“I Just Don’t Know What To Do”

“I just don’t know what to do.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. I did a quick situational awareness check – you never know who might be listening in at a Wendy’s, possibly marking you as a victim for pick-pocketing or following you home for house burglary. Fortunately, I had chosen our seating arrangement – up against a wall, away from the other customers – so we had a modicum of privacy. However, my friend’s purse was hanging off the back of her chair, and it was unzipped with the wallet sticking up. Definitely a tempting target for the local two-legged rats. I’d better keep an eye out.

Rats are too big for Pookahs to catch easily. Human sharing food with Pookah much easier and safe.

“We’re having a lot of trouble making ends meet,” my friend continued. “Now the bill collectors are calling.”

I chased a bite of food with some coffee. “Did you call the bill collectors back?”

You are not sharing food with Pookah.

“How can I do that?! We don’t have any money! We don’t even have enough money for stamps to send one of your favorite letters.”

I nodded in understanding, and ate some more of my food. My favorite letters are essentially “Drop Dead” letters cribbed from Clark Howard‘s website.

You are still not sharing food with Pookah.

This post is not going where you think it is. I’ve already posted about my little test for helping friends with their finances.

Wendy’s makes good burgers. They’re not the healthiest or the tastiest I’ve ever had, but they definitely do the job. They always remind me of many years ago, when I was younger and stupider. Eating at Wendy’s reminds me that foolish pride and not thinking have a high cost. Combine them, and the cost is even higher.

Pookah wonders what intelligence is required to share cheeseburger with Pookah.

“Okay,” I said after swallowing. “Have you made out a list of your monthly expenses?”

“What good will that do if we don’t have enough money?!”

I set my burger down. “Well, If you keep track of expenses, it’s a lot easier to see where the money is going.”

Pookah is waiting patiently for human to bring cheeseburger home to Pookah.

My friend rolled eyes and said, “I repeat, what good will that do us if we don’t have enough money?”

“You have a lot of little daily expenses that add up over the weeks into big expenses each month. I have them, too. They happen without me consciously noticing them.”

“You. Don’t. Notice. Them???” I had my friend’s undivided attention now. Unfortunately, I also had my friend’s undivided incredulity.

“Look, when I had bills coming out my ears, I didn’t notice those little three and five dollar dailies either. I had bigger problems occupying my attention – the bill collectors.” Another customer, young, male, dressed in casual gangsta, approached my friend from behind carrying his tray. His eyes dropped to her open purse and the fat wallet sticking out of it. I caught his eyes and gave him a polite, tight, Hi-there-I’m-aware-of-you smile. The trick is to make sure other people know you know they’re there without being confrontational or accusatory. Guy was probably minding his own business, but some two-legged rats are more subtle than others. He smiled back and sat at a table a ways off. That response meant he was probably just a regular guy. “Pull your wallet out.” She did. “Now pull out all the receipts and separate out the ones for the last two weeks.” I already knew that my friend had the habit of keeping her receipts. It was part of a never-ending first step towards budgeting. Somehow, she never got around to the budgeting part. Keeping the receipts fed the “collector” habit.

A small, tidy pile of receipts appeared on the table next to her Frosty.

“Now go through them and tell me what you bought the last two weeks.”

Here’s the list:
Eating out – fast food, 1 person: 8 days: $55
Eating out – restaurant, 2 people: 2 days: $40
Books – entertainment: $18
Books – class work: $20
Materials for hobbies: $25
Gas: $30

While she stared at the list, I said, “So, now you know where some of your money has been going. Looks like about $83 for restaurants, fun, and hobbies every two weeks. That would be about $166 a month going for conveniences and fun. How far behind are you on your phone bill?”

“$250,” she answered.

“So in two months, you could pay that off, plus the penalties.” I waited a bit for that to sink in. “You see, budgeting isn’t just about controling expenses or planning for the future, it’s also about noticing the little stuff that sneaks up and steals from your checking account.”

“But what am I supposed to do for fun?! I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something enjoyable to do!”

“Think how much less stressed you’d be if you were actually paying down these debts instead of making them worse. Buying more stuff gives you a lift for a few days, at most. Until the bill comes due. Then you’re worse off than you were before. Wouldn’t it feel better if, instead of working on your hobbies, you spent that time getting your finances in order?”

“If I do that, I’ll end up like you – with no hobbies whatsoever?!? I’d be bored stiff!”

I grinned. “I bought over $150 in books last week, got a new computer game the month before, and learned how to set up the backup features in Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2003 this month. I spent this past weekend playing a network game with some friends all day Saturday and Sunday. That doesn’t even include my gardening or other games.”

“How do you… I mean, how can you…???”

“Early on, it took me hours of study and work to get my finances in order, and start tracking what money was going where. Once I got over that startup hump, it got A LOT easier. It took less time every month that went by. Each time I paid off a debt, I had fewer worries and I could pay off the next one faster. As the debts disappeared, I had more time and money to do the things I wanted to do.” I ate some more cheeseburger.

Pookah wants cheeseburger now!

“All it took was steady effort after that initial hump. It became a habit. I liked it so much, I started training myself to other habits. Even that initial hump would’ve been easier if I hadn’t had to figure it all out by myself. Back then, I didn’t know enough about anything to know what questions to ask, much less what to do.”

“Like those ‘Drop Dead’ letters you told me about?”

“Yeah!” I grinned. “It’s kinda fun frustrating them the way they harrassed me. Balances the karmic scales of justice.” I ate some more cheeseburger. “Wouldn’t you like to give them heartburn the way they do it to you?”

“Yes. I would.”

Pookah. Wants. Cheeseburger. NOW!

“So skip a restaurant visit with your S.O., and use the money to send those letters to the biggest bill collectors. Get them off your back. Keep saving receipts like you are, and write them down in a notebook every day when you get home. Then shred the receipts. No sense in wasting time and effort keeping them clogging up your wallet. Then, on Saturday morning, get up when you usually do and go through the notebook. Start picking out ways to cut those expenses – whether it’s taking lunch to work with you once a week, carpooling with a coworker, or simply cutting back on the hobbies until you use up all the stashed supplies you currently have. Save up that money until you’ve got a few hundred dollars, and call one of the bill collectors to set up a payment schedule using that saved up money.” After that long rush of words, my friend’s eyes were glazing over. I finished off the cheeseburger, and tried again.


“Look, let me write it down for you…”

1. Keep receipts.
2. Write receipts down in notebook each day.
3. Trash receipts.
4. Saturday: Look over notebook.
5. Saturday: Use notebook to cut back on unneeded expenses.
6. Use up existing hobby stash for hobbies.
7. Saturday: Make lunches for week to take to work – save money!
8. Save up $200.
9. Send Drop Dead letters to biggest bill collectors.
10. Call smaller bill collectors, use saved money to pay off bill.

“That’s a lot,” she said.

I nodded. “It is at first. But so is picking up any new habit – good or bad. I think you’ll find that, after a couple of weeks, you’ll start doing a lot of this stuff automatically. It won’t be so hard once you’re started. It’s getting started that’s hard.”

“Okay,” she said uncertainly. “I guess I’ll give it a try.”

So, readers, here’s the question: Do you think she will do it or not?

Pookah has eaten lots of cheap, dry, Pookah-food. Will now gift human shoes with cheap, moist Pookah-food. Next time, bring home cheeseburger.

4 Responses to ““I Just Don’t Know What To Do””

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  2. Ah, i see. Well that’s not too tricky at all!”

  3. That’s an ingenious way of thinking about it.

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