The Paramedic’s Guide to Dealing With Bill Collectors

It wasn’t that long ago that when my phone rang, I knew there was a 90% chance that it was a bill collector. At the time, I was disorganized, severely in debt, and afraid to answer the calls or open my mail. It was an absolute horrible feeling and it made me feel like a complete failure. On some occasions, I actually gave in to their ridiculous demands and spent every dime I had to pay them and then had to worry about how I was going to eat until payday. Bill collectors have a right to try to collect what’s owed, but I hate their methods with a passion.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not ever going to advocate for not paying what you owe. When you borrow money, you give your word that you’re going to pay it back. Everybody hates paying bill collectors, but remember that your integrity is worth something. Every time I pay a bill that was the result of a dumb decision I made, I just remind myself that I’m paying what Dave Ramsey calls “tuition to the school of life”. Or as he frequently refers to as “stupid tax”. We all pay it, but it’s up to us to learn from it.

To this day, I’ll still get some unorganized hack-job calling me, trying to collect on a debt I paid off 5 years ago. I don’t get angry. I usually have fun with them and use it as a reminder of where I was and how I never want to go back. Actually, getting one of these calls the other day is what prompted me to write this article.

Bill collectors don’t run your life, and they should never take priority in your budget. Actually, they’re pretty low on the food chain. You can’t completely ignore them, but you can take control of the situation.

Here are a few pieces of advice for dealing with bill collectors: 

Keep Them Informed

Bill collectors are some pushy people. They will do everything they can to bully you into giving up every penny you have. Don’t go for this. Yes, you owe them money, but you are still in control of the situation. It’s important to speak to them at least once a week and just let them know what you’re doing. Even if your conversation consists of telling them that you don’t have any money to pay them yet, you need to have it. If you never answer those calls, they can actually take action to “locate” you, which includes calling relatives and even your employer. I’ve had this happen and it’s embarrassing. Now, once they have confirmed your phone number and address, they can no longer speak to other people, so it’s important to AT LEAST establish that.

I used to schedule a day each week to call them and just tell them what’s up. I know this can be very intimidating and most of us don’t want to do this. Just remember to control the conversation and keep it short and to the point. Don’t be scared of them.

Know the Laws and Your Rights

Bill collectors used to scare the crap out of me. I’ve been threatened with wage garnishment, asset repossession and even arrest. Once I did the research and understood the laws, I realized that 90% of what they were doing was not only B.S. but illegal. I started calling them out on their threats and it virtually stopped.

The “Fair Debt Collections Practices Act” sets reasonable limits on creditors. The Federal Trade Commission has a great page setup to inform you of your rights and explain how to take action if you feel your rights have been violated. Also take a look at your state Attorney General’s Office website, as each state often has their own set of laws that further restrict collectors.

Here’s a link to the FTC page: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0149-debt-collection 

Get Everything in Writing

DO NOT pay collectors a dime without documentation actually proving that you owe the debt. Debt collectors are required to provide this at your request. It can be sent by e-mail or regular mail. Also, never pay a dime without a written agreement, especially when settling for a reduced amount. Trust me on this, I’ve been burned before. The last thing you want is to have them come back after you for the entire amount later, because they will. You need to have documentation proving that they agreed to the amount that you are paying. If they refuse to provide it, then don’t pay them. It’s the equivalent of making a large purchase from someone who refuses to provide you with a receipt.

NEVER Give Them Access to Your Bank Account

I made this mistake and wound up with a negative balance of over $600 one time. They had my debit card info and decided to run it on payday in increments of $200 until it stopped working. When I confronted them about it, they made up a B.S. story about how I consented to it. It was a bad situation, because I did owe them the money and I didn’t fully understand my rights. I went through the process to dispute the charges and it took me months to get my money back….which I ultimately had to pay them to settle the debt. I also had a debt collector leak my personal information and had my checking account cleaned out by someone who contacted me claiming to be a federal agent. Talk about a freaking nightmare!

There’s 2 ways I will pay collectors: By check or pre-paid debit. That’s it. I personally prefer to send either cashier’s checks / money orders or use the bill-pay feature on my checking account. This way I’m not giving them my account number. The pre-paid debit card method works well, too. I guess I just liked doing the check method because they hate it and it gave me some form of happiness knowing that I was inconveniencing them.

Don’t Allow them to Stress You Out

Debt can be stressful, but collectors don’t have to be. As a paramedic, I have become pretty good at controlling conversations and getting exactly what I need out of someone without having to talk back and forth for hours. By applying the same principles to bill collectors, I was able to keep my interactions with them to an absolute minimum.

I’m not sure that I would call this good advice, but I used to have a little fun with them. When I was in the mood for it, I would do things like answer the phone and act really stupid so that they had to explain everything to me like I was 4 years old. I would also act hard of hearing and see how many times I could get them repeat themselves. My personal best was answering the phone with the ambulance siren in the background. I told them that I was a paramedic and that I was doing CPR on the person that owns the cell phone. I then demanded that I needed them to tell me how they know the owner of the phone and to provide me with any emergency contact info and medical history. Of course, I’m NOT advocating that you do this…..but I thought it was pretty funny at the time. It was probably illegal, but that’s besides the point..

In all seriousness, don’t let debt collectors control your life. Take control of the situation. Never allow them to take food off your table. Only pay what you have budgeted and never allow them have access to your bank accounts. If you stick to your plan to payoff debt, this will pass before you know it.

Set Measurable and Achievable Money-Smart Goals This Year

This is the time of year when people start falling off the New Year’s Resolution wagon. As life continues to happen, so do the daily struggles and challenges that got us here in the first place. No matter how bad we wish we could, we simply can’t hit a reset button on life every year.

In EMS, it’s easy to get stuck in the never-ending cycle of overtime and debt. Especially when we continue to live beyond our means and not stick to a written budget. Overtime is one of the best and worst parts of our job. It’s nice because we have it available when we need or want extra cash, but it also works to our detriment as we quickly become dependent on it. Most other career fields don’t have the hours available that we do, so people hit their “rock bottom” quicker. For us in EMS, we just keep piling up the shifts and extra jobs until we run out of hours in the week or our sanity collapses.

To me, a resolution is nothing more than a wish. Instead of wishing that your life would get better, seriously make a plan and take action. Waiting until next payday, next month, or even next year to improve your situation just means that you aren’t really that serious about the change that you want. In order to really make change, you have to set measurable and achievable goals. You have to be realistic but at the same time not settle with where you are. In this article, I’ll take you through some steps to help set and achieve money goals, or any goals for that matter.

Set Goals That Can Be Measured Daily or Weekly

Setting a resolution to “lose weight” or “be better with money” is just a failure waiting to happen. How do you measure that? You have to be specific. Instead of saying “I want to be better with money”, try saying “I want to write a budget every time I get paid” or “I want to save $100 a month”. See where I’m going with this?

You should be able to go to bed every night and ask yourself: “Did I stick to my budget today?” It’s a simple yes or no question. Asking if you handled your money well is too subjective and nearly impossible to measure.

Start at the End and Work Your Way Back

When setting goals, it’s important to know where you want to be in 5 years, 10 years, etc. For example, I want to pay cash for a house in the next 7 years and retire from full-time EMS work by the time I’m 50. When I set these goals, I knew I had to accomplish the following things:

  • Get out of debt
  • Save up a 6-month emergency fund
  • Start putting away at least 15% of my income into retirement investments
  • Reduce my monthly income as much as I reasonably can
  • Commit to a monthly savings amount towards a home purchase once I’ve paid off debt and built up my emergency fund
  • Save up 10-times my average annual income for retirement

Everyone’s goals are different, but the principals are the same. If you plan to save $10,000 to put down on a home in 2 years, then you need to divide that number by the amount of months or pay periods until your goal date so you know how much money to set aside every payday. Do you see how knowing where your ending point is can be so important? It would be hard to make a savings plan if you didn’t know how much you wanted to save.

Be Reasonable With Yourself

We never want to sell ourselves short on our goals. If you want it, go out and get it, but be realistic about how long it’s going to take and what you’re going to have to do to accomplish it. It’s important to know your limitations and your challenges. Also, it’s important that you don’t set yourself up for failure by leaving no room to enjoy life while you’re working towards achieving your goals (at least for long-term goals). For example, I have some pretty major goals that I want to accomplish, but at the same time, I don’t want to live my entire life by the time-clock either. One thing I really pushed myself to do this year is to set aside money to travel and enjoy life a little bit more. By setting up sinking funds and being smart with airline miles, I’m able to accomplish this by setting aside less than $50 per pay check into my “travel fund”. Little things like this allow you to reward yourself without guilt and without derailing or delaying your goals.

Make a Commitment Today and START!

If you’re not happy with your situation, then start making changes today. Sure, you might not have money at the very moment or even in your next paycheck to start saving, but you can start writing down a plan and doing whatever it takes to accomplish your goals. Just ask yourself: “If I had started this last year, where would I be today?” Once you have that visual in your head, then commit to making the changes now so that you don’t have to repeat that question next year.

Nothing is impossible, not even on an EMS salary. Quit making excuses and start making results.

How to Recover From Holiday Money Mistakes

I know we talk a lot on here about staying money smart throughout the holidays and not letting things like Christmas destroy your bank account. But let’s face it, many of us – myself included – probably slipped up at least a little and have some recovering to do. Don’t beat yourself up over it!

Regardless of how far you may have set yourself back, you can and should take the steps towards not only recovering as fast as possible but preparing for next year. By doing so, we can take the stress out of the holidays and truly focus on the positive things that this time of year brings.

Christmas spending.

Commit to Living on a Written Budget

I know I say this a lot, but I simply can’t stress it enough. We have to live on less than we make and we have to be intentional with our money if we want to succeed. In EMS, we tend to turn towards overtime as a solution to our money problems. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but where we go wrong is we fail accompany that with a written plan.

Starting this pay period, try coming up with a written plan on where you are going to spend your money and stick to it! I strongly recommend actually taking cash out for items that you will likely pay for in person and separate it into envelopes. You can also download the YNAB (You Need A Budget) program. I personally do both. If you’re not doing this already, then it needs to a top priority.

Get Caught Up

If the holidays set you behind on your bills, then you need to setup a plan to get caught up. This is never a good situation to be in, so make sure that you don’t take any options off the table, other than going further into debt. When my situation was at it’s worst, I had to do an inventory on everything I owned and start selling everything that I wasn’t completely attached to. It was painful, but getting caught up over the course of a week made it worth it.

If you racked up credit card bills, then the damage is already done. Yes, it needs to be paid off, but it shouldn’t take any more priority than other debts that you have. You can read one of the previous #MoneySmartMedics articles on paying down debt using the “Debt Snowball” method to help guide you through this process. You basically need to be paying off your debts in the order of smallest-to-largest. Your credit card bills should be placed wherever they fall in that order.

Start Saving for Next Year NOW

With Christmas being in just a couple days, we need to start writing down our plans for next year. Christmas saving needs to start on Dec 26th, or your next paycheck…..you get the idea.

Here’s how you do it:

Figure out a set amount of money that you’re willing to spend next holiday season and be realistic. Now divide that amount by the amount of pay periods in 2015. This will give you the amount that needs to be deducted from every paycheck. It’s important that you stick to this! Don’t let Christmas sneak up on you again.

There’s a number of ways that you can manage this money. I personally setup a sinking fund in YNAB and set it to allocate that money every 2 weeks. You can use a cookie jar, envelope, gun safe, shoe box or whatever you want. If you think that you’re going to have trouble saving, then open a separate savings account and have payroll automatically deduct that amount and deposit it there.

There is absolutely, 100%, no reason not to do this. You’re going to spend the money anyway, so you might as well be smart about it and take the stress out of the holidays!

Trust me on this. The first time you enjoy a holiday season without the stress of money issues, it will be like being a kid all over again. The holidays are meant to be meaningful and enjoyable. Don’t let money troubles take that away from you and your family. Be smart, plan and really commit to making 2015 the best holiday season you ever had!

Introducing #TeamMedicMadness

Healthy trail run

There is a stereotype in EMS when it comes to personal health, and it isn’t good. How many times have you heard people talk about how we are overweight, out of shape and generally unhealthy? When you hear that, does it make you laugh, or does it disappoint you? For the majority of my career, I had just accepted it but failed to realize that I was part of it. I figured that since I wasn’t “overweight” that I must be “healthy enough”. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

For the longest time, I was eating junk every day and doing absolutely no exercise. Throughout my 20’s, you couldn’t tell. Actually, people used to comment on how I need to “put meat on my bones”. I could literally eat anything I wanted and never gain a pound. Well, these habits carried over past my 29th birthday, and I still had the same mindset. That is until I had my wake up call….

The Wake Up Call

I agreed to play the patient in a mock STEMI drill at the local ER. I checked in through the front desk and played up the usual over-dramatic patient in an attempt to bring out a few laughs from the nursing staff. When they moved me to the room, they placed me on the 12-lead ECG monitor and took my vitals. The doctor looked at both and asked if those were really my readings. A little shocked, I asked what he meant. He turned the monitor towards me and showed me a blood pressure reading of 187/118 with a resting heart rate of 102. He was very adamant that I actually needed to be seen in the ER or at my doctor’s office, to which I shrugged it off, attributing the readings to either the equipment or my excitement during the drill. However, later that evening, I went out to my ambulance and checked myself again to find the same thing. I checked in again in the morning and still had the same readings. My unhealthy lifestyle had finally caught up to me.

Now I had 2 choices: Either go down the path of blood pressure medications and frequent doctor’s office visits, or change my lifestyle. When I took a good honest look at my health, the answer was obvious. I couldn’t move around the ambulance or carry a heart monitor up a flight of stairs without getting winded and I was lying to myself about why that was. It was time to change.

Getting Help

The morning after that drill was the beginning of a new lifestyle. I immediately started doing my best to eat healthy and start exercising. I quit drinking sodas and started drinking water. I quit sitting around and started walking and jogging. I tried going to the gym that I had been paying for but felt lost. I was very determined to change, but I just needed some direction.

I made a post on Twitter about how hard it was to get into running when I hadn’t done it in nearly a decade. My friend Ed, a fitness / Beach Body coach, replied to my post and told me about the Couch-to-5K program and advised me to start drinking 100oz of water every day. I took his advice and downloaded the app. It started me off doing intervals of walking / running and eventually worked me up to the point where I was able to run 3 miles. I ran my first 5k race 1 month into my journey and felt like a million dollars when I finished.

Photo Nov 27, 7 10 56 AMAround the time I started training, Ed got me setup on a good meal plan and steered me towards a home workout routine that would work around my 24-hour shift schedule. I started it the day it came in the mail and I haven’t missed a single workout since. My blood pressure now hangs around 108/60 and my resting heart rate in the low 60’s. I have more energy than I know what to do with and I’m pushing towards new fitness goals every day. Now I’m exercising 6 days a week, running 3 days a week, eating like a king (healthy foods, of course) and training to run my first 10k in February. I don’t weigh myself and I don’t take my measurements. The only 2 measurements I need are how I look and how I feel. As you can imagine, I’m pretty happy with both.

Like many others, I used to make excuses like “I don’t have enough time to workout” or “gym memberships are too expensive” and even worse, “It’s too expensive to eat healthy”. It was all a bunch of crap and I’m living proof that it doesn’t have to be that way.

#TeamMedicMadness

Like my #MoneySmartMedics campaign, I want to do more than just get healthy. I want to help get our industry healthy. I created a Facebook group for first-responders that want help getting fit and healthy. I also took after Ed’s example and started trying my hand at Beach Body coaching. The #TeamMedicMadness Facebook group has been a huge success so far. We’ve seen people really do amazing things and make big commitments towards living a healthier life and changing the image of our industry.

Unlike #MoneySmartMedics, this isn’t about my story. I’m still fairly new to this lifestyle, so by joining me and making the commitment to change, we can make it OUR story.

I’ll be posting weekly articles on healthy living for first-responders. We’ll be talking meal plans, workout routines, weekly challenges and anything else we can think of to make this a healthier industry. If you’re ready to jump in, let me know and I’ll be happy to add you to our group. There’s daily posts in there to motivate, educate and help hold us all accountable.

No more excuses. Hit me up and let’s do this.

sean@medicmadness.com

Being a Medic Doesn’t Have to Mean Being Broke

After reading some recent articles and seeing group posts about EMS wages, I’ve decided that the best Christmas gift we can give ourselves this year is some personal responsibility. At some point, we have to stop blaming others for our problems. If you accepted a job offer making any amount of money, then you have absolutely, 100%, no right to complain about your wages. Do I want to see our industry improve in the compensation department? Absolutely! But I equally want to see the workforce improve to match the desired wages.

Nobody tied our hands and forced us into this line of work. And NOBODY lied to us and told us that we were going to make a bunch of money either. So how can we possibly be mad at anyone but ourselves? This isn’t a perfect industry and it comes with a huge set of complications when it comes to money. But here’s the thing, I love this job. I look forward to showing up to work to do what I do. I know there’s plenty of others out there that feel the same way. The problem is, many of those people – myself included – have felt like they had no choice but to leave for higher wages in order to “stay afloat” or support their family. Is there anything wrong with trying to make more money? Absolutely not! But I think we have forgotten about the value of loving the work that we do.

The beauty of good money management, is that it gives us more freedom to do what we want in life, instead of what we think we “have” to do. For example, think about people that dedicate their lives to traveling overseas to help needy families or victims of disasters. Do you think they make good money doing it? Look at teachers. Do you know anyone that got into teaching to make tons of money? If you look at the big picture, we are just a small piece in a huge stack of professions – or callings, if you will – that don’t make much money. And yes, I just compared our profession to humanitarian work. Our job is to do good for society. Yes, we can complain that the people we serve don’t appreciate us, or maybe don’t even “need” us, but doing good deeds isn’t about the response, it’s about the intention behind it.

This job isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of us who’s hearts aren’t really in the profession. For those of us, it may be a bad career decision, or stepping stone to another profession. But for those of us that truly feel passionate about this field, it’s important to know that yes, you CAN survive and live a healthy and rewarding life.

So how do we accomplish this?

Living Within Our Means

This means budgeting and not spending more than we earn. It’s not rocket science. If you’re making $40-50K a year and you’re making payments on a $40,000 pickup truck, then you need to take a serious look at your financial priorities and really ask yourself what’s important in life. If your truck, boat, motorcycle, or jet ski is really where your heart is, then yes, you need to find a higher paying job, because you can’t support that lifestyle on this salary.

Does living within your means equate to never having the things you want? Absolutely not. It just means that you have to save and be patient. By doing so, you avoid the chains of debt, and trust me, that feeling is far greater than anything any material item will ever give you.

Create Other Sources of Income

I’m sure a lot of people read this title and couldn’t get past thinking that you have to have a second job to get by in EMS. For those of you that are still with me, hang in there, it will start to make sense.

One of the beauties of EMS – at least for many of us – is the schedule flexibility and number of days off. I work 24 hour shifts, therefore I only work 9-10 days a month. That means I have at least 20 other days to do what I want. For the longest time, I just jumped on the overtime bandwagon and blindly picked up extra shifts in a feeble attempt to keep my head above water. Well, by being intentional with my money and my overtime, I can greatly limit that and actually have a purpose for overtime shifts other than just paying bills. Now, I would be lying to you if I told you that I don’t still find myself needing extra shifts from time-to-time to cover expenses, but by budgeting and paying down debt, I have significantly reduced the need for it.

One of the things I have been working on in my spare time is starting a business, and yes, you’re looking right at it. As you can clearly see, I’m not exactly shoveling in the money. However, I have a huge passion for writing and being creative, so now I have the time to work on turning my passion into an investment in my future. You can do the same! Find your “dream work” and start working towards creating an income with it. What other line of work will provide you will full-time pay, full-time benefits and leave you with 20 days a month to work on building a business?

Of course, there is always the option of finding part-time work to help you achieve your goals. For me, I want to pay cash for a house and piece of property. By taking care of your monthly financial obligations with your full-time job, you can dedicate your part-time income to propelling yourself towards achieving your goals. This way, work doesn’t feel so much like work anymore.

Look at the Big Picture

Quit turning your life into a math equation. Yes, you can probably find a profession that makes more money and would provide you with the means to achieve your goals without having to create other sources of income, but would you truly be happy doing it? For me, I love EMS. If I never did anything else, I would retire a happy man. However, I’m also passionate about things like writing, playing music, and singing. So by working every day to make my financial situation better, I can work towards achieving my goals of paying cash for property, traveling and making a difference in this industry.

Imagine a life of no debt, enough money on hand to live for at least 3-6 months, and plenty of money left over every month to do what you’re passionate about? If you were in this situation, do you think that you would place more emphasis on hourly pay or quality of life?

Think about that for a while.

Changing the Industry Starts With You

There has always been plenty of talk about what needs to be done to improve the EMS industry. Rallying congress, petitioning governing boards, starting campaigns and pushing for legislation are all good things, but they only address a smart part of what needs to change. The biggest answer to our problems isn’t the pencil pushers and paycheck signers, it’s the person looking back at you in the mirror. It’s the face the patients and public see when your ambulance rolls up on scene. It’s the front-line representatives of our industry. It’s you, me and everyone else working on the ambulances, riding in the fire engines or even flying around in fancy helicopters. We ARE the industry. We ARE the people on the ground delivering the care. Therefore WE are the ones that need to take action TODAY.

Sound dramatic? Take a look around, and not just at your service, but everywhere. Are you happy with where we are as an industry? If not, then it’s time to start being the change that we need!

Ambulance

Take Care of Yourself

If your life is in shambles, there’s just no possible way that you can be the provider that your patients really deserve. I know because I’ve been there. Hell, I’m and in and out of there. I’m constantly trying to improve my life. Where I changed was about a year or so ago when I quit making excuses for the problems in my life.

Feel like you’re broke? Learn how to budget, start paying off debt and save. Feel tired, sluggish, exhausted and out of shape? Then start eating healthy, exercising and taking control of your health. Your situation is not your employers fault because you don’t think they pay you enough or they don’t provide free gym memberships. Think you’re stuck? E-mail me. I’ll show you how to budget and how to stay healthy without spending a dime. (I’m dead serious) sean@medicmadness.com

I’ve started 2 free groups to help first-responders take care of themselves. #MoneySmartMedics for money management and #TeamMedicMadness for health and fitness. Both are on Facebook and Google Plus. If you honestly think that your finances or health could use some work, let me know. I’m doing my best to make sure everyone has the resources they need to take control. Nothing fancy, just my attempt and systematically removing every excuse I can.

Never Stop Learning

Kelly Grayson nails it when he says that there are not a lot of people with 20 years of experience in EMS. What we have are a bunch of people with 1 year experience, repeated 20 times. I’m no exception here. I don’t think I hit my true 2nd year of experience until after my 4th year as a paramedic. Like many others in this field, I got my paramedic license and figured I was good to go. Medicine is a constantly evolving science and when we choose not to keep up, we accomplish nothing but short-changing our patients and giving ourselves a bad name.

There’s plenty of excuses out there and none of them are worth a damn. So what if you’re employer doesn’t provide continuing education courses? Half of those stupid card classes are based on outdated science and do nothing but place your brain tightly inside of a steel box that’s seemingly impossible to think outside of. Get out and learn something today!

Pick a home medication that you know nothing about, fire up your smartphone and learn everything you can about it. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until you run out of home medications to learn.

Find a medication that you haven’t administered in a long time and mentally run yourself through scenarios where you would actually draw it up, calculate drips, etc. Once again, repeat steps 1 and 2 until you run out of medications to practice.

Open up your protocol book and find every procedure and scenario that you possibly can and honestly ask yourself: “Am I an EXPERT on [fill in the blank]”. If the answer is no, then get to learning, asking, reading, watching and practicing.

Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Go to one of the bazillion EMS educational sites and start reading up on new studies, case reviews, panel discussions, etc. I don’t have to tell you where to find them. You already know. You just haven’t been doing it.

Be a Representative of the Industry

Every time you step into the public’s eye wearing anything resembling EMS, you are representing the industry. Take 10 extra minutes every day to make sure you are groomed, pressed, polished and looking your absolute best. I don’t care if you employer mandates it or not, you should have higher standards for yourself than your employer does. When you’re out in public on the clock, act like a professional. We are all guilty of slipping up in this category and I’m not excluding myself. We all need to step up our game.

Going to a bar on Friday night? Leave your EMS shirts at home. I don’t care if they have your employers logo or not. It looks bad on the entire industry. There’s nothing wrong with going out and tying one on, but leave your career out of it.

Be the Example

With many services experiencing high turnover rates, it’s no secret that our industry is being flooded with newcomers. This isn’t a bad thing! This is our opportunity to make a positive influence and actually create a society within the industry of good attitudes, caring providers, and actual critical thinkers.

Take the time to make sure that the newcomers are being influenced by the right people. You know, like YOU? If you see bad behaviors developing, take action! Lead by example. Remember, the youth of our industry are also the future of our industry. It’s up to you to decide what they do with it. If you don’t care enough to ensure that our industry has a bright future, then it’s time for you to go. We don’t have room for you anymore.

I know this post seems harsh, but the truth hurts. I’m not writing this from a position of looking down on anyone. I include myself in everything that I write. It’s time for ALL OF US to step up our game.

It’s go time.

5 Money Smart Tasks to Prepare You for the New Year

I really hate the idea of New Years Resolutions. If you’re going to eat healthy, start budgeting, or whatever, start doing it now!

This post is nothing like that….kinda.

I’m going to talk about things that need to be done before January in preparation of the new year. I like to spend the last month of the year looking back over the last 11 months to ask myself what I can do better. I look at things like spending, family time, work, and even my health. I guess where my line of thinking differs from the typical new years resolutions is that I start acting on it right away. Personally, I feel that delaying the start of change only increases your chances of not following through.

Having said that, the holiday season is the perfect time to start setting up things like sinking funds, tax withholding and health / dental insurance plans. So without further delay, let’s dig in to my 5 money smart tasks to prepare for the new year!

Start a Budget

If you haven’t started using a written budget, start now. There is just no reason to wait on this. It doesn’t matter if you have $2 or $2,000, YOU CAN SETUP A BUDGET. I will guarantee you that if you start living on a written budget starting now, that you will see a dramatic decrease in the amount of money you spend in 2015.

Remember, living on a budget doesn’t mean your broke or being “restricted”. The only thing restricting you is the money in your bank account. What you’re doing is taking control of your spending. You’re telling your money where to go rather than wondering where it went. If you need help, look back at the earlier posts in the #MoneySmartMedics series or send me an e-mail. I’ll be glad to help in any way I can!

Adjust Your Tax Withholding

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Tax returns are not a good thing. If you’re getting thousands of dollars back on your taxes, then you need to seriously adjust what’s taken out of your check every month. That is money that could be used to pay off debt, build a retirement fund or even pay for college. Don’t let the government hold on to your money interest-free!

I hear a lot of people say that they enjoy tax returns because it’s “forced savings”. Well, it’s not savings if you spend it once you get it. If you don’t think you can handle the extra money every month responsibly, then go talk to your payroll department and have it deposited into a savings or a ROTH IRA.

Setup Your Sinking Funds

If you’re not familiar with sinking funds, go check this out and head on back. A sinking fund is really just a fancy version of your Christmas cookie jar. It’s a fund that you contribute to every pay period to achieve a short or long-term savings goal. For example: CHRISTMAS! Do you know when I start saving for Christmas? The moment I buy my last Christmas present!

OK, I know most everyone reading this didn’t go back and read the article on sinking funds, and don’t worry, I’m not judging, I’m the same way. So with that in mind, here’s the short version:

To setup your sinking funds, you need to identify the major expenses that you know you will run into throughout the year. Now, take those expenses, divide them by the amount of pay periods for the year and BOOM! Now you know how much to set aside every pay check.

Get on a Plan to Pay off Debt

Most of us keep loans around long enough that we think they’re a member of our family. It’s time to change that. Make a commitment to stop borrowing money, whether it be on credit cards, cars or student loans. Line up your debts smallest to largest, and start paying them off in that order. Debt is one of the biggest things holding us back from doing what we really want to do with our lives, so let’s kick it to the curb!

Plan for Health and Dental Expenses

OK, so I failed miserably at this one last year. I didn’t plan for anything and wound up blowing my emergency fund over dental work. Don’t be like me. Here’s a couple things that you can do to prepare for upcoming expenses:

  • Setup Flex Spending
    If you’re not familiar with flex spending, then talk to your payroll or human resources department. It’s an account that you setup that’s pre-loaded with up to $2,500 that can be used for anything health or dental related. This includes co-pays, prescriptions, etc. You decide the amount that you want to have and payroll will deduct the amount over the course of the year pre-tax from your paycheck. By having it taken out pre-tax, you are essentially saving 30% on those expenses! The only downfall here, is that any unused funds are non-refundable at the end of the year, so make sure you only budget what you will need!
  • See If You Quality for a Healthcare Savings Account (HSA)
    This is very similar to a flex-spending account in that the money is contributed pre-tax. Where it differs is that the money isn’t “pre-loaded” which means that you will actually have to build up a decent balance before it becomes useful. Having said that, it could be a great option to handle expenses coming up at the end of the year while you use money from your FSA at the beginning. Also, the money belongs to you, so you don’t lose it at the end of the year!

Start Now!

January isn’t the time to figure this stuff out. Get on the ball today. Maybe you don’t have money to put away at this very second, but you can find 10 minutes and a piece of paper to write on. Come up with a plan and execute!

On a side note, I want to take a moment to thank everyone that has been following these posts. I have received some amazing feedback and I’m truly blessed to have such an awesome readership. I have some really exciting things coming up in 2015 and I seriously can’t wait to share everything with you guys. Thanks again and keep kicking ass!

3 Money Mistakes I Continue to Make

I write a lot about mistakes I’ve made in the past when it comes to money and what we can all do to improve our financial lives. Over the last couple years, I’ve had to completely erase everything I thought I knew about money management and start from scratch. I’ve made some pretty amazing progress during that time, but I’m far from perfect.

After spending some time at the Texas EMS Conference this last week, I had the opportunity to network with some really amazing people. I noticed that a lot of people who had read my #MoneySmartMedics series would make comments in good humor about “money mistakes” that they were making. I would hear things like “don’t judge me, I’m swiping my debit card” or “I really didn’t budget for this”. It was as if everyone had this idea that I’m going to be hovering over them like a drill-sergeant to make sure they were paying with cash.  Granted, it was all meant as a joke, but it did make me realize that I don’t talk about mistakes that I currently make.

Money management is a lot like going on a nutrition plan. You’re going to have “cheat days” or slip up from time to time. The important thing is that you don’t give up. When these things happen, just pick up where you left off and keep pushing forward. It’s not an exact science and your world isn’t going to come crashing down when you make stupid mistakes from time to time. When you adequately prepare yourself by creating things like emergency funds or sinking funds, you’re essentially protecting against yourself.

I thought I would take this week to share some frequent mistakes that I continue to make to this day (and probably will for a while):

Note: This is clearly not a picture of me or my kitchen as my kitchen is MUCH messier than that...

Note: This is clearly not a picture of me or my kitchen as my kitchen is MUCH messier than that…

Checking the Mail

I’m not going to lie, I’m absolutely terrible about this. Unless I’m waiting for a check or an item that I ordered, I’ll forget to open the mailbox. This habit probably started in my days of bill collectors constantly mailing me bad news. A recent example of this biting me in the ass was my cell-phone bill. AT&T had sent me notice that my auto-draft date was changing and that a certain feature on my account was going up in price. At the same time, my dentist sent me a letter than my insurance didn’t cover the anticipated amount on a recent visit and that I owed her practice another $300 for non-reimbursed expenses. Well guess what? The 2 items completely threw off my budget.

I showed up to the dentist expecting to pay $30 and was kindly reminded of my past-due amount of $300. I had the money to pay the amount, but I was going to have to completely re-write my budget for the pay period. On that same day, AT&T drafted their owed amount 2 weeks earlier than I had anticipated and for a larger amount. I wanted to put my head through my desk. Of course, all this could have been EASILY planned for had I opened the freaking mail a month earlier.

Updating Payment Information

This is a mistake that I hopefully will not make again. As we all know, debit cards expire. Well, when you have automatic payments coming out on those debit cards, it’s kind of important to update that information when it happens so that you don’t have an interruption in service. Once again, checking the mail usually lets you know that you screwed up before things get shut off…..just saying….

So there I was, walking into the gym, ready to beat myself up in the name of good cardio health when the kind lady behind the counter informed me that I couldn’t use the gym until I paid my past-due balance. Talk about embarrassing! Of course, I don’t carry my debit card with me, so I had to drive home, get the new card and return to the gym. That night I got home, logged into every account I had and updated my information. I also created an event with a 30-day reminder in Google Calendars to remind myself to do that the next go-around.

Staying Organized

I screw this up a lot. I religiously write my budgets every time I get paid. I make sure to account for everything that is supposed to be drafted and anything that I anticipate spending over the next 2 weeks. That I got down, no problem. Where I screw up is when I add or remove a monthly expense. For example, I recently changed car insurance companies, so my payment amount changed along with my due date. I completely forgot about that and budgeted the incorrect amount at the incorrect time. This wasn’t the end of the world, but it was really annoying when it came out a week earlier than I had anticipated.

Another example would be some online services that I recently subscribed to. Blogging, coaching and promoting doesn’t come without expenses…well not unless you want to do everything the absolute hard way. I have a budgeted amount for things like web hosting, social media management, software expenses, etc. Well, I recently decided to add on a few services to make promoting my writing easier. What I didn’t do is remember to write down the payment draft date on my financial calendar. This was especially annoying being that I pay all my business-related expenses through my PayPal account. Come the following month, I didn’t transfer all the money needed to cover my expenses and I wound up paying late fees and having one service shut off temporarily. Annoying!

Now It’s Your Turn!

What are some money mistakes that you continue to make? Don’t be shy, I’m sure I’ve done FAR worse!

Your Coworkers Are Broke

Do you ever look at your coworkers and ask yourself: “Where do you get all that money?” You struggle just to make ends meet and yet, sitting in the ambulance next to you is someone who drives brand new vehicles, lives in a “nice” house, has lots of cool toys and makes the same amount of money you do. Ever wonder how that happens? Do you ever ask yourself what you’re doing wrong?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This is something that modern society has tried to keep from you for your entire life. Are you ready to hear it?

Your Coworker Is Broke

Debt is a funny thing. It can mask a lot of bad financial decisions by delaying the consequences. If I go and spend my entire paycheck on a new computer, I’m going to feel the consequences immediately. If I charge it to a credit card, I can drag it out over a year’s worth of payments. Now let’s be honest, we know that borrowing doesn’t stop at the laptop. Dinners, nights out, vacations, and iPads all keep racking up the debt, but as long as we are able to make the minimum payments, we can continue to be irresponsible. The problem is, the higher the blance, the higher the payments and it will eventually reach a point where we can’t even afford the minimum payments. Sometimes this process takes a couple years, sometimes over a decade. Either way, it WILL catch up.

Chains of habbit are too light to be (1)

A wise man once told me that “comparing someone’s outside to your inside is a losing proposition, every time”. Well, this absolutely applies when we compare our financial situation to our coworkers. The truth is, if you’re asking yourself how they could pay for things like a fancy vacation on their salary, chances are, they haven’t. The trip was likely put on a credit card and it will probably be years before they have actually “paid” for it.

Don’t mistaken this lifestyle as being “financially sound” because it is 100% dependent on their ability to continue to bring in their current income. Want to know how financially secure someone is? Take away their income for 3 months and see what happens.

Many of us in EMS think that is the way it has to be. We have convinced ourselves that the only solution is to make more money. Well, I have another secret for you. Are you ready for this?

You Don’t Have to Be Wealthy to Become Wealthy

Allow me to introduce you to the wealthiest paramedic I know…

Every time I drove up to the station I always saw the same thing: Brand new sports cars, pickup trucks, SUV’s and payments to accompany all of them. Execpt for that one truck: the one that was 8 years old. It was nothing fancy, just a truck. It probably had well over 150,000 miles on it, but it got the job done. It belonged to one of the most humble, content and friendly paramedics I ever met. For the sake of this article, I’ll just call him Frank.

Frank showed up to work every day with a smile on his face. He loved his job and was very good at it. He was the kind of guy that packed a lunch every day, drove used cars and rarely allowed his debit card to see the light day. But Frank wasn’t broke. Frank actually had a net worth of well over $1 Million dollars. He had a paid-for house, paid-for truck and absolutely no consumer debt. He and his wife loved to travel and went on some really awesome vacations a couple times a year.

You want to know how Frank did it? He figured out early on in his career that debt wasn’t his friend. He made a decision that interest was something he was going to be earning, not paying. He drove nice used cars, lived on a written budget, didn’t over-spend on junk and he INVESTED. His money wasn’t being sucked away in the form of car payments or credit card bills. And guess what? He did it all on an EMS salary. Try asking him if he thinks us poor EMS folks are living below poverty level.

Peer Pressure Didn’t End in High School

Don’t allow other people’s bad financial decisions to make you think that you are doing something wrong. In EMS, we have a big problem with trying to out-spend each other, and for what? Here’s my basic rule-of-thumb: If your coworkers are laughing at you, you’re doing it right.

Think about this the next time someone tries to tell you to “just go buy a new car”: If you put the money that you would be spending on car payments in good investments, it won’t take long before you’re earning enough in interest to replace your car every couple years. You heard me right, the banks will be paying YOU to replace your car. There isn’t any magic formula here, just basic financial principles and quality, conservative investing.

Don’t let your broke coworkers influence your financial decisions. Be the change that you, your family, and this industry needs. You got this!

How Being Money Smart Will Make You a Better Paramedic

I’ve talked about this topic a few times before, but I think I really need to explain the importance of having your finances in a good place. Our personal problems are going to stay with us when we show up to work, there’s just no way around that. Yes, we are told to “check our bags at the door”, but can we really do that with the overwhelming stress of our personal lives lingering around in our head?

The problem with financial trouble, is that it puts a mental and sometimes physical barrier up that prevents you from thinking about anyone but yourself. Why do you think wealthy people build hospitals and schools? Because they have the means to do it and they aren’t worried about their personal financial situation. It’s really hard to be generous when you’re needing help.

So where does this come into play in the world of EMS? Allow me to tell my story:

The Worst Financial Day of My Life

Image credit: dailymail.co.uk

Image credit: dailymail.co.uk

To get the whole picture, I would recommend checking out the first #MoneySmartMedics article where I talk about my back story. Here’s an excerpt from that article describing my breaking point:

Having no money or food wasn’t always the end of the world for me. After all, the local hospital fed us lunch and breakfast for free and many of the hospitals in the neighboring city provided all kinds of snacks and meals. You can say I was quite the connoisseur of the free EMS handouts. However, forces much stronger than my resourceful skills made sure that I never came anywhere near any of the hospitals. By 2 pm I was starving. My partner sensed that something was wrong and offered to buy me lunch. I lied and told him that I wasn’t hungry.

At one point in the late afternoon, I arrived at the station just in time to see a tow truck pulling into the employee parking lot. My heart sank. I knew for sure he was there to take my car. After all, I had been ignoring the bank’s calls for weeks. My spirits were lifted a little bit when I realized he was just using the driveway to turn around. Still, I knew it was coming and seeing that truck gave me a level of self-disgust that I had never felt before.

2 hours later, my phone shut off. Fortunately I was able to sweet talk Verizon into giving me 3 more days of service with an empty promise to pay off the entire balance by the weekend. Of course, I did this while hiding in the back of one of the ambulances in fear of one of my coworkers hearing me.

The final straw was getting a call from the local courthouse to inform me that if I didn’t pay my traffic ticket off within 48 hours, a warrant would be issued for my arrest.

I lost it.

I cried, I prayed, I begged, I did everything I could hoping that God would snap his fingers and make this horrible situation go away. What I didn’t realize, is that he was doing just that.

How It Carries over to Our Line of Work

After reading the above story, where do you think my head was? Do you think I was genuinely concerned about the problems of my patients? Or do you think I was on auto-pilot? I wasn’t just on auto-pilot, I was was doing a terrible job. Auto-pilot would have been an improvement.

As I experienced so many times throughout my career, I simply can’t be the best medic that I’m capable of being when I can’t see past my own problems. It’s just not possible.

3 Things You Can Do Right Now

Paying off bills, becoming debt free and planning for the future are all essential to achieving financial peace, but they take time. Getting your finances in better shape doesn’t require paying off all of your debt. You can get organized and eliminate your financial stress RIGHT NOW. Try these 3 things TODAY and I promise you that you will see a significant improve in not only your work performance, but your overall attitude in life.

  1. Get on a written budget:
    There is no prerequisite to budgeting. All you need is a piece of paper and something to write with. Figure out how much money you have on hand and start dividing it into categories. Get out a calendar and write down all your due dates for bills. Knowing exactly what’s going out and when it’s going out will eliminate more stress than you could possibly imagine. Trust me on this, it was a major turning point for me.
  2. Take out cash for essentials:
    Don’t let credit card payments and other bills prevent you from eating. Every time you get paid, pull out enough cash to cover food and transportation costs. One of the biggest causes of stress is not knowing how you’re going to pay for your next meal. By doing this, you no longer have to worry about that unexpected automatic payment eating up money you needed to survive. This HAS to be your number-one priority. If you do nothing else to better your financial situation, do this.
  3. Set money aside for good deeds:
    Every heard of karma? OK, maybe you don’t believe in it, but I can assure you that being generous and giving every now and then will change the way you look at life and money. It will also directly affect your performance as a paramedic. This doesn’t have to be much. Try setting aside $25. If that’s too much, try $5. Try buying your partner a cup of coffee, paying for a random stranger’s meal or just give it to someone in need. I am a firm believer that things come full circle. When you start doing acts of kindness for others, it will come back to you.

An Exciting Announcement

OK, so this isn’t in context with the article, but I need to get the word out. I have started 2 free financial wellness groups. One on Facebook and one on Google Plus. It’s really simple and it’s free. If you’re looking for a support system as you work towards achieving your financial goals, then get in touch with me so that I can add you!

I’ll be posting motivational messages, money management tips and answering your questions EVERY DAY. It’s a great way to get like-minded people with similar goals together in one place. We’ll be holding each other accountable, lifting each other up, sharing knowledge and answering questions.

If you’re interested in joining one of these groups, please e-mail me at sean@medicmadness.com or comment below. Let’s take action today!