Sunday, August 7, 2011

Counting Pennies

We've all heard the old adage, "See a penny pick it up then all day you'll have good luck." Well, I learned at a tender age that it is pure unadulterated b.s. I was a third-grader in my Inglewood elementary school when I saw a penny, picked it up, and believed good fortune would favor me until midnight. Wrong! The school bullies intensified their relentless assault and I was sent home with a busted lip. Since that delusional day those shiny copper discs sporting Abe Lincoln's profile on one side represented my naivete and helplessness. Heads, you're dumb and tails, you lose. 

(Those with online accounting degrees as well as the rest of us certainly understand the
value of a penny or dollar.)

Imagine the agitation I felt upon learning the most difficult lesson at 43 years old: counting pennies will keep you debt-free, stress-free, and worry-free. The numerous years of emotional overspending finally caught up to me like bounty hunters capturing an elusive fugitive. My financial stewardship was haphazard in the nine years that I was a struggling single mom raising three kids. I had no control (or concept) over budgeting and my best financial wisdom was buying items on sale, shopping at 99 cent stores, and frequenting thrift shops. I bought into my interpretation of the "American dream"-build credit and rack up your debt by amassing all the material things you think you need to make you look good as you keep up with the Joneses. Well, no more. 

This year I have drastically altered my spending behavior and I'm watching my financial output with microscopical precision. My friend lent me Dave Ramsey's book, Total Money Makeover, and my head exploded with enlightenment and shame. Basically, it taught me how to beat debt, take control of my money, and adhere to a budget. At the point where I was in my life I had no choice but to take action. My before and after snapshot looks like this: 

Before: I was an emotional shopper. Depressed? I went shopping. Excited? I went shopping. Despondent? I went shopping. Apathetic? Oh man, did I go shopping. I never wore an outfit twice and my closet was full of clothes with tags still on them. If I liked a top I'd buy it in every color. I charged, spent, and debited clothes at Buffalo Exchange: the store where I could creatively build an outfit that expressed my style. I was never one to buy an outfit that was displayed in a store window. And I justified my expenditure by convincing myself that vintage thrift shops were saving me an exorbitant amount of money. I patted myself on the back for not being a designer label wench. 

After: I've closed all of my credit cards and the beast of my emotional shopping has been decapitated. I've learned to channel my negative emotions solely into running. I avoid malls, strip malls, Buffalo Exchange, Forever 21, H & M, and friends who have a weakness for shopping. Each paycheck I put away a fixed amount into an Emergency Fund which is the first step in Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover. My outfits are now worn on a pretty regular basis. If I notice the emotional trigger to shop is too intense then I derail my impulsive shopping by secretly pilfering my daughter's closet and borrow HER clothes. Although, my granddaughter usually throws me under the bus with her tattling. 

Before: I said yes to all my friends who wanted to go out, enjoy life, and have fun. Gas in my car was no problem. Girls' nights out to clubs, lounges, bars, restaurants, cafes-I was there! Cool events in L.A.-I was there! Call me up at 11 p.m. for an impromptu night out in L.A.-I was out the door in half an hour! Concerts? They are my weakness and I paid for every band I wanted to rock out to. 

After: My social life is now contingent upon my gas tank and the words "no" and "sorry" have become a familiar refrain uttered from my mouth. The only girls' nights out I have are the ones I spend with my granddaughter. And the only time I step foot in a club or lounge is when I get in free because my boyfriend is the DJ. I am relegated to living vicariously through my daughters when they go see Muse or Rage Against The Machine or Deadmau5. It pains me but my budget has no room for concerts at the moment. 

Before: 24 Hour Fitness gyms were my second home. I converted from Bally's to 24 Hour Fitness ten years ago and have been working out 2, 3, sometimes 4 times a week for years. I'm addicted to endorphins and they empower me. Nothing makes me feel more feminine than exercising, eating healthy, and taking care of my physical self because it results in emotional and mental well-being. I worked out at the gym when I was 8 months pregnant with my first child and 23 years ago that was still frowned upon. People made fun of me but I didn't care. I've discovered that exercising is also the BEST and most inexpensive anti-depressant. 

After: I cancelled my beloved gym membership and mourned that loss as if I lost my home. However, I've become quite savvy in finding ways to working out sans high-tech gym equipment. The outside world is now my gym and I created different running routes around my city. I found stairs to run up and down on for my leg workout. And for my upper body I've gone back the old fashioned way with modified push-ups and planks. I've also taken over my boyfriend's weight bench and dumbbells to pump my body full of endorphins. 

These are only a few of the drastic, life-altering changes I've made to my financial behavior but they come with a price, both agonizing and beneficial. So my journey of Total Money Makeover continues and counting pennies will soon become a habit. I CAN be debt-free but it's up to me and my self-control and discipline. I just have to be sure that I don't lose my sense of humor along the way.