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Original Essays

Changing the World -- One Bill at a Time

by Sally Herigstad
  1. Help! I Can
    $18.99 New Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Herigstad reviews the common causes of troublesome debt but concentrates on methods for digging out and improving control of finances going forward." Library Journal
When I went to Portland State University in the '70s, a lot of us were out to change the world. Sociology and education were popular majors with people who wanted to make a difference. Accounting was a bit suspect, perhaps mercenary sounding, as I discovered when one student declined to be my partner on a class project after she found out what my major was. I wanted to change the world, too, but I chose a very practical area to work on. I wanted to help people with their money.

I got interested in money when I was a teenager — not just in making money, but in helping other people learn to make and manage it, to help make their lives better. I worked my first tax season in public accounting at nineteen. I was thrilled when people came in to the office and asked for me by name. I felt so important! I was pretty good at explaining people's tax returns to them. I thought, what if I could help people manage their money better? With their money under control, people would be less stressed. They could afford to live where they wanted, visit their grandchildren more often, and be as generous as they would like to be. Wouldn't that change the world, too?

Twenty-five years later, I was looking for a book for people that I help with personal finance problems. I couldn't find just the right book — something nonjudgmental and written just for people with immediate financial needs. I told a friend, "Someone should write a book called, 'Help! I Can't Pay My Bills.'" We laughed. Then she looked at me and said, "You should write that." I did some more research and decided she was right.

Lots of people helped me write this book. Only most of them didn't know that was what they were doing. Every time someone told me what happened to them, or how they solved a money problem, I thought, "How can I use that in my book without them killing me?"

I needed their stories. It was important to fill my book with money stories not just to keep it from being a really dry personal finance book, but because I want readers to know what other people go through, what works, and that it's never hopeless. Almost all of the stories have good endings. For example, "Kathy" (she knows who she is) really did get excited when her teenage daughter's friends told her about the millions to be made in the Iraqi currency exchanges. I hated to spoil the fun, but I had to tell her I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. Kathy was smart — she sought advice from me and from a stockbroker, and then she took the advice. She didn't send any cash off to Iraq. Other stories in the book are more serious; they tell about people trying to straighten out problems with the IRS, or losing their apartments. This is real life. I couldn't make it up. (Although I do change the details for their sake and mine.)

When word got out that I was telling stories in my book, some of my friends got a bit worried — especially the ones I go shopping with. When one of my friends seemed to be competing with her husband to see who could spend the most money the fastest, she asked me if she was in my book. "No," I said, "but at the rate you're going, I've got a great story for the next one!" Wondering if they are in my book may actually help sales — a lot of my friends, including my sisters, will have to read the book just to see if they're in it. (I'm not telling, Sis — and if you don't recognize a story it must not be about you.)

And at least I tell on myself, too. The most embarrassing stories might be about me. Writing at Microsoft for eight years, I always had to pretend I didn't exist. Technical articles never say "we," let alone "I." How great is it that now in my book I get to say "I" — as in, I used to spend too much on lattes, I forgot to pay my credit card bill on time, I cosigned on someone else's mortgage with disastrous results. I got rid of a diet book the same day I bought it.

The heroes in my book are the people who have been through financially tough times and have not only survived, but have done so with an amazing determination and resourcefulness. Some people find themselves in terrible situations that they didn't create. Other people were just never taught how to handle money, and a few decisions and habits have landed them in terrible straits. I'm impressed with how resilient people can be, and how kind they often are to others in need. For example, I know a beautiful redhead who married her childhood sweetheart. Only problem: They had almost no money for a wedding. With ingenuity, she pulled off a gorgeous wedding — for $902.25. Another example: I've never taken another family into my home, but I know a woman who has people staying with her on a regular basis. She's not always sure how many people are there overnight. She has nothing extra in her paycheck, but she feeds whoever stops by. She's an angel.

My mom helped write this book, too. She unknowingly contributed so much to this book that I had to dedicate it to her. She could have written most of it. In fact, I got to wondering what this book would look like if she had written it. It would definitely contain more "tough love" — she's sympathetic and helpful, but she won't listen to too many excuses. She's managed through some hard times in her life, and when she expects other people to manage, it's because she knows it can be done.

A book by my mom wouldn't be about going without nice things, though. I practically grew up at the Meier & Frank department store. We bought everything there. Mom knew that if something wore out too fast or quit working, she could always take it back to Meier & Frank — and she often did. If she wrote the book, I know she would say to buy fewer things, but buy higher quality at a store you can trust. You don't save money buying junk that you have to replace right away.

When I met people while I was writing this book, I'd tell them I was writing something called Help! I Can't Pay My Bills. I could tell by the look on their faces how close that title fit. Some looked startled — and then they'd laugh and say, "Oh, I need the first copy! Like, yesterday!" A few gave me advice and told me to put it in the book — which I sometimes did. Others assured me they don't need the book... but their kids do.

I hope this book makes a difference in the world, even if only in a small way. If a family finds a way to save on their heating bill; if a kid doesn't hear his parents fighting about money anymore; if a young adult says, "I can pay my bills," that's enough. I'm sure that the sociology and education majors I went to school with have been changing the world for the last couple of decades. With this book, I hope I can, too. spacer

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