The Total Money Makeover: Save $1,000 Fast

This is the fifth of twelve parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, where this book on debt reduction is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the sixth chapter, finishing on page 108. The next entry, covering the seventh chapter, will appear on Saturday.

ttmmOne thing that Ramsey excels at is urgency. His entire persona, from his written words in the book to the things he says on the radio, practically demand urgency. “You have to do this now.”

He’s right, though. If you’ve found yourself in a personal finance situation where everything falls apart if you lose your job tomorrow, fixing the problem is urgent. You’re being utterly held hostage by your job and by Lady Luck. Too many people find themselves in this situation and view it as normal.

If you lost your job tomorrow and had the engine fall out of your car the day after that, could you survive for three months without work and still hit all of your bills and get that car on the road? If the answer’s no, it is urgent. You’ve got to change something.

Baby Steps?
Dave lays out the importance of baby steps for pretty much any major life initiative, on page 93:

They way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Find something to do and do that with vigor until it is complete; then and only then do you move to the next step. If you try to do everything at once, you will fail. If you woke up this morning and realized you needed to lose 100 pounds, build your cardiovascular system, and tone your muscles, what would you do? If on the first day of your new plan you quit eating, run three miles, and lift all the weight you can lift with every muscle group, you will collapse. If you don’t collapse the first day, wait forty-eight hours for the muscle groups to lock up and the cardio to go crazy, and you will be bingeing on food shortly thereafter.

I’ve written about this phenomenon on my personal blog, where I sometimes write about the challenges I face getting in shape. It’s absolutely true: you’re far better off taking steps that are too small than steps that are too big, because those giant steps are the ones that are likely to make you trip and fall.

This basic idea applies to anything you want to do in life. Want to be a writer? If you get up and start in on a schedule of pumping out 4,000 words a day, you’re going to burn out quickly. Instead, just practice the craft and write short things. My writing practice, to tell the truth, is often on Twitter – can I get across an interesting idea in 140 characters? Doing so improves me as a writer.

Want to be a golfer? If you start playing 72 holes a day, you’re going to get sick of it fast (and probably tear something). Instead, just focus on smaller tasks – go to the driving range for two buckets. Build your skills slowly and don’t burn out.

It’s true over and over again: baby steps work. I think the big reason people don’t do this is that they want results now and then they way overdo it, undoing any good they might have done.

The Power of Clear, Written Goals
Written goals are vital at every stage and in every aspect in life. From page 98:

Brian Tracy, motivational speaker, says, “What does it take to succeed on a big scale? A tremendous God-given talent? Inherited wealth? A decade of postgraduate education? Connections? Fortunately for most of us, what it takes is something very simple and accessible: clear, written goals.” According to Brian Tracy, a study of Harvard graduates found that after two years, the 3 percent who had written goals achieved more financially than the other 97 percent combined!

Writing down your goals makes them real – and makes them powerful.

I’m going to admit something here, something fairly goofy. I usually have somewhere between five and ten personal goals going at any one time. Each of them are very action-specific: “I am going to run a 5K by the end of the year.” “I’m going to write a truly great book.” … and so on.

Each day, I write down each of those goals, pen on paper. Seriously. Doing this every day hammers those goals into my mind and I see those goals in every action I do. Three of my goals are health-related right now and I can’t help but see them when I make a decision about what to eat or what to drink. I look in the fridge, the goals float through my mind, and I choose a spinach salad for lunch instead of a grease-filed choice.

It works. Without this, I wouldn’t have made The Simple Dollar work. I wouldn’t have written a book last year, and I wouldn’t have been well into writing another book this year. I wouldn’t be able to read two challenging books a week. I wouldn’t be a good father – or at least not as involved as I am.

Get Current
There’s a big baby step before you dive in on the $1,000. On page 101:

Before we get to Baby Step One, you will have to do one other thing. You will have to be current with all your creditors. If you are behind on payments, the first goal will be to become current. If you are far behind, do necessities first, which are basic food, shelter, utilities, clothing, and transportation.

If you’re behind on your bills, you have to get caught up before doing anything else. Doing anything else puts the cart completely before the horse.

Many people think it’s “impossible” to get current once they reach a certain disastrous level. That’s usually not true, but you’ve got to be proactive. Call up the people you owe that you’re late with and start negotiating. They’re going to listen because it’s in their best interest to listen – if they don’t, they’re not going to get anything out of the money they owe you if you run away or declare bankruptcy.

No situation is impossible, particularly if you’re willing to step up to the plate and try to take things on head first.

Baby Step One: Save $1,000 Cash As a Starter Emergency Fund
Why $1,000? Why not dive into paying off debts? Dave makes a good case for emergency funds on page 102:

It is going to rain. You need a rainy-day fund. You need an umbrella. Money magazine says that 78% of us will have a major negative event in a given ten-year period of time. The job is downsized, rightsized, reorganized, or you just plain get fired. There’s an unexpected pregnancy […] Car blows up. Transmission goes out. You bury a loved one. Grown kids move home again. Life happens, so be ready. […] Now, obviously, $1,000 isn’t going to catch all these big things, but it will catch the little ones until the emergency fund is fully funded.

One of the most frequent things I hear from readers is that they don’t see any reason to not use their credit card as an emergency fund. “I have tons of credit left, so that’s my emergency fund,” they’ll say.

Here’s the problem with that: credit is not cash. Your credit line is completely at the mercy of the credit card company. Sometimes they slash credit limits. Sometimes they outright cancel cards. These things often happen right at the moment when you’re in trouble and most “need” that limit.

On the other hand, cash is constant. A big company can’t take your savings away from you on a numerical whim. If everything goes bad, your credit cards can go poof – but if you’ve saved up an emergency fund, it’s there for you.

What Isn’t an Emergency?
Another “problem” is that people substitute irregular bills for emergencies. On page 104:

Most of America uses credit cards to catch all of life’s “emergencies.” Some of these so-called emergencies are events like Christmas. Christmas is not an emergency; it doesn’t sneak up on you. […] Your car will need repairs, and your kids will outgrow their clothes. These are not emergencies; they are items that belong in your budget. If you don’t budget for them, they will feel like emergencies.

An expense that you know is coming isn’t an emergency. You know that your car will need maintenance, so an oil change or a minor repair isn’t an emergency. You know your father’s birthday is coming up, so a gift isn’t an emergency.

The real problem here is information management. I think many people wind up treating expected things as emergencies because they simply lose track of that information. They forget that their father’s birthday is coming up, so they don’t put aside cash for it. They forget that their car needs regular maintenance.

What’s the solution to that? Dave points to a budget, but I don’t think that’s really enough for many people. I suggest using a calendar – if an irregular bill is coming up, write it on the calendar. Even better, write a reminder a few weeks ahead of it on the calendar, too. This way, you can see that irregular expense coming and can plan for it instead of going “OH NO!” on the day of the event and just throwing plastic at it.

Get It Fast
On page 105:

Twist and wring out the budget, work extra hours, sell something, or have a garage sale, but quickly get your $1,000. Most of you should hit this step in less than a month. If it looks as though it’s going to take longer, do something radical. Deliver pizzas, work part time, or sell something else. Get crazy. You are way too close to the edge of falling over a major money cliff here.

You’ve got to get hardcore, in other words. I think this works well for a short-term burst – like getting that $1,000 – but it’s not sustainable because to do it you have to upset the apple cart on a lot of behaviors and routines in your life – and that runs completely contrary to the idea of taking little steps.

For me, selling things worked well for this step. I had a big, fat DVD collection full of movies that I rarely watched, so I sold most of them off. I had a ton of video games that I either didn’t enjoy or had already defeated, so I sold them all off. I had a lot of CDs that I knew I’d never listen to again – off they went!

Those moves not only gave me that emergency fund, but it also kicked out some of the debt that was floating around. Even better, it freed up a lot of room in our tiny apartment – eliminating a bunch of non-decorative stuff that just caught dust did wonders for things!

On Saturday, we’ll tackle the seventh chapter – The Debt Snowball.

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