Family, personal histories play into current financial outlook for Waitsburg couple

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Craig Horlacher practices the extent of his culinary skills to warm-up a cup of coffee in the microwave while his wife C.J. chops nuts while baking the kitchen of the home the couple recently bought with cash after pulling themselves out of debt.

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Still mounted on his horse "Black Jack," Craig Horlacher greets his wife C.J. Horlacher outside the back of their home after knocking on the rear window to get her attention. The couple recently bought the rural home they have been living in for years with cash after pulling themselves out of debt.

Lessons from yesterday have provided some of the best moments in the present for one area family.

Craig and Carolyn Jean -- best known as "C.J." -- Horlacher recently bought their house and 40 surrounding acres in the hills behind Waitsburg for $130,000.

They paid the total sum in cash.

The transaction didn't happen by accident or good fortune, say the couple, who pronounce their last name "Hollucker."

And neither did the original trouble that's taught them what they need to know to create financial stability.

Now married more than three decades and parents to adult children, Craig and C.J. came into marriage from homes where debt was considered a vice to be avoided nearly always.

"I grew up in what would be considered, now, to be poverty row," Craig said. "I was told to stay out of debt, except for two things -- a car and a house."

That wisdom was handed down from his mother's side. Her father died one Christmas morning, leaving behind six children and his wife.

And a loan note, Craig said. It turned out his grandfather had borrowed $1,000 from someone against the family farm. "And that someone called for the note."

His grandmother persevered and eventually salvaged her deed, but the experience shaped the family from then on.

Craig found the same theme running through C.J.'s family when the couple began dating. "They were very frugal people."

So what did he do as soon as wedding bells had quieted?

"I got creative," Craig said, his hands hugging his coffee mug while his natural grin turned rueful. "I put us right into bankruptcy."

Unemployed and "spending plastic like there was no tomorrow," he could have predicted what came next, he said. "The bank called and said, 'You're in trouble.'"

He was that, Craig agreed, enough that the bank recommended filing for bankruptcy.

That, however, was not an option. "This was my debt," Craig said, a hand over his heart. "My stupidity, not theirs."

The couple took option B. Every Monday Craig called the bank holding his debt. Each Monday he reported his current financial situation and told them how much he could pay that day -- often as little as $20.

His wife remained kind, but firm, he recalled, smiling at C.J. "She said, 'You did it, you got us out.'"

At that pace, it was going to take about 10 years to climb out of the hole, the bank told the Horlachers. Grandma's wisdom was becoming more clear, Craig said -- debt makes you vulnerable.

At church, the two found a money management course designed by Larry Burkett, an early pioneer in faith-based financial counseling.

Burkett dedicated the bulk of his career to this cause, writing more than 70 books on the subject and hosting radio programs until his death in 2003.

Burkett's wisdom paid off for the Horlachers. The family's personal money pit was leveled off in just two and half years. A fresh start was in their hands. And, Craig said, he could finally understand his family's great aversion to debt.

Since then, he and C.J. have eschewed many of what they label society's financial traps. When C.J. left a nursing career to home school their three kids, Craig made ends meet on wages from his Department of Transportation job.

And they rented the place they now own for about 20 years, initially working as caretakers of the land to keep rent minimal. "Here we are, in a sense, breaking some of rules of the traditional system, which says 'Buy a house for an investment,'" Craig said.

Living on one income stands up against the cultural norm that dual incomes are imperative to a decent standard of life, he added.

"We survived, and we survived well. We did things as a family."

The home they rented at below-market price provided the values of rewarding work and country living the couple wanted for their children. And when it came time to buy, C.J. was the banker and Craig acted as family Realtor, eliminating yet more expenses..

It truly is a long way from weekly reporting to a bank to being your own bank, the Horlachers realize.

Like any aspect of well-being, financial health needs tending, however. The Horlachers have continued to take refresher courses over the years. When the time came to think about investing, they turned to church once again.

There, the couple participated in a course by Dave Ramsey and his Financial Peace University.

The biblically based 13-week video training series for adults has been offered across the nation. Some topics covered in the series are investing, saving, credit, retirement and giving. The foundation was built partially on the teachings of Larry Burkett, which began the Horlacher's journey 30 years ago.

Ramsey, Craig, explained, takes people from their starting point, in whatever financial situation.

The curriculum breaks those first very hard steps down, C.J. said. "I figure out what are the steps I need to do right now ... it's overwhelming in one lump sum, but (Ramsey) gives you progressive steps in wise choices."

With visual aids and a great deal of humor, she added. "He makes it easy for people to listen to him."

Ramsey also helps know what to do when you have some money, Craig added. He and C.J. just took what they considered a refresher course, a financial tune-up. "You're never done learning," he added.

But Ramsey represents just one method of learning about money management and church is just one place to get that, the two said.

For them, using a faith-based system fits with their moral compass. Adhering to financial responsibility is found throughout the Bible, Craig said. "Finances without faith gets you (Bernie) Madoff."

Using a system like Ramsey's helps develop the relationship with your family that is vital to staying strong in money matters, C.J. said.

For the Horlachers, that means deciding things together, such as developing different resources rather than let their kids get into debt with college loans. It means not getting intoxicated with cultural standards and choosing to surround themselves with friends who view money in the same light.

Besides being cautious, Craig is proactive about adding to the coffers, he said. He searches for good deals he can later resell.

"Every trip is a buying trip, even family vacations. When you go to a yard sale, don't just look for yourself. Look for things other people might want. And will pay for."

The Horlachers see budgeting as a tool to be used by, not against, them. Their belief in God, they say, is woven through every decision they make. "From my very core, I want my finances to be based around my faith," Craig explained.

That doesn't mean, however, a life of deprivation. The Waitsburg couple recently hired someone to lay a new water line rather than do it themselves. Indeed, their care with money allows them to hire out jobs that need more expertise. "You don't stop living," Craig said with a laugh.

They paid the bill for that job with cash, of course.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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