MONEY Financial Planning

Why a Safe Space Makes for Better Financial Plans

mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows
Barbara Stellmach—Getty Images/Flickr Open

To really help their clients, financial planners need to create an environment -- both physical and conversational -- that's comfortable and reassuring.

Nicole walked up the driveway wearing flip-flops. It was that kind of day.

We held our meeting outside in the garden — one of the perks of my having a home office. I’ve heard repeatedly how meeting outside takes away the stress of difficult financial conversations, and sometimes even goes so far as to make them a delight.

When Nicole had first hired me, she was blunt. “I’m blowing through my trust fund, and it’s going to run out,” she said. “I need you to help me learn how to make it last, but don’t put me on a cold-turkey budget because that is going to backfire.”

At this and other meetings, we explored the narrative of her life. Part of what we uncovered was that her job was a bad fit. She needed a change, something where she made a difference and where she could get outside instead of working indoors at a desk all day.

I’ve come to appreciate over the years how a big part of what I do is hold the space for conversations like ones I had with Nicole — conversations about issues people know they need to face, but ones that are oh-so-easy to postpone.

When I say “holding the space,” I mean that I’m creating an atmosphere in which people can feel safe. Part of that is designing the physical space to create a more relaxed atmosphere. At my home office, my clients leave their shoes at the door, come into my kitchen as I prepare tea for them, and then they choose where we sit — inside (at the dining table or in the living room) or outside (on the porch or in the garden.) I’ve seen similarly relaxing physical environments in commercial office spaces, where the ‘conference room’ looks more like an inviting living room and the financial planner’s dog greets clients with his welcoming, wagging tail.

While the physical space sets the tone, it’s the conversation that follows which is most important. Holding the space means people feel they can move through whatever they need to move through, knowing that they’re not going to be judged by me. It’s where clients state what’s holding them back from doing what they know they need to do. It means that I name what I see, and sometimes that means saying out loud what isn’t being said. It’s asking evocative questions to understand more deeply. It’s where couples can talk to one another about money. When a client has a decision to make, I identify trade-offs and give equal weight to the non-financial component. We brainstorm what it’ll take to get them one step closer to being where they want to be. And we pause to look back and celebrate all the steps forward.

This story had a nice, happy ending for Nicole. And it was rewarding to me, too. When Nicole talked about just how unhappy she was with her work, I worked up a five-year transitional cash flow plan which provided her time to explore and find a more suitable job while she also made gradual lifestyle changes.

She no longer felt guilty or alarmed when spending her trust fund because she saw how she was using it intentionally, while also taking concrete steps to use less of it over time. She committed to the process, finding meaningful work along the way, and reaching the place where the remainder of her inheritance truly became long-term money.

My experience with Nicole taught me how much I enjoy working with her demographic: Young people, overwhelmed by money, who want to do something meaningful with their lives and want to use their money to help them achieve that goal. And it’s by holding the space for these conversations that, together, we accomplish just that.

MONEY Financial Planning

How Families Can Talk About Money Over Thanksgiving

Family Thanksgiving dinner
Lisa Peardon—Getty Images

Holiday get-togethers are a great time for extended family members to discuss topics like estate planning and eldercare. Here's how to get started.

While most Americans are focused on turkey dinners and Black Friday sales, some financial advisers look to Thanksgiving as a good time for families to bond in an unlikely way: by talking about money.

The holiday spirit and together-time can make it easier for families to discuss important financial matters such as parents’ wills, how family money is managed, retirement plans, charity and eldercare issues, advisers say.

While most parents and adult children believe these discussions are important, few actually have them, according to a study conducted last spring by Fidelity Investments. Family members may avoid broaching these sensitive subjects for fear of offending each other.

That is where advisers can shine.

“When you help different generations communicate and cooperate on topics that may keep them up at night, it bonds them as a family,” says Doug Liptak, an Atlanta-based adviser who facilitates family meetings for his clients. It can also help the adviser gain the next generation’s trust.

Advisers can encourage their clients to call family meetings. They can also offer to facilitate those meetings or suggest useful tips to families that would rather meet privately.

Talking Turkey

Family meetings should not be held over the holiday table after everyone has had a few drinks, but at another convenient time.

“That may mean in the living room the next afternoon, over dinner at a fun restaurant, or at a ski lodge,” says Morristown, N.J.-based adviser Stewart Massey, who has vacationed with clients’ families to help them hold such mini-summits.

It is critical to have an agenda “and be as transparent as possible,” he says. Discussion points should be written out and distributed to family members a few weeks ahead to avoid surprises. Massey also suggests asking clients which topics are taboo.

Liptak likes to meet one-on-one with family members before the meeting. If you can get to know the personalities and viewpoints of each family member and make everyone feel included and understood, you will be more effective, he says.

“You might have two siblings who are terrible with or ambivalent about money, while the youngest is financially savvy, but you can’t give one person more say,” says Liptak.

It also helps to get everyone motivated if the adviser brings in the client’s children or other family members ahead of time to teach them about money management topics, like how to invest, says Karen Ramsey, founder of RamseyInvesting.com, a Web-based advisory service.

Sometimes the clients are the adult children who are afraid to ask how the parents are set up financially or where documents are, she says.

Ramsey says advisers can help by letting clients and their families know that a little discomfort may come with the territory. She will say, and encourages her clients to say: “There’s something we need to talk about and we’ll all be a little uncomfortable, but it’s okay.”

The adviser can kick off a family meeting by asking leading questions, such as “What one thing would you like to accomplish as a family in 2015?” says Liptak. Then the adviser can take notes and continue to facilitate the discussion by making sure everyone gets heard and pulling out prepared charts and data when necessary.

Massey suggests families build some fun around the meetings. His clients often schedule them around the holidays and in the summer, often tucked into a vacation or weekend retreat. It is a good practice to have them regularly, like board meetings, he says.

And if the family has never had a meeting before?

“Don’t start with the heavy stuff,” says Liptak. “It’s a good time to focus on giving and generosity, like charities the family can contribute to.

“You can collaborate on an agenda for later for the bigger issues.”

MONEY financial advice

Tony Robbins Wants To Teach You To Be a Better Investor

Tony Robbins vists at SiriusXM Studios on November 18, 2014 in New York City.
Tony Robbins with his new book, Money: Master the Game. Robin Marchant—Getty Images

With his new book, the motivational guru is on a new mission: educate the average investor about the many pitfalls in the financial system.

It might seem odd taking serious financial advice from someone long associated with infomercials and fire walks.

Which perhaps is why Tony Robbins, one of America’s foremost motivational gurus and performance coaches, has loaded his new book Money: Master The Game with interviews from people like Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, investor Carl Icahn, Yale University endowment guru David Swensen, Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle, and hedge-fund manager Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates.

Robbins has a particularly close relationship with hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investment Corporation.

“I really wanted to blow up some financial myths. What you don’t know will hurt you, and this book will arm you so you don’t get taken advantage of,” Robbins says.

One key takeaway from Robbins’ first book in 20 years: the “All-Weather” asset allocation he has needled out of Dalio, who is somewhat of a recluse. When back-tested, the investment mix lost money only six times over the past 40 years, with a maximum loss of 3.93% in a single year.

That “secret sauce,” by the way: 40% long-term U.S. bonds, 30% stocks, 15% intermediate U.S. bonds, 7.5% gold, and 7.5% commodities.

Tony’s Takes

For someone whose net worth is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars and who reigned on TV for years as a near-constant infomercial presence, Robbins—whose personality is so big it seemingly transcends his 6’7″ frame—obviously knows a thing or two about making money himself.

Here’s what you might not expect: The book is a surprisingly aggressive indictment of today’s financial system, which often acts as a machine devoted to enriching itself rather than enriching investors.

To wit, Robbins relishes in trashing the fictions that average investors have been sold over the years. For instance, the implicit promise of every active fund manager: “We’ll beat the market!”

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of active fund managers lag their benchmarks over extended periods—and it’s costing investors big time.

“Active managers might beat the market for a year or two, but not over the long-term, and long-term is what matters,” he says. “So you’re underperforming, and they look you in the eye and say they have your best interests in mind, and then charge you all these fees.

“The system is based on corporations trying to maximize profit, not maximizing benefit to the investor.”

Hold tight—there’s more: Fund fees are much higher than you likely realize, and are taking a heavy axe to your retirement prospects. The stated returns of your fund might not be what you’re actually seeing in your investment account, because of clever accounting.

Your broker might not have your best interests at heart. The 401(k) has fallen far short as the nation’s premier retirement vehicle. As for target-date funds, they aren’t the magic bullets they claim to be, with their own fees and questionable investment mixes.

Another of the book’s contrarian takes: Don’t dismiss annuities. They have acquired a bad rap in recent years, either for being stodgy investment vehicles that appeal to grandmothers, or for being products that sometimes put gigantic fees in brokers’ pockets.

But there’s no denying that one of investors’ primary fears in life is outlasting their money. With a well-chosen annuity, you can help allay that fear by creating a guaranteed lifetime income. When combined with Social Security, you then have two income streams to help prevent a penniless future.

Robbins’ core message: As a mom-and-pop investor, you’re being played. But at least you can recognize that fact, and use that knowledge to redirect your resources toward a more secure retirement.

“I don’t want people to be pawns in someone else’s game anymore,” he says. “I want them to be the chess players.”

MONEY fix my mix

Get Free Help with Your Investing Challenges

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MONEY is looking for people who are willing to share the details of their portfolio in exchange for a free workup with a financial planner.

Has the volatile market caused you to flee stocks for the security of cash and bonds?

Are you close to 100% in stocks but thinking now it might be time to dial back?

Would you like to rework your investments to generate more income from dividends and bonds?

If so, we’d like to help.

For an upcoming issue, MONEY is looking for people who’d be willing to share their portfolio and financial situation in the magazine, in exchange for having a top-shelf financial planner examine their investments from top to bottom and come up with a full and personalized financial plan.

You must be comfortable sharing details of your personal and financial life (including your real names) and being photographed for the story.

If interested, please fill out the form below. Please tell us a little about your investment challenges, and also include a few details about your family’s finances, including income, approximate savings, and debts. All of this information will be kept confidential until we talk and you agree to appear in the story.

Everybody has an investment challenge, so let’s hear yours!

MONEY financial advisers

My Client Is Making a Terrible Financial Choice. What Do I Do?

Wallet being protected by little green army men
John Lamb—Getty Images

When panic drives someone to make a self-destructive money decision, it's the financial adviser's job to protect the client from himself.

Suppose one of my clients has his heart set on using half of his retirement account to buy each of his grandchildren a new car. Or a client in a panic over falling markets wants to sell all her stocks and buy gold. What is my responsibility as their financial planner? How far should planners go to try to keep clients from making serious financial mistakes?

It’s important for planners to respect clients’ competence and ability to make their own life decisions. Client-centered planners also need to remember that the goal is to help clients get what they want, not what the planner might want or think the client should want. On the other hand, should a planner stand idly by and watch someone walk off what the planner perceives as the edge of a financial cliff?

Part of the answer to this dilemma stems from a planner’s legal obligation. Most advisers who sell financial products have no fiduciary duty and are not legally required to put their customers’ interests first. Fiduciary advisers, which include those who are fee-only, do have a legal obligation to act in their clients’ best interests.

What is the legal responsibility, then, of a fiduciary planner who believes clients are about to do themselves financial harm?

Let’s say I have a client who is about to do something that may be viewed by a court of law as “extreme” or “imprudent.” (An example would be putting all his money into one asset class like gold, cash, or penny stocks.) At the minimum, I would need to protect myself by carefully fulfilling my legal responsibilities. This would include making certain I emphasized to the client that, given the research and data available, his actions could hurt him financially. I also would want to be sure the client fully understood and took responsibility for his actions.

In terms of the broader aspect of what financial planners owe to their clients, meeting this legal obligation is not enough. In my view, fiduciary planners’ obligation to put clients’ interests first includes an ethical responsibility to do no harm. Sometimes this ethical and legal responsibility requires planners to give clients information they may not want to hear.

As we focus on the clients’ goals and help them carry out their wishes, part of our role is to make sure they have all the information they need. This gives us a responsibility to educate ourselves so the advice we offer is as sound as we can make it. We also need to do whatever we can to help clients hear and understand that advice.

Clients who are hovering on the edge of a financial cliff are typically about to act out of strong emotions such as fear. They often can’t take in financial advice until they are able to move through that fear. It only makes things worse if financial advisers shame clients, bully them, or abandon them to their fears. The challenge for planners is to help clients reach a more rational place so they can gather additional information and make decisions that will serve them well.

With the right kind of support, clients are almost always able to get past the fear that is pushing them to make imprudent decisions. Providing such support by working with clients’ emotions and beliefs about money, perhaps with the help of a financial therapist or financial coach, is well within a financial planner’s ethical responsibility. Our role is not merely to do no harm. It is also to use all the tools we have to help clients act in their own best interests.

———-

Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the president of the Financial Therapy Association.

MONEY financial advice

The Downside of Financial Jargon

141104_ADV_Jargon
Robert Nicholas—Getty Images

If you focus too much on charts, graphs, and asset allocation, you can end up overlooking what's really important about someone's finances.

Sometimes our clients’ simplest questions are the ones that we overlook.

Not too long ago I started prepping for an annual meeting with one of our clients. As is the case with most financial planners, our process involved collecting data from various sources so that we would be prepared to discuss not only our annual agenda items but also any questions our client might raise about her overall financial plan.

Our annual meetings are an opportunity for us to discuss with our clients their life changes, re-focus their goals, and address any other external events that might have an impact on their overall plan. So we made sure we were ready to discuss portfolio performance and allocation, even if we didn’t intend to spend much of the meeting going over performance. We also made sure to review various benchmarks, mutual fund performance reports, and any other information that might bear on our client’s ability to achieve her goals. Suffice it to say, I felt it better to be overprepared than underprepared.

Meeting day arrived, and I was ready. I glided through the agenda items with my client while highlighting the areas that I thought needed addressing. Of course, I showed her colorful pie charts in order to highlight her portfolio’s diversification and performance. As I concluded the agenda, I noted that since there were no major life changes, I didn’t see a need to alter the portfolio.

I thought our hour-long meeting had gone well — until, that is, my client looked at me and said, “Frank, I just want to know if I’ll have enough money to continue living my current lifestyle.”

I was floored. All of my prepping for the meeting was to highlight that she was on track and that everything was moving along as we had planned. The problem, however, was that the information was in a language that made the answer to her question obvious to me but not to her. My charts looked pretty to me, but didn’t address her question.

I thanked her for her question, and I made a commitment to change how I would address that in future meetings. In other words, I would make sure we discussed her current spending as well as other aspects of her financial life within the context of how her lifestyle might be affected.

After our meeting, I continued to ponder her question, because she was right. My meeting agenda was filled with language and jargon that I understood but not my client.

I reflected on whether we as an industry overcomplicate concepts that can be easily communicated in a way that more directly addresses our clients’ basic fears. The answer for me was to question my assumptions about my client communications in general and re-evaluate how I would communicate moving forward with all my clients. I made a commitment to listen more for their fears and address them more directly — free of industry jargon whenever possible. I would not assume my spreadsheets and pie charts said it all. In other words, I would keep it simple.

———–

Frank Paré is a certified financial planner in private practice in Oakland, California. He and his firm, PF Wealth Management Group, specialize in serving professional women in transition. Frank is currently on the board of the Financial Planning Association and was a recipient of the FPA’s 2011 Heart of Financial Planning award.

MONEY financial advisers

Flesh-and-Blood Advisers Face Threats from Robots

Robot Lost in Space with Will Robinson
©20th Century Fox—Courtesy Everett Collection

Fidelity and Charles Schwab will be offering automated financial advice that's low-cost or even free, pushing other advisers to be tech-savvy to compete.

Last month, both Charles Schwab Corp and Fidelity Investments unveiled so-called “robo” advice programs that offer free or very cheap algorithm-driven portfolio management to investors.

That strikes fear into the hearts of many financial advisers who typically charge 1% or more of assets under management to offer personalized advice to investors.

Some, such as Ritholtz Wealth Management, are responding in kind. Earlier this month the firm launched Liftoff, a digital portfolio management tool aimed at young would-be clients with under $100,000 to invest who want account oversight but don’t need complete wealth management. The new offering aims to give investors easy and inexpensive (0.4% of assets per year) access to the firm’s investing strategies and to keep those clients in the fold as their wealth grows, said CEO Josh Brown.

Upside, the San Francisco-based startup that provides the technology behind Liftoff, is also working with other registered investment advisers to offer a way to compete with the direct-to-consumer “robo” offerings from such firms as Betterment and Wealthfront, which offer consumers digital-only access to low-cost ETFs and automatic portfolio design and rebalancing through algorithms.

On Oct. 27, Charles Schwab announced it was moving into the automated advice space with a free product.

Fidelity said on Oct. 15 that it would refer its advisers who wanted a low-cost automated investment offering to Betterment, one of the largest of the new robo-advisers.

Still a Small Space

Advisers who fear their business will be undercut by products like these should remember that the current competitive threat is tiny, accounting for less than $5 billion in assets, said Sophie Schmitt, senior analyst at Aite Group, a research firm. So, panic isn’t necessary, though it’s probably a good time to make some moves.

“The traditional financial services world is waking up to the reality that clients want to consume financial information digitally, and 2014 is a pivotal year,” Schmitt said.

Advisers can start to compete with these automated products by offering clients online access and beefing up the technology tools they use themselves when working with clients, she said.

One case in point is Merrill Clear, launched earlier this year by Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch, which allows advisers to help clients plan for retirement, and prioritize goals on iPads.

Flesh-and-blood advisers who use digital tools have an advantage over algorithms because they can “marry technology and human behavior,” said Daniel Satchkov, president of Rixtrema, a firm that offers software advisers can use to demonstrate portfolio risk to clients.

Brian Eddy, a Beverly, Massachusetts, adviser, said he agrees. His firm, PortfolioFix, offers online access to their accounts and automated portfolio rebalancing. But he also talks to them in person, on the phone and via Skype, the teleconferencing program.

“There’s always going to be a market for someone who’s available to the client on a one-on-one basis,” he said.

MONEY Investing

Pigs Fly: Millennials Finally Embrace Stocks

Jeans with cash in pocket
Laurence Dutton—Getty Images

Young adults have been the most conservative investors since the Great Recession. But now they are cozying up to stocks at three times the pace of boomers.

What a difference a bull market makes. The Dow Jones industrial average is up 160% from its financial crisis low, and the latest research shows that young people are beginning to think that stocks might not be so ill advised after all.

Nearly half of older millennials (ages 25-36) say they are more interested in owning stocks than they were five years ago, according to a Global Investor Pulse survey from asset manager BlackRock. This may signal an important turnaround. Earlier research has shown that millennials, while good savers, have tended to view stocks as too risky.

In July, Bankrate.com found that workers under 30 are more likely than any other age group to choose cash as their favorite long-term investment, and that 39% say cash is the best place to keep money they won’t need for at least 10 years. In January, the UBS Investor Watch report concluded that millennials are “the most fiscally conservative generation since the Great Depression,” with the typical investment portfolio holding 52% in cash—double the cash held by the average investor.

This conservative nature has raised alarms among financial planners and policymakers. Cash holdings, especially in such a low-rate environment, have no hope of growing into a suitable retirement nest egg. In fact, cash accounts have been yielding less, often far less, than 1% the past five years and have produced a negative rate of return after factoring in inflation.

Conservative millennials, with 40 years or more to weather the stock market’s ups and downs, have been losing money by playing it safe while the stock market has turned $10,000 into $26,000 in less than six years. Yes, the market plunged before that. But in the last century a diversified basket of stocks including dividends has never lost money over a 20-year period—and often the gains have been more than 10% or 12% a year.

Millennials are giving stocks a look for a number of reasons:

  • The market rebound. The market plunge was scary. Millennials may have seen their parents lose a third of their net worth or more. But with few assets at the time, the market drop didn’t really hurt their own portfolio, and stocks’ sharp and relentless rise the past six years is their new context.
  • Saver’s mentality. Millennials struggle with student loans and other debts, but they are dedicated savers. They have seen first-hand how little their savings grow in low-yielding investments and they better understand that they need higher returns to offset the long-term erosion of pension benefits.
  • Optimism still reigns. Millennials are easily our most optimistic generation. At some level, a rising stock market simply suits their worldview.

This last point shows up in many polls, including the BlackRock survey. Only 24% of Americans believe the economy is improving—a share that rises to 32% looking just at millennials, BlackRock found. Likewise, millennials are more confident in the job market: 32% say it is improving, vs. 27% of Americans overall. Millennials are also more likely to say saving enough to retire is possible: only 37% say that saving while paying bills is “very hard,” vs. 43% of the overall population.

Looking at the stock market, 45% of millennials say they are more interested than they were five years ago. That compares with just 16% of boomers. Millennials also seem more engaged: They spend about seven hours a month reviewing their investments, vs. about four hours for boomers.

This is all great news. Millennials will need the superior long-term return of stocks to reach retirement security. Yet many of them are just coming around to this idea now, having missed most of the bull market. In the near term, they risk being late to the party and buying just ahead of another market downdraft. If that happens, they need to keep in mind that the market will rebound again, as it did out of the mouth of the Great Recession. They have many decades to wait out any slumps. They just need to commit and stay with a regular investment regimen.

Read next:

Schwab’s Pitch to Millennials: Talk to (Robot) Chuck
Millennials Are Flocking to 401(k)s in Record Numbers
Millennials Should Love It When Stocks Dive

MONEY Out of the Red

How I Paid Off $158,169 in Debt

G. McDowell Photography

Think there's no way to get out from under your obligations? This first in a series of profiles of people getting "Out of the Red" proves that it's possible.

Rachel Gause just wanted to give her three kids more than she had growing up. So, though she was receiving a secure income along with child support, she found herself living beyond her means every month—eventually racking up six figures in debt. With a whole lot of determination and almost a decade’s worth of belt-tightening, she’s climbed most of the way out. This is her story, as told to MONEY reporter Kara Brandeisky.

Rachel Gause
Jacksonville, N.C.
Occupation: Master Sergeant, United States Marine Corps
Initial debt: $179,625
Amount left: $21,456
When she started paying it down: 2006
When she hopes to be debt-free: November 2015

How I got into trouble

“I was just trying to keep up with everybody else. I’m a single parent to three kids, ages 10, 14, and 16. I was always spending extra on Christmas and on birthdays. Also, growing up, I didn’t have new clothes and new shoes at the start of every school year. But I wanted to make sure my kids always did.

Looking back, I wish I would have known not to rely on credit cards. I wish I would have known that it’s okay to keep your car for four or more years, as long as you maintain it.

I started going into debt when my first daughter was born, 16 years ago. I remember I had to get a furniture loan. By 2006, I had $55,848 in credit card debt and $76,711 in car loans. Then there were the personal loans. I had a consolidation loan that I used to pay off my credit cards. Altogether, it came out to $179,625.”

My “uh-oh” moment

“I wasn’t aware of how much debt I was in. The turning point for me was when I hit the 10-year point in the Marines, and I saw other people around me retiring. I wanted to sit down and see where I was at. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to retire in debt. I didn’t want to be that person.

At the time, I had a Toyota Sequoia, and I couldn’t make payments on it. I knew I was in way over my head.

Even though I had three kids, we didn’t need that big truck. It was going to put my family at a financial challenge. So I spoke to a lady at my church, and I said, ‘I have this truck, and I’m going to trade it in for something smaller.’ And she said, ‘I always wanted a Toyota Sequoia.’ I sold it to her and got into a Corolla instead.

I realized buying that truck was a bad choice, and I knew I needed to develop better habits from there. That was my first step forward.

How I’m getting out from under

Now I put roughly $2,100 a month toward my debt.

For the rest of my income, I use the envelope system. Before I get paid, I do my budget. Then I have 13 envelopes—one for groceries, one for clothes and shoes, one for charity, one for dining out, one for gas, and so on. I go to the bank, take the money out, and divide it between the envelopes.

I don’t spend anything that doesn’t come out of those envelopes. Debit cards are nice, but swiping is less emotional. Cash makes me more aware of what I’m spending my money on. If I run out of money for something that month, I don’t buy it. But I’ve never run out of money for something important—now I’m more aware of how much I’m spending.

That’s because I also got a small composition book from Dollar General to track my spending. Every time I spend money, I write it in that book. Then I compare that to what I’m supposed to be spending, according to my budget.

I also do a quarterly audit on myself to make sure I’m not spending too much more on my cable or cell phone bills.

But it’s not all deprivation. We have a chart that we color in every time we reach a milestone, and we treat ourselves to something nice. For example, recently I went on a trip with my high school classmates to Atlanta—funded totally in cash.

My kids have been understanding about our debt-free journey. They know that mommy has made some bad financial decisions in the past. Now I teach them about needs and wants.

The other day, I was coming home from work, and I said, “Do you need anything from the store?” My son said, “We don’t need anything, but we’d like some candy.”

If they want a video game, they know they need to save their money to get that video game—and that means there’s something else they won’t be able to get. They understand if you have a big house, that means you have to pay big electricity and water bills. I’m teaching them to live within their means and not just get, get, get to try to impress people.

What I’ve learned that could help someone else

My advice would be to sit down, see where you’re at—first, you have to know how much debt you’re in—and then create a spending plan. (Some people are scared of the word “budget.”) You have to tell your money where to go, or it’s going to tell you where to go.

The numbers may scare you in the beginning. It takes two or three months before you can get the budget right.

And you have to be consistent. If you don’t put 100% into it, it’s not going to work. You can’t be half, ‘I’m trying to get out of debt,’ and half, ‘I still want to spend money.’ You have to sacrifice.

My hopes for the future

Once I become debt-free, I plan to build up my emergency fund and then start actively investing and saving for retirement.

Then I hope to get my kids off to a better start.

My daughter will go to college soon. We’ve talked about student loans.

The main reason I joined the military was to obtain my college degree for free. I earned my degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington last year. But while I was there, I saw so many kids taking courses for a second and third time because they were failing and they weren’t going to class.

So I told my daughter, you’ll pay for that first year, and we’ll see how you manage. Then I’ll assist you with your second, third and fourth years. But first, I need to make sure you’re dedicated.

After I retire from the military, I want to become a certified financial counselor so I can help people break the vicious cycle of being in debt and dying in debt. My passion is to put together financial classes for non-profit organizations like women’s shelters, churches, and organizations for military service members. There aren’t that many in this area, and I see a real need. I see so many people struggling to survive, living paycheck to paycheck.

I’ve already started counseling some people who ask for help.

Every now and then, I get a message on Facebook from someone I helped that says, ‘I just paid off another credit card’ or ‘I paid off my car.’ That’s my motivation now. I don’t want to stop – the need is out there.

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5 Super Easy Online Tools that Can Help Couples Feel More Financially Secure

hearts made out of money
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Can't seem to get on the same page with your partner when it comes to money? Help has arrived.

In order to achieve common goals, getting on the same financial page with your romantic partner is critical—but it’s also challenging.

As our own MONEY survey recently revealed, a majority of married couples (70%) argue about money. Financial spats are, in fact, more frequent than disagreements over chores, sex and what’s for dinner.

The Internet can offer some strategic intervention. From budgeting to paying off debt, saving to credit awareness, these five online financial tools can help everyone—and, in particular, couples—get a better handle on their money.

The best part: They’re free.

1. For help reaching a goal: SmartyPig

SmartyPig is an FDIC-insured online savings account that—besides paying a top-of-the-heap 1% interest rate—is designed to help consumers systematically save up for specific purchases using categorized accounts like “college savings,” “summer vacation” or “new car.” Couples can link their existing bank accounts to one shared SmartyPig account and open up as many goal-oriented funds as they desire. You see exactly where you stand in terms of reaching your goals, which can motivate you to keep saving.

Additionally, SmartyPig has a social sharing tool that lets customers invite friends and family to contribute to their savings missions. Don’t want people to bring gifts to your child’s next birthday? In lieu of toys, you can suggest a ‘contribution’ to his SmartyPig music-lessons fund and provide the link to where they can transfer money.

2. For help boosting your credit scores: Credit.com

If you and your partner need to improve one—or both—of your credit scores and seek clarity on how, Credit.com can help. The Web site offers a free credit report card that assigns letter grades to each of the main factors that make up your score: payment history, debt usage, credit age, account mix and credit inquiries.

A side-by-side comparison of each person’s credit report card can—even if the scores are roughly the same—actually reveal that one spouse scored, say, a D for account inquiries, while the other has a C- under debt usage. From there you can tell what, specifically, each person needs to improve upon. “It may lead to some friendly competition,” says Gerri Detweiler, Director of Consumer Education at Credit.com.

3. For help tracking your expenses: Level Money

Called the “Mint for Millennials,” Level Money is a cash-flow-management mobile app that automatically updates your credit, debt and banking transactions and gives a simple, real-time overview of your finances. It includes a “money meter” that shows how much you have left to spend for the remainder of the day, week and month.

A spokesperson tells me that couples with completely combined finances can share a Level Money account and see all bank and credit card accounts in one place. They can get insight into when either partner spends money and how that affects cash flow. The company says it’s continuing to build out tools for couples.

4. For help eliminating debt: ReadyForZero

If you and your partner need some nudging to get out of credit card debt once and for all, ReadyForZero may be of service. Launched three years ago, it’s an online financial tool that aims to help people pay off debt faster and protect their credit. The free membership gets you a personalized debt-reduction plan with suggested payments. The site tracks your progress so you can see how well—or how poorly—you’re doing and regularly posts “success stories” on its site to motivate users. You also get access to the ReadyForZero mobile app which sends you push notifications suggesting an extra payment towards your balance if you just placed a larger than normal deposit in savings or checking.

For couples, the tool can help one or both partners to stop living in denial and to come to terms with their financial obligations. Says CEO Rod Ebrahimi, “it demystifies the debt.”

5. For help syncing up generally: Cozi

When I asked attendees at the annual Financial Bloggers Conference last month about what sites, apps and online tools they like to use to keep their finances in check in their relationships, a few pointed to the website and app Cozi. It’s not a financial tool per se, but Cozi helps households stay organized, informed and in sync with master calendars and household to-do’s like food and meal planning, shopping and appointments.

Want to schedule a meeting to talk about holiday gifting and how much to spend? Put in in Cozi. Want to plan meals for the week so you’ll know exactly what to buy at the market and not be tempted to order in? Tap Cozi to make a list.

Ashley Barnett who runs the blog MoneyTalksCoaching.com says she and her husband have been using Cozi for years. “My favorite part is that the calendar syncs across all devices, so when I enter an event into the calendar, my husband will also have it on his,” she says. Cozi’s actually gone so far as helping the couple minimize childcare costs. “Before Cozi, if I accidentally booked a meeting on a night my husband was working late, I had to either pay a sitter or reschedule the client, which is unprofessional and hurts my business,” says Barnett. “Now when I pull up my calendar I see his work schedule as well. No more surprise sitters needed!”

[Editor’s Note: Cozi was recently acquired by Time Inc., the company that owns MONEY and TIME.]

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine and the author of the new book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at www.farnoosh.tv

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