Thursday, May 12, 2011

Debt Collectors and Dementors

I see the caller ID on my iphone- Unknown. Or maybe an 800 number. Or some far away location where I know I don’t know anyone. Like North Dakota- and my blood runs cold.

Should I remain still and hope they go away? They’ll leave a message. And they’ll just keep coming back.

So maybe I should face them, and try to fight. But I know I don’t have the resources. It’s useless.

They are debt collectors. And they are the Dementors of the Muggle World.

The more I think about them, the more I think debt collectors are exactly who she had in mind when J.K Rowling created her terrifying creatures.

-They are faceless.

-They can swoop in at any time.

-They work for someone else.

-They make no distinction between the ones they seek and those who get in the way. Just ask any of my friends or family members who have ever received a call about my debt.

-They make me feel as if I’ll never be cheerful again.

-The more sadness I have in my life, the stronger their effect on me.

-The only thing that can make me feel any better after an interaction with them is chocolate.

Even the names. DEBTCOLLECTORS. DEMENTORS. I can picture Tom Riddle rearranging the letters mid-air with his wand.

I started to make the comparison a few weeks ago after the phone call that put me over the edge. Ryan and I talked about it, and I wondered- if debt collectors are our Dementors… what’s the patronus?

For a while I thought it was something silly. General happy thoughts. Warm fuzzies. I wondered what animal my patronus would be.

But then last Friday I got another phone call. It was a Dementor- er, debt collector. And I felt calm. And so I answered the phone.

The woman on the other end immediately identified herself and the company she represented. And then she told me something surprising- that she had Ryan on conference call. “Hi, sweetheart,” he said.

It turns out she had called him, and then he gave her the usual “My wife takes care of all this and has the numbers” excuse. But when she suggested they call me, something very different happened. “Yes,” he said. “Let’s do that.”

Because this time, I did have all the numbers. It wasn’t just a line. It was the truth. And he knew I would answer. And he knew I would say exactly what I said. “Just a minute. Let me pull up your file.”

“I’m sorry, what did you say that balance was?” I asked. “OK, that’s a little different than what I have here… And you represent Company XYZ? …Can I reach you at 555-123-4567? …Ah, there’s a better number, let me fill that in. …And what was your name? OK, that sounds like a reasonable payment, we can fit that into our budget. We didn‘t plan on it for this month- can we start the first week in June?”

Spreadsheets. Accurate information. A plan. That is my patronus. That knowledge gives me the peace to deal with all of this head-on.

We got off of the phone with a plan that will have the credit card paid-off in seven months. I moved the debt from the “Need to set-up payment plan” list to the “Making payments” snowball list. And the details become clearer and clearer.

In a few years, the Ministry of Magic will be unable to find any fault with me, and the Dementors will have no choice but to slink away. And then I will have a different patronus: I won’t owe anything to anyone. Take that, big ugly black-cloaked creatures.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Spread Sheets and Alcohol

We've had this pile for as long as we've been married. Oh, sure, every once in a while it gets sorted and organized. But then I don't do anything with the contents, and it builds up again. No, it's not the laundry. (Well, we have that pile, too. That's just not our topic of discussion for today.) It's the bills.

Our current pile has been building up since we moved to Greenwich. I've moved it from the top of the bar by the front door, to the bedroom, to the stand in the hallway, to the drawer in the bar by the door, (I had to shove. It was getting big) back to the bedroom, and finally, to the table in the dining room. This final location meant four things:

1. We lost use of our dining room.

2. I could always see it, causing major anxiety.

3. Others could see it, making me hesitate to extend invitations.

4. Lily pulled the papers down and spread them all over the room several times a week.

The problem with this pile is that once it was organized... then what? I couldn't afford to pay-off the debts, I had grown tired of arguing about reasonable payment plans with debt-collectors. So they just piled up again. Physically, and emotionally.

Then on Friday, I knew what to do. Ryan was asleep on the couch, suffering with the stomach flu. Lily was in bed, presumably for the night. So I put the pile into a large box, poured myself a drink (a screwdriver with a little flavored seltzer, if you were wondering) and went to work.

Step one, figure out which envelopes were duplicates. I can't imagine the money some of these companies would save if they just didn't send so much mail. I knew almost everything in the pile had a friend. So, I sorted. And the result looked like the second picture above. (Note. I tried many times to get the pictures to be right here. Why didn't it work? Anyone?)

So they were sorted. And it was overwhelming. And I took a break and texted some close friends and poured another drink. I needed to get information from these papers- not just sort them. I needed to know how much I owed, and to whom. And I needed to know how to contact those people.

And here's where I reveal a big secret.

I'm actually pretty good at math. And. I sort of understand Microsoft Works spreadsheets. I wouldn't put it on my resume or anything. But for someone who has never been taught formally, I have copied from enough samples that I can kinda sorta make my own now.

But the emotional hurdles have always been too much for me when it came to finances, so I just pretended that I didn't understand. Lies. I understood. It just scared me.

So I started a spreadsheet. And for each pile of debts I found the most current statement. I recycled all but the most current, and put the info into the spreadsheet. The result- the first picture above. (I understand spread sheets. I do NOT understand why my pictures are in a crazy order.)

I was then able to get the total we owed, (a terrifying number. Good thing I had those two drinks...) I could sort them from smallest balance to largest, have all the information in one place, and have the numbers available in a way I can use. I know what our minimum payments are, and I know when we can start to make those minimum payments. (Soon, but not immediately.)

It was a lot of work. And a lot of stress. And a lot of vodka. But now I know. And as G.I. Joe told the children of the 80's, "knowing is half the battle..."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

It's All in the Timing- Part 2

This whole financial stuff is a lot to process. Yesterday when I posted my blog, I forgot some very important timing information.

We have a goal. A very specific goal. We want all of our debt to be gone by the end of 2015. That would seem impossible if you knew how much my student loans were. But first of all, mathematically, it is absolutely possible. And second, it is just too convenient of a goal.

As my first very first blog indicates, my life has fallen into neat decades. I know the world doesn't really work that way. I know it's a coincidence. But.

In 2015:

-I will turn 40.
-Ryan and I will celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary.
-Lily will start first grade.
-All of our debt will be gone. All of it.

After that, the retirement and college savings can begin. Frankly, I had assumed it was too late. We all have heard stories about people who start saving in their twenties. I just thought that ship had sailed. Then I saw the charts in "Total Money Makeover" that indicated how much a person should save monthly for retirement depending on starting age. And there it was. 40. And it wasn't even way down at the bottom of the list like a Point of No Return.

The next encouraging chart had a similar savings plan for college educations. And there was age 6. Sort of towards the top. Not too late.

So not only is it time to start, it will be a great time to finish. Ready.... go!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

It's All in the Timing

Last week after I posted my blog about debt, I received several private messages. It seems there were a lot of people out there who understood where I was coming from. Two of the messages really caught my attention, because they suggested the same book- "Total Money Makeover" by Dave Ramsey. One of my friends even went so far as to send me a copy. They both said it had changed their lives, and I anxiously awaited my package from Amazon.

But when it arrived, something crazy happened. My husband read a book.

Don't get me wrong. My husband is extremely intelligent and extremely literate. He just gets bored easily. But something about this book captured his attention. I was a little irritated, truth be told. The book had been sent to be. Not to mention, I became a book widow for an entire weekend.

By Sunday evening he emerged from behind the book really fired-up. "We need to do this" he said. I told him I would have a stronger opinion about that when he allowed me to read MY book. And so I did. And my opinion is.... we need to do this.

Dave Ramsey's book outlines a step-by-step method for getting out of debt. It's rough, it takes sacrifice, but it works. And we're not just talking about those pesky credit cards, either. (As ours are minimal. If that's all we needed to do, we could do it on our own in a few months.) We're talking car payments, student loans, even mortgages. And then it outlines planning for retirement and college and just general wealthy living. As freelancers, this is stuff that just seemed out of reach.

After reading "Total Money Makeover" and starting to work out our plan, I highly recommend it to anyone who's ready. In fact, if you decide to get it and read it and follow his plan, I'd love to work on it together. (I've already had several conversations with my friend who sent the book. It's a lot to process, emotionally, and having a strong support system is key.) However. It's all in the timing.

This book suggests radical life changes, and it has to be the right time. Fortunately for us, it is.

You need to be really angry about your debt. Angry enough to make huge changes. Obviously, I was angry enough to write a blog about it. So. Anger. Check.

You need to be willing to sit down and figure out a really specific budget and follow it. We've been doing this in our household since January. We write down everything- every cup of coffee, every toll, every load of laundry. Every penny is accounted for. So. Budget. Check.

You need to give up using your credit cards entirely. We haven't used ours in years. OK, it's because they've been maxed-out. But still. No credit cards. Check.

You need to be willing to "live like no one else" and not try to keep up with the Joneses. We live in one of the wealthiest cities in the country. We have no hope of keeping up with the Joneses. And when it comes to living like no one else, well, currently my fingernails are painted with a fishnet pattern. So. Comfort with living like no one else. Check.

You need to be willing to give up expensive fun for a while. Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a two-year-old? Have you ever gone on vacation with a two-year-old? Have you ever gone to the movies with a two-year-old? On the other hand, have you ever spent a Saturday afternoon at the park with a two-year-old? Suddenly this doesn't seem like a sacrifice as much as just good common sense. We're choosing to give some things up during the one time in our lives when those things are difficult anyway. So. Give up expensive fun. Check.

You need to be willing to drive an inexpensive used car. Uh... check.

We were ready, that was clear. But the first step is getting current on all debts. Frankly, I didn't even know what was out there. And there was one loan- my student loan from NYU- that scared the bejeezus out of me.

And then yesterday my phone rang. A few hours after I had finished reading. It was from "Unknown." I took a deep breath. We're going to have to do this eventually, so here we go. It was from the company representing our very biggest loan. That really scary loan from my Not-Quite-Ivy-League graduate degree. My loan had just gotten to this guy's desk... yesterday.

More on my conversation with Mr. So-And-So later, but the point was the timing. Just as I was feeling angry and confident and ready, God gave me the opportunity to face the scariest part.

It's all in the timing, and for us, the time is NOW.