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A few hours after meeting with a financial coaching team for the first time, my debit card was declined. Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.

I mentioned last week I’m bad with money, right? So much so, I pretty much avoid any discussion of it. I do what my parents do, and what their parents did, and treat money like a topic unsuitable for dinnertime conversation. And that's why I couldn’t sleep the night before meeting with experts about my money for the first time in my life.

Financial coaches, Ron and Meg Knapper, reached out to me, saying they want to help me get started on my attempted journey to financial security. Unlike some financial institutions, Meg assured me over the phone they won’t push any investment plan on me, which gave me some peace of mind.

But as I drove through their upscale Davenport neighborhood, I grew somewhat skeptical they could relate to my experiences with money.

That all changed the second I sat down at their dining room table.

“We, like most people, didn’t get a lot of education from our families or schooling because it’s not something that’s really taught. We of course learned by observation as we all do, but we didn’t really know what we were doing with money,” Ron said. “We had all the normal things. We had car payments, credit cards, student loans. We had everything. And we did kind of know there was something out there that was better, but we just didn’t know what it was.”

The couple set the goal of being debt-free. And they did it. Well, for a few months. And then “wandered back into debt,” Ron said, because they didn’t have a plan. But five years ago, the couple managed to pay off around $34,000 in debt in two years. As someone with $20,000 in debt and a plan to pay it off in around nine years, I was truly shocked.  

“We’re hardheaded like most people. And when you make changes from what society considers normal to something society thinks is weird and abnormal, it’s difficult,” Meg said. “Now, we don’t have a credit card. Because you can live your life without a credit card. We’ve rented cars. We’ve traveled. We’ve booked airline tickets. We pay cash for cars. It’s not difficult, but it is because society doesn’t support this. Society supports being rich but (it doesn’t support) telling you how to get there.”

Going against society right out of the gate, eh? They had my attention. But what really kept me interested was their honesty about failure. It took them two tries going through the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University before really figuring out their finances. And while they’ve got it down now, they said keeping a budget is always an active struggle.

They walked me through a typical coaching session for someone like me — basically someone who knows they have money in an account somewhere and that’s about it. Thanks to my income tax return, I have some money saved up, so I was able to knock out the first “baby step” this week: Keeping a $1,000 emergency fund. In reality, the Knappers said I should try to save between three and six months’ expenses in an emergency fund. But $1,000 will give me some security in case I need a car repair or if some other emergency comes up.

While I should keep adding to the fund, they said the emergency account is separate from any other savings accounts. They prefer to keep different savings accounts for different purposes. Every dollar you earn must have an intentional purpose, they said, otherwise it’ll disappear before you realize it. That pretty much summed up everything. I’ve never been taught to pay attention to my money.

The next baby step is creating a budget, which I also accomplished this week — well, after a few attempts. I've kept a rough budget before. And by that, I mean I scribble some numbers on a piece of paper and make sure I have enough left over to pay bills.

Using my debit card expenses from last month, for the first time in a long time, I tallied up (to my horror) how much I’ve been spending on necessities, going out to eat and entertainment. I started tracking my expenses using everydollar.com.

Last month, I spent more than $330 at restaurants and more than $120 on drinks alone. Granted, I took some mini weekend vacations last month, but still. I began to sweat like I was eating all of that Indian food from last month all over again. Luckily, Meg offered some comfort.

She said cutting down on how much they spent eating out was the most difficult budgeting decision they made. Now, they stick to a cash-based system, only spending about $100 a month at restaurants. And it reassured me knowing that it took them a long time to stick to a real budget. They emphasized that anyone, no matter how good their job is, can easily throw money out the window if it doesn’t have a set purpose.

But still, I learned I’ve got some work to do. But according to the Knappers, my first real budget isn’t going to be perfect.

“The first budget you create will flop because you’re starting your awareness of money and your spending,” Meg said. “So therefore, your budget is not going to work.”

“But it’ll be better than doing nothing,” Ron added. “You’ll learn from it. And the second one, you’ll still have some stuff that’ll catch you. The third one, you’ll really start figuring it out. Because it's building the habit.”

I fully expect my first budget to fail. I mean, I’m the type of person who hypes herself up about exercising for three weeks before making a sad attempt at 30 minutes of yoga. But I’ve already found some comfort in feeling more in control of my money. And the Knappers definitely inspired me to stick with it.

If I stick with an intentional plan, the Knappers claim I could pay off my $20,000 in student loans in less than two years. While I remain skeptical, that’s an exciting enough of a concept for me to try my hardest at it. We’ll talk about this more next week.

Here are some of the goals I left the session with:

  • Build an emergency fund with three months’ worth of expenses.
  • Maintain a monthly budget, using a cash-based system when necessary.
  • Start saving extra money each month to add to student loan payments, using the debt snowball method (again, we’ll talk about this next week).
  • Pay off student loans in two years, then start putting that same amount of money toward retirement and buying a home.

I left the Knappers presence feeling more confident about my money than I have in my life. As I started digging into my actual finances, that confidence dwindled a bit.

But I'm reminded of the couple's neighborhood, so seemingly perfect on the outside. And I remember the studies I've written about in the past, that nearly 40 percent of Iowans cannot afford basic needs. And that around 78 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

"Of course there’s a lot more to it than just income. But, drive down our street and look at these really nice houses and I go, 'paycheck to paycheck; paycheck to paycheck," Meg said, pointing to homes. "From the outside you think everyone is doing great. But it's shocking when you think about everyone living with debt. It's everyone." 

If being in control of my finances can be an act of rebellion, like it is for these teachers-turned-financial coaches, sign me up. 

Sarah Ritter is the business reporter for the Quad-City Times. Each week, she will write an experimental column as part of the series, "Cash Course," aimed at reaching financial security and tackling stereotypes about money.

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