I am very excited to have Robin Dunn Bryant share a guest post tonight. In all honesty, I need to let you readers know that I invited Robin to share her experience, partially so that I can piggyback on her experience with a comment of my own. In my mind, I had always thought that when I wrote a post about debt management and financial struggles, it would be a celebratory post explaining how our family had conquered the debt monster and put money issues far behind us.
Although Robin and I worked both worked "for" Healthy Kids, me as an HK employee and her as the trainer for our Third Party Administrator, I really did not know anything about her personally until she and her family participated in the We Live FIT (Financially Independent Today) Challenge sponsored by the Florida Commerce Credit Union. When you participate in the We Live FIT challenge, your life as a family is literally an open book: your savings, your credit score, your debt ratio. You name it, the community knows it. AND your own family smiles down at you from a huge billboard on Capital Circle.
Without further ado, and with a huge "thank you" to Robin and her family, here's Robin's story and then I dip my tiniest of courage toes into starting to tell ours.
The Ultimate Exposure aka the We Live FIT challenge
In April my family and I embarked on a road to financial fitness through a “reality show” challenge our credit union, Florida Commerce, was holding. The premise: nine families would work until the end of the year to increase savings, decrease debt, and increase their credit scores. They would work in conjunction with a coach from the credit union and the winning family would receive $10,000. This was the second year of the challenge and since we'd missed the deadline the first time around, we made sure that we got our information in early this time.
After a review of our application and an in-person/on camera interview, our family was one of the nine chosen to enter the competition. We were thrilled, of course, because we'd been taking a financial beating for a few years.
Let me backtrack a bit.
Before we moved to Tallahassee in 2006 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Our plan to move to a cheaper location (we were coming from DC) so that we could cut our expenses and live a life with a lowered stress level went right out the window. My really lucrative work from home job, that before cancer could pay all of our living expenses, became part of a high wire balancing act while we tried to pay an expensive COBRA bill and keep our household running. Then, to add insult to injury, my job bounced several of my paychecks, an action that sent us spiraling into the world of payday loans where we lived for several years.
Fast forward to the beginning of this year.
My DH and I had decided that this was the year that we were going to take control of our financial situation, so getting the call to be part of the competition was so timely. What we weren't expecting was all of the emotional upheaval that comes with 1) finally getting real about what we were (and weren't) doing right with our finances and 2) pulling back the curtain of our completely wrecked financial situation for everyone to see. I honestly can't say which part was hardest for us. I do know the day the website was launched I kept looking at our numbers with a deep combination of pain and shame. We had over $160,000 in debt, $10 in savings, and both of our credit scores were under 500.
We got off to an aggressive start and our situation made an immediate turn for the better. We went through all of our bills and made changes that left us more money each month. We cut back our cable (getting rid of the set in our bedroom entirely), closed down our storage unit, and adjusted our W-4 withholdings so we would bring home more money on payday. Our ace in the hole was our friend Kristen, who is a credit report wizard. She went through them with us line by line and gave us specific marching orders. By June we'd decreased our debt by $1500, increased our combined credit score by 80 points and “passively” saved $628 dollars (by making lifestyle changes...we did lose a good bit to a repair bill for our car.) We really struggled with the community votes, but managed to make it into the second round.
Between June and September we kept up a good part of our momentum – the part that had us focusing on driving down our debt and raising our credit scores – but we were tripped up on other points of the challenge. The stress of the first elimination caused an almost total shut down after June. I couldn't rouse the enthusiasm to blog or even shoot videos on our lil Flip camera. I was completely overwhelmed. Luckily we were able to keep our heads about ourselves and were able to keep our focus on what I saw as our “real” work: cleaning up our finances to make way to a more stable future for our family. We increased our savings by $2100, decreased our debt by over $20,000 (yes, you read that right) and saw our credit scores skyrocket. Ultimately, though, it wasn't enough to counteract having the lowest amount of savings and community votes and we were eliminated.
So now our family is in the “savers bracket” competing with the other eliminated families for $1,000. I think we have a pretty good chance, but even if we don't win that money, I know what we've received as a family is more valuable than any money. My husband said it best in one of his blog postings for the challenge: “We decided as a family that we would not deprive ourselves to win this challenge or be people we aren't. We made small changes and saw the pay off. We made more small changes and saw more pay off. We got lucky and had some things fall into our lap. Overall, we are happy. Anyone who says staying happy is easy is lying. We choose to work at it relentlessly.”
Once I realized that Robin and her family were participants in the We Live FIT challenge, it was important to me to get behind them, support them, and to, as I stated in my Facebook status during the most recent round of voting, "whip people up into a frenzy of voting." Why was it so important to me to do so? Why do I feel so much solidarity with a family that looks unruffled on the outside while simultaneously being barely able to breathe due to not being able to get ahead of the debt monster?