Money Makeover

May 15, 2008

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM)- Rosalind Alston spends many afternoons playing with her 10-year-old daughter Alicia and their two pets.  Juggling her finances though is no fun and games.

"I just pay my bills online as they come in and check it periodically to just kind of track how much money I have, how much more I have to spend before the next payday," says Alston.

Music lessons are just one of the many items that hit her account each month.

Alston says however, she knows her finances have hit a sour note, because she doesn't really keep track of everything.

"I don't have a budget," she says.

"Unfortunately, I should deduct everything and keep a running ledger, but I don't."

More disciplined is what Greg and Jennifer Garner also hope to be.

"We do have a list of all of our bills layed out, so we know what's due each month," says Greg Garner.

And even with scaling back on spending.

"We have cut down on travel a bit, you know, we maybe used to have lawn care, but we cut that out so we do it ourselves. We're trying to trim corners everywhere," adds Garner.

It's still not enough.

"Sometimes it does get tight."

Greg is self-employed and Jennifer is a stay at home mom.  Their biggest problem is paying for health insurance.

"It's a pretty hefty cost every month," says Garner.

Five-hundred and fifty-four dollars to be exact.  Plus, Greg had a surgery last summer that they're still paying for.

To help both families get a bit closer to their financial goals, we introduce them to Lerone Harper.  He's a Certified Consumer Credit Counselor with a simple philosophy.

"You don't want surprises in your personal budget, so, life itself is going to dish you out enough suprises," says Harper, who works with Consumer Credit Counseling Services of West Georgia/East Alabama.

He begins each session, like the one with Alston, by combing through financial documents...looking at income and expenses to build a budget.

"We really map out every expense. All the things that we have to take out, from electric to sewer, to phone bill, so we really you know, itemize," says Harper.

The goal is to determine how much a person is spending and then map out a plan to save.

His guidelines show housing should represent only 35 to 45% of someone's expenses, transportation-20%, debt-15%.

He tells Alston, "I see what you're doing and I don't necessarily like the format you're using...just pulling that money out of your checking to do that."

The two add, subtract and hammer out what may seem to be minor details.

He asks questions like, "How much do you think you spend on your pet,"?

"What about your cell phone expense," he asks?  Harper does the same thing with Greg and Jennifer.

"Has that been in your budget every month up until now," Harper asks the couple about small child care expenses?

In the end, both Alston and the Garners are shocked at the results.

"It was really interesting to see the numbers on paper, a lot of things, you don't realize how much you spend on it until you actually see it on paper," says Greg Garner.

"I'm a little bit surprised, I'm doing actually better than I thought I was doing," adds Alston.

As for Alston...

"She actually hit on all of the percentages," says Harper.

And therefore, Harper says she could be focusing on clearer ways to make her money work for her, and not the other way around.  His first tip...keep the budget they've prepared and stick to it.  Then plan for the extras.

"Whether it be a vacation, a college fund, whether it be shopping or a night out with the girls. Ultimately, those are the things that we give in to, and when we give in to them, they either help us or hurt us," says Harper.

What's hurting the Garners is the fact that some months, there's not enough income to cover the expenses.

"It turns out, that their budget was tighter than they thought it was," Harper says.

He encouraged them to do a bit more research for health insurance to find a more economical product.

Advice in hand...both Alston and the Garners decide they're up for the challenge of building a better foundation for their financial future.

"With our's all about being a good steward with what God gave you," says Garner.

"During my generation, as women, we weren't taught to have financial goals and to have financial plans, and one of the things that I'm having to try to teach my daughter by demonstration and not just by saying.   You know, as soon as you go to work, you need to set up a 401K, to start working and earning your money, you need to do this...she needs to see me doing it," says Alston.