I know what hard times look like.

My grandmother raised me on her modest income and while we never went without, the limitations of the monthly budget always loomed large. And as an adult, due to my own immaturity, selfishness and must-have-it-now mentality we got ourselves into so much debt that in order to pay it off we had to life like paupers for several years even though my husband and I both made good salaries. There were times when after the bills were paid, there was no money left over for gas, groceries and diapers. Not fun.

And yet, as the economy now crumbles all around us (at least according to what we hear on TV) we’re having a great year financially at the Streater house. You can have a great year financially at your house, too, regardless of what’s happening in the economy, in the real estate market, or anywhere else. Here’s how:

Live on less

No matter how much you make, you should always live on a little bit less. We Americans tend to think we DESERVE little niceties like lattes and new clothes because we work so hard. Actually, you DESERVE to have some money in the bank to handle life’s emergencies.  Make your coffee and muffins and home and put that $10 in the bank. It may not sound as fun as hitting up Starbucks to chat with a friend, but over time, that money adds up to big savings.

Don’t get ahead of yourself

It’s part of our culture to get things NOW. Want that new TV? Put it on a credit card! Want that new furniture? Sign up for 90-days-same-as-cash financing! Credit cards aren’t inherently evil, but most of us use them way too often and use them to finance purchases we otherwise could not afford. It’s okay to buy things you want, like a new TV, just wait until you have the CASH to pay for them so you can enjoy them without worrying about the bills.

Look for ways to save on things you buy

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of couponing. Everyone needs to eat and we all buy food, why not buy the same food you would by anyway for 60-80% off? It takes a little time, but we “make” $500-$1,000 a month in grocery savings and food, toiletries and household items that we get for free after store sales and coupons. It’s a little time consuming (3-5 hours a week) but on a good month, that adds up to an hourly payoff of $50 an hour. My regular job doesn’t pay $50 an hour, does yours?

You can apply the same principles of diligence and tenacity to your utility bills (look for leaks, unplug appliances, etc…) phone and internet bills, wireless phone bills, even your mortgage, by shopping around and looking for a great deal to refinance your loan. Or if you’re a renter, offer to do some repairs on the house in exchange for a break in your rent. You’ll enjoy the benefits of the repairs AND the savings!

Be resilient

Lots of people are out of work right now, and that no doubt causes financial hardship. But it doesn’t have to sink your ship. If you’re a hard worker you can always find a job, even one you create yourself. It can be humbling to rake leaves and wash cars when you used to make $50,000 a year while working in a nice office, but if you are out of work and haven’t been able to find another job, take a leap and do the thing you’ve always wanted to do. One of my dearest friends just got her real estate license (yes, even in THIS economy!) simply because she’s always wanted to. She’s already sold two houses while working full-time as a newspaper reporter. You go, girl! Two more friends have started restaurants (yes, even in THIS economy!) simply because they’ve always wanted to. I’m a big believer that if you work really, really hard and do something you truly love and are truly good at, the money will follow. Don’t worry about the J-O-B and go after the L-I-F-E and forget all the reasons people will tell you why you shouldn’t. They’re only holding you back because they’re scared themselves.

Maintain a positive attitude

Almost every time I teach a financial class, at the end there are 2-3 people waiting for me wanting to complain that NOTHING I suggested will work for them and here’s why…

Ugh. Whining never helped anybody.

If you’ve decided you’re broke, you’re always going to be broke and that’s just the way it is, guess what: You’re going to always be broke and that’s just how it is. There is nothing I or anyone else can say or do to help you change that if you’ve accepted that’s how it’s always going to be. When we had more than $100,000 in credit card debt, the number of people who told us our situation was impossible and that we should just give up and file bankruptcy FAR outnumbered the people who said, “You can do it!” Guess what? WE DID IT. It was a ton of hard work and sacrifice but we did it. And in that process, I got a career change, learned how to manage money in a ninja-like fashion, discovered we can survive with only one car, became an expert coupon-clipper and money saver and established what my true values in life really are.

That experience is worth far more than $100,000. We lived lean and continue to do so and you can too. You’ll be all the better for it!

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