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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What A Little Effort Can Do For Debt Reduction

There are many, many things I love about my life here in the beautiful mesas of the Chihuahuan Desert. Among those are the contrasts, the juxtapositioning of old and new ways of living.

While I make use of the remarkable technologies of today as I write this now, I spent some time this morning as the indigenous women of this region did for thousands of years -- making tortillas. And, while I was working, I was thinking about a couple things related to cooking at home -- far less expensive and far more healthy overall.

I could buy tortillas. They run about a dollar a
dozen. In the photos (always clickable for a larger view), I am mixing up a batch of about 40 for less than a dollar... and, if I do say so myself, my home-made, fresh tortillas are far better than those mass produced in the factory and bagged up. Everyone here has said so, too.

In the big pot next to my wanna-be comal -- I have no proper comal for tortilla making, so I make do with a well-seasoned iron skillet -- are about 5 pounds of pinto beans. I'm feeding 9
people with hearty appetites. I'll be smashing and
frying a good portion of those beans with some
spices for tacos tonight, which is why I made
tortillas this morning. The rest of the beans will be used tomorrow by my sister to make her awesome chili.

The dried beans are pretty inexpensive, about 2 dollars for 4 pounds. Canned beans are easily double and often triple the price. It seems kind of silly to pay that when cooking dry beans is so easy. If I wanted to, I could buy canned refried beans for my tacos, though that would also be much more expensive, and I'd still have to add spices to make them palatable. Furthermore, they'd be less nutritious from the can, and probably have MSG and be high in sodium.

My point, over all, is that many people spend a lot of money on prepared foods, convenience foods, and drive-through foods, when by investing a little effort they could save a considerable amount on their food bill by cooking at home. Furthermore, most of those quick foods are price heavy and nutrition light. The benefits of eating fresh, whole foods are innumerable, but if we stick to the financial aspect for a moment, improved health leads to less money spent on costly health care.

There are many things in day-to-day life that are similar. For those looking to reduce debt and decrease spending (leaving more money for saving or more time for something other than working to pay the bills), learning to do basic repair tasks around the home and on the auto really isn't all that difficult. Being less dependent on others to meet your needs is a very good thing, particularly in today's economic climate.

I've been following the recent news about food shortages, skyrocketing prices, and the rationing of some food items throughout the world with a blend of fascination and horror. This is exactly the scenario that inspired me to remove my family from the city. I, geek that I am, have strange hobbies. Global economics is one of those hobbies and I've been watching trends for a few years now. To me, as well as to many financial experts, it looks like times are sure to be fiscally challenging in the near future and for a significant period of time thereafter. The financial markets are going to have to go through their spasms of correction and we're all going to have to go along for the ride.

During the Great Depression, while those in rural areas did experience severe poverty, they did have a significant advantage over those living in urban areas -- the ability to grow and hunt for their food. During World War II, the Victory Garden was an important supplement to households throughout the nation, including urban neighborhoods, as common, daily-use foods were rationed by the government. Looking at our situation today, it seems that learning to develop a bit of food self-sufficiency -- whether by cooking more, creating urban patio or fire escape gardens in containers, or larger suburban or rural gardens --is not just good economics in terms of a debt reduction plan or strategy for reducing overall expenses, but also simply good old-fashioned common sense.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Does Aging Affect Financial Prudence?

During a recent phone conversation with my mother, I realized something that I apparently had been oblivious to – she really is getting older. My mother is swiftly approaching 70 years old, but is just as lively and sassy as ever. Now that I am a wife and mother, too, we talk all the time, and I lose sight of our age difference because our relationship has expanded into a genuine friendship. She will never be my peer, but she is timeless to me now.

Well, she was until she told me that somehow, while paying her monthly bills, she had miscalculated something somewhere and her bank account was slightly overdrawn.

My mom, who has always been a shrewd money manager, doesn’t go through these kinds of things. She harshly scolded me in my early twenties as I discovered the joys of the VISA check card and the pains of overspending because I had swiped my card too carelessly. Growing up, she always had bank books full of deposit and withdrawal notations – I thought that she was an accountant!

Simply put, my mom doesn’t ever, ever overspend. EVER.

So, when she told me that she had made this kind of error, it was a little rattling. What really made my heart sink was that she was so upset about it. It wasn’t because she was worried about money; she has good credit and still works, so she simply planned to charge her purchases to her VISA until her next payday. No problem. My mother’s worry was that she might be falling into the same kind of diminished financial prudence that many seniors her age experience.

Financial Advisor Magazine reports that “More than 14% of Americans—5.4 million senior men and women—have some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease by age 70, according to a 2007 NIH study,” and that “The AARP says that half a million folks 50 years of age or older already need assistance with their finances.” I’m sure that many of my mother’s friends need assistance in managing their finances due to diminished capacity. It’s easy, however, to dissociate yourself from others who need help with something when you are so good at it. Now, the queen o’ the balanced checkbook had fallen from her throne. I’m sure it was quite unsettling, and I hurried to assure her that everyone makes mistakes sometimes, so that she wouldn’t continue to worry.

I really do believe that this snafu was a one-time mishap for her. I may just be a loyal daughter. But it would be wise for both of us to remain open to the idea that my mother may not be the invincible Superwoman after all.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Why I Tend To Overspend

I am currently in credit card rehab – my loving husband, who admitted me, is also the chief of staff. We are in the process of getting out of debt for good, so there has been absolutely no credit card usage allowed, period. It’s been like this for quite some time now, and I have to say, I didn’t think that I would make it this long. Paying off debt while ceasing from creating new debt seems like an obvious solution, but putting such theory into practice is harder than it seems. When we abruptly stopped charging purchases, I began to show withdrawal symptoms, which is why I am here, cleaning up my act.

Although I went down kicking and screaming, I always understood that my husband was right for putting a halt to all credit card spending until we were ready to be responsible users. We did what many newlyweds do – we got a joint card almost as soon as we got married and bought things that we thought we needed for our new life together. The problem was that we didn’t have the money to get those things outright; thus, the use of credit. This kind of spending put us in a vice that really began to squeeze when unexpected situations arose, pinching our finances so hard that accounts became delinquent.

How did that happen?

I believe that, at least for me, the problem began when the foundation was laid for my conceptual understanding of credit. Besides the fact that my teacher was an eighteen year old girlfriend, there were negative influences and temptations on every side. College campuses are now lairs for predatory lenders with magic plastic cards, giving you a free t-shirt or tote bag for books in exchange for your credit application. Hip, trendy boutiques make it all too easy for young people to obtain store credit. So, my belief system concerning the purpose for and availability of consumer credit was corrupted from the very start.

I bought into the idea that credit was a pipeline as opposed to a lifeline. From what I had gathered from my friends and the credit card companies, consumer credit was there so that I could purchase things I couldn’t afford and simply pay for them later. As long as I made small monthly payments, I could buy whatever I wanted, up to my credit limit. Credit was a money pipeline, creating cash flow in the present based upon resources from the future. I could keep the pipeline going, so long as I put a little cash into it on a regular basis.

While that sounds good, it’s a shame that it’s completely untrue!

Consumer credit was originally developed as a lifeline, primarily for the well-to-do and business owners in order to purchase necessary equipment or other assets that would either appreciate in value or help them turn a profit. That’s a far cry from getting some new clothes (that I really can’t afford) this week, even though I don’t get paid until two weeks from now.

Well, after living a while with this “pipeline mentality”, I soon came face to face with the realities involved with racking up debts that I couldn’t pay, and then being denied the help I really did need in the future because of past indiscretions. Then, I turned around and started fresh again when I got married. Apparently, I hadn’t learned my lesson in college.

I sure did learn it during my stay in credit card rehab, though. It’s actually been a couple of years now. I honestly believe that I have been rehabilitated. But, just to be sure, we don’t plan on getting another credit card until we know exactly what we will use it for and that we will pay the balance off every month that we use it.

The pipeline is officially closed.

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