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Tightening the belt of financial extravagance

Using goals and budgets to avoid the credit trap

Craig and Paige Norton were responsible young adults when they married in April 1999. Paige had been raised on a farm and learned to pay cash for all purchases. Craig had been raised by parents who were professional money managers.

At first, they felt like they could buy almost anything they wanted. They purchased new furniture for their apartment, the first furniture that Paige had ever bought that wasn't someone else's furniture first.

"We thought we were two fully capable, thinking people who could solve our problems," said Paige. "I was 19 and Chris was 21 at the time. Each of us had bought new trucks — not thinking that either of us would be getting married soon. Then we met and were married several months later. Our combined truck debt was $17,000.

A few months into their marriage, they began receiving late bills and overdraft charges. "We soon found ourselves in a pit," Paige said. "Neither of us knew how to get from where we were to where we needed to be."

They began studying principles of money management. They organized financial goals and set up their family rules, which included the elimination of eating out in restaurants and going out to movies. "This was particularly hard," Paige said, "because Chris's sister was a waitress and we liked to visit her."

Each pay period they sat down together to map out how the money would be used. They listed the check amount at the top of the page, then listed expenses. They learned to distinguish between wants and needs, she said. "Sometimes, even the needs were postponed. Chris needed spark plugs for one of the trucks, but we didn't have the money, so we waited."

They focused any additional income toward one debt. In time, as the debt was paid, they focused their resources on their next debt.

In less than two years, they paid off their vehicle debt.

During this time, their first son was born, then their second. Using money they had saved for this purpose, they purchased a comfortable starter home in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley and now reside in the Rosecreek Ward, Herriman Utah Stake.

"People ask how we can live in a new home on one moderate income, with two children and a third on the way," Paige said. "On paper it doesn't work. We say it's because we pay our tithing, and because we followed the prophet's counsel to not delay having a family. We don't buy on credit and we save for projects.

"Now we're saving for a garden and improving the basement."

The same financial concerns that plague many in today's credit-driven society are affecting members of the Church, as evidenced by the rampant rate of bankruptcy filings in Utah last year where the Beehive State doubled the national average.

The ease of obtaining credit and the abundance of worldly goods is an alluring and tempting mix. Yet many members, like the Nortons, are heeding President Gordon B. Hinckley's counsel to pay off consumer debt and to live within their means.

Others struggle to know what to do.

This young couple is succeeding, said Bernard Poduska, because they did whatever it took to cut expenses. They tightened the belt of extravagance and paid off one debt, then another. Now they maintain that financial balance and are patiently developing their future.

A professor at Brigham Young University in the Marriage, Family and Human Development Department and author of several books, including Till Debt Do Us Part, Brother Poduska specializes in matters of family finances. His experience stems from years of teaching and private consulting, as well as bishop of the Lake Mountain Ward, Saratoga Springs Utah Stake.

"We get into financial messes for many reasons," noted Brother Poduska. "Some things are beyond our control, but most stem from emotions, like the mother who became enraged when she learned that her home was the only one in the cul-de-sac without a VCR.

"Impatience can be a very expensive emotion," he said.

"There are several theories explaining why we get into debt," Brother Poduska said. "First, we feel we are entitled to live a certain standard of lifestyle despite our income. To support that lifestyle, we use credit cards like a phantom income, as if it were a savings account.

" 'We still have $1,700 on our credit card limit, Honey. Let's use that.' "

A second explanation for the sudden rise in consumer debt among members of the Church and others is the level of affluence that children of the Baby Boom years have come to expect.

"Raised in prosperity, they expect prosperity," he said. "They expect to add to their possessions just as their parents heaped gifts on them while growing up.

"Credit cards become a substitute parent that allow this generation to get what they want without working or producing for it.

"For the most part," Brother Poduska continued, "debt is a symptom of trying to live beyond your means — trying to obtain status symbols that are beyond your level of income.

"Far too many believe that people are worth more if they have lots of money, and are worth less if they don't. In most cases, people express their true self-worth by what they can do, even though they try to impress others by what they can buy. The need for belonging can be best satisfied through what people contribute, not through what they can consume."

In this case, "credit cards allow us the privilege of consuming," he said.

"Do whatever it takes to cut expenses," he said. "Make a year commitment to live without a cell phone, no Internet provider or cable television. These are eternal payments. They never end."

He suggests applying the money spent on these conveniences toward one debt. When that debt is paid, apply the money funneled to that debt toward another debt. When that debt is paid, apply all the money of the first two debts toward a third debt. Continue the process until all debts are paid. He calls this process the "fold down" method.

"The family may need to sell a car and live with one car for a year," he said. "Typically, a family can save between $500-700 a month when you consider the cost of the car loan, insurance and gas. A debt load of $7,000 could be paid in a year.

To illustrate what members should do to avoid debt, Brother Poduska described three ways a family could buy a car.

Typically, he said, to buy a $5,000 used car, people will borrow most of the money, paying principle and interest with each payment.

A few other families will save $200 a month for a year and use that as a down payment, which reduces the loan amount by about half. They then pay a loan amount roughly the same as the amount they had been saving.

Even fewer families will save $200 a month for two years and pay cash for the car. After the purchase they continue saving $200 a month in a replacement fund. In two years, they can replace that car.

"A family only needs to delay gratification for one time and they can begin making interest instead of spending interest.

"Paying interest is like a cut in pay," Brother Poduska said.

A common complaint for many is that there is more month than money. In the "good old days," said Brother Poduska, "when money ran out before the end of the month, most families simply tightened their belts, stopped spending, and waited for the next payday.

"Today's families usually do not stop spending when money runs out. Instead, they use credit cards as a life jacket to keep them afloat until the next payday arrives.

"Nowadays, instead of exchanging goods as in former times of bartering, we offer our promise to pay in exchange for goods. In essence, credit cards enable us to receive what we want prior to working for it."

Families who live within their budget have determined "what is sufficient for them to live on. They have already determined what is enough house, car and vacation. Even if they might qualify for more, they know their values and are satisfied with what they have.

"To live within a budget, families must learn how to cut expenses and distinguish between needs and wants," Brother Poduska said.

"Therefore, decreasing wants and expectations can be as important as increasing income.

"You need enough money to take care of your basic needs, a little more to take care of some of your wants and to add a certain degree of quality to your life, and a bit more to give you a sense of security. Money beyond these requirements will not necessarily bring you more happiness."