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Guest Blogger: Words of Wisdom from The Pennywise Family’s Jessica Ward

When her layoff hit the fan, Jessica Ward and her family got going: Then more than $42,000 in debt, they cut their household spending by two-thirds, and the Seattle-area mom started the blog The Pennywise Family, to chronicle their new frugal lifestyle. How’d it go? Well, just 5 months into it, Jessica wrote a public letter thanking her boss for laying her off. Now, she is spending time with her kids, writing from home (she’s a contributor to the fabulous DebtKid blog, for instance) and just months away from debt freedom.

We asked her to look in on our Boot Camp moms, and here’s what she came back with:

Dear Boot Camp Moms,

I'm honored to have been invited to jump into your adventure today. I spent the day reading the entire Boot Camp blog series from the beginning with rapt attention. I celebrated your successes and sympathized with your frustration, I had tears in my eyes as I saw the setbacks you all have encountered along this amazing journey. Kudos for your willingness to share this painful experience with others.

I, too, am a mom in debt. It began 13 months ago when I lost my “stable” job, and half our household income with it. This was a wake-up call. We’d been making a good household income of about $88k a year. But we were already broke -- and deeply in debt. How could that have happened? We were sitting on about $42,000 in non-mortgage debt: Cars, student loans, adoption loans a home equity loan and a credit card or two -- all “normal” stuff. We had no trouble paying more than our minimums every month before the layoff, but soon, even the minimums began looking oppressive. Not to mention, just three months before the layoff we had adopted a medically-fragile child from overseas. We began to worry about our ability to provide for her recovery the way we had planned to. We had put our family's security on the line in the name of lifestyle.

We vowed to never allow that to happen again. We'd get out of debt and stay that way. I started a blog at to track our cost-cutting efforts and our lifestyle change. It was hard to learn how to “act our wage.” We followed the Dave Ramsey Total Money Makeover plan. In the summertime, I started guest-writing for DebtKid.com to share a mom's perspective on gaining debt freedom.

I have three messages that I want to share with you today.

First, it can be done. You can do this. You are smart, ambitious, strong women with an intense love for your children. I can see this from your posts. I'm just about four months from debt-freedom now. Yes -- that's $34K in 18 months, with just my husband's regular income and my small self-employment income. (I started a new business and began freelancing. I'm not making the full amount of income lost yet, but we're living on a third of what we used to.) Keep putting one foot in front of the other and each day it does get easier. I promise. You just can't stop hustling until it's over. Sprint and sacrifice and be warriors for your children. Pretty soon you get good this debt-busting thing it and it starts getting fun. (Yeah, really!)

Second, I want to encourage you to redouble your efforts. Re-examine your expenses. Cut the cable or call and ask for a better deal (see how here). Take a look at your grocery receipt. Take the four largest expenses and resolve to work around or do without three of them. (I learned how to make my own laundry detergent at the cost of about $3 a year -- a savings of $204 a year.) Parenting has thrown you a lifeline in these financial advisors -- and in the real world, when you're downing, you swim towards the lifeline. Do what your advisors are asking. Cut the credit cards up. Keep that spending journal. (It's a dreadful task but it does work!) Your way of doing things wasn't working for you, so stop it and try their way for a little while.

Finally, about your kids. Your kids are all young enough that they don't know if you're “broke,” they just know you're Mom. They may know that you're stressed. I know that you want better for them than to end up in the same anguish that you are in now. You can make a formidable change in their future by modeling financial discipline now. You want to give your kids lavish birthdays and Christmases (I know, I did too) but you can't. You will give them a much greater gift in saying, “This year we're going to do this my way -- a big birthday party isn't in the budget, but we're going to start a new family tradition of a birthday picnic.” Children have magic. You can turn a peanut butter sandwich eaten on a blanket in the living room into the legendary birthday picnic on the floor. Yes -- tuna and SPAM becomes Surf and Turf in the mind of a child. Embrace the magic and use it to your benefit.

A story comes to mind about a friend who said that growing up, her parents loved to camp and be outdoors. Later she explained to me that she learned that her family didn't love to camp -- they were homeless for a couple of years and living in a trailer in the woods. As a child, she had no idea they were poor and homeless. She thought her parents had treated her to the adventure of a lifetime. It is possible to put “lipstick on the cow” that is this financial problem. Remember, it's only temporary, and the lifetime lesson that you'll teach your kid is worth more than all the presents in the world combined. You'll be raising a respectful, responsible and optimistic family. You'll launch your children into this world armed for success -- and they will never have to stand where you are today.

Good luck and God bless,

Jessica

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