Friday, February 5, 2010

Deep Cleanse of the Financial Kind

Like many people I know, I like listen to NPR while I'm driving. I find it good driving company, comfort and keeps me tethered to the larger dysfunctional world, rather than just to my own weedy backyard. Yesterday, I tuned in to hear Michelle Singletary, Washington Post personal financial columnist and best-selling author talk a bit about how her 21 Day Financial Fast was going. I was interested given that Ms. Singletary is a national figure, and all that goes with that level of achievement. She needed to go on a financial fast? When I got home, I logged onto Ms. Singletary's column and read the following:

"I'm inviting you to take a 21-day financial fast in which you will buy only necessities. The fast is really about curbing the need to consume. It doesn't matter whether you're a good steward or a spendthrift; all of us consume more than we need."

I like how this fast begins - no guilt, blame or judgment. Anyone, regardless of financial conditions can benefit from taking a look at how we consume. I also appreciated, as Ms. Singletary shares, that the program is faith-based and one long put into practice at her church, the First Baptist Church in Glenarden. The basic premise is a good one - those who are good financial stewards support those who, for whatever internal or external reason, are not.

The program entails buying only the bare necessities or as Singletary calls them, essentials:
  • Food and medication.
  • Personal hygiene products.
  • Clothing items required for work - she stresses: "not because you think you need a new outfit for work. Make do with the clothes you own."
  • School supplies - Good thing, I bought in bulk at the beginning of the school year and also put together a back-up stock pile for the entire year, so were clear on that one.
  • Cleaning products - I rely mostly on baking soda, vinegar and water, so I'll limit this to toilet paper and laundry soap. 
I'll add to this list one of my own essentials that come from living in the suburbs:
  • Gas or bus fare to school, work and job interviews, or to buy the above essentials.
Singletary's other major rule - NO PLASTIC. She's not talking about your choice of grocery bags, but in credit card. Happily, this isn't much of a problem for me because my use of plastic has been pretty limited for a while, even before my current financial situation occurred. Singeltary is applying the same fasting rule to debit cards, which she feels hold the same psychological place as credit cards: "A debit card is a cousin to the credit card, and it poses a similar problem -- it allows people to buy stuff with cash they really don't have. People are quick to swipe their debit card, only to learn later after getting an overdraft notice that they didn't have the cash in their bank account to back the purchase in the first place." Very interesting, so I guess when I start this fast I'll be leaving my debit card in my desk drawer.

How to get started? Like all good fasts, you need to prepare and Singletary breaks down the pre-fast steps into the following:

BUDGET. Making a budget means having to look squarely in the face of our salary to expenses ratio. I'm terrified at what the truth will reveal. But, as she gently nudges her readers to ask themselves, "How's not having a budget working for you?" Don't need to think twice on that one - It's not. Singletary then gives a great outline of basic budget know-how, or in other words, knowledge I should have acquired a long time ago. And the budget guidelines she provides will shed some serious light on issues that haven't seen financial sunlight for my lifetime.

THE DEBT DASH PLAN. I really like this one. Basically, rather than trying to deal with all the debt at the same time, a very overwhelming process and one that usually doesn't work, Singletary advises that you start paying off the balance of the lowest balance credit cards one at a time, then move onto the next and then the next. This is definitely a digestible bite for me.

What I appreciate about Singletary's approach and why I'm most likely to follow through on it, is her balance between practical, common sense financial advise, the inherent kindness in her message. After reading her column, and hearing her talk, as well as reading the stories of the people who have tried this for the first time, or as a regular financial cleansing, I feel inspired, instead of guilty. I also feel that this is something I can realistically commit to, like writing in my blog for 30 days.

If anyone is game for trying this with me, or to learn more about Michelle Singletary's writings and the 21 Day Financial Fast, visit and definitely check her out on Facebook, as well as her column in the Washington Post. Send me comments to let me know how your fast is going for you and of course, this series will serve as the sounding board for how it's going. From my limited experience of food fasts, it will be a roller coaster, and I'm bound to go through some serious highs and dips in my money-based blood sugar levels.

Okay, so I'm ready to take the plunge and try this. I'll be starting on my 21 Day Financial Fast on Monday, February 8th, giving us the weekend to get our budget and debt dash parts in place. It's only 21 days of my life and what have I got to lose? Gotcha!


To follow up on last night's post, our much beloved and used minivan, Redda, is now posted for sale on Craigslist. Redda was a reliable and safe means of transport for us for 7 years and needs some serious TLC, so if you know someone who has a good mechanic, is into working on cars, or needs some parts, send them this link!

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