Review: Your Playbook for Tough Times, by Donna Freedman

I first came across Donna Freedman’s writing nine years ago, when I stumbled on an article called “Surviving and Thriving on $12,00 a Year.” I was experiencing a personal Upheaval that year, and this brave woman’s proclamation to the world of how she planned to address her own unstable circumstances looked to me like a letter from a supportive friend: “Things may be bad now,” she seemed to say, “but we can make them better if we hang together.” I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights found me re-reading her article, just to know that I wasn’t alone. I’ve read pretty much everything she’s written since then, and played the at-home game of the financial tips and tricks she’s tried in her own life, and do you know what? Things DID get better. Little by little, I managed to pay off all my debt (twice! I’m a slow learner), begin to save, and eventually get to a place of peace regarding my finances. During that time, I met and married my husband and moved halfway across the country where we bought our first house together and figured out a way for him to quit his job and return to school full-time. I even got to meet Donna in person and share a couple of meals and good conversations with her when she came to our new home town of Austin, Texas… Something my scared and overwhelmed Past Self could never have imagined in 2007!

So when her book Your Playbook for Tough Times came out, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it! Fortunately, I didn’t have to: I was lucky enough to receive a copy to review. 

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One of the things that I have always loved about Donna’s outlook is her firm belief  that frugal living– even when things are at their tightest– doesn’t have to be miserable and that in fact, it can be quite lovely. Her book promises to show you what she’s learned about living on less whether you’re presently in dire straits, anticipating financial difficulties soon to come, or simply trying to squeeze the most out of your current lifestyle.

And she delivers on her promises in spades, with literally hundreds of solution-oriented tips, offering ways to find more budgetary breathing room that hit from all angles, such as how to earn more, how to spend less, and perhaps the most radical idea of all: how to live happily with less altogether.

The Great Recession of 2008 marked the beginning of an exciting time for the personal finance genre. Whereas historically, books on finance have been written by economists and titans of business, Post-Recession financial bloggers and authors are people from all walks of life,  sharing the daily unfoldment of their personal setbacks, life experiments, and successes. Donna Freedman is a shining example of this New Breed of personal finance writer: Just about everything she suggests in her book is something she has personally tried and found worthy of suggesting. Because learning the principles of real estate investing or restructuring corporations may be interesting, but sometimes, you just need someone to tell you how to keep your electricity on or make sure that your kids get dinner.

The book is an easy read, almost like an e-mail from a trusted friend. It’s peppered with personal anecdotes and loaded with concrete resources,  from money-saving websites to resources for healthcare and housing, to suggested scripts for negotiating better prices on purchases. If you need to streamline your financial situation today, this book can help you do it, because Donna has done a tremendous amount of thorough research for you so that all you have to do is get online or pick up the phone to start making your life better.

Overall, I think it’s a terrific resource for anyone looking to wrangle their financial situation into something more manageable. It’s the sort of book you’d want to keep around, so you can implement some of the suggestions and then come back for more once those have been mastered. And it would make a wonderful and sensitive gift for anyone facing some kind of financial upheaval.

The book is available as a paperback or an e-book, and over at Amazon, if you buy the paperback, you can get the Kindle version for $1.99, which makes it nice for sharing.

If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think… please come back and share in the comments!

 

Minding the Pennies

There’s an old English saying: Mind the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves. When I discovered the writing of Donna Freedman back in 2006, I began to really understand that attention to smaller details– particularly in the area of personal finance– will definitely help sort out the bigger picture.

When we moved from California to Texas, we got a letter from our roadside assistance provider, asking whether we wanted to transfer our membership to the chapter in our new home state. We filled out the form to reply in the affirmative, sent it back, and never heard from them again. Not even when the membership was up for renewal, and so it lapsed without our noticing.

Several months later, we received a bill for $60, due to a service call Mr. Vega had made after our membership ended. Or so the bill said. Yesterday, I made a phone call to sort that out. It took me half an hour on the phone (most of it on hold while the California representative talked to the Texas representative), but eventually it was made clear that the service call had indeed occurred before the coverage expired: “Please disregard that bill, Ma’am, and thank you for your patience.”

I haven’t figured out my Real Hourly Rate (as outlined in Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin) for this job yet, but I promise you it’s a far sight less than the $120/hour I “saved” by making that phone call.

Another, shorter phone call saved us a $25 returned-check fee (our first in many years!) several weeks ago. I had misjudged the amount of time it would take for the funds from my new-job paycheck to be available, and the auto-draft from the credit card we use for airline miles showed “insufficient funds.” Although they had every right to assess the fee, I called the credit card company and asked politely if they’d be willing to remove it as a one-time courtesy. Because I had never made a late payment or bounced a check to them before, they removed the surcharge immediately.

Were the phone calls worth it? You betcha! I’m grateful that we’ve gotten to a place in our finances where we don’t have to choose between paying an unexpected bill and keeping the lights on, but just because we can afford to pay for mistakes (theirs or ours) like that doesn’t mean we should. I shudder to think of how many erroneous charges we’ve paid for over the years because we couldn’t be bothered to deal with it.

Taking a few minutes to carefully review our bills as they arrive, and sometimes a few more minutes to make those phone calls, has helped us get out of debt, build an emergency fund, and start saving for a house much more quickly than we would have without such vigilance. And perhaps more importantly, taking the time to track down those smaller amounts of money has taught us discipline in our spending habits: after all, if I just spent half an hour clearing up a bill for $60, I’m much less likely to blow that money on a concert ticket or a cell-phone upgrade, or a shiny new pair of… well, of anything, really.

Pennies don’t buy much of anything these days, but keeping an eye on all of them is the best way to make sure their larger relatives don’t go too far astray.

What small savings have you come across lately, and how do you think they affect your finances overall?