My husband and I – we know debt. Married for just about 18 years, but together for 23, we know what its like to live check to check. We know what its like to have an unscrupulous employer not pay for a job well done, we know what its like to owe Uncle Sam (I don’t recommend it). Over the years, I’ve listened to lots of people talk, watched what other people did with their money, read a little, and tried to accumulate all those bits and pieces into a financial philosophy that works for us. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Find a pro you trust. In 2008, just before the economy tanked, we started seeing a financial planner recommended by a trusted friend. I can’t speak strongly enough that you should get your advice from a trusted financial professional, not the internet or your Uncle Louie. Your financial professional will look at your entire financial picture, including things you never thought of as “financial”, and help you reach your goals. It’s been great to have an objective opinion on where we are, if our gut feelings have been right, and where to go from here.

Buy with your head, not your emotions. Once again, I remind you that emotions kill our ability to think clearly. I’m proud of the fact that back in 2007 when my Saturn, which I loved, started to show signs of age, I listened to the taps on my shoulder that told me it was the beginning of a long string of small repairs that would eventually add up to thousands of dollars. There were lots of cars out there that I liked because they fit my internal image of “me”. But I began my hunt for a new(er) car by Googling “best used cars”. Out of the top ten, 9 were either Hondas or Toyotas. That told me something right there, and I limited my search to those brands. As I was surfing around the used car lots, a little car I’d never heard of popped up – Toyota’s Yaris. Turns out, I could buy a brand-new Yaris cheaper than a used anything else. And I’d get all the benefits of a new car like a zero odometer and a warranty. It may look like an egg (mine is white) and sometimes I feel like a college student, but it gets 36 mpg and when gasoline was $4 a gallon, I was smiling.

Think ahead. When we bought our house, it was just before the real estate bubble started. It’s fairly small and we paid $105,000 for it in 1995. When our son was about four (2001ish), we thought about moving to a larger space in a better area. Talking to a real estate friend, we learned that we really couldn’t do better than what we had – it might be bigger, but not better. We chose to stay and put money into various remodel/repair jobs, figuring if things changed we could sell later. Now that the real estate bubble has popped, we’re not stuck paying for more house than we really need.

Don’t be swayed by fancy talk. Relating to the home story above… because of what we paid for our house, we’ve done well with three refinances. Our interest rate is very reasonable, and we still owe less than what it would cost to buy a house now. Here’s the key: we always went with a boring 30-year fixed-rate loan. We’re not sophisticated about money and figured if it worked for our parents, it was good enough for us. We’re very pleased that for once our lack of savvy saved us from getting suckered into some weird interest-only, pay-every-month-that-ends-in-Y kind of mortgage product. This goes for all forms of financial product.

Credit cards are a necessary evil. But they are evil. Pay in cash or debit card as much as you can. Use credit cards only for things that require a card, like EZ Pass and Jazzercise. And promise yourself that you will pay it off in full every month. Then do it.

Have a cash reserve. Have a cash reserve, have a cash reserve, have a cash reserve! This is the number one reason we kept sliding back into debt: no money to pay for emergencies. Whenever a car or house repair came up, it would go on a card. You can only do that so often before the whole caboodle spirals out of control. Our financial planner suggested we do a refi to get a cash reserve, and it’s been one of the best things we could have done (and something I never would have thought to do). Now when the dishwasher croaks, we have some money to replace it.

Store brands and eating in. One last category: food. My husband and I both prefer restaurants and take-out to cooking our own meals. Cutting out the eating out (some of it, at least), has been a challenge but it saves a ton of cash. I find it depressing when I run out of allowance and realize it’s because we ate it! As for store brands, these are definitely worth checking out. I’m a regular ShopRite shopper, and aside from peanut butter I would buy just about anything in their label. The quality is that good. I’d venture that most stores have some good store-brand items, so it’s worth experimenting.

What have you learned about money? Got any good tips?