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Get Less Poor! 

Savage's six steps to springtime semi-survival

A parking spot opened on F Street -- good luck, as I needed to deposit my paycheck before the weekend's debit card purchases overdrew my account. With money so tight, those $33 overdraft fees, besides being stupid, can kill a person. Exiting the car, I noted the restaurant across the street. Regret pinged through me. Despite years of meaning to try one of Eureka's better-reputed places, I've never been. The water bill goes up, the kids grow out of their shoes, the cat remains behind on his vaccinations. Then another sight yanked me out of my pity party. A grizzled man shuffled by, familiar. He's often walking over the Samoa bridges when I'm on my way to work or coming back from grocery shopping. The morning breeze flapped thin pants around skinny legs. Here I am whining because I haven't eaten at Kyoto's, when all around me people are aching because they haven't eaten. (Perhaps I should've rushed to Ramone's for brioche all around?) I hurried through my banking business, keeping the wolves at bay for another day and wished everyone were so lucky.

On Craigslist, a better person needed no reminding to be aware of her good fortune: "Free veggie starts," the ad read. "I have recently had the fortune of free potting soil ... a great family that helped me build a green house ... and lots of leftover veggie seeds. I thought that it would be a great way to help some people that need food while pretty much everyone is having money troubles ... The thing I am asking from you is that once your plants have matured you take at least one bag of veggies to the food bank." I responded -- and am looking forward to paying it forward.

More food for thought: The Redheaded Blackbelt's been comparison shopping between Safeway, Winco, Costco and Ray's. The results are mostly what you'd think, but the details are well worth a look: kymk.wordpress.com.

Also, my new copy of Money magazine arrived. (As I mentioned last column, my dad continues to provide me with a subscription, optimistic I will change my ways and become, if not rich, at least upper middle class. Cognitive disconnect notwithstanding.) The cover screams out, "The 7 New Rules of Financial Security." As if that game has universal rules. The magazine's readers across America rejoiced, perhaps, grateful to be told once again how to invest, believing that the right combination of diversity vs. risk will reconstitute their 401Ks. Like banks supplicating for bailout funds -- "please, give us some more of your money and we'll turn things around" -- the magazine begs to stay relevant. But the paradigm has shifted and the emperors clearly cavort buck-naked.

I offer, instead, a half-dozen suggestions gleaned from friends similarly engaged in the money struggle.

Illegitimis non carborundum: Don't let the bastards get you down. All those years of the upper class telling the middle class to blame the folks in the lower class for all the nation's woes? Forget it. The homeless did not trigger the mortgage crisis. Immigrants, documented and otherwise, did not cause the unemployment crisis. Welfare moms did not produce the health care crisis. Poor folks didn't make this mess. So when the bills are sliding past due and you're counting change to put gas in the car, remember, at least you're not responsible for the attempted destruction of all that's good about America. You're just broke.

Never deal with debt collectors. Theoretically, some of them might be decent people just trying to do their jobs, but generally, think "Satan." You don't want to make a deal with the devil, right? If they call, tell them to mail you proof of debt. When the bill arrives, return it with a note: "Under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Law, immediately cease contacting me. I will only deal with the original creditor. Do not contact me again." Send it so you have proof of delivery. It doesn't eliminate your debt, but it prevents Beelzebub's minions from hounding you.

Never, ever, get suckered into "advance paycheck cashing." It's like saying you'll only have sex for money this one time. They prey on struggling middle class folks who, in a bind, act in fear. You have a better chance of recovering from crack addition than paying your way out of that situation.

Don't stop giving. In addition to being a nice thing to do, giving provides a positive sense of power. You may not have a lot, but you can still help out. Volunteer time if you have it. Let someone ahead of you in line. Throw all your change in a jar each day and at the end of the month, donate it. Whatever you believe in, helping in a small way is still better than not helping at all.

Do take charge of whatever finances you have left. Unless you're working for AIG, no one's going to throw cash at you for screwing up. If you're not good with money, get that way. The basics still work. Want to lose weight? Eat less and exercise more. Want to stay in the black? Make a budget and stick to it. I know, I know -- it's not easy. I've dedicated my life to proving it's not easy. We're rebels, you and I. We don't want anyone telling us what rules to follow, even when the orders are coming from ourselves. But the late-night French fries and the reckless "Sure, I'll run a tab" cannot continue! What has worked best for me: leaving my debit card at home. If I carry only as much cash as I truly have to spend -- i.e., nothing -- I can't spend too much. Studies bear out the fact that people who rely on their debit cards tend to spend up to 20 percent more than people who use cash. Don't be like that.

Spring's here! Summer's coming! Plant stuff! Stop at the Seed and Plant Exchange on Saturday at the Manila Community Center. It's free, and you can try polenta and fresh greens for $3. (See humboldtpermaculture.com for more info.) If gardening is new to you, start easy. Greens. Zucchini. Potatoes. Herbs. Growing some of your own food feeds more than just your belly. And the long days mean plenty of time for hiking, strolling, biking. Soak in the beauty without paying a thing. Life is rich in ways that matter far more than that bank balance. Sure, it's cliché. But sometimes clichés hold true.

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Jennifer Savage

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