Friday, June 24, 2011

Being Poor With Flair: Rights and Responsibilities

I've noticed, through my years of living, that a certain sort of person is likely to insist on his or her rights in any given situation.

Specifically, the person most likely to loudly demand their rights is also the person most likely to deny that they have responsibilities. And I've noticed that it's more often poor people who demand rights, while middle class and rich people understand and fulfil their responsibilities.

Now, I do understand that as a poor person, your rights are more likely to be overlooked by the authorities, and by other people in general.

BUT (and this is truly a huge BUT) you can do a great deal to prevent the worst of this trampling by living responsibly.

You have a responsibility first and formost to yourself. If you take care of your health and your finances, you'll be less likely to need to demand your rights to quality health care and to social services.

You have a responsibility to your spouse if you have one, and to any children you have begotten. If you fulfil those responsibilities without undue complaint, you'll be much less likely to have to defend your rights in a family law court.

You have a responsibility as a citizen to vote and to obey the laws of your city, state or province, and country. If you fulfil those responsibilities, you'll be less likely to need to defend your rights in a court of law.

You have a responsibility to every other person with whom you interact to treat them with respect due them simply because they're a human being. If you do this, you'll be less likely to need to demand your right to be treated with respect in return.

You have a responsibility to your employer to do the best work you can do while you're being paid to work. If you fulfil this responsibility, you'll be less likely to need to demand your right to unemployment pay.

Note first that I said, "Less likely." Life isn't perfect, or fair, and even people who behave themselves are going to get knocked about sometimes. It happens to everybody. Get back on your feet, get moving again, and in due time you'll get over it.

But my observations have been that folks who loudly insist on their rights without doing their best to fulfil their responsibilities tend to be both poorer and unhappier. They often think that the world is conspiring against them--and usually, they're right. Because they in return are conspiring against the world.

So stop the conspiracy! I've said many times that the only person in the whole wide world that you can change is you. If you change yourself and stop demanding your rights all the time, and instead focus on your responsibilities, you'll find that bit by bit the world will come to trust you, and stop hitting you back.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dot and the Meaning of Life

I was going to write something witty and interesting and useful, but I drove to Toronto and back today, so I'm not feeling very witty or interesting or useful at all. But while stumbling around, I ran across this video:

Notice that it's only after Dot faces what's after her and does something about it that she finally can rest.

And if that doesn't say something about tackling your finances (and other problems in life), I don't know what does.

(You can find out more about Dot here. Almost makes me want to get a cell phone...)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Some Tips for Changing Your LIfe

First, a question. Why are we bothering to change our lives anyway?

I can't believe that I would actually quote Ayn Rand, but here it is. Even people I disagree with will say, often on a regular basis, things that can't be argued with. She said, "You can avoid reality, but you cannot ignore the consequences of reality."

And if the reality is that you need to change your money-handling habits, you'll be suffering the consequences unless and until you change. To put it another way, if we continue to do what we've always done, we'll continue to get what we've always gotten. Fear, and self-loathing, and out-of-control bank charges.

However, if we change, we can work towards a new life free of the fear and limitations and degredation caused by our poverty. So we're going to change.

But change is hard, and the process can take a long time, and we aren't, as a race, hard-wired for waiting.

Plus, change HURTS. Because we have to face the fact that much of what we learned from our beloved (or maybe not-so-beloved) parents about how to handle money was WRONG. We have to admit we've been making mistakes, mistakes that have cost us dearly. And as humans, it goes against the grain for us to admit we're anything less than almost perfect.

Changing your money habits is not going to be easy right from the get-go. You WILL be knocked off your feet a few times. If you can accept this, and realize that the only way you can truly fail is if you give in, give up, and go back to your old way of life, then you'll be well on your way to succeeding.

Some tips that won't make things easier, but will make it more likely you'll eventually succeed:

1) Don't give up. How many times did you fall down as a toddler when you were learning to walk? Many times, and yet unless you were born with a physical disability, you learned how to walk at some point in your first two or three years.

2) Don't expect perfection right away. When you learned how to walk, first you sat up, then you crawled (or scooted on your bum). Then you stood up, with help. A few steps towards mommy's open arms, and soon you were walking. Within days, maybe even hours, mommy couldn't keep up with you any more. Another image: airplanes navigate by approximation. They head in the general direction of their destination, and it's only as they get close that they get more exact.

3) I'm suggesting things in this blog that have worked for me. If one or more of my suggestions doesn't work for you, try something else. There's nothing "wrong" with you or how you're doing it--you're just different from me, and require different techniques to overcome your difficulties. Read up on learning and personality theory, and identify how you learn and interact with the world. We're all different, and we all approach the subject of money differently. That's okay.

4) Expect resistance. From your family, your friends and acquaintances, co-workers, banker, creditors. They wll resist not because they want and need you to stay the way you are. They will resist because we humans instinctively shy away from big changes. And if one part of an equation (in this case, you) changes, then in order to maintain equilibrium, all of the other parts (them) have to change as well.

Here we have a very important learning: You cannot directly change anything or anyone other than yourself. You cannot change your spouse, your children, your elected officials, your community, your country, the world. You can only ever change you.

But if you change yourself, everything and everyone you have contact with will have to change with you.

Perservere. Make a new, happier life for yourself. You deserve it, and so does everyone else who will choose to remain in your life.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Being Poor With Flair: Taking Responsibility for Your Bank Account

I'll be covering each of the 5 points raised in the Cracked article by John Cheese at some point over the next few weeks. Since it's "responsibility week" (I've decided to do theme weeks on this project), I thought I'd address the author's first point.

Now first off, each of his points is, in its own way, absolutely correct. I don't disagree with a single thing he's said in the article. However, there are coping strategies that can be learned to deal with the drawbacks of being poor, and that's what I'm going to blog about.

So, the bank is out to get your money.

Of course it's out to get your money. That's what "profit" is--the differences between what the customer pays for services and what the service provider has to pay to provide them. It's the capitalist way, and if it weren't for profit, there wouldn't be any banks, or stores, or farms or ... Well, pretty much anything. We'd be doing every thing ourselves, and we'd all be poor.

Now, we need to look at just exactly what this $35 (or $40 if you use my bank) fee is. It really isn't a charge for you to use your own money. (Not that there aren't such charges. It's just that this isn't one of them.) What it's called by my bank is an Insufficient Funds Fee, or NSF fee. The bank is charging you because you did not have any money to use, and you tried to use it anyway.

Let me be quite clear on this one: It's entirely your fault, unless the bank has made a calculation error or one of your creditors took out money when they shouldn't have. In my experience, this rarely happens. Mostly, it's me losing track of what needs to be in the bank at any given time in order for the debits not to bounce back and bitch-slap me in the face.

The good news: Because it's our fault, we can fix it. And without too much trouble really.

Most advisors will tell you that the way to stop this sort of nonsense from happening is to have a "cushion" of one to three months expenses in the bank. When you've stopped rolling around on the floor and crying or laughing (whichever you prefer), I'll tell you a few steps that will come close to eliminating the problem once and for all, and are not entirely unrealistic for someone living paycheque to paycheque.

First, get yourself a calendar from the dollar store, or print one off on your computer. The calendar should have one page per month (so you can see the whole month at a glance), and squares that are big enough to write in.

Write in all automatic monthly or weekly or bi-weekly payments, and put a red "P" or whatever on each payday. Also write in any post-dated cheques you've written (not that you SHOULD write post-dated cheques, because apparently in Canada at least, they're against the law, but again, we're living in the real world here...). Also any other cheques you've written, especially to someone who's notoriously bad at cashing them. (But for those guys, I'd try to arrange paying in cash, first.)

That way, you're not relying solely on your memory to remind you that hydro comes out on the fifteenth and that collection agency payment comes out on the first Friday of the month.

Second, get a bank account where you can check your balance on line. Check the balance daily, preferrably before you leave home for the first time that day.

If you can't do that, be very, very meticulous about keeping track of cheques and debits and automatic payments and cash withdrawls and bank fees and...

Personally, if I didn't have online access to my bank account, I'd switch banks. It's not worth the headache.

Third, once you've checked your balance for the day, subtract from it any payments scheduled to come out before payday, and any cheques you've written. That's the amount you have to play with.

If you can, take that money out in cash, put it in your wallet, and pay cash for everything. Leave the debit card, and especially the chequebook, at home.

Yes, I know Mr. Cheese said that some businesses no longer take cash, but the last time I checked, those businesses did not include variety stores, fast food places, or gas bars.

I would only use my debit card if a) you are really good at basic math, and b) you have a really good memory. (Since both of these skills are incredibly useful, and since they can be learned by pretty much everyone, I'll cover them in future posts, but for now, use cash.)

If, at the beginning of the day, you do the math and the balance is negative, you have two choices:

a) Borrow enough money to cover the payments, plus maybe a little extra if you need gas or food. But remember that it is borrowed money, and don't ask for more than the bare minimum to get by until payday. Get that money into the bank right away.

Be aware if your bank has a holding period for items deposited via bank machines, or for cheque deposits. If it does, get to the bank during operating hours, and deposit the money, in cash, through a teller, who should credit it to your account that second.

Be aware that if you're depositing the money on the day the payment is supposed to come out, it may already have bounced, but it may still take a day or two for the NSF fee to show up. That's why you should be checking daily, and working a few days ahead of any bills due out.

b) The second choice (and again, it's only a choice if you're working a day or two ahead), is to call the creditor and explain your situation. Ask if they can hold the withdrawl until your next payday.

If you don't end up doing this every single month, and if you call a couple of days in advance, they're usually willing and able to do that. If you are doing it every single month, phone them up and have the payment date permanently changed to coincide with payday, if you can.

Finally, if you do make a mistake (and you will), you again have choices:

a) If you've only been hit with one fee, I'd suggest you suck it up. You made a mistake, and you'll have to pay the penalty. That's what we do with our kids, and that's what happens to us as adults. It's called "Life."

b) If you get hit with multiple NSF charges for a single mistake (e.g. You spend five dollars too much on gas. Your hydro bill bounces, and the bank deducts the NSF fee. Then, because the NSF fee put your balance down lower than even the least of your cheques and payments, every single one of them bounces, and you get hit with a new NSF charge each time), phone the bank and talk to them. Don't beg--it's demeaning and unnecessary. Simply explain the chain reaction that led to a -$200 balance from a $5 mistake, and that although you understand that you made a mistake, it shouldn't really cost you that much, and ask them to reverse all but one of the NSF charges.

Remember that the person you're talking to was not responsible for the charges. Don't argue, swear, yell, cry or beg. The charges are automatically applied by a computer that has no forgiveness built into its programming. Fortunately, human beings are nicer than that.

The main key to keeping your bank account in the black is taking responsibility for what goes on, and taking prompt action to correct matters when you've made a mistake. The faster you deal with problems, the smaller they are.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Being Poor With Flair: The First Step

And the first thing you have to do as a poor person (or a rich one, for that matter) in order to truly enjoy and get the most out of life is...

Grow up!

Okay, so maybe that's a bit harsh, since I assume that most of you really are adults, both in age and in maturity. However, each of us has some areas of growing to do, and I learned (usually the hard way) that if you're poor, and if you want to enjoy life despite being poor, and even more so if you want to escape the maze of poverty, you need to really put some effort into the process of self improvement.

I've learned over the last couple of decades that despite the fact that many of my woes were caused by the actions or inactions of outside persons or forces, and despite the fact that there were and are lots and lots of people and organizations out there who want to help me, there is only one person in the entire universe who has the power to change my life for the better.

And that person is me.

I have to take responsibility for my own life and my own problems, no matter how or by whom they were caused.

I've known, and still know, a lot of poor people in my life. Those who are most unhappy with their situation and most stuck are those who spend their days blaming others for their predicaments. Instead of acting to make a better future for themselves, they react to negative situations without thinking, often going from one disaster to a worse one.

I'm disabled. My brother hacked my bank account and stole all my money. The company I worked for folded and there are no other jobs around here that pay enough to support me in the lifestyle I'm accustomed to living. I lost a bundle on the stock market when it crashed. My wife took the kids, the house, and half my paycheque...

You get the drift. There are countless ways the world knocks you down. You get hit by a car, and while you stumble around dazed, a freight train comes out of nowhere and flattens you. Life really isn't fair!

No, life isn't fair. It never has been, and never will be. So the first step in growing up and becoming an adult is accepting that fact, and learning to stop moaning about it.

Step two is realizing, deep down in your gut, that no one, absolutlely no one else on earth (except for God, if you believe in God), cares more about your future than you do. If you won't do at least some of the work to help yourself, no one, not even God, can help you.

There's a joke about this: A woman (we'll call her Ruth) prayed to God daily that she would win the lottery. "God," she prayed, "I really need this money to pay of my student loans and my kids' student loans and my husband's credit cards and to help my daughter go to graduate school and to set up a trust fund for my disabled son."

Day after day, Ruth prayed earnestly to God.

Finally, she heard the voice of God replying to her earnest prayers.

"Ruth," God said. "Meet me halfway on this, will you? Go out and buy a ticket!"

Resolving to take responsibility for your life and to act on your own behalf after thinking through the alternatives is like buying a lottery ticket, with one very big difference.

The difference is that instead of having almost zero chance of winning, your chance of winning is 100%.

So go look in the mirror, and say to yourself, "Self, it doesn't matter whose fault it was that I'm where I am now. It doesn't matter how or why my life got broken. The only thing that matters is who's going to change things, who's going to fix things. And that who is me. Starting right this minute."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A New 365 Project: Being Poor With Flair (Day 1)

I stumbled upon an article on the other day about being poor, and after some thought, realized it could be the basis for a pretty awesome 365 project that would fit right in with the purposes of this blog. So without further ado, I bring you the first post in the "Being Poor With Flair" project.

Day 1: My Qualifications

I think it's important, when you're getting advice from someone, that you know what their qualifications are. So here are mine:

I'm poor. I've been poor for a long time--ever since I moved out of the family home on my own at 19, in fact. I've made a lot of mistakes along the way. Fortunately, I have the unusual quality of being able to learn from my mistakes. I won't say I never make the same mistake twice, but eventually, I'll change my ways and start making a different mistake.

I've been in debt up to my eyeballs--still am, in fact. I've declared bankruptcy, and am beginning to rebuild my credit rating. I have two master's degrees, and I'm employed part-time in a temporary job that has nothing to do with my degrees. For most of my working life, I've had jobs that didn't require any degrees.

I've been on welfare and unemployment, and I've worked my butt off (literally in one job) at part- and full-time employment of many sorts.

I've lived with my parents, with my husband and children, with a roommate, and by myself.

I have a disabled child.

I'm involved in church, a community orchestra, and other assorted volunteer endeavors.

As of right now, I have about fifteen dollars in the bank, and ten dollars in my wallet, and a fifty dollar grocery card.

In five minutes or so, I have to start work. Right now, my job entails working from home.

All of the above are mixed blessings and curses. I've learned a lot and had a lot of fun in my life, despite having no spare cash most of the time. I've also cried, raged, and considered suicide.

I've endured, then thrived. I'm glad now that I didn't give up, kept learning, growing, changing. Because now I can say that I doubt that I'll be poor forever, and it won't be an inheritance or a lottery win that gets me out of the hole. It will be me, and the skills I've learned along the way.