Steve Repak left the Army in 1997 and through contacts he made in the military was offered a job in finance. It was a life-changer for Repak, who carried a big burden into his civilian life: $32,000 in credit card debt.
Repak, now a financial planner in Charlotte, said he didn't feel right giving advice with his own finances in disorder. "I needed to lead by example."
So he set about changing his ways guided by his own clients who, he says, helped him change the way he thought about money. He writes about a school teacher who came to him with $400,000 to invest -- money saved from her modest salary -- while another client, a software executive making $300,000 a year, needed to exercise her stock options to pay off $50,000 in credit card debt because she could no longer make the minimum payments.
Those experiences taught him that it isn't how much money you make that matters but rather the way you think about money. He realized that just as the Army had made him a soldier by training him to think differently, he needed to train himself to think about money differently.
Now he's written a book to train others, "Dollars & Uncommon Sense: Basic Training for Your Money" ($14.95, RFS Publishing).
The book is a mix of commonsense advice, inspiration and personal stories. He also offers practical examples, useful worksheets, a glossary of financial terms and worksheets for tracking spending, a spending plan and debt assessments.
Repak talked with The N&O about his book.
Below is an edited version of the conversation.
Why he wrote the book: "A few years ago, I was consulting for the Department of Defense and gave a talk to a group getting ready to deploy to Iraq. Afterward, this guy in his 60s came up and thanked me. I asked him if he had someone deploying because often family members whose son or daughter are deploying will come to these things. But he was going on his third deployment. He said he used the money of the first two deployments to get rid of credit card debt and was going to use the third to get a start on savings.
"Here was someone in his 60s, putting his life on the line to get his finances in shape."
How his book is different from the thousands of financial self-help books available: "The ones that are out there, they have way too much information. ... They're not easy to read or simple to understand. Mine, you can read it in one sitting and follow simple steps. ... It's real life advice, stuff that works. ... A lot of these personal financial books are very, very extreme. You can't have any debt, you can't go out to eat, can't spend any money on yourself. I compare it to getting in shape.
"If I went to a gym and a personal trainer told me I could never have any dessert again, I'm not going to do that. It's not realistic. ... I tell you that it's OK to spend money on yourself."
Why it's never too late to change your thinking about money: "Some people say, 'I'm 50 years old, it's too late.' But you could live another 30 years. There's plenty of time to get finances in check ... The truth is you don't need a lot of money to retire if you don't have any debt and your expenditures are low."
On debt as a disease: "When you're sick, the doctor gives you medicine. Debt is a sickness and the only cure is savings. Life happens. Your transmission goes out, your hot water heater isn't making hot water anymore, if you don't have savings you're right back to charging.
"You've got to build up your savings, so you don't turn back to credit cards."
On credit card use: "I use credit cards, but at the end of the month I pay off balances in full. Credit cards can be useful to help track expenses, to get rewards. ... I don't say you can't have credit cards, just use wisely, be disciplined."
How he got out of debt: "I would go out to eat lunch every day. I looked at small ways I could make changes. I started packing lunch. Once I identified wasteful spending, I was able to cut it out and use the savings. ... It took 2 1/2 to 3 years."
His first step to financial relief: "You have to make a commitment to yourself that you want things to change. If you don't want things to change, nothing will. ... There's no magic wand, shortcut or secret. ...
"There are very simple steps and if you stick with it you'll be successful."