Thrifty Living: Straight-talking Alvin brings me back from brink

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The Independent Online

I have seen the future, and it's not nice. It arrived last week in the engaging shape of Alvin Hall, the fast-talking New Yorker with glasses who had a childhood in penury and who now tells people where they are going wrong with their money. People such as me; debt-ridden cases who spend their evenings wandering around the miasma of interest-free credit offers before logging on to the White Company site and picking up a white waffle bedspread and six vanilla candles.

Yet three weeks into January, I think my life of thrift is going quite well, what with my shorts suit from Tesco and grocery shopping in Lidl. Currently, Alvin is doing a country-wide tour promoting "You and Your Money: Make 2006 the year you get a grip on your finances," and thus I decide to hunt him down and show off a bit.

We meet at his hotel. He has just come from a book signing in Edinburgh, where 300 people lined up to shake him by the hand. I tell him a bit about myself; about the buy-to-let enterprise, about the Paris enterprise, which never quite earns its keep, and the family home with a leaky roof that we can't sell, and the multifarious credit cards which need daily tendering, like a nest of yelling chicks.

What does Alvin do? He uses a text-book approach. First, he flatters. "You are smart. And you at least have the full picture of your debts. Most people compartmentalise. And that's how they survive, because they cannot stand to see the full picture." Then he gets personal and chummy; "What's your husband's first name? How old are your children?" and so on. Then, just when you are in the palm of his hand, and thinking you are destined for at least a chapter in his next book ('Rosie Millard: the woman who knows how to manage money'), he pulls the rip cord.

"You are over-leveraged. You are way over-leveraged. You are living as if you are earning a million dollars a year. I don't know what model you are pursuing but you are pursuing a model for someone not in your economic bracket, and you have pushed it one step too far. You are out of control. It's like you don't want to admit your life is a bit more hard scrabble than it is." And he's not talking about the board game.

It went on and on. By the end, I found myself red-eyed and mumbling things such as "Has This Ever Happened To You, Alvin", and "HELP ME, Alvin!". You build 'em up, then you knock 'em down, then you scrape them off the floor of Durrant's Hotel, Marylebone, and you recreate them. That's the Alvin Hall manner, and it hurts.

Now, writing as a remodelled profligate, the way forward is as follows: I must continue to live thriftily. I must continue to pay off debt, and not just at the minimum rate. Taking great chunks off interest free balance transfers is good. It is much, much better than just letting them sit there in your current account, where the overdraft rate will be piling back on the money as fast as you take it off. Meanwhile, I must sell some of my assets. If I had racehorses, I'd be selling them.

Alvin, here quoting Thoreau, puts it thus: "Simplify, simplify, simplify." Isn't that great? Here we are, grubbing around in the basement of my current account, and he brings in one of the American greats. I told you he was a class act. An act, but classy. "My greatest fear for you is that you will hang on and hang on to these properties," he says. I can't do anything much other than mutely nod. "Then in six years, there might be a property pull-back and you will be forced to have a fire sale because you cannot rent it out. You just have to let go. It will probably be one of the most difficult emotional decisions to make, but it will be one of the smartest. Because holding on is not rational and it is not benefiting you at this time in your life."

I get the bus home. After the children have gone to bed, I get everything out on the kitchen table. "Don't order your husband about," said Alvin. So I don't. I can't. He's on a skiing trip. I know, profligacy, again. But on the phone I gave him the big picture, in Alvin's own words. "We have about two-three years where we can rebuild our finances. Earn it first. Then pursue it." The next day I put one of our buy-to-let flats on the market. And yes, Alvin, it feels good. It feels great.

cashl@independent.co.uk

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