By Mary Wicoff Commercial-News, Danville, Ill.
Grocery shopping isn't something Antanisha Taylor takes lightly anymore.
Instead, the mother of five has a strategy: she makes a list, clips coupons, gathers store ads, gets a babysitter, sets a budget -- and puts on "blinders" to all those temptations.
Those are just a few of the tricks the Danville woman has learned from Money Mentors, a program through the University of Illinois Extension. The free one-on-one program helps people manage their finances by pairing them with a mentor.
"It's helped me a lot," Taylor, 40, said. "The best advice I got was: It's not going to change all at once. Take small steps. Once you do the small changes, you see a difference in the long run."
She's seen a lot of progress since she started the program last year.
Taylor was paired with volunteer Linda Smith, who works as assistant vice president of regional branch operations at MidWest America Federal Credit Union.
The two women met at the Danville Public Library every other week for nine months, and discussed how Taylor could get on track financially. They finished the mentoring last fall; however, Smith remains available to help Taylor when there are questions or roadblocks.
"I think she's done an excellent job," Smith said. "Anyone who has taken a change in their financial situation has a lot of hurdles to jump over."
One month, a person can be financially stable; the next month, an unexpected expense upsets the budget.
That's when a mentor steps in to say: "It's OK. Start over next month."
"A lot of it is having someone support you," Smith said.
A DEFINITE NEED Kathy Sweedler, consumer economics educator with the Extension, created the Money Mentor program in 2013 after noticing a definite need for financial mentoring. The program is modeled after a national Cooperative Extension program in other states.
"Often, when I presented a workshop on budgeting or credit management, people would say to me, 'The workshop was good, but would you please meet with me every few weeks to help me stay on track?'" she said. "A volunteer-based program like Money Mentors meets this need."
The first training for mentors was held in fall 2013, according to Cayla Waters, consumer economics program coordinator with the Extension. Training is offered twice a year.
There are 50 volunteers in Champaign and Vermilion counties; of that number, Vermilion County has six mentors and eight mentees. There is no income level for anyone who wants to receive financial help.
NEW HABITS Taylor said she found out about Money Mentors while attending the BIBS program at the Center for Children's Services. That program, which she highly recommends, aims to help mothers with young children, and she attended with her 2-year-old.
A staff member asked if she wanted to be involved with Money Mentors, and filled out an application for her.
Taylor, who's not working right now, is on a fixed income. She has five children ranging from 2 to 18 years in the house, as well as a grandchild.
When her income decreased last year, she realized she needed to learn how to budget -- and make it work.
Her meetings with Smith have been invaluable.
One thing she learned is to shop smarter, and has a plan before she leaves the house. Clipping coupons has helped, she said, adding, "There's no shame in using coupons."
She also realized that it's better to leave children at home so she's not tempted to give in to their requests. "Otherwise, you come home with a cart full of chips and snack foods," she said.
Another trick is to freeze leftovers; the children are more likely to eat them later than the next day.
Taylor also learned to resist the stores' tricks, such as buying in bulk when you won't use the item.
"It's been hard, especially when you're not used to it," she said of her newfound habits.
It's been hard on the children, too, but they're coming around to accepting that they can't buy everything they want.
"They understand if mom doesn't have it, it isn't there," she said. "They appreciate what they got in the past year."
The children all have piggy banks, and sometimes have to decide between saving their change or spending it.
Making financial changes has been a struggle, but Taylor said she's learned to be proud of the little accomplishments and not to beat herself up when something goes wrong.
She finds little ways to reward herself for staying on track.
"We're starting to build better habits than we had," she said. "I have made a very good start with Linda's help."
But, she added, "We have a ways to go."
FYI Anyone interested in Money Mentors as a volunteer or mentee may call the University of Illinois Extension office at 442-8615 or visit the website at http://go.illinois.edu/moneymentors.
The next training for volunteers will be in mid-May. Applications are due by May 1.