Paying it back, paying it forward

Blount family learns the dollars and cents of financial management

B.J. and Maranda Telfer, pictured with their children Aiden and Carson, have learned how to manage and budget their finances through United Way’s Budget Basics for Self-Sufficency class.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

B.J. and Maranda Telfer, pictured with their children Aiden and Carson, have learned how to manage and budget their finances through United Way’s Budget Basics for Self-Sufficency class.

A Blount County family is crediting the United Way funded-Budget Basics class for giving them the tools to earn financial independence

“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” B.J. Telfer, 24, said of his family’s outstanding debt. “How were we possibly going to pay $4,000 dollars, when we were struggling just to keep the lights on?”

B.J. admitted that much of his family’s debt came from his independent streak after high school. Deciding to live on his own and unwilling to admit “defeat,” B.J. dug himself into a hole through sheer living expenses. “I was making, right out of high school, $800 dollars a month,” B.J. said. “But, it was costing me $1,200 dollars a month to live on my own.”

In the following years, purchasing a car and weathering an uninsured hospital injury financially sank B.J. and his 22-year-old wife, Maranda. In April of 2009, they discovered their bills were more than double their earlier estimate.

With two toddlers, Aiden, 3 1/2, and Carson, 2, and debt that measured over a quarter of their annual income, B.J. and Maranda sought help.

They found it at United Way of Blount County and Habitat for Humanity through the Budget Basics for Self-Sufficiency class.

Budget Basics seeks to financially educate Blount County’s residents, giving them the ability to control their own quality of life through money management. Thanks to the United Way-funded program, the Telfers paid off nearly $12,000 of debt in 15 months.

“There’s no way that we could have used the money we earned and paid off that debt in that amount of time without learning these skills,” B.J. said. To attack the debt, the Telfers documented every dime they spent, contacted and settled with collectors themselves and re-evaluated their spending habits.

“It’s really not rocket science or anything fancy,” David Bonewitz, the Family Services director of Blount County Habitat for Humanity, said. “You control your money. Otherwise, it’s going to control you.”

Bonewitz noted that financial illiteracy is prevalent. James Surowiecki, financial reporter for The New Yorker magazine, found in a recent study that most Americans are in the same boat the Telfers were. Surowiecki reported that a study by the Financial Literacy Center found that the majority of Americans are dangerously uninformed about their finances. Half of the polled Americans were unable to answer questions about inflation, interest rates or borrowing money.

So, even if money management isn’t rocket science, it is enough of a conundrum to stump most Americans, including many of Blount County’s residents. Bonewitz and United Way recognized the need for financial guidance and paired up to forge a financial path of redemption for people like the Telfers.

Two years ago, Habitat became a United Way community partner and began receiving funding for their Budget Basics course. This includes a matching amount for the student’s contribution to an Alcoa Tenn Federal Credit Union bank account. The student is awarded the account upon successful completion of the program.

The 10-week course runs twice a year and is an outgrowth of Habitat’s homeowner education program. Typically, 10 to 15 students populate the class per term.

Bonewitz and a crew of volunteers teach students to couple midterm and long-term goals with realistic spending plans. They hold group education classes as well as individual appointments to give students a foundation in financial basics and money management.

United Way and Bonewitz said the Budget Basics course equips students with the financial skills needed to teach them to fend for themselves, rather than shoddily patching up superficial problems. B.J. credits this mentality with his family’s continued success.

“It means so much more than if they had just handed us the money, you know,” B.J. said. He noted that he and Maranda are already passing their newfound skills on to their young family.

At the end of the day, the couple empties their pockets and helps the boys funnel loose change into their piggy banks. The boys are awarded change if they do their chores and behave. The family has been saving for almost 18 months to buy a flat screen TV for their son Aiden’s room so he can watch his favorite Disney movies and football games in HD. Aiden is helping by contributing his money and being told about waiting until they can afford the television.

“I didn’t learn it until I was 22, so it feels amazing to teach (Aiden and Carson) that money doesn’t grow on trees,” B.J. said.

Like any learned-habit, money handling begins with the parent’s example, Bonewitz said. “It’s our generational cycle of poverty. At home, you get bad habits. It’s easy to just spend it. It’s easy to make excuses.”

Recently, B.J. became a full-time employee with FedEx and has plans to save money for at least three month’s worth of bills in case times get lean again.

For more information on the Budget Basics for Self-Sufficiency class, including how to become a volunteer teacher, visit or call 865-982-2251.

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