June 25, 2003

See how big that giraffe is against the mighty moon?  It's all perspective.  You can be as big as you want to be.  :)  It's all about angles.

After getting my booster shot a couple of days ago, Eric helped me to take some time off.  He spent a minimum of yesterday working on the business, came home and watched kids for the afternoon while I went to the back and napped, watched TV, cried to clean out and read a bit. He made a nice dinner of grilled burgers and fries, then cuddled with me while we watched Star Trek Next Generation.   After that, I dozed a bit while he watched "Kickboxer" (manstuff), then went into full-fledged sleep mode.  I woke up feeling much better, wondering why more men don't get the message (and mine doesn't get it more often) that I little nurturing goes a long way toward making da little woman happy.  Sadly, I now have to clean the house and reward his good behavior (smile).  I feel renewed, but I'm just wanting to bask in it instead of being pro-active toward doing anything.  I could also seriously sleep again and get all caught up. 

One major difference in this layoff versus last that I failed to see in my funk is that this time, we have very definite prospects and last time, we were walking in the darkness with no light in sight until the spotlight was thrown on.  This time, there is a wonderful opportunity for prosperity, it's just taking its own sweet time to roll out, so I have to be patient, make the money magic and batten down the hatches until it all starts to work.  The guys have made wonderful contact and gotten some fabulous opportunities, so the miracles are there and hard at work, even if they aren't showing up in the money.  If nothing else, I've learned that still waters often run deep and there can be a LOT going on beneath the veneer that we see.

All I have to do is do my usual Emergency Money Triage until everything pans out and it'll all be cool.

So last time I posted, I said I would share some of the things I've learned about money management in times of crisis.  I want to be very direct is saying that this is NOT a way to live your life forever.  These are specifically emergency measures to be used on a temporary basis only.  If you go more than 2-3 months like this, you need to seriously make some lifestyle changes to get more money coming in or your expenses going down. 

The first thing, obviously, is to decide what you can sacrifice in your monthly expenditures.  It's not always about the dollars and sense (spelling intentional) when you're discussing what you can and can't do and sometimes, it's a lot more individual than it appears.  For instance, my kids have to be unfed and my house has to be going away for me to let go of cable TV.  For me, that's something that I consider a necessity.  To Dr Phil, that's crazy talk.  Oh well.  We do what we have to do to survive, mentally and otherwise.  I will amend  my cable and pare it down, but it won't just go away until the last tree falls in the forest.

You'd be surprised how many things you can do without in your house that you just automatically buy because you "need" them.  Fabric Softener (just pick that sock off the ass of your dress and keep walking, woman!), light bulbs (you don't need more than one in a room unless you absolutely have to have  reading light in the room - unscrew all but one and use them in other places when the one burns out), carpet fresh, paper towels, air freshener, alcohol (except in emergencies), expensive animal food (they'll adjust and people come first - buy cheap),  air conditioning (I ran mine from April - May set at 74 degrees on auto and my electric bill was $240.  I only ran mine for an hour or two a day from May - June when it was even hotter and I just got my bill:  $26 - MAJOR difference - you'd be shocked at what you can do with open windows, light clothes and a couple of fans strategically placed).

One of the biggest mistakes I think people make is trying to keep the crisis from the kids and have their life not be affected in any way. It my experience and opinion that kids over the age of 4-5 need to be told very clearly what is going on in very simple terms without going into graphic details ("We may lose our house in a month or two" is NOT good kid info).  The reasoning behind this is that kids are going to instinctively know that something is going on and their little pointed heads contain an imagination that will conjure up a BAD that is far beyond what is actually going on  every time.  Knowing a simple truth puts a face to the BAD that is creating the tension that is around and ironically, allows the kids some great relaxation.  Of course, you don't show them facts and figures and give them doom and gloom reports as they present.  You keep it very simple and age appropriate, not allowing kids to deal with adult issues.  Tell them the basic truth and end with an hopeful, upbeat smile.  "As you may have noticed, things have been a little tense around here lately and your dad has been around more than usual.  This is because the company Dad was working for had to make some changes and he lost his job.  He's working really hard to find one and Mom is going to be looking as well, but because our money to buy things came from Dad's job, we're all going to have to be very careful with spending until another job comes.  Don't worry.  This is something that happens to everyone sometime and it's just our turn for it to happen.  Don't be scared.  Don't worry.  It's all going to be OK.  We just have to be very careful for a while and not spend a lot."  Refrain from saying things like, "We could end up in the streets," "We may not have much to eat" or "You may end up being sold."  Words like "Rat bastards" when talking about the job that was lost also isn't usually very age-appropriate. 

Another aspect to full, if abbreviated, disclosure to children is the fact that if you're going to make it through, their life is likely going to have to change for a while.  This means no allowances, no special trips (skating with the school that involves payment, going to Waterworld with Jacqueline, etc) and no extras for a while.  They may pout a bit, but they'll get over it.  At least they will have a reason why rather than just, "Because I said so."  When a family is in financial crisis, everyone has to help, even if it's indentured help.  Have kids over 16 who are spending the summer improving their skills on Grand Theft Auto 3 and not much else?  Guess who's going to be flipping burgers in nothing flat?  If you have capable, employable children, they need to be beating the pavement with everyone else to job hunt however, I will say that it ultimately gives them a sense of pride to have helped the family and I do not recommend taking more than half of their income.  This gives THEM some pocket money and lets them get a taste of taking care of their own needs with it.  Make sure they know that you fully appreciate their contribution to the family and that the other half of their income is for their nonfood and shelter needs first, then for cd's and video games.  Make sure ALL children of ANY age that you support IMMEDIATELY know that the purchasing of designer clothes and shoes, as well as extras such as CD's, games and other non-necessities by Mom and Dad are on indefinite stoppage.  Clothes come from thrift shops and then only if needed.  New underwear is OK, but they'd better be able to show discernable holes in the undies or cut marks in their skin from being too small.  No movies, no video rentals, no arcade money (are there still arcades?).  Younger kids, say 6 and under, usually don't much care and often don't even notice a difference.  Older kids get a little pouty, but inside, they usually understand.  If not, they could really use the lesson anyway.  Never, ever live outside your means for your kids' benefit.  Is that really how you want to send them into the world?  With the impression that you should live beyond your means at any cost?  I don't think so.

That brings us to the subject of food.  I was shocked at how much I could pare off of the grocery bill with a little creativity and frugality.  If you can, pick about 3 grocery stores within reasonable distance where you can shop.  That allows you to comparison shop, but make sure you aren't burning up the 9 cents you saved on dog food in gasoline driving there.  If there is a discount food warehouse bag your own groceries (groan) place, check and see if it really is cheaper.  If it is, use it.  At least for now.  Don't bulk buy for now unless it's markedly cheaper.  You need to be more conscious of what you are spending NOW, TODAY over what you're saving for the future.  Normally, you wouldn't work like that, but remember, this is crisis management.  If you don't live in  or near a nice sized city, obviously, you may only have one store and if so, you'll have to be even more frugal. 

Most stores now have prices listed for items on the shelf in front of it.  You'll see a numeric price, a bar code and usually, a per unit price.  You want to check out the per unit cost to see how many cents you can save by choosing a less popular brand or a generic. 

Take a calculator.  Cost adds up faster than you think.  Also, for this time only, I recommend using coupons.  Normally, the few cents I save from a coupon are not worth the headache it was for me to clip the thing, haul it around and keep track of the expiration date.  In crisis mode, every penny counts, so get that Sunday paper and start snipping.  Beware of cutting really great coupons for items you don't need.  Only clip for stuff you need to buy and then, still comparison shop when you get there. 

Make a list and don't impulse buy.  Buy food only one week at a time.  A lot can change for the better or worse in a week and you need to be flexible.    Plan a dinner for each night for the period for which you are shopping, but be open to changes if you planned ground beef, get there and find out it's $2.00 a pound and London broil is on sale for $1.88 a pound.  I usually just write down, "7 dinners" and go from there.

Cheap breakfast is easy.  Eggs are often on sale for around a buck a dozen and can be used many ways, including hard boiling a dozen for a healthy snack, for salads or for egg salad sandwiches.  Pancakes are cheap.  French toast is cheap.  Cereal is cheap (if you buy what's inevitably on sale).  Toast/Bread is cheap (again, shop on sale or at a bakery outlet).  Even frozen waffles are cheap (even though overall, you should avoid pre-processed foods since they are usually really expensive).  Lunches also can be a really cheap affair.  My kids LOVE Cup-o-Noodles and Ramen Noodles, which you can usually get for about 30 cents a hit.  Mine prefer them if you knock the dried veggies out before cooking.  They also love spaghetti with butter, salt and pepper on it and no sauce.  Hot dogs are often on sale for a buck or so a package.  American cheese slices (doesn't have to be Kraft, can be the store brand) can be used for grilled cheese sammiches and only cost pennies.  Bologna is also sometimes on sale for a couple of dollars a package.  Macaroni and Cheese in boxes also often goes on sale.  This time of year, lettuce, carrots, celery and cabbage is fairly cheap for salads, as well as potatoes for baking.  My kids also love dried egg noodles (spaghetti aisle) cooked in chicken bouillon.  Store brand soups are also often very cheap.

Dinners and snacks are the places where it's easy to wreck the budget.  For dinner, my kids LOVE chicken legs, which are always about the cheapest part of the chicken you can buy.  Although my kids, sadly, don't care for them, you can buy dried pinto beans, soak them overnight and cook them through the day in a crock pot for a filling dinner, especially if you add a little rice (which my kids also hate).  Round steak is often cheap and can be used for beef stroganoff,  broiled for sandwiches or sliced up for fajitas or chili.  Investing in a bottle of meat tenderizer (like McCormick's) can make typically not so tender cuts of beef taste wonderful.  If you catch ground beef on sale, don't forget about Manwich, Hamburger Helper, burgers and tacos.  Pork is usually badly overpriced.  Fish sticks are also on sale often.  Just comparison shop and pay attention to prices.

Snacks are also fairly easy.  If you buy bagged popcorn instead of microwave popcorn, it's a very cheap treat.  Saltines, vanilla wafers, graham crackers, dry cereal, instant pudding, jello, marshmallows, carrot and celery sticks, rice cakes, yogurt, Otter Pops (popsicles in plastic wrappers with no sticks), kool-aid (the old fashioned kind to which you add *gasp* sugar) and season fruits are all great and cheap snacks for kiddies and adults.  Watch the fruits because they can get pretty pricey. 

I'm not saying that you should starve or vitamin deprive your children.  If your child has special dietary needs as dictated by a physician, certainly , you need to honor that at al costs.  If you have a typical, happy, healthy kid, they won't keel over from a few months of eating cheaply. 

But what about your bills?  As soon as you determine that you're in crisis, the first thing you do is determine your resources. What can you sell if need be?  What can you cash out or in?  What do you have that is untouchable but can be touched if needed?  What's in savings?  What credit is available on the cards?  What's coming in?  Go into instant hoard mode.  You are the keeper of the register key and naught shall enter without proper clearance.  Only pay those who scream the loudest or can do you damage.  Credit card companies will piss and moan, but you can catch up with them after enormous damage is done over months.  Fuck'em.  Same goes for all music or book clubs or store credit.  Just... don't pay.  If you're in crisis, we're talking bare necessities.  Believe me, you aren't the first to blow them off and the company will survive.  Creditors talk tough, but in the end, they get their money when you pay them.  In true crisis mode, your priorities are utilities, rent, transportation and food.  Period.  After that, hoard, hoard, hoard and dole out only when the screams are coming.  It takes most utility companies about a month of late payments before they talk about shutting off.  Don't pay until you're being shut off.  Then call and ask for more time.  It really takes some head-wrapping around to truly understand what is a necessity and what is not. 

For necessary utilities like gas and electricity, check with local programs like HEAP (Heating, Electric Assistance Program), the CARE program, the Salvation Army and your local utility companies themselves often have programs for people in crisis.

Don't be afraid of Food Stamps.  You have to eat and if this is how you do it, then do it.  Same goes for WIC (Women, Infants and Children for pregnant or lactating women and children up to age 5).  Churches and the Salvation Army often have food baskets that are given out weekly or monthly or food banks that operate daily.  Things like this can help immensely.  If you are too ashamed or prideful to ask for help, your kids may not eat, your bills may not get paid and you may not make it.  This was a hard lesson for me to learn and I wasted a lot of time and money getting there.  Almost everyone hits a point like this and if you can let go of the shame and just do what your family needs, while working hard to get out of the situation instead of relishing and abusing it, hold your head high and use your resources.  THERE is your pride... in doing what you need to do to take care of your family.  Get over it.  Crisis is crisis.  If you are on the sinking Titanic and someone with a lifeboat reaches out a hand to you, don't ignore it because you're in the process of building your own boat.

Rent or mortgage is a dicey situation.  Most of the time, a landlord will not take aggressive action beyond crabby phone calls or letters until you are at least 3 weeks late with the rent, then it takes anywhere from 2 weeks to 90 days (depending on your local laws) to have you evicted.  Right up until the date of Get Out, a lot of landlords will take payment and let you stay.  Above all, talk, talk, talk to them.  Ducking and hiding is not your friend (except in credit card situations... those people are sharks).  Basically, it's usually easier for a landlord to take your money after eviction papers have been served than to push you out and show and rent your apartment to someone else.  Mortgage companies (and other repossessing people like those who hold your auto lien) really, really don't want your house, car or other crap back.  They want money.  They are often willing to wait  for money in lieu of house/car/crap to auction for a lot longer than they act as though they are willing to wait.  Again, dialogue and if you're lucky, a no bullshit, kindly customer service person is key. 

Speaking of customer service people, only speak with a bill collector as long as they are treating you with respect and dignity.  If they get abusive (and honey, they will), ask to speak with their supervisor and keep moving up the chain of command.  Keep your voice calm and firm, even if you are telling them that you don't know when you can pay them.  Don't let them get under your skin.  You are nothing more than a number on  a page to them.  Tell them that you regret that you are in this situation and understand that it is their job to call, but that you simply do not have the information they need.  Can you just set up a payment plan?  A free check by phone?  No, you cannot.  You do not want to obligate money that may not be there.  Thank them for calling and assure them that you will call them as soon as you know when you can pay them (and do call!).  Don't get emotional with them.  Don't become abusive yourself.  Just remain calm and speak clearly and firmly.  You will get calls.  That can't be changed.  What can be changed is the energy that goes into it.  If everyone you talk to in the company is abusively, clearly state that you are not willing to be spoken to in this way and that you will contact them when you have the information they need,  then hang up and breathe for a while.  Let it all roll off. 

Any time you are contacted by a third party collector (meaning a company to whom you are indebted sends the account to a collection agency) ALWAYS send this letter by mail, requiring that someone at the company sign for the letter.   You should NEVER give ANYONE who is stating that they are a collection agent on behalf of one of your accounts a payment unless and until you have confirmed in writing that they are indeed an authorized agent of a company to whom you owe money.    There are con artists who will access information on delinquent accounts owed, call pretending to be a collection agency, intimidate people into paying a full or partial payment, take the money and disappear with you still owing the legitimate debt.  ALWAYS confirm by mail.  Not to mention that if you paid via check by phone, you just gave them the routing number and account number for your checking account.  If you paid by credit card, they now have sufficient access to your account to some damage there as well.

When you do start to get money coming in, again, triage who gets what.  It helps if you have enough to give everyone something.  Budget and know where you're going to invest the money, then try not to be bullied into different arrangements.  "Beware!  We're going to send you to a collection agency" usually means they will pass your info to the next cubicle over, so don't freak when you hear that.  Pfft.

A word of caution:  on repossessions , voluntary or involuntary, what will happen is that the item (car, house, etc) will be sold, usually at an auction, and whatever they get for it will be deducted from what you owe and you will be obligated to pay the difference, no matter how much it is.  If the item sells for more than you owe, you will receive the balance in most cases after repo fees are deducted.  Repossessions are a major blow to your credit report and the outstanding balance after the vehicle (or whatever) is resold will be a huge debt incurred.  Try to avoid this at all cost unless you will be declaring bankruptcy in tandem with the repo.  Many companies will take a reduced payment or even skip 2-3 months of payments in order to avoid a repossession.  Again, keep communications open and see what arrangements they are willing to make. 

If you have to declare bankruptcy, most of the time, you will not need  a lawyer.  Many people do not know this.  If you have extenuating circumstances (such as owning a business), then you would do well to seek legal counsel.  Otherwise, there are often court services companies that will handle the bankruptcy for around $200.  There is extensive paperwork and the process usually takes about 3 months from start until discharge.  Nearly all debts can be eliminated, but a bankruptcy stays on your credit report for 7 years and greatly limits your future credit options.  You would think it would be a humiliating process, but when you see how many other very normal people are there, it sort of turns into social hour. It's also very fast when you're in the court situations.  One thing that is of interest is that if you are declaring bankruptcy, you have to list all of your debts, even the ones you are choosing not to include in the bankruptcy.  They will be notified of your filing and if you continue to make regular payments to them, they cannot repossess just because you filed bankruptcy.  Also, most of the time, a loan re-affirmation is NOT in your best interest and will be denied by the judge.  They usually encourage you to go for a redemption, which means you pay the company basically yard sale prices for the item in question, then you are given 90 days to pay it.  This normally amounts to 10% of the original purchase price.

Above all, do not panic and give into the fear and the what if's.  Take one step at a time, don't worry about next month or even next week.  Center yourself in today, maybe tomorrow or this week.  Take a lot of deep breaths.  Get plenty of sleep.  Spend one on one time with each of your kids.  Do "free" stuff like going to the park, flying kites, going to the airport and watching the planes take off and land.

Definitely (and this is the most important and the hardest), keep your spouse (if you have one of those) as your ally.  Do a lot for each other.  Foot massages, back rubs, cups of tea, taking turns getting up with kids, lots of cuddles and time together watching movies, talking and playing together.  If either of you start to feel your fear or anger channeling toward the other, take a break, breathe and don't let the situation get to you.  This is your partner, not your enemy.  They are frightened.  They are frustrated.  They are angry too.  Let that be OK.  Let them rant with you and make sure they know you are on their side and are going to walk this rocky road with them.  Don't give this situation the power to come between you.

Lord, look at how long I've rambled!  I guess I needed to hear all that again to be reminded, so you've been viewing me talking to myself. 

Look at that Giraffe at the top again.  He doesn't even know how big he is against that moon.  Only we can see it and trust me, when you stay calm and centered, you'll be bigger than you know you can be and before long, it will be over.  The wheel turns up as well as down (and despite what you think, you're not under it - smile).

Now, I have to go clean the kids' room to see if Eric's wedding ring is in there.  Nathan grabbed it from the sink (where Eric took it off to wash dishes) and now it's missing.  He says he put it in the trash and of course, he told us that after Eric took out the trash and the trash man cometh.  *sigh*  We *hope* it's in the kids' room.  Hope.  *sigh*


Update:  30 minutes later, RING WAS UNDER THE KIDS' BED!! YAYYYYYY!!


*sigh*  Happy Happy


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