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Sunday, February 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Your Money

Brenda Billy | Time to budget wisely

Special to The Seattle Times

Top priorities


1

Buy budgeting software

2

Curtail spending

3

Save monthly

Brenda Billy, 39, rents in Bellevue and is a single mom to daughter Jaida, 6, and sons Luis, 20, and Marcel, 19, who both work. In December she started a job as an office manager at Opsware in Redmond after she worked there for a year as a temp. Unmanageable consumer debt led her to file for bankruptcy in 2001. Before starting her new job, she'd been living paycheck to paycheck, often taking payday loans to fill in the gaps.

What she has

Billy's biggest asset is a used car she bought last year and owns outright. Her salary is $48,000 — $8,000 more than she was making in 2005 as a temp — and now she has a much-welcome benefits package.

She has $1,500 of past-due utility bills she couldn't afford to pay last year, and she's chipping away at them. She plans to put $3,500 of pretax income into a health-care spending account this year because one of her sons needs dental work. She has $100 in the bank and plans to enroll in her company's 401(k) in March.

What she wants

Create a budget and learn to stick to it. She also wants to start saving money for her future and her daughter's college education, which certified financial planner Bhaj Townsend of Legacy Plus in Redmond agrees is an absolute must.

What she needs

Use Quicken: Townsend recommended that Billy create a budget in Quicken, personal financial-management software. Billy bought the program right away and, with Townsend's help, fleshed out the expense categories using two months of bank statements. To include one-time purchases such as a vacation in the budget, Billy divided the amount by 12.

Rein in spending: Once Billy's spending habits were staring her in the face, Townsend had her find ways to tighten the proverbial belt. Eating lunch out almost every workday at $7 to $10 a pop was one easy cut. That's saved Brenda at least $100 a month.

Have sons chip in: Until January, Billy was paying an $800 monthly tuition bill for her son Luis' cosmetology school. Townsend suggested Billy have her sons pay their way a bit more. Agreeable, Luis got a loan to pay off the remaining $4,500 balance of his tuition himself, giving Billy much more financial breathing room.

Start saving: Now that Billy isn't living paycheck to paycheck, Townsend wants her to build up a reserve of $5,000 to $8,000, preferably in an account that's harder to get to — meaning, not linked to her checking account.

"Spending is only one side to a successful budget," Townsend says. "Saving is the other side."

Billy is now saving 2 percent of every paycheck and plans to increase that amount after paying off her outstanding bills.

Reassess monthly: To make sure she's on track, Townsend says Billy must print up a monthly expense report from Quicken and read through it: "If you don't look at the report, you still won't know if you're getting ahead or behind."

What she thinks

Townsend is impressed with how Billy's gone from never tracking her spending to entering every purchase and payment into Quicken.

"Brenda does have enough money to pay her bills now if she budgets wisely," Townsend says. "I am amazed how in a few weeks she went from frustration to excitement."

Billy is much more mindful of ways to trim costs now, from renting instead of buying DVDs to using a free income-tax clinic. And thanks to her monthly budget reports, she feels like she finally has some control over her cash flow.

"It's helped open my eyes just to be aware of the money coming and going," she says.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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