Money: We're all paying more attention to it these days.
And many of us are finding our finances are in need of a fix-up, whether a tune-up or a complete overhaul.
A global study by Survey Sampling International found "improving financial situation" among the top-two New Year's resolutions globally (losing weight is the other). Forty percent of respondents resolved to improve their finances in 2011.
Three local families have made this resolution quite public, agreeing to let The Forum follow them through a financial fix-up.
One family's fluctuating income doesn't quite cover their bare-bones budget. Another couple racked up credit card debt during a medical crisis. The third family is getting their finances back on track after a spouse's career change.
As part of the fix-up, each family met with a financial counselor from The Village Family Service Center in Fargo and received a personalized financial action plan.
Stories detailing these sessions, with practical suggestions for readers, will appear Wednesdays in The Forum for the next three weeks.
We'll follow up with the couples at the end of the month and beyond. They will also blog about their experiences at http://financialfixup.areavoices.com. The blog will also provide personal finance tips.
As an incentive for going through this money makeover, each family will receive $500 from State Bank and Trust to put toward their financial futures.
Today, we'll introduce you to each of the three families, their financial challenges and goals.
For John and Annette Graves, paying one bill means another goes unpaid.
The Moorhead couple's monthly budget is short, largely because John's income hasn't been consistent.
John, 46, has been self-employed, doing home improvements like siding and windows. During the summer, paychecks are steady; in the winter, not so much. It's created a cycle, they say, where they catch up all summer, just to fall behind in the winter.
They say it's "worse than paycheck to paycheck, because we don't know when John's next paycheck is coming." They say their monthly take-home income averages about $3,300.
Annette, 37, works full time as an administrative assistant. They've been married for six years.
"When we do something, it takes money from something else," Annette said. "The mortgage is short because of spending and then the other bills go short because of the mortgage."
Together they have five children, three still at home. They say child support payments for the younger three are sporadic, at best.
John said Annette is the worrier when it comes to their money, but also the one who can't say no to the kids.
Their goal is to get caught up, build some savings, and then put away money for retirement and the kids' college.
Annette has another hope. "I've always been the financial person; I'd like to share the burden," she said.
Steve and Meghan Dockter said they were doing well financially until medical issues derailed their finances.
Meghan, a nurse, was put on bed rest before the birth of their third child in January 2009. She took eight weeks of maternity leave, but soon after returning to work was diagnosed with postpartum depression. She had to take another six weeks off, and ran out of paid leave.
The West Fargo couple fell behind, unable to pay the credit card off each month. They accumulated about $40,000 in credit card debt.
"For the most part, we've been pretty good about our finances. It's just been the last couple years," said Steve, 33, a math teacher.
"Meghan and I got off the same page with finances," he added. "When she was going through the depression, I didn't want to add to what she was going through."
Their goal is to get out of debt, and get back on the same page.
They've had credit card debt before, about $10,000 after college. They were able to pay that off within a year and a half.
"It was a lot easier when it was just the two of us than the five of us," said Meghan, 31.
They also have a home mortgage now, and about $25,000 in student loans.
Plus, this month, Meghan is returning to graduate school. She'll continue working full time during her first year in the program. But during the second year, she'll be too busy training in a clinical setting to work for pay.
While she knows her midwifery degree will equal a significant pay increase, and she'll likely be able to have her student loans forgiven, it's unclear how the family will make ends meet without Meghan's salary.
Just over four years ago, Nathan and Brenda Richman were debt-free. They didn't even have a mortgage - Nathan was a Lutheran minister and they lived in a parsonage in Mayville, N.D.
Then the family of four moved to Moorhead, and Nathan changed careers. Brenda, who had worked part time while being a stay-at-home mom, entered the work force full time. Nathan, 45, went to school online for a couple of years, working odd jobs.
"It was kind of a time where our finances took a beating," Brenda said. "We used up a lot of our savings."
They took out a car loan, something they shied away from in the past. They lived month-to-month, amazed there was enough money in the checkbook at the end of each month.
The couple, married for 20 years, said they weren't living their values.
Now Nathan is a chemical dependency counselor at ShareHouse Wellness Center in Moorhead, and drives a one-hour bus route daily for supplemental income. Brenda, 41, is an education coordinator with Hornbacher's. Together, they gross about $7,000 a month. Still, Brenda was becoming less comfortable with their financial situation.
"Our income was increasing, but we didn't have much to show for it," Nathan said. "She's the one who really encouraged us to review our finances."
They went through a Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University course, tracked their spending, set up a budget, stopped using their credit cards and recently refinanced their mortgage.
Their goal now is to eliminate their debt - there was $7,000 left on the car loan at the start of this fix-up - save up an emergency fund and save at least 15 percent for retirement.
"It was easier to hope there was money at the end of the month," Nathan said. "I can't say that was a good way to do it."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556
Meet the counselors
A certified financial counselor from The Village Family Service Center will be paired with each family:
Joshua Huffman, a University of North Dakota graduate,
will work with the Graves family.
Tracy McFarlane, financial counseling supervisor,
will work with the Dockters.
Morgan Almer, a former investment banker,
will work with the Richmans.