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Your Money Questions, Answered

Body+Soul, 2007

Q. I stopped using the library after amassing too many fines. Any advice on how to pick up some affordable reads-while clear-ing the old ones off my shelves? (Jodi T., Middlebury, VT)

Get rid of the old and bring in the new by organizing a book swap at your home, work, or community group. By trading literature, you and your fellow bookworms can recommend authors to each other and pass around the latest novel du jour without having to spend a dime. Who knows? Your worn copy of "Crime and Punishment" -- complete with margin notes and doodles -- might be just the book a friend is looking to read on her upcoming business trip to Russia.

If your piles of books threaten to topple over, you can always donate them and get a tax write-off. Goodwill (goodwill.org) and similar charities accept used books, and local libraries sell them to raise money. The Brother's Brother Foundation Educational Program (brothersbrother.org) takes in children's books and textbooks on all topics (provided they're less than 10 years old and in excellent condition) and distributes them to schools and people in need in 28 countries. Maybe the most free-spirited approach is the "BookCrossing" movement. This organization, whose goal is to "make the whole world a library," encourages people to leave the books they love in public places (a train station, a park bench) for others to read and enjoy. You can track your book's whereabouts, along with other people's responses to it, via an ID number assigned to each book when you register it online at bookcrossing.com.

Finally, don't underestimate the used bookstore. These small, dimly-lit reading havens face tough competition from large bookstore chains and online outlets. They rely on your support and will often let you exchange books, or even give you cash for your old reads. Just try doing that at the mall.

Q. I've been practicing yoga for years and I'd like to train to become a teacher, but most programs cost around $2,500, and it would take me three years to save that much. Is there a way to pay for schooling without taking out a student loan? (Karmell J., Littleton, CO)

As you've discovered, the pursuit of our dreams often requires something more rooted in reality: money. The most straightforward way to pay for your certification would be to take a second, part-time job, especially if that job is at a yoga studio. Tell them you can help out with office paperwork, clean the studios -- anything to earn some extra cash while immersing yourself in the field. You might even be able to convince them to hire you as an instructor once you're certified.

YogaBasics.com can give you some help, although you'd have to relocate during your training. This organization offers partial scholarships to people who have paid memberships to defray the training costs at a set list of yoga schools. (The nearest to you is in Sedona, Arizona.) Have your heart set on a specific program? Find out if it has needs-based scholarships or work-exchange programs. The Feathered Pipe Foundation (featheredpipe.org) in Helena, Montana, for example, offers partial scholarships to those in need in return for instructor assistance during class and help with basic tasks like keeping the yoga room tidy and swept.

Some studios may be willing to work out an extended payment plan with you. "With most yoga studios, you can usually reach some understanding," says Chris Muchow, director of yoga teacher training at the Samadhi Center for Yoga in Denver. "We won't turn away students because they can't afford training." So don't be afraid to ask and, above all, be patient. As with most things in life worth having, it will take some time to achieve your goals.

Q. Due to lost jobs and raising three kids, my husband and I are buried in debt. We'd like to retire in four years, but we've used most of our savings just keeping up with costs. Is there any way we can salvage our retirement plans? (Maggie B., Peoria, IL)

You can, with some careful planning and hard work. You'll want to start by paying off your debts, particularly from credit cards. Since you sound overwhelmed, consider hiring a credit counselor. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org), a nonprofit organization that promotes financial responsibility, has counselors who can develop a personalized plan to help you pay your bills. You might qualify for its debt management plan, where you make lump payments to your counselor's agency, which in turn distributes the money to your creditors (who often reduce or waive finance charges if they know you're backed by an agency). Because you're so close to retirement, you might consider more aggressive tactics, like selling your house and downsizing to a condo-something a lot of retirees find attractive once the kids are gone and the maintenance of a house gets to be too much.

Another option is a reverse mortgage, which means the bank, either in a lump sum or a payment plan, pays you back the equity you've built into your house. This gives you some cash flow and lets you keep your house. Home values do change, though, so keep in mind that the loan will ultimately have to be repaid, either by you when you sell the house (or no longer use it as your principal residence), or by your children after you're gone.

If your current employer has a 401(k) plan, take advantage of it immediately. The IRS has "catch up" provisions for people over 50 so you can contribute more money. I'd also suggest hiring a financial adviser to help you develop an aggressive savings plan. An hour-long consultation will cost about $200, but having someone put you on the right track is worth it. Your adviser can work out a mix of savings and investments to help you achieve your retirement goals.

The truth is, to make this all come together you may need to work past 65 and be willing to give up some creature comforts. But as your savings starts to build, you can slow down and shift toward part-time. With frugality and perseverance, you should still be able to retire in relative comfort.

About the Author

Tracy Fernandez Rysavy is editor of Co-op America Quarterly, a publication of Co-op America, a national nonprofit that provides green living, purchasing, and investing tips and resources and also produces the Green Festivals. For more information, visit coopamerica.org.

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