Budgeting with Nothing


Nathelie Scarlett enjoys the pizza break during the budgeting class.

Attending a budgeting class might seem kind of pointless if you’re not even making the bills, but when given a chance, people discover they can find tools for maximizing even the tightest of budgets.

“I’m kind of stunned to see exactly how broke I am, but this is helpful,” says Al Vermette. He was one of several folks who turned out for Heart of Florida United Way’s Emergency & Homelessness Services Division budgeting class. Different circumstances led them to United Way for help… a veteran attending college was hit with an illness requiring a hospital stay; that stopped his cash flow forcing him to reach out to United Way for help. The class also included a woman who was just getting on her feet when she lost her job. She has since secured a new job through United Way’s help. Vermette, who recently returned to Florida, needed rent assistance.

“When I was here in 1993, life was good.,” he says, “there was plenty of work, rents were low, I didn’t know it would be such a struggle.” He says he’s a writer now working as a day laborer. He reported to work at 4:00 a.m. that morning, then turned out for the four hour budgeting class that ran until 9:00 p.m. It’s a long day for sure, but things were kept lively with pizza, give-a-ways and lots of fellowship.

crockpot giveaway

Cooking appliances that can help stretch food budgets were given away as door prizes and raffle items.

“This is the second one I’ve been to,” says Veronica Jordan, “it’s good. It’s a learning experience, you get to meet people, and they listen. I appreciate that they listen.”

The class went over things like the importance of making grocery lists and even menus before shopping, the value of using coupons, where to find them and which stores let you get the most mileage out of them. There were discussions about credit, and the hazards of pre-paid credit cards, rent-to-own stores and buy-here-pay-here operations. But what participants may have found most revealing was an online exercise in which they worked as a group to stay within a $1,000 a month budget. For the most part, the group made very sound budgeting decisions, even after being hit with unexpected circumstances like an illness or a pay cut. But ultimately, the group ended up being short for the month after being confronted with choices that involved emotional decisions, like whether to treat a child to new shoes or take a sick animal to the vet.

“This is where many of our families struggle,” says Emergency and Homelessness Services Division Director Sarai Cabrera. “Making the choice between basic needs and immediate gratification. For many individuals who come from generational poverty, any time it appears that some funds may be available, they want to overcompensate for lost moments. This is also very common among families who have had legal and substance abuse issues – they try to make up for the times that they may have failed as a parent or simply failed to be there for their children either financially or emotionally.”

Money management can be really vexing when there’s seemingly no money to manage, and ultimately the whole class fell victim to the same pitfalls they’re wrestling with in their real lives. But they all said the class was helpful and worthwhile. “Definitely,” says Ivory King, “I’m going to look into secured credit cards to help improve my credit score and I’m going to check my report with all three credit bureaus. Also, I learned what to do if I find a discrepancy. I didn’t know that before.”


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