Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The road to self-improvement

Home sick today, after having my top two wisdom teeth pulled out. The experience wasn't a fun one (I nearly ripped the dentist chair's arms off during the procedure), but it had to be done. So this morning I woke up to a bloody pillow, a sour feeling in my stomach, and two less teeth. Joy.

But I did manage to attend my final Financial Peace University Class last night with Suzanne, ending a 13-week long session of self-discovery and budgeting education.

Suzanne's boss paid for her to take the class, and since you're supposed to take it with a spouse - and she didn't have one - she invited me to attend with her. I was pretty skeptical at first. I was thinking it was another one of those get-rich-quick schemes; you know, buying or selling crap, real estate scams, etc.

Now, however, I'm so glad Suzanne invited me. The class has been one of those experiences where you wonder how you ever got along with out it.

Not that I've ever had big problems financially. I've always been pretty responsible, especially since leaving school. Except when it comes to debt, in which case I thought everyone gets in debt while they're at school. Right? Who doesn't have a student loan or a credit card these days?

"The borrower is slave to the lender," Dave Ramsey says, a quote he took from the Bible. Ramsey is the one who instructs the class (via a DVD series we watched at a local breakfast place, every Tuesday night). If you haven't heard of Dave Ramsey (he's got a pretty popular radio show), I suggest you check him out. At times he can be arrogant and tough, but he knows what he's talking about.

His motive is simple: get out of debt so you can use the money you're currently paying to credit card companies to build actual wealth.

And use financial methods our grandparents used. Not so much a can filled with cash on top of the refrigerator (or in the freezer, as my grandpa used to do), but building an emergency fund for those sure-to-come events in life, or buying things with cash and bargaining when the situation fits.

The plan involves baby steps and debt snowballs and all kind of neat (but truly legitimate) tricks to get yourself out of debt. Just the other week I paid off a credit card I've had since college. I even over-paid, so they have to send me a check for the remaining balance. And I'm going to frame that check to document the first time a debt-causing business has ever owed me money. It's a pretty good feeling.

Next will come a few other credit cards I've had, then paying off my vehicle early, then my student loans, and so on. I like the thought of not owing anyone any money, and I really like the thought of the house I could buy with all those saved payments. Imagine what you could do if you didn't have any student loan or credit card payments. I've already started imagining.

The whole thing has been a blast. I've started selling a lot of my crap on eBay, and I'm doing pretty well. With the money I've raised, I can hammer away at my debts. The program also includes budgeting, which I've always strangely enjoyed, and I'm finding that I'm spending less and saving more. That may mean I'm the designated driver a few more nights a month, but I have plenty of fun with the money I have.

Last night we had a nice potluck and handed out "graduation" certificates, but the over-arching theme of the night was people breathing a collective sigh of relief. This stuff should be taught at the high school level, before the credit card companies get to you, but we were all glad we learned it now. Better late than never.

I've also met a few new friends, and found out that just about everyone has money problems of some sort. The trick is, as Dave says, to manage your money - not let it manage you.

So off I go. Ready to pay off another credit card probably by the new year, and then another, and then I can use all the money I was making payment with to make bigger payments on the stuff that's left. It's brilliant. And I can't wait to be debt-free.

Dave Ramsey encourages the class to take the knowledge and spread it to others (free of charge!). I think that I'll save up and buy my dad a spot in the next class, because I know he's never been great with money.

It's probably the best gift I could give him.

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