Thursday, March 28, 2013

When and how to tip

Before diving right in, let's cover the basics: what is a tip, and why do we bother to tip in the first place?

Service tips (as separate from, say, "stock tips" or "cow tipping") are small sums of money given to thank people for serving you. In the United States and most other Western countries it is customary to tip restaurant servers, cabdrivers, bartenders, hotel bellboys, pizza delivery guys, and anyone else who works in similar service industries. The standard rule of thumb for tipping is 15% of the overall bill, before any discounts are applied. (This is easier math than you think. Say your bill is $29.50. Scoot the decimal point one place to the left to get 10% -- that's $2.95. Divide that amount in half to get 5%, about $1.48.  Add the two together and you end up with 15%, or $4.43.)

Why do we tip at all? It's hard to say. Tipping is a very old social custom in the West, dating back at least to ancient Rome. In the old days, it was a kind of noblesse oblige -- superiors sharing a smidgen of their bounty with their social inferiors -- but in an egalitarian society it's become a way of showing people that you notice and appreciate their efforts. Tipping is also a sign of good manners.

There are practical reasons to tip, which you already know if you've ever been a waiter. In some service industries -- particularly in restaurants and bars -- the owners deliberately pay the waitstaff close to slave wages, expecting them to make more than half their money from tips. This is supposed to encourage waitstaff to be friendly and attentive to customers, which in turn reflects well on the establishment. Welllll, SOMEtimes it works that way. Far too often, however, a hard-working waitress hustles her tail off for a big group of customers who finish their meal and leave her bupkis for her efforts. That's just not right. (Worse, I've heard horror stories of douchebags who return to the table after a meal to steal the cash tips left by other diners in their party. Hello, douchebag! My knee is delighted to meet your groin.)

Cash tips are accepted just about everywhere, but many services now allow you to pay (and add tips) with a debit or credit card instead, which is handy if, for instance, you're leaving New York City and you have no cash left on hand to tip the cabbie who just zoomed you to JFK in record time. (GO NEW YORK CABBIES!)

General rules

  • Tip at the end of service. Since tipping is a reward for good service, you usually tip at the end of the service rendered (as you leave the restaurant, the cab, the bar, etc.).
  • Tip discreetly. Don't flash around a massive wad of cash or make a big song and dance number out of the process; it makes you look like a complete goober. (Not to mention that if a thief is watching, he'll know exactly whose pocket to pick later.)
  • If you're leaving a tip of more than $1, don't tip in change. It just looks cheap. If you need to, you can usually exchange coins for bills with the cashier.
  • Be thoughtful of service people. They have tough jobs, often get yelled at, and many are on their feet all day long; it's a relief to come across someone who demonstrates a little patience.
  • In the name of all that's holy, don't be a snob. Displaying genuine kindness and making sure the people around you are as comfortable as possible is the truest sign of good manners.

Restaurant, bar, and delivery service

As mentioned, 15% of the total bill is the most common tip for waiters, bartenders and pizza delivery people, though you can give more if the service was fantastic or if you're just feeling rich and whimsical. Although some people suggest leaving 10% for bad service, I don't recommend it; if your waiter was spectacularly rude or awful, don't tip at all. Instead, ask to speak to the manager and discreetly explain what happened. (That's right, TATTLE.)

If you tend to go to dinner with a huge mob of people, examine the bill before you leave a tip; some restaurants add a gratuity to the bill if there are six or more people in your group. Also, if you hate trying to figure out who pays for what at the end of a meal, ask the waiter for separate checks when you are first seated. Worried someone in your group might be a tip-stealing douchebag? Don't tip in cash. Pay for the meal with a debit or credit card and add the tip to the check at the end of the meal. (Make sure you write down the tip and total on your own receipt, so you don't forget later.)

You don't have to leave a tip if you're picking up take-out food. You also don't have to tip fast-food servers or baristas (though the baristas will sure try to convince you otherwise).

Holding and moving your stuff

Bellboys, porters, skycaps and other people who help you move your luggage around should receive $1 per bag ($2 if you're carrying lead soldiers or skiing paraphernalia), though some suggest a minimum of $5 for the service. Tip in cash, since most porters don't shlep a card reader around with them.

Professional movers and furniture delivery people do some back-breaking work -- especially if you own a grand piano and are moving into a fifth-floor walkup. Each person who helps you move should receive between $15 and $25. Most movers also appreciate clients who offer cold drinks and/or pizza at the end of the job (because, hey, nom).

Coat checkers should receive $2 when you get your coat back. I've never used valet parking in my life, but if you do, the standard tip is $5.

Generally you shouldn't tip grocery store baggers, unless they work for tips. (As a teenager, my husband bagged groceries for tips on an American military base, and consequently developed some unusually powerful forearm muscles. Now he is Popeye the Sailor Man!)

Grooming and hygiene

Hair cutters, manicurists, masseurs/masseuses, estheticians, spa attendants, and anybody else who makes ya look purty should receive about 15% of the total bill as a tip -- more if they've done amazing work. Shoe shiners should receive a $3 to $5 tip.

High-end restaurants and shopping centers sometimes hire restroom attendants. (Honestly, I wish they wouldn't, because a) I can wash my own hands just fine, thanks, b) I'd prefer some privacy, c) it feels like yet another attempt to squeeze cash from customers and d) I almost never have a tip handy since I'm more likely to encounter a unicorn than see a restroom attendant. But that's just me.) $1 in bills or change is an acceptable tip for such service, if you feel inclined.

You shouldn't tip sales clerks at cosmetics stores, as pushing beauty products is part of their job.

Gift tips

You can, if you choose, give a gift tip to people with whom you regularly do business. (Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is a holiday set aside to do just this.) If you want to gift tip, the standard amount is approximately a week's salary. If it seems appropriate, you can offer a box of good chocolates (no, NOT the wax-covered crap you find in drugstores) or a bottle of quality wine as a gift tip instead.

What if you have no money?

Sometimes you know you should leave a tip, but you're out of cash and can't use a card. If this happens, get the service person's name and the address of his/her business (try asking for a business card), and mail that person a tip later. Think about it -- if you had this person's job, wouldn't you want someone to make the effort for you?

This is just a rough guide to get you started with tipping; it should cover most circumstances you're likely to encounter as a young adult. If you travel overseas or start living large, though, you're on your own. (I can't be expected to do all the legwork for you. Take some incentive and look it up!)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What life is not

Life is not fair.

This concept is so crucial to your future success that you should stop reading this for a minute and just let it sink in:


We humans are big-time freaks of nature. For some reason we expect life to be fair. Animals sure don't. Throw a bag of breadcrumbs to a flock of ducks some time, and watch what happens. Usually one large-and-in-charge duck will shoulder her way to the front and vacuum up every crumb she can reach, leaving squat-all for the others. I have never seen -- and I never expect to see -- the other ducks quack angrily, form a protest group and start agitating for equal crumb distribution. "Fairness" is a foreign concept in the animal kingdom. So why do we expect fairness, when nothing in nature suggests that fairness is part of the natural order?

If you say, "Well, we're not animals. We don't just have to bow to the natural order and accept injustice in our lives," you're right. But wait -- there's a crucial difference between "fairness" and "justice." Justice is treating all people equally under the law. (We're not all that great shakes at justice either, since we're imperfect, but that doesn't stop us from giving it our best shot.) Fairness, on the other hand, is giving all people what they think they deserve. But if you think about it for thirty seconds, that's impossible. "Fair" is a completely subjective concept that changes from person to person (and sometimes from minute to minute); what seems completely fair to me is probably unfair to you.

Too many people waste too much of their short lives obsessing over, chasing after and bitching about fairness -- whether it's the average joe complaining that life never gives him a break, or the pampered heiress fretting over the wealth, privilege and status she enjoys, but did not earn. Look, life is inherently unfair, and there's no proven way to make it fair; in fact, all historical human attempts to make life fair have only screwed things up worse than before.

Well then, obviously I believe people should just give up and resign themselves to their fate, right?

Hell no! Have you learned nothing from this blog? Resignation is just another kind of laziness. You're here to learn and improve, to push yourself to become a little better each day, not to float aimlessly in the stagnant water of "fate." And I believe that if you're willing to work at it, you can change your fate, regardless of the hand you were dealt.

Feel free to use my life as a case study. Was it fair that my parents were compelled to raise six children on a salary that rarely rose above the poverty line? Was it fair that I was tormented by bullies all through grade school for the crime of being smart? Was it fair that my father died in an accident when I was twelve? Was it fair that I inherited the twin joys of depression and diabetes? I'd say not. But having gone through all these things, I've discovered that, fortunately, fairness is not a necessary prerequisite for happiness.

If you believe, as I do, that the primary reason for our being is to test and refine our souls, you might already have considered the idea that maybe life is unfair on purpose, as a way of motivating us to get off our slacker butts and do some good. If life were completely fair, or if we believed it were fair, we'd never do squat to improve our lives or the lives of others. But the irritant of unfairness can push people to change the world for good, to show kindness and compassion to others, and to create beauty that otherwise never would have existed.

Here's a possibly familiar story: before leaving on a trip, a rich boss went to three of his employees and lent each one some money, telling them to invest it and make more for him. But he didn't share it out equally; he gave the first employee five silver talents (that's about 335 pounds of silver -- not exactly chump change), the second two silver talents, and the third one silver talent. While the boss was away, the first two employees worked hard and doubled their money, and the boss was very pleased with their industry. But the third employee was obsessed with fairness -- he only got 67 pounds of silver to work with when the other two had so much more, his boss was mean and would probably get angry if he somehow lost the money, and it wasn't fair that his boss did nothing but lend out money and expect to get more back -- so he buried his silver in the ground and handed it back to the boss unchanged. His boss was furious. "You lazy bum! If you planned on doing nothing with what I gave you, at least you could have put it into the bank and gotten some interest off it," he fumed. Then he took the one talent away from the third employee and gave it to the first, who had already proven his ability to make the most of what he was given. The third employee was, as we put it now, "downsized."

On first glance, the moral of this story seems to be that the boss will kick you when you're down. Harsh. But read a little closer and you'll see some important details. Although not all the employees were given the same amount to work with, they all had the same job: take this money and make some more. Their boss didn't ask them to compete, and he didn't compare one employee's results with any of the others; all he expected was individual improvement. And the third employee cheesed off his boss not because he made no money, but because he made no effort; when he got called on it, his whiny excuse for slacking off was that the situation wasn't fair. But the boss knew all along that the situation wasn't fair -- after all, he set it up. All he wanted from his employee was a willingness to improve, and he didn't get even that. Of course he was ticked.

Rarely does anyone think of the employee in this story who got two silver talents. It would have been easy for him to complain about the unfairness of the situation -- after all, he didn't get as much money as the first guy, and the poor third employee had been given even less than he had; surely that wasn't fair either. But the second employee was wise enough not to compare himself to others. Instead he recognized that if he worked hard and made the most of what he had, it would be not only good for him but beneficial to all involved.

It interests me that the last of the Ten Commandments tells us not to covet other people's stuff. Covetousness is just more obsession with fairness -- "It's not fair that my neighbor has a Maserati, when all I have is a Volkswagen." But there's a specific injunction from Deity not to waste time with this kind of thinking. The alternative? Go get y'own! Stop reacting to what others have or do, and act for yourself. Create a life plan that will bring you happiness. Don't like the fact that you were born dirt-poor and raised on handfuls of hot gravel, while others bathe in champagne and feed caviar to their pets? Well, you could spend your limited life energy moulting and squawking about their decadence -- or you could use that energy to decide what you personally want out of life, map out your goal and start working toward it. Wallowing in self-loathing because you were born in the wealthiest nation per capita on the planet, with well-to-do parents and a luxury lifestyle, while millions struggle to eke out a living? You could throw screamy tantrums against people who live just like you -- or you could harness some of that frustration by deciding how you want to use your inherited wealth and privilege to improve the world. The life-changing questions you must ask yourself are not "Why is life so unfair, and how can I force it to be fair?" but "What can I do to make my life the best it can be, and how can I help others to be happy?"

No, life isn't fair. There are indications that it wasn't meant to be fair. And the sooner you understand and accept this, the sooner you can stop obsessing over trying to make life fair and get on with making it amazing. Our imperfect, unfair lives can still be happy -- not just for ourselves, but also for the people whose lives we are capable of touching for good. So if you will stop clutching obsessively at the mirage of fairness, that frees up your hands to reach out for real happiness. And wouldn't you rather have that anyway?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to borrow and return things

In my life, I've had to deal with people who were abysmally clueless when it came to borrowing and returning items. I've lent out books that were gone for years and finally returned with broken spines and notes written in the margins, lent out CDs for ages and had them returned so scratched up they would no longer play, and lent out movies that simply disappeared for good. (Captain Midnight has had it even worse -- he once lent out his hard-to-find copy of Urshurak, illustrated by the brothers Hildebrandt, and when it finally came back all the color illustrations were gone, surgically removed with a razor blade.)

Have you ever taken care of a small child? If you have, you know it's crucial to toddler-proof your home so that your cherished possessions aren't smashed, swallowed or turned into teething rings by a rampaging two-year-old. Well, it doesn't matter what your chronological age is; when you don't borrow or return things properly, your family and friends will think of you as an overgrown toddler. Forget toddler-proofing -- they'll bolt the door when they see you coming. So if you ever want to borrow anything again, learn the right way to borrow items, the right way to give them back, and what you must do when something goes wrong.


Get permission first. The industry term for borrowing something without expressly getting permission is "stealing." Yes, even if you return it when you're done. If the person who owns the item says you can't use it, you can't use it, no matter how much you might need it. Go find someone else to bum off.

Don't treat it like it's your own -- treat it better. You can carve your own DVDs into snowflakes and use your own glassware for target practice if you really want, because they're your things and you can choose to destroy them. But if someone else has entrusted these items to your care, it's your duty to treat them like gold. If it's a book, protect it from dust and spills, don't dog-ear the pages, and be gentle to the spine. You want it to go back in at least as good a condition as you received it (about which, see more below).

Keep close track of things you've borrowed. I have trouble with this, especially when it comes to books, which is why I bring it up. If you also have trouble remembering what is and isn't yours, you could keep notes in a regular place with a running tally of items you've borrowed, the approximate date you borrowed them and the date they need to go back. It also helps to have a specific spot where you keep borrowed things, to remind yourself that they're just visiting and need to go home.

Never, never sub-lend. You'd think this would be obvious, but I'm saying it anyway so no one can claim ignorance later -- if you've borrowed it from someone else, you cannot lend it out to a third party. Common sense dictates that the more an item passes from hand to hand, the greater the chance some kind of disaster will occur. Besides, it's not yours to lend out, doofus.


Return items promptly. Don't be a dirtbag and hoard borrowed items for months and months, forcing the lender to contact you repeatedly and ask when you're going to get around to giving her stuff back. And don't tell me you can't admit to the lender that her item got broken or lost. Go directly to "Making Restitution" below (do not pass "Go," do not collect $200).

Return items in as good as or better than their original condition. What does this mean? If you borrow a car, give it a wash and top off the gas tank. If you borrow tools, shine them up. If you borrow furniture, make sure it's clean and in good condition when it goes back. You get the idea. Send it back nice and well-kept, even if it wasn't in that great a condition when you borrowed it. You want to fill lenders with relief and happiness when they get their stuff back from you. (The one exception to this rule: don't make an "improvement" to an item if doing so would decrease the item's value. For example, NEVER shine up someone's coin collection or clean an autographed baseball!)

If you borrow food, return it. I don't know how often people go over to a neighbor's house to "borrow" a few eggs or a cup of flour any more, but if you do, you should "return" a few eggs or a cup of flour the next time you stock up at the store. At the very least, if it's appropriate, you could share with your neighbor some of the goodies you made from the borrowed ingredients.

Thank the lender. Borrowing is a privilege, not a right. I don't care what your communist college professor says; individuals can and do own things and have every right to control their use. If someone trusts you enough to let you borrow something she cares about, the least you can do is thank her for that trust. If for some reason you can't thank your lender in person, a written thank-you note is appropriate.

(By the way, a word to the wise about returning a very commonly borrowed item: whether you call them shopping carts, shopping trolleys, wagons or buggies, there are only two proper places to return them when you're finished grocery shopping. Those two places are 1) inside the store or 2) in a cart corral in the parking lot. You do not get to take them home (remember that bit about stealing?), leave them in the middle of the parking lot, wedge them between two parked cars, shove them onto the sidewalk, or abandon them next to a handicapped parking zone so wheelchair-bound shoppers are trapped in their vans. And if I see you doing any of this stuff I will THUMP you, so don't even.)

Making restitution

Sometimes borrowed things get lost, damaged or broken. It happens to all of us at one time or another. What happens after that, however, determines whether or not people will ever trust you to borrow their things again, so read carefully.

Admit what happened and apologize. Don't try to sweep everything under the rug. It won't work. Instead, have the testicular fortitude to admit what happened while the item was on your watch. Let the lender know how sorry you are this happened. Then, before the owner even has to ask, move immediately to the next step:

Fix it. I've met people who have crashed others' cars, broken others' furniture, stained others' clothing and killed others' pets, and who seem to believe that all they owe anyone for these misdeeds is a heartfelt apology. SORRY, I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF YOUR WRONGNESS. If the words "I'm sorry" could fix a broken windshield, find a missing pair of shoes or make the dog un-eat your cherished leatherbound copy of the Pop-Up Kama Sutra, they would be sufficient. Since they aren't, your next responsibility is to make restitution. That means you pay to fix the damage done to the item you borrowed while it was in your care, even if you weren't directly responsible for causing the damage.

Aww, is that going to set you back some? Poor pookie. Didn't stop to think it would probably set back the owner of the item that got broken or lost, though, did you? Why should he have to pay for your indiscretion? Right; he shouldn't. Doesn't matter if you think he makes enough money to eat the costs; you're at fault. And if the item was particularly expensive, and you're going to be paying it off for quite some time, just maybe it might occur to you that this was a costly mistake and you're not going to repeat it. Congratulations; you is learnin' stuff!

Now, are you going to borrow and return things the right way, or are you gonna be the dirtbag who never gives stuff back, or gives it up so scratched and dented that it has to be replaced anyway? (Hint: if you've read this and I catch you being a dirtbag, I will likely do some scratching and denting of my own. Grrrrr.)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to get out (or stay out) of debt

Want the TL;DR version of this tutorial? OK, here it is:

Don't buy things you can't afford.

That's it. Sounds simple, right?

Unfortunately, for a lot of people it isn't quite that simple. Maybe you're one of them and you've already gotten yourself in hock up to the eyeballs. Consider this a rope to pull you out of the debt quicksand. I can throw it to you, but you've got to grab hold and pull yourself out.

Look your debt straight in the eye, and you're on the road to killing it dead.

When you're deep in debt and can't see a way out, it's tempting to just stop answering the door and the phone and ignore everything you get in the mail. But that's the way a small child responds to fear -- covering her eyes and waiting for the scary thing to go away. Grown-ups face their fears, and in so doing, vanquish them. So the first thing you're going to do is take a clear-eyed look at your debt.

Pull out all your debt indicators -- that is, your latest credit card bill(s), your latest car payments, your student loan payment coupons, your latest mortgage bill, and anything else you're currently paying on time. Look at the current balance for each item. Add them up. This is your base debt, the amount you would pay if your fairy godmother rained magical gold ducats on you and you could pay off all your debts RIGHT NOW. Needless to say, that's not going to happen, so figure on paying additional interest on each loan as well.

If you're currently looking at a number that's making your wisdom teeth fall out in shock, don't beat yourself up about it. It's almost criminally easy to get into debt. Let's look at some exit strategies.

Don't get a debt consolidation loan.

You might think debt consolidation will make it easy to pay down your debts. WRONG. More often than not, a debt consolidation loan just digs you in worse. Why? Because once you have the money wiped off your credit cards and stuck into one big loan, you may start thinking about those lovely, convenient, useful little credit cards with nooooo charges on them -- and put yourself into deeper debt than you were before. DUMB! You don't need a debt consolidation loan -- just take care of it yourself.

Get help from your debtors.

It sounds totally counterintuitive, especially if you've been getting threatening phone calls and letters, but if you contact the people to whom you owe money and tell them you need help, at least some of them will be reasonable. And it's in their best interest to do so -- after all, getting their money back slowly is better than getting no money at all, which is what happens when people file for bankruptcy.

Call your credit card company. Identify yourself and explain that you're having trouble paying down your debt, and ask for a lower interest rate to help you achieve your goal. (You'll still have to pay back what you owe them, but the interest rate you'll have to pay on the amount will be lower.) Emphasize that you do not want to default on payments, and that you have a plan in place to get out of debt. This tactic will probably work best with credit card companies, but other debtors may also be willing to cut you some slack, so call and ask. If the representative says no, try calling and asking another day or at another time, or ask to talk to a supervisor. Your annoying persistence should eventually pay off.


If you're like most people, a big part of the reason you're currently in debt was that you bought things on credit and then forgot to set aside the money to pay for them later. So the first thing you're going to do now is make your debt obligations a critical part of your spending plan. In fact, after paying for your rent and utilities, it's going to be your first priority. Yes, that means ahead of your groceries.

This is going to require some focus. You will have to make some temporary sacrifices. But sacrifice means giving up something you want now to get something you want more. In this case the thing you want more is to get out from under crushing debt, so your life (not to mention your money) feels like your own again. You should also keep in mind that word "temporary." No one expects you to live like this for good -- just until your debt is paid off. So cowboy up, pardner!

Stop using your credit card(s).

This tactic seems boneheadedly obvious, but it can be surprisingly difficult to do -- especially if you've gotten used to buying lots of things on credit. And if you're really deep in debt, you may be using your credit card to buy groceries because you don't have enough cash. (Been there.) Still, this is the first step to being free of debt -- stop using it. You can cut up your credit card (this won't magically make your remaining debt go away, but it will keep you from charging anything else) or remove it from your wallet and put it where you can't get hold of it easily, but in any case, STOP.

This may be the hardest part of getting out of debt for you. You may have to tell your friends, "Sorry, not tonight. I've got debts." You may have to avoid going places and doing things that you know will tempt you to spend more than you can afford. It will probably make you feel like crap for a while. So go do some free or cheap things that make you happy -- if you're addicted to charging things on your card, you will need to fill the empty spaces where your crazy shopping sprees used to be, anyway. If you don't know of any free local attractions, get Googling. Go to the public library. Play on the swings in a local park. Visit a local museum. Take a long soak in a bubble bath. Write goofy letters to a friend. Finish some of your unfinished projects. Read all the back articles of Remedial Adulthood. But DO NOT go window shopping. You may think you have the fortitude to browse and not buy. Know what? You're wrong or you wouldn't be here. Next topic.

Raise, sell, cut.

"But I don't have enough money!" I hear you cry. That's what you think, Mac. Money is hiding in unusual places in your life, and you're going to root it out and use it. Much like Sporkcrist, the Legendary Spork of Justice, Raise, Sell, Cut is the three-pronged implement you're going to use to attack and defeat your problem.

You can raise extra money by working extra hours at your job or taking on another job. (Flipping burgers for the masses is noble work as long as it helps get you out of debt, so don't even try to suggest to me that working at McD's is beneath you!) And if any windfall money comes your way, you don't even have to think about how you'll spend it -- that sucker's going right to your debt.

You can sell things you own and use the profits to pay down your debt. This could be just about anything from your old CDs (you probably have them all digitized anyway) to those collectible salt and pepper shakers your Aunt Enid gave you (why?) to your car. No matter what it is, somebody on eBay probably wants to buy it. (No takers on eBay? Yard sale!) If you're fortunate enough to have stock options from your job, liquidate them for cash. In fact, the only thing I recommend that you not liquidate is retirement funds, if you have any. They may be tempting, but you should leave them alone. Learn from my fail.

Finally, you can cut all the fat out of your life. Turn off your cable service, disconnect your cell phone, shutter your Netflix account, get rid of your gym membership, look for a place to live with lower rent, take the bus to work, stop buying lottery tickets (really, people?), buy minimal groceries, get cheap haircuts, nix the fancy coffee drinks, stop eating out at restaurants, turn off lights and unplug things you're not actively using, and hold off buying new clothes for a while. Get rid of anything you spend money on that you do not ABSOLUTELY NEED. (Despite my husband's claims to the contrary, MMORPGs are not an ABSOLUTE NEED.)

Remember, TEMPORARY. FOCUS. You can get these things back later, when you're in better shape to afford them.

Pay it off, snowball style.

There are two major schools of thought about paying down debt. One says you should pay off the smallest debt first and work your way up to the big debts; one says you should pay off the debt with the biggest penalty first (e.g., if you owe $500 to the Mafia and $200 to Visa, you should pay off the $500 first to avoid having your legs broken. The last time I checked, Visa didn't employ thugs, so they're marginally safer). Either method works, and you should choose the one that appeals most to you.

Here's how you do it. Choose the debt you want to pay down first. Find out what the minimum payments are for all your debts, and make those minimum payments for each one -- except the debt you're focusing on. That one gets whomped with as much money as you can possibly squeeze out of your resources. If your bank gives you the option (and most banks do), you can do this through online bill paying and actually pay the debt down more often than once a month when the bill comes due. This should wipe out that particular debt even faster, which is exactly what you want.

The minute you've cleared out one debt, it should free up some of your money. Continue to keep your living expenses as lean as possible and whomp as much money as you can at the second debt -- again, always maintaining minimum payments on all your other debt sources. Repeat this process with each debt (whomp, whomp) until you've wiped them all out.

This debt-reduction strategy is sometimes called the snowball method, because as you continue to pay off your debts your ability to do so gains momentum (and money), the way a snowball grows as it rolls downhill. It will take some real time and real effort -- this isn't a 60-second training montage from a feel-good movie. You might actually have to live on ramen and peas for a while, or learn how to cook basic meals instead of haunting the Taco Bell drive-thru, but as you start killing your debts, it will give you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and greater confidence in your ability to slay the debt monster. And probably less indigestion to boot.

Stay out.

Once your debts are paid off, you can slowly start adding grace notes back to your life again, with the added benefit of being able to pay for them with your own money. You may decide not to add everything back, depending on how much you really missed it while it was out of your life.

The best way to stay out of debt is, as mentioned above, not to buy things you can't afford. So what if you don't have a brand-new everything -- is shiny stuff really what makes you happy? Focus on the things you truly enjoy and spend your money on them, not on status symbols you don't really want or need.

If your crazy spending habits put you into debt in the first place, you need to figure out what compels you to spend more than you make. Do you need purpose in your life? Could you fill that need by helping other people, volunteering with your church or club, or otherwise taking up a cause for good in the world? What can you do with your free time that doesn't involve shopping?

Leave your credit card at home for a while after you're debt-free. Try paying cash (or debit card) for everything you buy. If you really want something you can't quite afford, do without it for a while and save up your money until you have enough to buy it. (Hey, this method worked for generations before credit cards came along.) If you decide just to buy it with a credit card so you can have it NOW NOW NOW, you'll end up paying multiple times what the item was worth in interest payments, which is DUMB DUMB DUMB. If you do have the willpower to keep a credit card, try using it like a debit card -- pay it off completely every month, so you don't get charged interest. Oh, and for heaven's sake, shop around for a credit card with no annual fee and a low interest rate!

And there you have it, kiddywinkies! I speak from personal experience, having gotten out from under massive credit card debt in 2008. The only debt we've carried since was for a new car, which we paid off early to avoid extra interest charges.

If I can do it, so can you. So go out there and spork your debt!