left foot was killing me!

But back to the main topic: Family (Human). After our run, I rushed to get clean and start the pecan pies, which needed to be out of the oven by 4:45 so we could attend the Christmas Eve service at Mom’s church. This church service has become a bit of a tradition for Bruce and me, starting even before we moved here in 2010. West Baptist always has a beautiful Christmas Eve service (which could also fall under the Music category). As I was whipping up the filling for the pies, I realized that someone had put the vanilla extract bottle into the cupboard with about three drops of extract remaining. (Seriously, who would do that?) Mom – on speed dial – to the rescue. Fortunately she’s less than a mile away. I sent Bruce over there, told him not to stop by our church to make sure the bathrooms were clean (part of his job), not to pass Go, not to collect $200. Just get back here with the vanilla. And he did.

The pies? Well, let’s just say the jury’s still out. I had to leave them in the oven (turned off) and put them back on to bake after all the evening’s festivities. I’m still not sure they’re quite right. But I’m also pretty sure no one will leave the table hungry this afternoon, pecan pies or no.

But wait! There’s more! (Isn’t there always?)

After the service at West, we went to my Aunt Pat’s across the street from our house. Her son-in-law, the aforementioned Bill (running buddy from out of town), had requested a family get-together in the spirit of the old days (the old days of our family, that is). Aunt Pat’s relatives from both sides gathered in her kitchen, which is only cramped when lots of relatives visit. Strange, she noted, we have all this space in the rest of the house, but everyone congregates in the kitchen and dining room. Not strange to me at all – Aunt Pat makes some of the best holiday treats west of the Mississippi. Can you say peanut butter fudge?

And then … we left that party to go to our church, Fellowship Bible Church in the old Landers Theater on Main Street. Whereas the West Baptist celebration was bright, colorful and upbeat, the Fellowship service was quiet, candlelit and reverent. Both services were full of beautiful music, and each was unique and meaningful in its own way. Each service fed my spirit and focused light on the One whose birth we celebrate, and whose Light takes away the darkness.

The Oakleys ended the evening together quietly – mama in her kerchief (OK, a red plaid flannel PJ shirt) and papa in his cap (his ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt), with one of the fur-children nestled under her bed down the hall and the other one begging for belly rubs. Both two-legged Oakleys spent the next hour reading, growing sleepy and sipping … okay, people, I’m not gonna lie. I wasn’t sipping a picture-perfect mug of steamy hot chocolate. I was indulging in a 10 p.m. glass of diet Coke, which I rarely drink after 3 p.m. And Bruce was sipping apple juice or water or something.

Now back to our fantasy.

FOOD

Three things I almost insist on having at Thanksgiving and Christmas are pecan pie, Cranberry Salad (made with red gelatin, apples, oranges, pineapple and pecans) and Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes. (As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t have an Aunt Pearl and have no idea who she is, but we loooove her hash-brown casserole!) And because I’m the one who has a strong need for these three dishes, I’ve become the designated maker of them. How else am I going to be sure it happens? The pies … we’ll see. (Dec. 29 update: Let’s just call them “pie soup” and be done with it.) The cranberry stuff is ready, and the potatoes will go into the oven soon.

I also have a year-round craving to bake, but my schedule doesn’t allow it very often anymore, so the holidays are when I get to indulge in that. Even when I’m tired, baking sweet treats, breads, even pizza dough, makes me very, very happy.

And then there are the dirty dishes. But since this is a post about counting blessings, being with family and remembering our Savior’s birth, we’ll skip over that part.

Post-script: leftovers (lots of them)

Have you ever eaten mashed potatoes for breakfast? Yeah, me, too.

REMEMBRANCES

My dad died 15 years ago this week. Every Dec. 23, I think about the day he died. That was a day full of pain and sadness, but knowing that my dad knew Jesus makes it so much easier. Even on that day, we had a measure of indescribable peace knowing he was no longer in pain (the pain my brother and I had known him to have our entire lives) and he is with Jesus now. Dad had told a relative just that morning that he was ready to go and was not afraid to die. None of us knew then that this would be his last day on earth. But we have the hope that surpasses all human ability to understand, and that’s because we know the Savior he rests with now.

Dad died 11 days before my wedding. In the ICU, when we weren’t sure whether he could hear us or not, as I held his hand I told him he needed to stick around and give me away next week, that I wasn’t ready to let go of him. But the Father had other plans, and Dad was gone within a couple of hours. That’s OK. My plans aren’t necessarily God’s plans, and His ways are not always my ways. He is sovereign, He is wise and He is, above all, GOOD. He takes care of us, even when we don’t always like how He goes about it. But even amid the not-liking, we had blessings: My Uncle Charles and Aunt Pat, who had just arrived at their daughter Kathy’s house in South Carolina when they got the news of Dad’s death in the evening, turned right around the next morning and drove back to Arkansas. They were here in time for his funeral. Now, that’s family.

God has blessed me with good family, good friends, a good job, an abundance of physical comforts (too much sometimes) and an ever-increasing awareness of just how good He really is. I thank Him for everyone He has put into my life, whether it’s to teach me, to reach me or just to bless me with caring and warmth.

As we celebrate His incarnate presence on the earth, may each of you feel His love, remember His sacrifice and give your life to Him.

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6, NKJV

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Dear Nike

Dear Nike,

I don’t know how to break this to you gently, so I’m just going to be blunt:

Our 10-year love affair has hit a bump. I’m sorry to tell you this, but my feet have cheated on you. I have cheatin’ feet.

It started innocently enough. I needed new shoes to help with my plantar fasciitis problem and my crunchy knee. I went to the Runner’s World website, clicked on the Running Shoe Finder and took the quiz (apparently women’s magazines aren’t the only ones with compatibility quizzes).

After submitting my answers to several questions (Are you male or female? How high are your arches? What are your motion mechanics?), I got a list of suggestions, including the news that I needed stability, which you had not been providing enough of over the years. This was a bit of a surprise, but not entirely: I had been leaning a bit in the wrong direction (overpronating) for several months, possibly even years. It was inevitable that I would get hurt.

I don’t blame you entirely. It was a combination of things.

First, I hadn’t been in tune with my true needs. I was surprised to discover recently that I have high arches. I had always believed I was “normal” in that area, so I had never tried to deal with my issues. Turns out I needed better, more rigid arch support. I thought all I needed was a soft place to land (extra cushioning) with minimal support, and this is what you had given me all these years. I can’t exactly blame you for not providing what I didn’t know I needed.

Second, some of my needs have changed. When I began looking for you 10 years ago, the store clerk (or, as I prefer to call him, “the matchmaker”) suggested I try your women’s Air Pegasus model, which was for “heavier runners” (or, as I prefer to call us, “full-figured gals”). I felt the love immediately. As you gently caressed my feet, I knew this was a match made in Runners Heaven. And you weren’t bad on the eyes, either; the physical attraction was undeniable. White and black with a red swoosh. Ooh, baby!

But that was then. This is now.

I’m more mature now, and lighter. The extra cushioning is nice, but I need more from a shoe.

And there was my husband to think about. You might assume that he urged me to be faithful, but he did not. I had tried on a few models in a local store – brands I did not even want to look at, much less allow to touch my feet – but I kept longing for you. Nevertheless, he wanted me to keep an open mind, to be sure I had exhausted all local options.

I had already found a better, younger version of you online – one that offered cushioning and support. And even though the Running Shoe Finder helped me narrow my choices to one or two, that was a virtual store. I needed to try on a few real pairs before deciding, especially since this was such a big decision for my physical (and, yes, emotional) well-being, not to mention our checkbook.

You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that the one I had ultimately chosen online was … you again. A cushiony, more supportive version of the shoe you used to be. I had even virtual-chatted with a guy at the Road Runner Sports website. (Those guys are like the Dr. Ruth of athletic gear. They help you find true compatibility. True love to last a lifetime – or at least a few months, until the shoes wear out.)

I asked him the difference between the model he suggested, the Nike Zoom Equalon+ 4, and a similar model in another brand that I had been looking at, albeit reluctantly. I didn’t really want to stray from you, the one I had loved for more than a decade, but my husband/coach sometimes has to talk sense into me. I couldn’t try on the Equalon, and I had tried on some other brands that seemed to fit my needs.

But Dr. Ruth-guy had me sold on the Equalon; he said it was equivalent to the other model except that the Equalon had more cushioning. Support and extra cushioning! The total package!

But, alas, there was the third thing: a sale at the local store.

My husband, who’s also my coach (and my real true love), went with me and watched me run each time I tried a new pair. Because the store didn’t have my chosen shoe (you), he watched as the other brands corrected my overpronation. Nevertheless, he said I should think about it some more. He even urged me to ask the clerk to order last year’s model of the one that seemed to be the best fit (the older model was $40 cheaper, and I was under no obligation to buy it). A few days later, the store clerk called. My order had arrived.

I tried on the shoe. It felt good, it offered stability and … it was good looking.

I can’t say it looked better than you in every way – I’ve grown to love your happy little swoosh over the years – but it was narrower. It made my wide boats look like … well, normal girl feet. And it has stabilized my gait. Not that the online version of you wouldn’t have done the same thing. But I couldn’t be sure of that. A relationship that begins online is risky.

So, Nike, I have cheated. I’m sorry I’ve strayed. But I have a feeling our love affair isn’t over – if you’ll take me back someday. Because someday money won’t be such an issue. I will still be frugal, but I’ll be better able to make the choices I want to make when it comes to my feet. I know you will offer me a soft place to land again (and again). And the stability I need.

Thanks for the memories, but don’t think it’s over for good.

I’ll be back.

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Book review: 'Your Money God's Way' by Amie Streater

In the 16 years I have been reading about personal finance (specifically, debt-free living), I have read a lot of books, studies, articles and scriptures on the topic and have gathered a ton of tips and advice.

And after the umpteenth book, I’ve been tempted to conclude, “You’ve read one get-out-of-debt-book, you’ve read them all.”

Amie Streater’s “Your Money God’s Way: Overcoming the 7 Money Myths that Keep Christians Broke” is different. But in a surprising way.

She uses words like “stupid,” “annoying” and “creeped out.” The woman doesn’t pull any punches. She tells it like it is.

And, while I am guilty of being brutally blunt at times (not as much as I used to, praise God), this woman takes the prize.

But once you get over the shock of reading sentences such as, “That’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard!” you grow to appreciate her candor.

She’s the Dr. Phil of Christian debt counseling.

And, yes, she is a Christian counselor – an “associate pastor for financial stewardship” who has met with countless individuals and couples who have screwed up their lives with bad money decisions.

(Haven’t we all screwed up royally in one way or another?)

Streater’s style may be blunt, but she offers solutions. She points out our “counterfeit convictions” and counters them with biblical wisdom, citing scripture to back up her advice. Many of those verses talk of God’s grace and his abundant love for us. He doesn’t want us to “live in chaos, frustration, lack, and debt,” she concludes.

And Streater doesn’t just talk the talk. She has walked the walk and lived to tell about it.

After all, God uses the fears and foibles we have overcome (with His help) to lead others to the light.

This book gives light. You’ll profit by reading it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Out with the old, in with the new

I left my extremely stressful job last week and started a new one Monday. I don’t have a lot of time for detail this morning (groceries to buy, lawn to mow, fall flowers to plant, football to watch, etc.) but did want to update those of you who still check my blog occasionally.

I don’t want to disparage my former employer, so I won’t mention the name, but just let me say that my new company is a breath of fresh air. Or maybe I should say I can actually breathe at my new job – and take lunch breaks, and go home after eight hours. I loved the people I worked with at the other place, and the new job is somewhat a career switch (going from publishing to investments), but the new company is an extremely efficient, well-organized place to work. They seem to know what they’re doing.

The main thing is that I want to serve people by helping them with their finances (and I want to work at a place that doesn’t cause me insomnia).

I have been a volunteer with Crown Financial Ministries for the past few years, and that’s a little different from what the investment firm does, and yet the same. It all boils down to being good stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

So here’s to my new employer and 40-hour weeks!

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Cardholders' Bill of Rights

I received this e-mail from Consumer Reports, which I subscribe to online. Note that I have not checked out the legislation the letter refers to, so I am not recommending yes or no on contacting your lawmakers to support the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights. I will comment on it more later, when I know more about it.

Dear Suzy,

x

Bank of America recently announced interest rate increases, even for responsible card customers — some people reported new rates as high as 28%! And the bank didn’t make it easy to object.

x

To decline the rate hike, the bank required card holders to write a letter agreeing to stop using the card and pay off the existing balance at the old rate, according to news reports. They couldn’t telephone, nor did Bank of America provide a form or a return envelope to help meet the short deadline. If the company didn’t get a quick response, rates would automatically rise.

x

Bank of America is not the only bank to hit card holders with high rates and fees. Banks get to raise your interest rates, as well as the fees they charge for most services, because fine print clauses in your credit card contracts allow it. They don’t even have to tell you why they did it.

x

Tell Congress to protect card holders from unfair rate hikes, exorbitant penalty fees and other fine print “gotchas.”

x

As the economy softens, some Wall Street analysts believe that big banks want to make up their investment losses by raising rates to good credit card customers.

x

A bill proposed in Congress would help rein in that practice and limit other “gotchas.” The bill would protect cardholders against arbitrary interest rate increases; hidden interest charges, due date traps and more.

x

This bill is long past due! Tell your lawmakers that you support the Cardholders’ Bill of Rights.

x

And please, take one more moment to forward this message to people you know who use credit cards so they can join you in action for reform, too!

x

Sincerely,
Jim Guest
President
Consumers Union of the U.S.
101 Truman Avenue
Yonkers, NY 10703-1057

What I will say is that this is a kick in the pants: If you have debt, get rid of it! Because you know that this company is not the only one that is dreaming up new ways to profit from us.

Give me your tips on living debt free.

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Debt-free Christmas

As a volunteer budget coach, I encounter many people who have lived beyond their means and fallen into desperate straits. One of my goals in life is to teach people how to avoid the debt trap – or to climb out if they’ve already fallen into it. I don’t want to get too preachy, but this subject will come up over and over in my blog.

Now that Halloween is over, shoppers will begin hitting the stores with visions of Christmas bargains dancing in their heads.

Many of us will spend more money than we have, figuring that we must use plastic to finance our family’s happy holiday. We’ll worry about the bills in January, when we’re not so busy trying to make things sparkly and special, we tell ourselves.

Then January (or perhaps even December) rolls around, and we open the first bill. We had no idea we spent that much! And for what? A toy that gets shoved under the bed after two weeks (or less), a sweater that the recipient hates, decorations that will spend most of the year in the closet …

The Christmas season: The retailers love it. The credit card companies love it. And we love it … until the spending hangover.

No one enjoys the aftermath of a spending binge.

The problem, in my view, is twofold: too-high expectations and too little planning.

Great Expectations

Most of us have unrealistic expectations. We want our holiday celebrations to be perfect … or at least as close to those in our memories as possible. But those memories don’t have to include extravagant spending.

The best gifts I have received were homemade. I will never forget the tiny red wooden firetruck my brother made for me in the 1970s, when the TV show Emergency! was popular. Granted, my brother and I fought like cats and dogs most of the time, but that Christmas he gave me a priceless gift – the gift of his time, his effort and his heart – the only gift he could give on a kid’s salary of $0 (we had chores but not allowances). I don’t have the firetruck anymore, but I still cherish the memory of my brother’s gift.

Three or four Christmases ago, I (and my little sewing machine) made most of the gifts I gave my family (my in-laws received store-bought gifts); my friends and co-workers got homemade candy or cookies. Money was tight that year, and I chose not to worry that I wasn’t giving fancy or expensive gifts and to rely on my family to understand and love me anyway.

Lack of Planning

Giving homemade gifts required me to plan ahead (although I was still sewing at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve). But avoiding overspending requires planning, too.

You may think it’s too late this year to shop within your means for Christmas. After all, if you haven’t been funding the holiday budget all year, there is little you can do now that it’s November.

If you haven’t budgeted for it (decided on the amount you won’t exceed and saving for it all year), the alternative is to adjust your expectations – and those of your family.

Yes, this is difficult. But it’s so worth it. The payoff is in less stress. Stress over having to make sure everything on everyone’s list is bought (and presented beautifully), having to have the perfectly decorated house, and thinking you have to buy each and every acquaintance and co-worker a gift.

And stress over having credit card bills that have no end. That, in itself, is incentive enough for me.

Stay tuned for ways to give that don’t require money (feel free to submit your own tips). Meanwhile, visit my favorite Web site about the art of living below your means: Debt-Proof Living (formerly Cheapskate Monthly).

Check out Mary Hunt’s book Debt-Proof the Holidays: How to Have an All-Cash Christmas.

Debt-Proof the Holidays book

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