1. Archive

If lacking an income, face up to the outgo

Published Aug. 27, 2005

(ran SP, NP, PT, TP, HT editions)

For people without jobs, New Year's resolutions for financial health collide painfully with the reality of reduced income and rising debt. When the car breaks down, what else can you do but charge the repairs? Without a job, how can you save money?

Yet, with no definite date for re-employment, how can you go on each month, adding debt? How will you ever dig yourself out? It isn't easy, but you can take control of your finances, even during a period of financial uncertainty. Here are some steps to take.

+ Plan one quarter at a time. An annual budget doesn't make much sense if your financial circumstances will change dramatically at some unknown point in the year.

To plan a quarterly budget, use three pieces of lined notebook paper, one for each month of the quarter. Later, you can tape the three pieces end to end to make one tall map of your quarter's finances.

Now, draw vertical lines on each page to form three columns. The left column is for the dates of each month: 1, 2, 3, etc., with one date for each line. The middle column is for bills due to be mailed on each date, and the last column is for money expected in on each date.

Note that the bills are written down on their mailing date, not on their due dates. That's the day you actually write the check, so that's the day that counts. Don't forget irregular or infrequent payments such as quarterly car insurance bills.

Once you have filled in the dates when money is expected, you can see more clearly where your cash flow problems are going to occur.

For example, if you'll receive an unemployment check in the second week of the month that will cover the utilities but not the dentist, you know you will need to find more money or talk with the dentist to arrange a payment plan. Once you have discovered the cash flow problems, you also can identify the days of the month when you will have discretionary income to use on groceries and other variable expenses.

In this method of budgeting, cash flow is king. You don't write a check for groceries until you have paid the fixed bills. That's because you can control your grocery costs, spending only a little on the days when not much money is left over from the bills.

+ Look for expenses to cut. Are there bills you can eliminate, such as cable? Can you reduce any bills? Are you eligible for one-time assistance with heat or electricity?

+ Manage your credit card debt. For the short term, consider paying only the minimum on credit cards, while setting aside a small amount of cash each week for emergencies. This builds flexibility while protecting your credit rating. Minimum payments made on time are good. Extra payments made late are not as good. Best of all is using cash reserves for small emergencies and not adding to credit card debt.

+ Devise an income strategy. This graphic look at your next few months is likely to be sobering. No doubt you have more bills than income. This is the point where creativity is an asset and pride is a problem: No job or cash-paying task should be beneath you, as long as it is legal.

Running errands, baby-sitting, shoveling snow, cleaning houses _ all are legitimate cash-raising efforts that will help in the long run. If you think something "doesn't pay" because it doesn't net as much as you used to make, go back to your cash flow page. The question isn't, how much does it pay but does it pay enough, in time to make the next bill?

+ Look at the big picture _ carefully. Debt consolidation is very popular, particularly when your home is used as security. But it is such a risk. If you have a home you can mortgage for extra cash, try this instead: Find out how much money you would save a month by consolidating your debt. $200? $300? Now figure out how much you could charge for renting out a room. If it's about the same amount, remember that debt consolidation stays with you a long time and puts your house at risk. A renter can be asked to leave when your finances improve.

+ Don't despair. You may be in a bad spot right now, but things will improve when you get a job. In the meantime, watch your finances like a hawk, don't spend anything extra and bring in money wherever you can. It will be worth the effort. You will be so grateful later if you can keep things from getting any worse now.