Financial Peace University: reactions and thoughts

So since I’ve been to a couple sessions of “Financial Peace University”, I figured it’d be worth detailing some of what it’s all about.

It’s a 13-week course, meeting once a week (Sunday afternoons in this case). The only cost for the class is for the course materials — the class leader is donating his time, the church we meet at is donating the space, and there’s even free childcare for those who need it.

The class is not just about getting out of debt (though that’s certainly the part of it I’m most interested in). There are also going to be sessions on budgeting, on getting good bargains, on investing, on real estate, on saving for college, among other things. Actually, a fair bit of it is really just about understanding how money works, which is going to sound pretty funny until you start reading the chapters and sitting through the sessions and seeing what that really means.

The course materials come in a corrugated-cardboard box with pretty pictures and a convenient carrying handle. (Do I sound like an infomercial or what?) Inside, there’s an inch-thick spiral-bound workbook, a hardback copy of Dave’s book “Financial Peace Revisited“, a set of audio CDs (the audio portion of the videos that are part of each class session), a little bound “Envelope System”, and a few sundry other bits and pieces (a CD-ROM with printable budget forms, a couple of warning-emblazoned sleeves you can keep your debit cards in, and a bunch of ads for all the other Dave Ramsey-branded stuff that you probably can’t afford if you’re enrolled in this class in the first place).

Worth noting: once you’ve taken the class once, you can take it again as many times as you like, whenever and wherever it’s offered, for free. (There’s one couple in our group who took the class before, and is back again for a refresher. I suspect I’ll probably do the same thing; this first time through, I doubt I’ll retain much beyond the “die, debt, die” bit.)

The course materials cost $90 (yes, couples/families can buy one set and share). The guy leading our class is pretty cool about it: he let me go ahead and take my kit home even though I couldn’t pay him yet. After all, there are another twelve weeks yet. Some people are paying him in installments of $10 or so (and no, he’s not charging interest (grin)).

When I took the adult OWL class at church last spring, the coolest thing about it — the thing that I still remember most vividly — was just the experience of being in a group where it was safe to, and we were free to, talk about sex… something I had never actually had an open forum to talk about before. It was so… it sounds cheesy to say “liberating”, but it’s late and that’s the best word I can come up with right now. People never talk about sex, but it’s so important.

This class is the same way. People never talk about money, but it’s so important. And now, here I am, with a group of people where it’s safe to talk about money. Or the lack thereof. And it’s not just whining: there’s this guy on a TV screen pacing around a stage, making funny noises, talking about the morality of bricks, joking with us, wheedling us, sometimes skewering us (“and halfway through Thanksgiving dinner, you suddenly realize that Christmas is in December this year! This is an… emergency. Man, you guys did it too.”), and I’m in a room full of people watching his antics, laughing at his jokes, laughing at ourselves, laughing at the whole freaking human tragedy, and seeing the first faint spark of a hope that there’s a way to get control, find discipline, be the tortoise, and get to a point where, when the car breaks down, we might actually be able to just pay the guy.

It’s… I don’t know what to say about it, except that it was an amazing experience, to spend an hour and a half with a bunch of people who open up, even just a little bit, on a topic that nobody ever opens up about. With twelve more sessions on the way just like it. I laughed, I cried… it moved me, Bob.

Jennie couldn’t make it to the session yesterday, but I talked to Justin afterward, and he loaned me the VHS of the video we watched in class. Jennie and I watched it later. She wasn’t really in the mood to think about money, but I swore there’d be stuff in the video she’d laugh at. I was right; she did laugh. But it wasn’t the same with just us. Two of us in the room — and two who had already talked about money way too much over the past eight years — just wasn’t the same as the camaraderie of a room of semi-strangers who were letting themselves be just a little vulnerable with each other, and laugh together at their own folly.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all humor and fluff; the content was good too. The bulk of the session, as you’ve probably already picked up, was a video of Dave on stage in front of an auditorium of people. He’s teaching them the class, and our class is to watch their class; it’s a little weird. But there’s good content amongst the colorful umbrellas and the sleight of hand and the as-yet-unexplained stack of what looks like Duplos in the background. There’s a graph showing the saving habits of people from different countries (people from Japan save around 18% of their after-tax income; people from the U.S. save -2.2% — yes, that’s negative). There are a few eye-opening bits about compound interest, and what it really means for it to work for you, and what it really means for it to work against you, and why ninety days is not the same as cash, thank you very much.

Doing the seemingly-impossible for days, weeks, months on end can be a wearying, crushing thing… if you don’t know why you’re doing it. It’s way too easy to lose yourself in the day-to-day and never look up to see the light at the end of the tunnel, never feel the autumn chill in the air, never notice all those birds flying off of that tree. But if you’ve got something to remind you of the why, it gets a lot easier to adjust the weight of your backpack, take another look at the trail ahead, and set off again, with a little more purpose and a little less fear.

That’s what I see this class as being, partly because of the whole positive-thinking thing, and partly because that’s what it’s already been. Jennie and I are in the middle of the long dark teatime of the budget, and it was the perfect time for something like this class to wander along, because right now we’ll take all the humor and all the companionship and all of the whys we can get. Because I want to get to that point where, when the car breaks down, we can just pay the guy. I want to be able to eat out with my wife without worrying about which bill it means we’re not going to be able to pay. I want to get to the end of a month, look at our bank statement, and not have it make me weary to my bones. And there’s a little spark starting to float around that’s letting me see some of that stuff ahead, and think that maybe it isn’t some stress-induced hallucination.

Just maybe.

And with that, I’ll head off for a long-overdue appointment with my pillow. ‘Night, all.



Final Fantasy 30: Financial Peace

So a friend bought us a copy of Dave Ramsey‘s book “The Total Money Makeover“, and Jennie and I have both read it. Dave also offers a 13-week class called “Financial Peace University“, which is being offered here in Omaha, and Jennie and I are taking that as well; orientation was last weekend, and the first actual session is this afternoon.

Dave’s “Total Money Makeover” plan centers around seven of what he calls “Baby Steps“:

  1. Save up $1,000 to start an emergency fund
  2. Pay off all debt (except the mortgage) using the Debt Snowball
  3. Grow the emergency fund until it will cover 3-6 months’ expenses
  4. Invest 15% of household income for retirement
  5. Save for college fund
  6. Pay off home early
  7. Build wealth

Now, obviously this is not a “get rich quick” scheme, but I’m sorry, those ain’t baby steps. I’m a programmer in an XP shop, so I know that a “baby step” is something you can do in five minutes — and then run the tests to make sure you didn’t break anything. And I don’t think I can save $1,000 in five minutes. (Or if I did, I’m sure I’d fail a few unit tests.)

So I’ve been trying to think of them in terms of something bigger in scope. Like, say, the big bosses in a Final Fantasy video game (Final Fantasy II/IV is my personal favorite). You know, something you can’t even finish in one sitting (though I may try again this New Year’s…)

At first, I was thinking about Dave’s steps as corresponding to the Four Fiends of Elements. But that doesn’t work so well, because there are only four Fiends of Elements (of course)… and besides, the game is far from over by the time you’ve defeated Rubicant, the fourth Fiend. So I think it’ll be more in terms of strategic bosses and/or major plot points spread throughout the entire game.

I’ve already worked out which of Dave’s “baby steps” correspond to each of my Plot Points, but it’s on the other computer, so I’ll post it later. For now, we’re working on Major Plot Point One: climbing Mount Ordeals to face our dark past and become a Paladin. (Sure, it’s kinda cheesy, but you gotta have fun, right?)

Budget Hell

There’s a 3×5 index card taped to the wall just inside our bedroom door. It says, “I.O.U. 1 (one) Medal of Valor.” It’s signed by both me and Jennie, the “Defenders of the Realm”.

We earned it, too. It’s been a bloody month. When we sat down to make a budget (the first time we’ve ever seriously made a budget) at the beginning of this month, we knew it’d be rough, because we had several hundred dollars worth of extra, one-time expenses this month. But (after about three days of wrangling) we came up with a budget we could live with, and it even left us some room for air. (Not much, but some.)

Then another several hundred dollars of one-time expenses hit. Together with the stuff we had already known about, it came to most of a mortgage payment, layered on top of our paycheck-to-paycheck life. Ouch.

Tonight’s budget-grinding session wasn’t the greatest of fun, but I think we lived through it. We wrote down all the categories where we were going to go over budget, and by how much; and we figured out what we could still cut, and how much; and when we added in our cash reserves (which have no right being part of our budget, and which I hope will never be part of our budget again), it looks like we’ll actually (positive thinking, positive thinking) make it through the month without overdrafting our checking account, which will be a small miracle.

And then next month, when we’ll be paying the price for not putting money into savings this month, it looks like we’ll be at least as well off as we had thought we’d be at the beginning of this month. Not necessarily a hell of a lot better, but still, right now that’s looking pretty rosy.

Ack. Ack ack ack.

We’ll survive. Somehow. Positive thinking, positive thinking.

I’m going to go stick my head in a bucket of ice water now. (And if you see me blogging again, you’ll know we’ve lived through this.)

C# 3.0, Linq (language-integrated queries), and extension methods – Cool!

I’ve heard a few things about how C# 3.0 has this feature called “Language INtegrated Queries” (Linq). (Actually, I think I’ve been hearing about it for longer than it’s had a name.)

Linq will let you (effectively) write your SQL (or XML) queries in C#, and have them type-checked by the compiler, which sounds kind of cool; but I haven’t had any idea what that meant or what it would look like. Well, Cyrus posted an explanation and some examples that show quite nicely what it means (for querying objects, at least; still not sure how it’ll apply to SQL) and what it looks like. Pretty slick, actually; it builds on top of C# 2.0’s iterator syntax in a very neat way. As an example, code that used to look like this:

Customer[] customers = GetCustomers();
ArrayList namesInSeattle = new ArrayList();
foreach (Customer customer in customers) {
    if (customer.City == "Seattle")
        namesInSeattle.Add(customer.Name);
}

now looks like this:

Customer[] customers = GetCustomers();
var namesInSeattle = customers.Where(c => c.City == "Seattle").Select(c => c.Name);

The “var” syntax is new, and means “let the compiler use type inference to figure out what type the variable should be” (but it’s still strongly typed). In this case, namesInSeattle is an IEnumerable<T>. The “=>” syntax (called a “lambda expression”) is the really fun part: it’s a shorthand for defining an iterator, with type inferencing all the way. Check out his post for more details.

He also mentions C# 3.0’s “extension methods”, which are a piece of compiler magic that lets you (appear to) add new methods to existing classes. IEnumerable<T> doesn’t have a Where or Select method? Okay, we’ll add them; just write a bit of code, use the right namespace, and the compiler takes care of the rest. (Mixins, anyone?)

The ostrich and the OWL

Busy busy busy. I’m leaving this afternoon to go to OWL facilitator training. That’s right, kids, yours truly will be spending twenty-seven weeks this year teaching a gaggle of ninth-grade Unitarians about sex. I just live for adventure, I guess.

It’s kind of funny. One of my co-workers is from Russia (well, one of the smaller Soviet republics, but she refers to it as Russia so I’m not too worried about the language police jumping on me about it), and I mentioned to her that I was going to be helping to lead this class. She commented that back in Russia, sex was never talked about — and told the story of one memorable incident, on a satellite-link TV program in the 80’s that put a group of U.S. citizens (virtually) face-to-face with a group of Russians, where one of the Americans asked something to do with sexuality (one Web page I found suggests it was a question about contraception in Russia) and a Russian woman defiantly answered, “Here in Russia, we don’t have sex.” That response has since become a long-standing running joke in Russia.

She also told me that her high-school graduating class was the first time that nobody in the graduating class wound up pregnant. The first time ever in the history of that school. That’s scary.

It’s kind of an interesting connection, really, with the financial crap Jennie and I are struggling with right now. Some people, when faced with something that stresses them out or scares them, deal with it by sticking their heads in the sand. I know; I’ve started to realize that I’m one of them. I’ve spent way too long ignoring our debt and hoping it’ll go away. When conservatives rail against sex education in schools and the like, they’re doing the same thing.

I don’t understand when or how or why humans developed willful ignorance as a coping skill. But it’s a coping skill that just doesn’t work. Some things — like too much debt and teenage sex — don’t go away if you ignore them.

Subversion in n moments (where n is less than mere)

It seems that I now have three co-workers who are also co-bloggers… Brian snuck in and I didn’t know a thing about it until he posted his URL in a comment on my blog.

He’s been busy. He’s already one-upped my Mere-Moments Guide by writing a Less-Than-Mere-Moments Subversion Installer that will do it all for you.

All you have to do is keep pounding on the Next button, and this thing will install Subversion and TortoiseSVN, set up Subversion as a Windows service, create a new repository, configure authentication, and create your first project directory structure in the repository (and maybe one or two other things I forgot to mention). Slick. It assumes you want to do all the steps in order (there’s no way to skip individual steps if you’ve already done them), but it does everything my Guide walks you through, and you’ll end up with a working Subversion repository you can play with, in less than mere moments or less. Check it out.

As if that weren’t enough, the next day he attacked DUnit, pulled out the Win32 treeview and replaced it with a TVirtualTreeView, and cut the time to run 1,000 tests in the GUI from 25 seconds down to 2 seconds… and his changes look like they’re linear as you add more tests, instead of quadratic like the old version. Whee!

Debt…

I’ve finally decided that debt sucks.

Literally. It just sucks all the life force right out of your bank account. Every dollar of debt payment is a dollar of money you might as well never have earned. (Think about that the next time you whip out that credit card.)

And that, in turn, sucks all the life force right out of you. Spending half the month working for nothing — knowing all the money you should have been making is just going to some fat-ass credit-card company — doesn’t do much to motivate you to get out of bed in the morning.

Sigh.

One of my friends once said she could only spend about so long wallowing in self-pity before she got sick of it. I’ve been stewing over our debt situation for about three or four months now, and I think I finally understand what she meant. (I’m a little slow sometimes.)

Brooding over debt won’t make it go away. (More’s the pity — I can work up a pretty good brood some days.) What will make it go away is… us. It ain’t gonna be easy, but I hereby swear to use my every effort to get debt the HELL OUT OF OUR LIFE.

And after that?

Well… one thing at a time. 😉