OppLoans Q&A with Financial Literacy Educator Beth Tallman

Beth Tallman spent the first 17 years of her career in corporate financial planning and analysis, starting with manufacturing and strategic product development for Xerox Corporation, and ending with international postings in Australia as the financial planning director for Optus Communications, and as chief financial officer of BellSouth New Zealand.

In 2001, Tallman transitioned from the business world to fulfill a lifelong goal of becoming a mathematics teacher. She taught in Atlanta-area schools for six years when she moved to Oberlin, where Tallman became active in community service and taught briefly in the local school system. She recognized an opportunity to employ her skills —finance and teaching—while interacting with Oberlin students. She taught Personal Finance at Oberlin College for five years.

Tallman represented Oberlin College as co-investigator on the 2014 National Student Financial Wellness Survey, and has given presentations on her teaching approach at several financial literacy conferences across the country. She is currently the Senior Curriculum Advisor to CentSai.com.

Hi Beth! We appreciate you taking the time to share your expertise in personal finance with our readers. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

I actually have a background in corporate financial management – budgeting, forecasting, and analyzing the financial performance of the companies I have worked for, and worked my way up to the Chief Financial Officer position before “retiring.” The next (and harder) job was that of a high school math teacher, and when I physically relocated, I found an opportunity to combine my two prior careers and became passionate about educating others on the basics of personal finance. I developed a curriculum and textbook for Oberlin College and have since branched out via my involvement with CentSai.com as a Senior Advisor on curriculum.

At OppLoans, we believe that a little work and organization can be combined with simple money-management techniques in order to become more financially secure. What techniques or practices can someone with limited income adopt in order to start building an emergency fund?

It is going to be very difficult to save with a limited income. If your income and expenses are about the same, or your expenses are higher than your income, it will be impossible until you can reduce your expenses or increase your income somehow. If this is the situation, save anything that is EXTRA – overtime pay, tax refunds, a side job.

If you have limited income but can cover your basic expenses, “pay yourself (save) first.” If you never see a portion of your pay, you are less likely to miss it. If you wait until the end of the pay period to save whatever is left, you likely won’t save anything. Second, put that savings someplace where it is harder to access, like a savings account that can’t be accessed with an ATM card. If you don’t have a bank/savings account, then keep the cash somewhere very inconvenient. Finally, don’t think that because you aren’t able to save a lot that it isn’t worth trying to save anything. Set savings goals you can reach. Start small and work your way up. If you can do without $2 this week, see if you can do without $4 next week. You will get there!

Okay, I’m ready to start my emergency fund. How much money should I aim to save?

Rule of thumb is that you strive to save a minimum of 3 months of living expenses. This would include your rent, utilities, insurance, food, and loan payments. This may take awhile for people to accumulate with limited incomes, but that is the goal.

Why do I need an emergency fund?

Theoretically, emergency funds are supposed to sustain you if you suddenly become unemployed. Realistically, emergency funds should be available to cover unanticipated expenses, like car repairs if you own a car, house repairs if you own a home, medical emergencies that are not covered by insurance, and things like travel expenses if you have to take care of an ailing parent or grandparent.

What’s the best way to start budgeting? How would you recommend keeping track of your finances and spending?

I don’t think anyone really enjoys budgeting. You want to make this as painless as possible for yourself. If you have a partner and/or family, everyone should be involved. It can be a monthly activity, maybe around a meal, where you review how you did the past month and strategize about the next month!

In terms of tracking, you can be totally low-tech and use paper and a calculator (on your phone, no doubt), or you can use a spreadsheet. In this case, you should keep all of your receipts and sort them into to your spending categories at the end of the week or month to see how you did, compared to your budget. Or, you can really go old school and use the envelope method! This is where you take your pay (in cash) and divide it into envelopes for each spending category as you have budgeted. If there is no more cash in the “entertainment” envelope, then you can’t go out! If you like technology, you can use one of several free apps. (Ask your friends if they use an app and if they like it.) Personally, I am at a stage of life where I pay for different categories of expenses using different credit cards and track my spending that way. Necessities like food and gas go on one card, travel and entertainment on another, etc.

Many people struggle when trying to get out in front of their bills and necessary expenses. What advice do you have for increasing income and/or reducing expenses?

There are lots of great blogs on CentSai.com about folks who have been successful at both of these – side hustles for extra income, and creative ways to reduce expenses. Just establishing a budget will help you focus on your spending. The line between “needs” and “wants” can be very fuzzy for some people, and is not in the same place for all people. But you should see if your current income will cover your “needs.” If it does, then cut back on the wants and you should be able to start saving. If not, then a) reexamine your needs (can you live someplace with lower rent or get a roommate?), and/or find a way to make more income.

EVERY LITTLE BIT HELPS! Plan ahead before shopping, in terms of lists and timing. Buy what is on sale. Comparison shop. Impulse purchases cost you a lot! Really think and be purposeful with your purchases. Preparing food at home costs less and is healthier than eating out. Pack your lunch! Buy and use a water bottle!

The sorts of expenditures that really cost you relate to running short of cash (hence the importance of an emergency fund!!!) Overdraft fees, late fees and interest on credit card balances, and payday loans will cost you money that you don’t have to begin with!!! And you have nothing to show for it in the end! I call these ‘avoidable’ expenses.

Are there any programs out there that may be able to assist with the cost of rent or bills while people are getting back on their feet?

There are definitely programs out there that help folks in these situations, but most of them are locally based, so it is very hard to give any general information about these things. See if your community has a community services center, or get yourself to a food bank, where you can likely find information about assistance for other things while stocking up on food. These might be community or church based programs.

That’s super helpful. Okay, we’d love to hear your top tips for paying off debt and starting to save. Where do I start?

Again, the rule of thumb is that you should get rid of your highest interest rate debt first! This would be credit cards and payday or title loans. This means paying more than the minimum payment every month…. the more, the better. If you have credit cards with balances, don’t use them! While I would personally make that emergency fund my top priority, so that I would NOT need to get into more high interest rate debt if I actually had an emergency, others choose to pay down the debt first regardless of the status of their emergency fund, and hope for the best. Maybe alternate between the two…. pay extra on your debt one month and put a little aside in an emergency fund the next.

What are some of the most common mistakes people make in budgeting/saving?

One mistake is that people aren’t realistic in setting the budget, they don’t reach their goals and feel defeated and give up. Don’t think you will ONLY eat rice and beans, know that you will need to eat something else occasionally. Don’t think you will never go out with your friend, know that you will and budget for it … just make the outing within your budget!

I mentioned earlier that the biggest mistake regarding saving is that people think they will save what is leftover at the end of the month. Then they wonder why they have nothing, so savings needs to come FIRST! If you have direct deposit, have your budgeted savings amount put into a separate account automatically. Then during the month, put aside small amounts, like your leftover change or singles at the end of the day, and see what you can accumulate.