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Avoiding financial quicksand

Published September 04. 2010 09:00AM

A close friend responded to my last column on "customs of an ancient civilization" by saying it sounded a bit sarcastic.

She agreed with my premise that the use of credit cards has changed our lifestyles and has driven many into debt. But she said the column "lacked my usual warmth."

When I wrote the article, I was feeling frustration, not sarcasm. I still am.

All around me I see people I care deeply about having serious financial problems - so serious, in fact, that one friend has lost her longtime home and another is in jeopardy of having her home forfeited to the bank.

Both are smart women and both tried every avenue to get the bank to lower the interest rate on their home so they could hang on.

I don't know who is being helped by all these so-called save our home programs. All homeowners I talked with were turned down and were offered no help at all.

Big credit card debt is part of the picture.

Here's one painful detail that is very telling about what is happening in this country: Both these women are 70 years old.

If someone young gets in financial trouble, there is hope they can work their way out of it. But how does one start over when you're 70 years old?

And how does someone that age get in that much of a financial crisis? For each person, the answer is different but I think it's worth writing about because it might make others think differently.

One friend never talked to me about financial woes until her husband died. When she realized she could no longer pay the mortgage on the home they built for their retirement, she put the home up for sale. Her sensible plan was to downsize into something she could afford to pay by herself.

But houses aren't selling and hers sat on the market for two years. To make the house payments, she used credit cards. Now, she faced a double whammy - paying the mortgage and meeting her minimum credit card payment.

In the end, she lost the house. But she's still saddled with credit card debt she can't pay.

Her story, I'm afraid, is a microcosm of what is happening all over the country. But we don't hear much about it in the press.

It breaks my heart to see older people in that pitiful plight. I'm afraid in the years ahead we are going to see much more of it.

One of my closest friends asked me if I would help her make a budget. She's being buried by credit card debt and says she knows she has to start living on a budget.

She sat down and made a list of her monthly bills, including her mortgage and her minimum credit card payments. The total came to $200 more than her Social Security pension - her only source of income since she used up what little money she had in her retirement account.

My friend admits this is the first time she has tried to make a budget. It's the first time she is making a conscious effort to live on cash instead of relying on credit cards.

Here's what I find most shocking: She's 71 years old. Yet, it's the first time she is sticking to a budget.

How many other people on this planet are in the same financial straits?

I don't know the answer to that. But I do know that the old fashioned values my mother taught me are the ones that are still needed more than ever.

Mom's rules were simple: If you don't have the money, don't buy it. If you have to use credit cards - and most of us do, sooner or later - don't charge more than you can pay off that month.

Because of the financial plight facing so many people, several churches in our area have started offering financial courses. I've covered some of these for the newspaper and I've found them to be full of worthwhile advice.

All the various courses have two things in common: They teach participants to make a budget and they stress reliance on cash, not credit cards.

One church member who came to a Financial Freedom course wasn't a scheduled speaker. But she had a worthwhile story to tell.

Both she and her husband have fairly decent jobs but she said they realized they were living paycheck to paycheck. They had no emergency fund and only a very small retirement account.

"We realized if we can't live on two incomes when we are working, we will never be able to live on what we have when we are not working," she said.

She and her husband made one major change: They started using only cash instead of credit cards. "When the money was gone, we stopped buying, even when that meant not buying groceries," she said.

That one change has enabled them to start saving more for retirement and to stop piling on credit card debt.

When I go to Wal-Mart and spend cash, I notice that I buy a lot less than I do when I use my credit card. Try it, and you'll see what I mean.

Any little changes we can make in our spending pattern might save us from sinking into financial quicksand. And while that may not sound like a warm and fuzzy thought, I think it's one we need to heed.

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