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Living on a shoestring; It isn't easy living paycheck to paycheck. These tips can help you stop juggling payments and bring new order to your stretched-too-thin finances.

Antoinette Steinbarth absolutely hates doing her bills, so she was always content to let her husband take care of that part of the household.

But when her husband died 12 years ago, she was left with no choice but to take over herself.

Since then, her house has come close to foreclosure, her credit card bills have gone unpaid and she scrambles from week to week, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"I realize I am a huge factor in how I got here and I'm tired of it and I want to change it," Steinbarth said.

Though she understands the basic concepts of money management, Steinbarth said she has difficulty putting them into practice in real life.

"There are a lot of things in my life that I do really well. I don't understand why I have such a hard time getting a handle on this," Steinbarth said.

Earning just $20,000 as a travel agent, she learned a slew of tricks that helped her get by on her meager paycheck.

She learned exactly how long she could go without paying her bill before the gas company would shut off her heat. She figured out that, as long as she had $1 in her bank account on Thursday, she could fill her gas tank and have enough time for Friday's paycheck to be deposited before the purchase cleared.

"I've just been juggling so long, I don't think I know how to do it any other way," Steinbarth said.

After becoming a mental health counselor -- and racking up $100,000 in student debt -- she earned a raise. But even with the bigger paycheck, things are worse than ever.

"I feel like I should be able to do more with my money. It's more than I've ever made in my life," Steinbarth said. "I always thought, 'If I could just make $35,000 a year, I would be golden.' It turns out I'm not."

Steinbarth met with Amy Jo Lauber, a certified financial planner and past president of the Financial Planning Association's Western New York Chapter who teaches a budgeting support group.

Though she received lots of tailor-made advice, we could all benefit from some of the lessons she learned.

*Know what money is coming in and where it's going out. Steinbarth admitted she never reads her bank statements and doesn't keep a debit or checking ledger. That's a big part of how things get out of control for a lot of people.

She estimated she spends $120 per month on entertainment. But a look at her records shows she actually spent almost twice that amount; a whopping $220, not counting restaurant dinners.

Worse, keeping track of purchases in her head led to $192.50 worth of insufficient funds fees in February. That's more than enough to cover her monthly car insurance payment.

As of last week, she had spent a total of $577.50 on insufficient funds and overdraft fees for the year. (She had estimated she had been charged a "couple of hundred dollars" since January.)

Last year, she spent more than $1,300 on those fees. That's almost two extra mortgage payments!

*Just because it's on sale doesn't mean you can afford it. In February, Steinbarth spent more than $170 at places like Kohl's, QVC and Ulta Beauty. That's more than enough to make her student loan payment, which is currently racking up interest in forebearance.

"Almost every time I do this, I see a million charges at either Target or Kohl's," Lauber said. "Just about every woman I know has a problem with overspending at those two stores."

Steinbarth gets it.

"I found a dress for $14, but did I need it? Probably not," Steinbarth said. "I had no business even being in the store buying anything."

*You could be nickel and diming yourself to death. Steinbarth made a big fuss about giving up her daily Spot coffee.

"It's only $2!" she said.

But Steinbarth's debit account statements were riddled with micro-purchases that added up to hundreds of dollars. That's another good reason to stay on top of where your money goes.

"The devil is in the details," Lauber said.

*"Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do or do without." This is a Depression-era mantra Lauber teaches at her budgeting workshops. Most of us would be able to get by with less if we had to, simply by using everything up, making do with what we have and doing without things we don't really need.

Lauber suggested Steinbarth not buy any more clothing until she is on more solid financial ground.

"Shop your own closet or have a swap party with friends," Lauber said. "Shop thrift stores if you're itching for retail therapy."

*Live within your means. Experts suggest budgeting 37 percent toward housing costs, including utilities, taxes and maintenance. That would put Steinbarth at about $771. But her mortgage payment alone comes to $873. That has forced her to take in a roommate to help with costs.

She also is paying $400 a month for her 2008 Kia Optima. With Steinbarth's income, experts say her auto expenses should be closer to $312, including insurance and maintenance.

Her food expenses should total about $208 per month, but she ends up spending more than double that amount.

This is another reason why creating a budget and sticking to it is important.

*Set goals. Steinbarth said she would like to have $1,000 in savings. But without defining a time frame for attaining it, she wasn't able to figure out how much she would have to set aside each week to get there, or where it would come from.

"When you have a bull's-eye, you have something to shoot for," Lauber said. "You can stay focused on it."

*You're the only one in control, and you have more control than you think. It rarely feels that way, but when you run toward your financial problems instead of away from them, you really do have the power to make big changes.

Lauber has written about this on her blog, "Life: Live Inspired, Financially Empowered."

"The most challenging clients are those who refuse to accept responsibility for their financial circumstances if the person keeps playing the mental recording of 'I can't catch a break,' you know what? They won't," Lauber wrote.

*Use your powers for good. Steinbarth expended tremendous time and energy playing catch-up.

She spent hours on the phone with creditors, trying to negotiate a better payment or buy more time to pay a bill. She furiously transferred money among accounts. She had brought the art of juggling payments to a new level.

But all of that energy could be better used to budget and plan ahead, rather than madly scurrying around later. Not only would it save her money, it would give her peace of mind -- something she admits she could use more of.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com