Pro Tip$: Liza Witonis

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Welcome to Pro Tip$! There are so many excellent humans out there crushing their personal finance goals and teaching others to do the same. Talking to these folks seems like a pretty good idea to us as we offer you as many resources as we can dig up to give you the tools to teach your small humans how to become personal finance aficionados! In our Pro Tip$ blogs we will be interviewing financial literacy gurus from around the globe in order to glean their best advice for meeting #finlit goals while teaching your young ones to be goal-oriented from the get-go.

As you may recall, last week you got the dish from Liz about how she and her family successfully made over their financial mindset and their money habits to make incredible progress in just a couple of months. Today, you get to hear the good word straight from the source of that wisdom - meet Liza Witonis: mom, wealth coach, former teacher, and current debt crusher. We snagged a few minutes of her time to learn about her personal money journey and ask what her key takeaways are for getting money-smart in no time.

Brain Arts Productions: What sparked your interest in personal finance?

Liza Witonis: My personal journey started six years ago. My husband and I were newly married and had just bought our first house. We thought we were living the American dream by both working secure jobs, buying our new beautiful house and enjoying life. What people didn’t see is that we couldn’t talk about money. At. All. Everytime I would bring up a budget, student loans, or big purchases, the silence was crippling. My heart was craving security. Knowing where our money was, having a plan to tackle our $310,000 consumer debt, and the ability to talk to the one I loved about money was all I wanted.

I had no idea where to start. Feeling overwhelmed stopped me in my tracks. One day, we received one of my husband’s student loan bills and just one payment was the same amount as our new mortgage. I was so scared. I knew we couldn’t live this way. I knew something had to change but had no idea We had a deep, heated, very involved conversation. This lead to us wanting to learn and do whatever we could to help us in this area of our life. We invested in a financial program that taught us the strategies to get started.

We had the tangible tools, but I knew there was so much more with our communication, and our relationship with money that needed support. I read books, asked for help, and all of this has led to us paying off over $310,000 in just six years. $250,000 was in 3.5 years and I went from working three jobs, to working from home and building to help others do the same in their lives.

BAP: Do you think that financial literacy for parents can have an impact on their children's relationship with money?

LW: Parent’s knowledge and experience can impact their children’s relationship with money. You only know what you know. I grew up talking about money, and I know my parents did the best they could to teach me. Two specific things I learned are how to do a yearly budget and only charge what I had in my savings. This is what my parents learned and they only wanted the best for me, so they taught it to me. But in my personal experience I learned that no month is exactly the same, and so yearly budgets are not effective. I have to do a budget monthly. With the credit cards, I only spend what I have set aside in my monthly budget for my credit card. Not my savings. My savings is for emergencies and it has been save specifically for that, not to pay off past purchases. Many of my clients come to me saying money was never talked about while growing up. Parents mean well, often wanting to shield their kids from money concerns, but this doesn’t allow children to learn, ask questions, and know how to use money when they become adults. Money is needed in nearly all things we do, so not speaking about actually causes more harm than good.

With our daughter, I specifically make sure she is around when we’re working through our budget for the month, even though she is only three and a half. Once she gets older we will include her in these meetings. We try to pay for many things with cash. This allows our daughter to see the exchange of money when we purchase things. One really cool experience happened when she was two and a half. She received $20 for her birthday. She LOVED going to the library, so I thought it’d be really cool to bring her to the bookstore and purchase some books. I had her carry the cash in her handup to the register. Then, with Curious George Goes To The Aquarium in one hand and a $20 bill in the other, she suddenly stopped and said, “Mommy, I don’t want to give the $20 away.” I said, “Oh love, I understand. If we want these books though, this is the exchange we make so we can keep them forever.” Then she said,“Mommy, but then I won’t have any money.” I paused, not sure what to say. But before I could respond,she shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s okay, Mommy - I’ll get more!” Then with a jump in her step, she marched to the register. I thought, “That’s right baby girl, you will get more. Money is always flowing to you.” This whole conversation was maybe two minutes, but I feel this was a big moment in our little girl’s life. We talked about it, and even though I didn’t know the right things to say I was honest with her and helped her navigate through her first money-spending experience.

BAP: As a parent, what are some of the most important behaviors you model for your daughter with regards to personal finance?

 LW: Sometimes as parents, we’re so scared to do or say something wrong. It’s important for us to get comfortable with our own relationship with money before we try to include our children. Once we have a healthy relationship, it will be quite a bit easier to talk through what we are doing with our money and why. As young as age three, children are able to understand simple chores, and they want to help. I recommend picking three jobs your child can have and then pay commissions when they complete it. At this age, you can choose to do a nickel, dime or quarter. Your choice. Then I’d recommend having three clear jars each labeled “give,” “save,” and “spend.” Having organic conversations about where they want their money to go allows them to feel empowered in the choice rather than the money just disappearing. If they wanted to save for a toy, put a photo of the toy on the “save” jar and help them see the progress of saving for it. Pick a special place they can give their money to. Sometimes animal shelters are a popular place to donate at a young age. Finally, the spend money is what they can bring when they go to the grocery store with you. These are physical experiences of creating a budget and telling your money where to go rather than it just disappearing.

BAP:What would you say to parents who are feeling overwhelmed with their own finances about starting to educate their young ones?

LW: Take it one step at a time. In my opinion, it is okay to focus on you for a little while before moving into educating your little. If we’re insecure and uncertain as to how to manage or treat our personal money, it will be more of a challenge and maybe confusing when we try to help our young ones. Take a moment to invest in yourself to get some help, so that you’re able to truly step into the discussions and actions that will help your child shine. 

Connect with Liza on Facebook, Instagram, or lizawitonis.com

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It started in an airport. I was traveling for work and I had left the library book I was reading in the seat back pocket of my previous flight...I had three more flights to go and an overnight stay in a hotel by myself in a town where I knew no one. A new book was essential to my personal survival over the next 36 hours. I headed to the airport newsstand. Immediately my eyes alighted on You Are a Badass at Making Money by Jen Sincero... and a choir of angels began to sing. A higher power compelled me to buy this book. 

It was quick read - I finished it during the course of that short work trip - and it changed me. Those pages made me think differently about my life in general, instilling both a fierce desire to constantly self-improve and “go to the spiritual gym” as Sincero puts it. I resurfaced from those pages with an unshakable determination to stop being broke.

My poor husband didn’t quite bank on picking up a different wife than the one he had dropped off at the airport two days previously, but he got on board with the let’s-not-be-broke plan with only minimal nagging.

Nothing happened at first other than I felt awake and alive to new possibilities. And perhaps that’s why, a few weeks later, I stopped cold when I came across one particular Instagram post. A friend does bullet journaling and she had ‘grammed a photo of the following quote in her lovely calligraphy: “People treat money like sex...they don’t talk about it.” -Liza Witonis. My client had tagged this Liza Witonis’s insta handle and I clicked through to learn she was a “wealth coach” that specialized in working with women and couples.

In Sincero’s book she talks a lot about getting a life coach (granted, a smart business move for someone who makes her living as a life coach), and while I hadn’t seriously considered this piece of advice, I still went to Liza’s website and signed up for the free consultation call. During that call with Liza I felt instantly at ease and as I was telling her my story - mountains of student debt, can’t quite pay off the credit cards, my brother’s upcoming wedding in Mexico and having no idea how to pay for the trip - I started crying. I hadn’t realized how much money stress was weighing on me before.

I became convinced that hiring Liza was a good idea. We hadn’t been able to fix our money problems ourselves and putting a little skin in the game (i.e. putting another $2500 on the credit card to pay her fee for six coaching sessions) was a way to ensure that we actually change our habits and do the work to get ourselves into a better situation.

The process was psychological (examining our history, language, attitudes, and habits surrounding money) and practical (she gave us the BEST spreadsheets for budgeting and tracking debt payoff). And we did do the work. We discovered what was important to us and what wasn’t and how to allocate our spending according to our values. We learned that a budget is a living document and now we create a new one monthly and interact with it almost daily. And we realized that budgeting, while it sounds restrictive, is actually incredibly liberating.

At one point between sessions I wrote to Liza to ask for book recommendations. I could feel that the fire created within me by You Are a Badass at Making Money was beginning to die down. She recommended The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey and now I’m a devotee. The results have been truly remarkable.

Using Dave’s plan with Liza’s patient, kind, and softened approach to guidance we have paid off both our credit cards, a personal loan from my mom (that was more than 10 years old! My poor, patient mother!), and a more than $10,000 toward that mountain of student debt for a total of $17,661 paid off in just six months. We also have a $1000 emergency fund saved, monthly savings goals toward less-than-monthly expenses (like Apple Music, doctor visit copays, and routine car repairs), and we saved everything we needed for a six-day trip to Mexico for my brother’s wedding. It was amazing...and actually, traveling while actively tracking my budget made the whole experience way more enjoyable because I knew there wouldn't be unpleasant money surprises when we got home!

So happy and relaxed in Mexico cause we paid for the trip in cash!

We are also actively working toward helping our four-year-old son to be a personal finance whiz from an early age so that he doesn’t find himself in his parents’ shoes. (In fact, we’ll be starting Brain Arts’ Financial Literacy for Preschool-Aged Humans next month, so stay tuned!)

On next week’s blog we’ll be interviewing Liza so you can get insights directly from her, but I’ll close with the top five things that helped us get on a better, and way less stressful, track with our personal finance. 

1) You need to make a budget every month and stick to it.

This is non-negotiable. And it’s actually pretty fun (especially if you derive a weird sort of pleasure from spreadsheets like I do). But best of all? This has been the number one thing that has minimized our stress and fear surrounding money. Don’t just have a vague idea of where your money goes (or worse, find yourself wondering where it went) TELL it where to go and set yourself free.

2) It doesn’t make sense to keep money in a savings account when you have debt with a higher interest rate.

We had always had the notion that we should be saving, and we were, but what we didn’t realize is that our savings account (where we were saving money for ourselves and our son’s college fund) is actually losing money. Not only does its less than 1% interest rate not even come close to the amount of interest we’re accruing on our student loans (not to mention what we were accruing on credit cards) it doesn’t even keep up with inflation (about 4%). So we took what we were saving for our son and put it in a 529 plan, and then put our other savings toward our debt, paying off our credit cards and a big chunk toward my mom in no time. Now we’re not worried about interest on those debts because they are gone! Hooray!

3) Get your values in order.

I was appalled when I realized how much we were spending on restaurants and take-out...and we don’t even do it that often! What’s more, we don’t really CARE about eating out. We weren’t doing it for the experience, or because we’re serious foodies, we were doing it for convenience and out of laziness. When we put the kibosh on meals out we found that we don’t even miss it, and we’re saving SO MUCH MONEY. It just wasn’t that important to us. What are you spending money on that’s actually not that important to you?

4) Learn to tell yourself no with goal-setting.

When I was courting my husband (and I was really broke then) I decided to get all his family and friends together to pitch in to buy him a new (and much-needed) laptop computer (complete with Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, a carrying case, and a heavy duty external hard drive). I personally pledged $500. This was a big challenge for me and $500 seemed like a huge sum, but I found that when I had that goal in mind it was easy to walk by my favorite mani-pedi place untempted, and it was a snap to tell myself I didn’t actually need an iced tea with dinner, that water was fine, or to say no to eating out in the first place and eat at home instead. When you have a specific financial goal in mind it is much easier to tell yourself no to all the little temptations that might slow your progress.

5) Speaking of progress, track it.

We have a complex debt payoff spreadsheet that we look at regularly and we also have a simple piece of paper on our fridge where I update each month how much we’ve paid off. It’s hugely motivating to see how far we’ve come.

Even though we still have a long way to go (the student debt mountain is really no joke), we have a plan, and we are making progress. And most importantly we are back in the driver’s seat when it comes to our finances. We are in charge of our money, our money is not in charge of us and that feels AMAZING.

So tell us - what are the things that help you stay on the right track with your finances? What’s your financial literacy journey?

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Six Ways to Talk about Finances with Your Young Ones at the Holidays

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six ways to talk to kids about money during the holidays

We know all too well how the holidays can be a stressful time for parents. Marketers ‘round the world have got your number - and your child’s too - and they are doing their level best to make it nearly impossible to stay on your budget this time of year. But, as Beth Kobliner writes in Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not), “Money conversations don’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, they pop up at various times throughout the messy business of living.” The flip side? The holidays are FULL of messy, everyday teachable moments that can create the kind of learning that lasts.

So - what’s a savvy parent to do when Kris Kringle comes a-jingling for your hard earned coinage? Here at Brain Arts we decided to stop thinking of this merry time of year as our worst financial literacy nightmare and instead to think of December as a spectacular, holly jolly opportunity to introduce important money concepts. Here are our top six favorite tips to get you started:

1) Saving

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In our household we contribute to a “Christmas Fund” monthly so that at the end of the year, all the money we plan to spend for Christmas has been gradually and somewhat painlessly piled up in our savings account to be spent on Christmas gifts, outings, baking, and giving. If you do something similar, talk to your young person about what you’re doing.  Encourage them to start their own Christmas fund, even for next year, to help the lesson hit home.

2) Budgeting

We saved up in our Christmas fund to meet a specific budgetary goal. Now we’ve got to stick to that budget. Talk to your young person about your budget and how you plan to stick to it. As you brainstorm gifts for loved ones, talk with your child about what fits in the budget (a cool 3D puzzle for a clever cousin) and what doesn’t (a four foot wide drone for the family gadget gonzo). For younger children who haven’t saved up for Christmas gifts, consider allocating a small portion of what you’ve saved up for spouse or partner gifts and let your child choose gifts within that budget for their parents. My husband and I budgeted $100 each for ourselves and we’re going to let our four-year-old son spend $10 of that on each of us. I’ll take him to choose something for my husband and my husband will take him to choose something for me. This way he gets practice working within a budget, and he gets to experience the joy of giving, not just receiving. Pro-tip - when we’re choosing gifts, we’ll make sure that he understands he’ll need to calculate the tax. 

3) Impulse Buying

Are you hearing holiday tunes at the mall before your Jack-o-Lantern has even started to moulder? Is it beginning to look (and smell) a lot like Christmas? Comforting smells, nostalgic holiday music, and glittering displays are joining forces to get you to spend impulsively. Now those things can be awfully pleasant and no one’s telling you to take the magic out of the holidays, but you will be giving your child a lifelong gift if you point out the ways in which savvy marketers and merchandisers are trying to get you to buy things that aren’t on your list. Simply creating an awareness of this intention can be enough to help your child think twice before being suckered into the American holiday buying frenzy.

4) Thriftiness

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One year at Christmas, everyone on my list got a gift involving a spray-painted dinosaur toy. I made bookends, planters (get a tutorial for the one above at Maggie Overby Studios!), busts, ornaments, you get the idea. Why? Because we were broke and we hadn’t been saving for holiday gifts. But my dollar store dinosaur Pinterest projects actually turned out super cute and everyone was really thrilled (or at least they pretended to be). So if you’ve got a long list of giftees, like co-workers, neighbors, or a big extended family, consider creating inexpensive gifts with your child and talk to them about how this allows you to let everyone know you thought about them without necessarily spending a lot of money.

5) Investing

Kobliner has a great idea for teaching very small humans the concept of investing. Instead of shopping for holiday gifts and goods on Amazon or a big box store, take your child to small family businesses where “you can explain that the smaller store is owned by someone in the community, and that by shopping there, you are choosing to invest in your neighbors and, ultimately, your own town.” You can really drive this point home at the holidays because you can let them know that in supporting this small business you are helping the family who owns it to have a nice Christmas.

6) Giving

Tax incentives and the general spirit of giving make donating to charity a hallmark of the holiday season. And nearly every financial expert out there will tell you that giving is an important part of financial literacy. Even if you feel that you are strapped financially yourself (hello grad school debt mountain overshadowing my house), chances are if you’re reading this you have plenty (in terms of basic essentials) while others don’t have enough. This time of year it’s important to teach your young person gratitude for their plenty while making sure they participate in helping those who don’t have enough. Participate in a toy drive or volunteer at your local food bank or shelter. That being said, organizations that help those in need usually get an influx of donations and volunteers around Christmastime. While you can use holidays to powerfully illustrate the impact and importance of giving back to your children,  you can also use the opportunity to spark an interest in giving back and help it last throughout the year. Committing to volunteer monthly or remembering to put aside a portion of allowance money every week for giving helps teach this lesson every week. Now the holidays are a great time to help your child learn how to become a smart and generous giver. What are some of the ways you talk to your child about money around the holidays? Anybody have some great money-saving tips to share for making the most of your holiday budget?

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