Money Smart Medics Part 1: How I Got Here

The Excuses

For those of you that have been following my blog, the title probably shocked you a little bit. I have never written about money management, and for a very good reason: I sucked at it. Until about a year ago, my version of budgeting included swiping my debit card until it quit working, which usually indicated that my account had gone so far negative that the bank decided it wasn’t worth the risk to continue trying to profit off my stupidity.

But it wasn’t my fault….

God, no. It couldn’t be. It was the economy, the child support, the ridiculously low EMS salary, the taxes, the gas prices, the “unexpected”, etc. You name it, I had an excuse. (Roll the Blues Brothers scene where Jake is giving his ex fiance all the reasons he didn’t make the wedding….)

I was always behind on my bills, and my checking account became very accustomed to the color red. When I would get paid, looking at my account  balance made me feel like the swimmer in the ocean getting pulled down by the current, struggling to get his head above the water for a breath, only to get pulled right back down moments after getting a sweet taste of that precious oxygen. The cycle continued every 2 weeks.

It didn’t matter how much overtime I worked, I never got ahead.

Ahead…..what was that? To me, “ahead” was something that I would never accomplish. Hell, the word “current” even seemed like a pipe dream. Unless I somehow stumbled into a huge pile of money, my situation was never going to improve. Well, so I thought.

My breakthrough moment was the day I showed up to work with no money, no food and not even enough gas to get home. It was still a week from payday and I had no idea what I was going to do. This wasn’t the first time I had been faced with these circumstances, but over the following 24 hours I would be hit with the biggest reality sledge hammer that I had ever seen.

The Worst Financial Day Of My Life

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.

I Never Looked Back

As I left the station in my car (that was running on fumes), I took a long, deep look at my situation and wondered why I was where I was. Then it dawned on me. It’s my fault. While this may seem so simple, it was the epiphany that drove me to change. I suddenly felt empowered. I was going to beat this and I was never going to look back.

A couple weeks prior to this particular incident, I heard a fellow blogger and friend mention Dave Ramsey on a podcast. He talked about how he had struggled to make ends meet and he was making over $100,000 a year! He talked about how he completely turned his life around just by modifying his behavior. I kept playing his story over and over in my head on that drive home. It was my story. I wasn’t alone. I reached out to him and asked for help. As it turns out, he had just started a financial coaching business. I immediately signed up.

As I sat down to meet with him for the first time, I was a nervous wreck. Finances were NOT something I felt comfortable talking about, and you can probably imagine why. I expected to see him fall out of his chair in disgust as he looked over all my finances. I felt like my 10-year-old self, crouched down, bracing for impact the moments before my father ran that leather belt across my backside for something stupid I had done. I was surprised to hear him say “This isn’t so bad. You’re just unorganized”. I pulled my arms off my head, sat up straight, slowly raised my head, opened one eye and quietly uttered the words “really?”

Really.

We sat there well beyond my allotted hour and hashed out a written budget. It all made sense. I was going to do this. The next morning I immediately got on the phone with my bank, my cell phone company, my car insurance agency, and the courthouse. I didn’t make excuses and I didn’t make false promises. I told them the truth. I worked out deals with them to get on plan to get caught up. A plan I could work with. And I did it. My bank actually reversed enough overdraft fees to put me a couple hundred dollars in the black. I carefully budgeted the small amount of money I had on hand to make sure I could get by until payday and I stuck to it.

A month later I had $300 saved up for emergencies and I was caught up on all my bills. Caught up! The next few months were spent building up my emergency fund and then tackling my debt. My budgets weren’t perfect, but they worked. I just wish I could tell you how amazing it felt to lift that weight off my shoulders. I was a new man.

Here I Am

Over the last year I have made amazing strides towards learning how to manage money. Am I perfect? No. Do I still make mistakes? Absolutely! But one thing is for sure, I’m never going back where I came from.

Once I got my financial situation in line, I realized something that I had long forgot. I love being a paramedic. I guess when you’re over your head in personal disaster, it’s hard to see past your own problems, and it’s nearly impossible to help others with theirs. I also realized that I don’t have to leave EMS to be financially secure. I can do the work I love and plan for a healthy lifestyle with a comfortable retirement. And THAT, my friends, is exactly what this series is going to be about.

Learning how to manage money has turned my life around. I have developed a strong passion for personal finance and I have been extremely eager to share what I have learned with everyone. That’s why I started the Money Smart Medics campaign. I know there are plenty of people out there just like me and I want to help. Every Monday I will be posting personal finance articles on this blog. They will be mainly geared towards EMS professionals, but I’m sure anyone will be able to find use in them. I’ll be talking about saving, budgeting, insurance, investments, bargain shopping and a whole lot about preparing for retirement.

I really hope you enjoy this series. I’m really going to be looking for feedback, so please e-mail me or find me on social media to let me know what you think.

Thank you so much and stay tuned!

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