Do you feel like you’re chasing your bills and consistently falling 1,2 and maybe 3 months behind? Does it seem like every time you think you’ve caught a break, yet another unexpected expense pops up? This is reality for so many of us in EMS. While getting current can often seem like a pipe-dream, getting ahead is just crazy talk, right? Wrong!
Believe me, I understand these struggles. I have literally spent my entire adult life surviving on EMS wages. I’ve purchased a home, lost a home, racked up debt, paid for divorce, been hit with child support, had vehicles on the verge of repossession, and literally gone days without eating because I was broke and too ashamed to ask for help. Getting ahead seemed impossible. It was my employers fault, my ex’es fault, the industries fault, anyone but me. Well, so I thought. The truth is, we are the only ones that can change our situation, so until we are ready to buckle down and accept responsibility, we will never move forward.
The steps that I’m going to outline for you aren’t anything earth-shattering. I don’t have a magic formula. All I have is experience and a newly formed understanding of what’s important and what isn’t. So I bring to you a 3-step process that I personally used to get out from behind. You’re situation may be different than mine, but you can apply these principles to your needs and modify as you see fit.
Step 1 – Stop Borrowing Money
You simply cannot borrow your way out of debt. The more you borrow, the more those payments grow. If you are truly serious about getting ahead, you have got to make a commitment to stop borrowing money. This means stopping the credit cards, no more payday loans, no payroll advances…NOTHING. Now, before anyone starts the “but you need credit cards to build your credit” argument, just stop. I’m not here to argue that. I’m here to help you get your head above water. If you are behind on your bills, your credit score should be the LEAST of your worries. Things like a credit score can be your focus AFTER you get caught up. You should have 3 priorities (in this order): sustaining life, maintaining shelter / reasonable transportation, and preparing for emergencies. Everything else comes after that. You can read more on my process towards prioritizing and budgeting in Part 3 of my “Getting Started” series.
Step 2 – Get Organized and Develop a Plan
Here comes the painful part, so brace yourself. You have got to face the truth so that you can attack it head-on. Figure out exactly what you owe and what you’re behind on. Write it all down. One of 2 things are going to happen: You’re either going to realize that your situation isn’t as bad as you thought, or you’re going to find that it’s worse than you imagined. Either way, this is a GOOD THING. You can’t fix the problem until you know exactly what it is.
You’ll need to prioritize your bills and debts. Now, this is not a plan to pay off your debt, this is purely getting ahead. If you’re interested in learning more about long-term plans towards paying off debt, check out Part 5 of my “Getting Started” series. For now, let’s get your freaking bills paid!
Remember the 3 things I said: Sustaining life, maintaining shelter / transportation and planning for emergencies (in that order). If you’re a month behind on your cable TV bill and 2 months behind on your car payment, it should be obvious what gets taken care of first. This is also a great time to evaluate what you’re spending money on each month and start hacking away at non-essentials. Remember, if you’re behind, luxury items go out the door until you can get back on track. Start making phone calls to your bank, creditors, utility companies, etc and start working out plans to get caught up. If it’s a non-essential item, then cut the service and add it to your debt snowball to be paid off later. This is explained in greater detail in Part-5 of my “Getting Started” series.
Regardless of whether or not you have the money, figure out what it’s going to take to get caught up. Once you have a number, you can get to work.
Step 3 – Everything Gets a Price Tag
This is a tough ball to get rolling, but once you get it started, it will be hard to stop. When I decided to buckle down and do what it took to get ahead, I literally made a spreadsheet of everything I owned. I then spent an entire evening looking everything up on Craigslist, E-Bay, etc. I figured out exactly what I could sell everything for. This doesn’t mean you have to sell everything, it just means you need to put a price on it. Once you’ve done this, then look at each and every item and ask yourself: “What would I be willing to pay to acquire this item if I lost it or didn’t already own it”? You will be surprised how fast you start losing your emotional attachment to your belongings. I did this very thing and within 15 days, I was current on my bills and had saved up half of my $1000 emergency fund! This is no joke. It sucks to let stuff go, but with every item you part ways with, think of it as a piece of your financial stress that’s leaving with it.
Overtime is a good temporary means to bring in more money, but please, please, PLEASE be intentional with it. Get on a written budget and figure out EXACTLY how much money each shift is worth. Don’t just pick up a bunch of shifts without a plan. You’ll burn yourself out and accomplish nothing. Even when you’re paying off debt and getting caught up on bills, you still need to have a balance in life. Give every overtime shift a purpose, like being that extra payment that catches you up on your car payment, or being half of your emergency fund. You will find that you’re a lot less resentful when your overtime has a purpose.
If you haven’t done so already, start reading my “Getting Started” guide, starting with Part 1. I don’t just make this stuff up, I lived it and practice these principles today.