Book lays out plan to beat debt

RALEIGH, N.C. — Steve Repak left the Army in 1997 and got 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, N.C., said he didn't feel right giving advice with his own finances in disorder.

So he changed his ways. He was guided by his own clients, who he says helped him change how he thought about money. A school teacher came to him with $400,000 to invest — money saved from her modest salary. 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 has written a book to train others, Dollars & Uncommon Sense: Basic Training for Your Money (RFS Publishing, $14.95).

The book is a mix of commonsense advice, inspiration and personal stories. He also offers practical examples, a glossary of financial terms and worksheets for tracking spending, a spending plan and debt assessments.

Repak spoke recently with McClatchy Newspapers about his book. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

How his book is different from thousands of other financial self-help books: 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. ... It's real-life advice. ... 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. ...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 looked at small ways I could make changes. Once I identified wasteful spending, I was able to cut it out and use the savings. ... It took 2½ to three years.

His first step to financial relief: You have to make a commitment to yourself that you want things to change. ... There's no magic wand, shortcut or secret. ... There are very simple steps, and if you stick with it, you'll be successful."