FARGO – About six months ago, three local families started The Forum’s Financial Fix-Up, a very public process to tune up or overhaul their personal money situations.
The series of stories, which debuted in January, shared each couple’s financial challenges and goals, as well as the paths laid out for them after meeting with financial counselors from the Village Family Service Center in mid-December.
Now it’s time to check in on them.
Since receiving their customized financial action plans and sharing their experiences, the participants have largely stayed the course by cutting spending, paying off debt and saving for the future.
John and Annette Graves say they still have their monthly financial struggles but are living life with a balanced budget.
“We have been able to get caught up and work on some debt,” Annette said. “There’s always those days you look and say, ‘Is there enough money in there to get us to the next check?’ ”
The Moorhead couple were stuck in a cycle of catching up in the summer and falling behind in the winter because of John’s sporadic self-employment income.
Shortly after meeting with The Village, John was hired for a full-time maintenance position at the Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead. It’s made a huge difference, they said.
“We have been able to divide up the bills according to the paydays,” Annette said. She has set up automatic bill pay through her bank. They continue to track their expenses on a spreadsheet, and cut back.
They also received a hardship grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation, administered by The Village, which paid a month of their mortgage and put $70 toward their electric bill, Annette said.
Unfortunately, Annette said she has not received any child support for her three children since February. “That has been a struggle with trying to give the kids the things they need, but yet being able to say ‘no’ to them.”
Steve and Meghan Dockter of West Fargo say they have paid off about $18,000 of their $40,000-plus credit card debt (racked up during a medical crisis) since starting the Fix-Up.
“For the most part, it’s just Meghan and I communicating more, being on the same page,” Steve said.
With Meghan, a nurse, going to school and working, and Steve teaching and coaching, their expenses dropped more than they fathomed, he said. The couple earn about $5,300 a month.
“When you don’t have the time to do anything, you don’t have time to spend the money,” he said.
They’ve retired two of four credit cards by paying off the smallest balances first. The final two cards have similar balances, so they’re now focusing on the higher-interest card.
The couple also went through a Financial Peace University course. This convinced them to compile a detailed budget, something Steve, a math teacher, hopes to do now that school is out.
The course also steered them away from using a credit card, something Steve wasn’t ready to give up when they met with The Village counselor. He wanted the safety net and convenience.
“I didn’t want to work at it. I’m starting to see the more you work at it, the more benefits you get from it, too,” he said.
He set an aggressive goal of paying off their credit card debt within a year. If they can do that, they will be able to make it financially through Meghan’s second year of graduate school, when clinical training will prevent her from working for pay, he said.
Another motivator: Steve will be teaching a consumer math class.
“I want to make sure I can set a good example for the kids,” he said.
Nathan and Brenda Richman quickly crossed their first Fix-Up goal off the to-do list: pay off the car loan. That was done the beginning of February.
With that loan retired, the Moorhead couple are now focused on the second goal of building up an emergency fund. Brenda said they’ve put about $3,500 into that savings. She figures it will take about 18 months more to get the balance where they want it.
After that, they’ll plow the surplus money into their retirement funds.
The Richmans started focusing on their finances last summer. A career change by Nathan more than four years ago depleted their savings. They felt they’d strayed from their financial values.
They were already on the right track in many ways before starting the Fix-Up, but a meeting with retirement professionals at State Bank and Trust in Fargo helped firm up their path.
They are in the process of consolidating all of Nathan’s various retirement accounts under one house. “We’re in the paperwork stages of that,” Brenda said.
Meanwhile, their daughter Tori graduated from high school. As she prepares for college, Brenda says she’s making decisions to avoid graduating with too heavy a debt load.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556