Expert Q&A

It’s never too late to learn about personal finance


Whether you’re 18 or 50, taking the initiative to find out how to manage your money — and your debt — can prove to be fiscally satisfying

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Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of “Help! I Can’t Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). She writes “To Her Credit,” a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
Where can one find local finance courses to improve personal finances? I need to learn how to boost my credit score, find out how much debt I have and figure out how to get out of debt.  — Liza

Answer for the expert

Dear Liza,
I’m glad you asked! So many people want a quick fix to their finances, but few realize that the only path to a better financial life is to start learning about money — and to keep learning about money for the rest of our lives.

The best way to learn about managing money and debt, however, depends on your personal learning style. Ideally, we would all learn great financial skills from our parents, take personal finance and economics classes in school and be pretty money-savvy by the time we reach adulthood.

In real life, that doesn’t always work out so well. Some of our parents are a better example of how not to handle one’s finances! And if you took a good class in personal finance in school, you were lucky. Many students today seem to graduate with little more knowledge about managing their finances than they had on their first day of school.

It’s never too late to learn, however. If you can study a book and get what you need from it, you’re in luck. Go to the public library and look for a step-by-step personal finance guide, such as Dave Ramsey’s “Total Money Makeover” or “The Complete Personal Finance Handbook” by Teri B. Clark. The advantage of getting a book from the library, aside from the obvious cost savings, is that you have three weeks or so to read the book before it has to go back. Most of us need deadlines, or the best intentions get sidelined after a chapter or two.

Some people need group interaction to learn well and to stay motivated. You can find a personal finance class in your area, perhaps at the community college or at the local library. Many people have done very well with Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University classes, which are held not only at churches, but at community centers, banks and credit unions, and even correctional facilities, according to the website!

If you are in serious financial trouble — for example, if a collection agency is threatening to garnish your wages or you are behind on your house or car payments — a class starting up next month could be too little, too late. I urge you to find a nonprofit agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Counselors at these agencies deal with people in financial trouble every day. They know the laws and what works and what doesn’t. They can look at your whole financial picture and help you not only get through any immediate crisis, but make a plan so it doesn’t happen again. It may not be hand holding, but it’s the closest thing to it.

The federal government also recognizes the importance of financial literacy and has established a central website,, that pulls together financial resources and advice from an assortment of agencies.

Don’t overlook our site, either. For the questions you asked, try the articles 8 legitimate ways to improve your credit score and 8 steps to reducing credit card debt. In fact, you can get answers to most debt and credit questions by using the search box in the top right corner.

Learning about finances is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your future. I think it’s an interesting subject, and it’s a lot more fun once you realize you can get in control of your finances and stay there just by making one better financial decision at a time. Good luck, and take care of your credit!

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