EVERYDAY CHEAPSKATE: How I Spent 40 Bucks to Avoid Surgery

Everyday Cheapskate is a new weekly household tips feature to the News-Sentinel and will appear every Tuesday on News-Sentinel.com

It was a total self-inflicted injury. I did a really stupid thing.

Early one Saturday morning, I heard the doorbell chime, which reminded me I’d set up an appointment with a landscape guy. Not wanting a second ring to wake my husband, I flew like a flash from one end of the house to the other in socks … and down the wooden stairs.

When I hit that top step, my legs shot out from under me like a rocket, and down I bounced — on my bum. Hitting the landing halfway down didn’t stop anything. Instead, it propelled me all the way to the bottom, where I landed on the terrazzo tile in full view of one bewildered gardener.

The pain was tremendous — the bruising even worse. I knew it was bad, but what were they going to do? You can’t wrap a tailbone in a cast, right? So I toughed it out. It took months, but I could finally sit and walk normally. No harm, no foul, right?

Wrong. I don’t intend to bore you with the details. Just let me say that when you wake up in the morning and have to crawl on hands and knees to the coffee pot, something’s not right. Or, as my doctor put it while gazing at the X-rays, “Did you suffer an injury?” Well, yes, I did. But it healed.

This happened more than 10 years ago, and apparently what I considered “healed” was not exactly how the medical community would describe it. I pretty much destroyed my tailbone, and there were a few other technical outcomes that have now resulted in lower back pain with unlovely diagnosis. My method of dealing has been complete denial. If it “healed” once, it can heal again, right?

As you may have guessed, I have come to the end of my ability to deny this any longer. I’ve learned exercises from sessions with a physical therapist. I have done them religiously for many months with no change. Recently, my doctor said the words I was not ready to hear: “It may be time to schedule you for surgery.” Back surgery? Are you kidding me? Noooo! It’s not really that bad. I can live with it.

Now, you have to know that I am not one to put any faith in late-night infomercials. I’m smarter than that. But there I was up very late working and writing when I saw a compelling infomercial.

A gizmo called the Lo-Bak Trax (www.everydaycheapskate.com/lobak) is promised to provide “dual traction” to treat herniated discs, spinal stenosis, sciatic issues and spinal degenerative joint diseases — all of the words uttered by my doctor.

Look, I hate ordering anything from an infomercial. It’s all so scammy. I hate how they try to upsell with added bonuses or a promise to throw in a second one for free plus an additional shipping charge. I’m just not into that.

When I found this thing on Amazon for $40 with Prime shipping and conducted my own limited research, I decided to give it a try. Yep, I fell for it. And I bless the day it arrived.

I’ve been using my Lo-Bak Trax device daily for quite a few weeks now, and it has changed my life. It’s so easy to use! Not only does it feel fantastic (not like drudgery, the way some exercise can be) but I can also feel it opening and stretching my spine, which is exactly what needs to happen to relieve this condition I have — whatever it is.

As long as I use this every morning — it takes fewer than 10 minutes — I have no back or sciatic pain. And for that I am grateful, if not astonished. The thing looks like bike handlebars, weighs only 4 pounds and easily fits in my suitcase. I will never leave home without it.

You might say I have become a Lo-Bak Trax evangelist. I’m out spreading the word about how spending 40 bucks has changed my life and, at least for now, has made it possible for me to avoid surgery. I am doing the happy dance.

Our kids are fortunate to be growing up in the most progressive and exciting time in history. Sadly, the very culture that offers them the world is also perpetrating this lie: You are entitled to have everything you want, even if you don’t have the money to pay for it. It’s not a problem. You deserve it. Buy it now, and you can pay for it later!

There’s a huge consumer-credit industry out there planning to give your kids their very own credit cards — personal passports into the abyss of consumer debt. This is not going to require your permission or approval, as one reader is experiencing firsthand.

DEAR MARY: My daughter who is in college got a credit card, and now she is in over her head, unable to pay what she owes.

She works part-time and makes a very small salary. With the high interest and late fees, the balance is now over $2,500. I will have to step in and handle the account.

How can I negotiate with the credit-card company to settle for less? I don’t know how she got this card on her salary, but she kept quiet about not being able to make the payments until we started getting collection calls for her. I appreciate your thoughts and expertise. — Millie

DEAR MILLIE: I seriously doubt anyone will speak with you at customer service unless you are on the account. If your daughter wants to add you to the account, the company may welcome it, particularly if it has had a lot of trouble working with her. At that time, you could try negotiating for a lower payoff. The worst it could say is no.

These companies give young people enrolled in college outlandish lines of credit because they know parents will rescue their overextended kids, and not just one time. Statistics show that in most instances, parents will save the day at least twice.

May I step in here with some unsolicited advice? Here it is: Don’t do it. Don’t bail her out, even if you feel you can afford it. Unless your daughter has to suffer the consequences of her actions, she will not learn. Even If you were to bail her out now, I predict she will be $5,000 in credit card debt within two years. Unless she does the hard work to repay her debt, she will not learn from her mistake.

You don’t want to see a bankruptcy and a divorce or two in her future, but that’s exactly where she’s headed if this problem isn’t addressed now.

There are lots of things parents in your situation should consider, the most important being whether you can afford it. I hear from people with their own financial problems all the time, problems often a result of trying to help their kids. Parents should not pay off their children’s debts if they don’t have sound retirement plans in place for themselves.

Unless you have your retirement on track, to me, that’s the end of the discussion. Retirement pensions aren’t what they used to be. Social Security is not going to provide the same kind of income that previous generations had. No one is going to be there to help you.

As painful as it will be for you to step aside and not rescue your daughter, it will be a valuable maturation process that allows her to become a responsible adult.

Your daughter may have to drop out of school to go to work full time. If she’s really interested in getting an education, she’ll be back. I know that may sound harsh, but she has to understand how unacceptable this is and that no one is going to bail her out.

Make sure you are ready to offer lots of emotional support and encouragement. She’s going to need it.

Please Don’t Touch the Retirement Accounts

I know it’s hard. I know you’re desperate. You’re stressed and losing sleep. Things are tough. You have to do something, and soon. But whatever you do, don’t touch your retirement account. Don’t borrow against it. Don’t withdraw from it. Leave it alone.

What’s so bad about liquidating a retirement account?

Momentum. Even if your retirement account is currently losing value, that’s money you are going to need after you reach retirement age. And I can guarantee you are going to need it much worse then than you do now. If you bleed it dry now, you stop the momentum, the pace at which it is growing. Think of your retirement account as completely out of your reach for now.

Penalties. This is huge. The penalty for early withdrawal (before you are 59 1/2 years old) is severe. You will lose 10 percent right off the top. If you don’t think that is significant, you are not thinking straight. Calculate how long you would have to work and contribute in the future to make up for this loss.

Taxes. If you think you’re losing sleep now, just wait until you owe back taxes on retirement withdrawal. You have to pay income tax (federal and state if you live in a state that taxes income) on the entire amount all at once.

Loss of exemption. A unanimous Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that individual retirement accounts are shielded from the reach of creditors in bankruptcy proceedings, a decision that boosted protections for the nest eggs of millions of people.

That means no matter what happens or how bad things get before you turn the corner and get back to work, creditors can’t touch IRAs. More importantly, if, God forbid, you have to file a bankruptcy case, it means the trustee can’t touch your retirement account either.

Generally, whether a debtor in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case is able to keep an asset like a home or vehicle depends on whether the asset is “exempt.” Most states provide for specific categories of assets to be exempt. If your state doesn’t have its own exemption scheme, debtors there will use the federal exemptions. For example, New Jersey does not have state exemptions, so residents there use the federal exemptions, which do not provide a lot of protection.

No matter how difficult things are right now, cross your retirement account off your list of options. It is out of your reach for now. Then, get busy pursuing every other option that you have.

As difficult as things may be right now or may become in the future, I promise you’ll thank me in 10 years.

As always, you should seek counsel from an attorney, tax professional or other qualified professional before making any financial decision with regard to retirement accounts.