Friday, August 10, 2018

Approaching Big Life Moments With Manageable Short-Term Goals

A pivotal year (whether I like it or not)

The beginning of August has put me in a contemplative mood. Maybe it's because my kid has started middle school, which seems bonkers to me because how is he suddenly in sixth grade? Maybe it's because of recent upheaval at work. Maybe it's because I've been spending long hours running on the trail, accompanied only by my busy, worried mind.

Or maybe it's because I've reached that watershed life moment: I'm turning 40 in a few months.

When I turned 30, a bit of dialogue from When Harry Met Sally lodged itself in my brain:

I'm gonna be 40!

Yeah... in 10 years.

I repeated it every birthday like a mantra of reassurance: I'm gonna be 40! ...Yeah, in 8 years. In 7 years. In 3 years.

...This year.


I always told myself that I wouldn't make a big deal of this birthday. After all, age is just a number; on the path of life, there's no sign at mile 40 that says, "You have now reached OLD." Whatever old is, I don't feel it; the only difference between 39-year-old me and 25-year-old me is some stretch marks and a few natural silver highlights. Come at me, twentysomething me. I don't believe in old.

That's why I've always (discreetly) rolled my eyes at friends who, upon reaching the four decade mark, suddenly start talking about creaky joints and earlier bedtimes and how it's all downhill from here, and not in a good way. This idea that age dictates how I should feel? Yeah, no. I'm not buying that. YOU'RE NOT ANYTHING SPECIAL, 40, AND TO PROVE IT I'M GONNA GO RUN 50 MILES IN THE DESERT.


As hard as I try to avoid it, I can't shake the feeling that it IS a big deal, that it IS noteworthy. I find myself both dreading and anticipating this birthday because dammit, despite my resistance, it appears to mean something to me. I'm suddenly observing the arc of the last 10 years, critiquing the winding path I've taken so far, and asking some unsettling questions: Is my approach working for me, and if not, how do I adjust? What's next? The need to reflect feels as natural and inevitable as anything else that's programmed into my DNA.

I'm not going to try to answer those questions in this blog post, in case you're wondering. But they're on my mind and I'm probably going to use this personal finance-focused space to explore them further in the coming months. While my mini-midlife-crisis may seem to have nothing to do with money, it actually has everything to do with money, because money gives you the freedom to explore different options and to select a new path if the one you're on isn't working out.

(Sidenote: Tenacious Feminist just wrote a blog post about goals and 40, too, so check it out!)


August goals

I don't have all the answers. Or any answers. That's okay. I don't need them right now. Nascent big dreams and long-term goals will undoubtedly become clearer with time. What I've found is that when the future seems like a big question mark, I can ground myself with some well-defined short-term goals.

So here's what I've got for August:

1. Stick with my running plan. I have my two "I'm turning 40 and I've still got it" races coming up in September and November, and I'm trying my darnedest to keep up with my training schedule so that I'm as prepared as possible. At this point I'm running five days a week: three shorter runs, a really long run, and a medium-longish run (the long run is followed the day after by the medium-longish run, the idea being that it'll train me keep going even when my legs are tired). I love running, but I'll admit that this plan is extremely time-consuming, and I don't always feel like doing it (like this morning, when I got up at 5:30 AM so that I had time to get my workout in before walking the Kiddo to school and starting work).

But I can do it. I've got this. And when I show myself that I'm capable of sticking to this goal, it'll make me feel more confident about meeting my other goals, too.

2. Save $5000 in emergency fund. I discussed this in a previous post so I won't rehash it all here, but we're getting close to the finish line on this one. I just need to put 1/3 of each remaining August paycheck into the savings account. It's a relief to have a thicker financial cushion, despite the fact that we receive peanuts in interest. Not even peanuts. Maybe peanut shells, or crumbs of peanut shells. But still.

3. Write six blog posts. I love this blog. I enjoy writing about our financial journey, but more that that, I just enjoy creating. It's fun (also sometimes frustrating) to sit down and see what actually ends up on the page. Crafting these posts gives me a sense of focus, flow, and challenge. So from here on out, I'm going to make every effort to create six original posts per month. I did it last month. I can do it in August, too.

4. Identify 3 things I'd like to change or add to my life in Year 40. If 40 is going to insist on being a big deal, then fine. I'm going to make the most of it. Lately I've been journaling more, recording what I value and the things I value less, noting where I feel in my element and what energizes me. Throughout August, I'll continue reflecting, and hopefully I'll be able to set some longer-term goals (somewhat randomly, I've elected to make three goals). I figure I don't need to know how I'm going to achieve them. The logistics can wait. But I'll allow myself to acknowledge them.

Does any of this resonate? What about you? what are your current goals, whether short- or long-term?

Monday, August 6, 2018

Why We're Prioritizing Our Emergency Fund Over Student Loan Repayment

Our temporarily relaxed budget and a vacation to the mountains made July a fun month. It was refreshing to leave town and my office, and it felt luxurious/weird to splurge on things that are clearly more in the category of wants (e.g., condo rental, kitchen gadgets, beauty products, overpriced sightseeing activities) rather than needs. July was our opportunity to take a break from the grind, and it was completely worth it.

But now it's August, and it's time to get back to business. Fortysomething will be returning to work, the Kiddo will be returning to school, and we'll all be returning to our budget and the pursuit of our long-term financial goals.

Do I feel ready?


Are we all going to buck up and do it anyway?

Ummm, yeah. Sure.


Making a choice

Our August started off with a key decision. You may recall that after we paid off our credit card at the beginning of July, we were trying to figure out the best way to deploy the last of our 2018 bonus money. We knew we didn't want to just fritter it away, but we were also a little overwhelmed by the plethora of financially smart possibilities: Emergency savings? Student loans? Investments? Down payment for a house?

After much discussion, we realized that our two top priorities at the moment are paying off our student loan debt and socking more money into savings. We identified three main options:

Option 1: Attack the student loans. In this scenario, we'd use all bonus money + third August paycheck + $2000/month (the $2000 represents all of the "extra" money that we have available for pursuing our financial goals each month) to pay off a significant chunk of my student loan. The bonus money and extra paycheck alone would reduce my loan balance from ~$10K to about $6K, leaving us with a total loan balance of $46K.

Option 2: Beef up the emergency fund. This option would involve putting all bonus money + third August paycheck + part of disposable income into our little emergency fund. For the past few months, our e-fund has hovered somewhere between $1K and $1.5K, the amount that debt repayment guru Dave Ramsey recommends keeping in savings until all debt is paid off. Adding our bonus cash to the pot would bring the balance to $5K and give us a little more financial security in the face of an unexpected and expensive crisis.

Option 3: Split the difference. Allocate part of the bonus money + third August paycheck to emergency savings, and part of it to student loan repayment.

We eliminated Option 3 almost immediately because I'm a very all-or-nothing, go-big-or-go-home type who has trouble doing anything halfway. Divvying up the money and spreading it thinly over loans and savings didn't feel satisfying to me. Should we base our financial decisions on our feelings? Well, no, but for the sake of motivation, sometimes you have to take your feelings, inclinations, and gut instincts into account.

My gut tells me that I need to see big gains - one way or another - to stay motivated.

When I posted our dilemma on Twitter and asked for advice from the personal finance gurus of the Twitterverse, almost all of the respondents told us to choose Option 1: go all out on those student loans. Make a big dent ASAP. Accelerate our payoff plan.


And I have to say that for most of July, both Fortysomething and I were completely on board with that because it meant we'd be truly putting our money to work rather than letting it idle in our low-interest savings account. Plus, going all-out on the loans would allow us to pay off our student loans in less than two years. And that sounded really, really good - the sexiest option of the three.

But then some realizations set in.

Why we have to prioritize our savings

First, we need enough money in savings to cover at least the $2700 family deductible of my high deductible health plan, if not the $7500 out-of-pocket maximum. The Kiddo's emergency surgery back in March should have burned this lesson into our brains. We're still in the process of paying the $4000 hospital bill (I use my HSA to make monthly payments of $400), and I don't want to add to that total if we have another big medical expense.

(Sidenote: why, you may ask, did you select the HDHP when there's a low-deductible plan available? And the answer is that (1) the premiums for the traditional plan have skyrocketed, so it's not that appealing even if the deductible is lower, (2) if for some reason I lost my job, I'd never be able to afford the COBRA premiums for the traditional plan, and (3) with my HDHP, my company makes regular contributions to my HSA. FREE MONEY, people. I can't pass that up!)

Second, recent developments at work make me feel less secure than I did a month ago. I don't think I'm on the verge of losing my job, but over the past week I've been learning some hard lessons about corporate America: one, everyone is expendable, and two, companies don't feel bad about replacing people or erasing their positions literally overnight. These may sound like obvious truths to some of you, but before my current gig I spent years in academia where the wheels of bureaucracy generally turn much, much more slowly. If you don't get tenure, or your contract doesn't get renewed, usually you still have some time to look for another job and squirrel away some cash before losing your paycheck entirely. You have to do something truly awful/criminal to come in one morning and find that the locks on your office door have been changed.

But big corporate companies? Nah, they're apparently cool with it.

Bottom line: it's clear that the smart move is to save up some money so that if I'm suddenly jobless, we can still pay the rent.

At the moment, our savings goal is $5000. We may increase that just a bit more: $6000 would cover our rent for three months. Assuming that at least one of us is employed at any given time, we would then have several months' worth of financial runway. That'll help me sleep better at night.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Winning, July 2018 Edition

I've got to be honest: I'm having a rough couple of weeks. 

Sometimes certain aspects of life can be so demoralizing, with no obvious or immediate solutions. That's where I'm at right now. I feel backed into a corner, stuck in an endless cycle, frustrated, and somewhat depressed. Also clueless. How do I make this situation better? I have no idea.

Sorry to vague-blog. At some point I'd like to be more transparent. But even without specifics, I bet you can relate. I bet you've been there, too, one way or another.

Regardless, I'm trying to take note of the things that are going well...

...which brings me to a new edition of WINNING, a semi-monthly series (semi-monthly because I have a bad habit of forgetting to write it) in which I give us a hearty pat on the back for the stuff that's going right, particularly from a financial standpoint. 

Why? Because it's important to acknowledge and own badass-edness, even when I don't feel like a badass in any way, shape, or form.

So here it is:

Winning, July 2018 Edition:

(1) We took a mini-vacation and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. You can read our full vacation summary here, but the gist of it is that we celebrated our credit card payoff with four days in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, where we gorged on ice cream and tacos and soaked in as much outdoor beauty as possible. Granted, we overshot our budget by about $300, but I can't be mad about it because the trip was nothing short of magical. We needed this getaway. We achieved a big goal, and we deserved the chance to celebrate.

(2) I opened up my own IRA! I finally rolled over the small amount of money I had in my retirement account from my previous job. Truth be told, I had no idea what I was doing, so I just threw the balance into a growth index fund that's received several good reviews. Murphy's Law being what it is, the market has of course dropped in the days since I opened my account - but what's important is that I now have another spot to sequester savings once we've paid off the student loans.

(3) I landed a bonus at work! And guess what: every penny of it is going straight into our savings account. After a month of discussion and debate, Fortysomething and I have decided that rather than going all-out on student loans, we're going to first use some of our "extra" cash to build up our emergency fund. I plan to share more about that decision in an upcoming post. The long and short of it is that we have at least 1.5 more years of debt repayment ahead of us. Over that kind of timeframe, all kinds of expensive shit can hit the fan, and I'll be damned if I have to pay for it with a credit card. We're not going there again, so we need more savings to help float us in an emergency.

(4) I signed up for an ultramarathon! A couple months back, I shared that a big goal of mine is to run a really long raceIt took awhile to find one that met all of my criteria: 50K or 50 miler, within driving distance, sometime in the fall, nothing too high in elevation or too hot. I finally selected a 50-mile race that will take place in Tucson in November. I've got my training plan in place (I used the free Santa Clarita Runners ultramarathon training schedule generator) and I'm already into Week 3. The price of entry was kind of steep ($115), but this is a bucket list item for me. It's worth the investment.

Needless to say, this will be an adventure!

What about you? What are some of your wins this month? Or alternatively, is there anything that you're struggling with right now that you're trying to work through?

Disease Called Debt

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Why This Personal Finance Blog Matters So Much To Me

Can I tell you something?

I really appreciate you. A year into this, and I'm still in awe that people stop by to read and even comment. Thank you. It's a big deal to me.

Here's a secret: I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. When I was in Kindergarten, I wrote a little book about a butterfly and her friends. I penned it on notebook paper, scribbled in some illustrations, and stapled it together. It was thrilling to me. I kept it on my dresser and every now and then I'd pick it up and gaze at it in wonder. That act of creating and producing something from my own imagination felt so satisfying.

I wrote throughout grade school and college, both for myself and for my school newspapers. Later I enrolled in a post-graduate writing certificate program, which I promptly abandoned so that I could move to the mountains and become a newspaper reporter for a weekly paper with one reporter/photographer ( I did that until I got sick of being called in at 3 AM to take pictures of truck accidents on the highway.

As I got older, writing became more and more difficult. I'd show up, but usually the words wouldn't. I'd see my clumsy sentences on the page and feel so self-conscious, knowing that every other writer was so much better. Nothing was good enough and I felt terrible about it, so eventually, I just... stopped. Except for my dissertation and work projects, I quit writing altogether. For years.

In a search for just the right wording, the best turn of phrase, I forgot why I was writing in the first place.

This blog has brought me back from the brink of perfectionism. With this project, I've allowed myself to be a bumbling, oftentimes boring writer whose main goal is to just get her ideas out there in a consistent manner. And man, has it been liberating. Whether I'm updating our debt stats, talking about our summer vacation, or making an argument for wage transparency, I always feel good when I press the Publish button. And when I come back later to discover multiple typos that I somehow missed the first eight times I edited my work, I shrug it off and carry on. Perfection is no longer necessary.

I'm also learning, albeit haltingly, that I don't need to compare myself to others: you have your story, I have mine, and nobody can tell our own stories better than we can.

The $76K Project has become something truly meaningful to me. I'm somewhat reluctant to admit it, but this little passion project has become my baby.

I've been thinking more about where I want to go with this blog - whether I want to grow it and monetize it and move it to a better platform and learn SEO and try to turn it into Something Bigger - and I'm realizing that I'm just not there. Not yet. I mean, maybe I should be heading in that direction, and I certainly think about it because in theory I would love to transform my writing into a side hustle. But I don't feel motivated by pageviews and numbers right now. If that were my focus, I'd drive myself crazy. I'd probably quit.

Instead, I want to shape this blog into a place where people who can relate to our story want to be. I want it to feel like a familiar, cozy nook where you can stop by and we can sit down together, sip some (virtual) coffee, and talk about life and finances - both the challenges and the wins. I want it to be a bullshit-free zone where I can be transparent with you about our long and mistake-ridden financial journey, and you can be transparent with me. I want to be authentic and honest and reliable in my posting.

That's what motivates me, and that's what I'm working towards: connection with other people who, like me, are sick of hiding their past and want a better future.

Funny thing: when I sat down to write today, this is not the post I had in my head. But this is what emerged instead, because writing is weird and unpredictable like that. Like magic. I'd forgotten about that magic.

Again, thank you for reading. Thank you for commenting. Thanks for coming back.

Friday, July 20, 2018

We Should Be Talking About Our Salaries. Here's Why.

Money talk is too taboo

As polite members of society, many of us were brought up to not talk about the following:
  • Sex
  • Mental health issues
  • Politics and religion 
  • Money - particularly what you owe and what you earn

My friends and I throw some of these taboos out the window without a second thought. I know their religious and political views. We're open with one another about our depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and the like. Sex? Sure, we'll delve into that juicy topic with glee, especially if we're sharing a bottle of wine. 

But money?

For the most part, we don't go there. 

Of all the taboo subjects, money is the one that often feels the most repellant somehow, and I'm just as guilty as anyone of avoiding the issue. I may spill all my debt secrets here on this blog, but in real life, I don't talk about it. And salary? I mean, sure, I'd share it if a friend or acquaintance asked. But the likelihood of anyone I know inquiring about my income is very, very slim because it's a subject most of us have been trained not to broach. 

I think we should be doing exactly that: talking money. Discussing our debts. Sharing our salaries. Here's why:

1. Because it helps - it really helps! - to know how others make the magic happen

If you write a headline like "How I Achieved Financial Independence in Five Years" or "How I Paid Off $100K in Student Loans in 18 Months," there's an excellent chance I'm going to head right on over to your post or article and devour it. I love a good financial independence or debt payoff story, partly because I want to feel inspired, and partly because I want to learn from you. I want to know what you did so that I can apply those same strategies to my own financial journey.

But here's my ask: when you're sharing your tales of success, tell me your salary, or at least a salary range. Otherwise, you're leaving out a crucial part of your story. 

It is disingenuous, for example, to attribute your financial independence to the eschewing of Starbucks lattes and avocado toast while failing to mention that you make a six-figure income. Someone making $200K a year and someone making $40K a year could be doing the exact same things in terms of cost-cutting measures and savings rate, but obviously the higher earner is going to achieve financial independence or debt freedom more quickly. It's helpful to know that you're not actually working with the same resources. It's helpful to have context. That doesn't mean that people with different incomes can't learn from one another.

So put it out there. Yes, talk about your frugality - absolutely. Talk about your cost-saving measures. Talk about your high savings rate. Talk about the sacrifices you made to get to where you are, because undoubtedly they played a big role in your success. But don't stop there. Talk about how much you earned while crushing your financial goals, because that matters. I would argue that - assuming you aren't a total spendthrift - it matters more than anything else when it comes to big, rapid financial achievements.

2. Because actual numbers = a common language

In the past few months I've seen several very successful personal finance bloggers describe their salaries in hazy terms such as "middle class salary" or "upper middle class income." But what do those descriptors actually mean? Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter friends for their thoughts:

Lazy Man and Money did a nice job of summarizing the results in a follow-up post, but I'll just share a few of the comments I received to show that the perception of what constitutes a middle class income varies widely (note: I was expecting maybe four brief responses, not the deluge of thoughtful, nuanced answers that rolled in... Check out the whole Twitter thread for a plethora of ideas and perspectives):

As I was writing this post I ended up going down a rabbit hole of Pew Research Center analyses and articles by experts like Chief Mom Officer who are much better qualified to discuss the differences between social class and income level, and it all got rather dizzying and overwhelming for this blogger who doesn't often write research-heavy posts.

So I'll just summarize what I learned with this: terms like "middle class income" are meaningless, and they can be misleading. 

Case in point: in the past few months, I've read a couple of inspiring stories from individuals who have declared early financial independence after saving an impressive chunk of what they publicly described as a "middle class salary." Their stories sent a message of hope: If we can buckle down and make it work on our average income, so can you!

Later, it emerged that these folks had earned several hundreds of thousands of dollars per year - middle class by their own standards, perhaps, but judging by the backlash that has ensued, not by their audience's standards.

We can simplify and clarify our discussions of salary by ditching the social class-style descriptors and sharing cold, hard numbers, perhaps with some added context: "I make $100K a year and live in Toronto, where rents are sky high" or "I make $45K and live in New York City" or "I make $55K in rural Illinois and support a family of five." 

See? Simple. Numbers are just... numbers. They're unambiguous. They offer a common language that we can all understand.

3. Because maybe more transparency can help close the wage gap

More stats for you: In 2017, women earned just 82% of what their male colleagues brought home. In 2016, many minorities made less than 75% of what their white counterparts earned. As Pew points out, while the wage gap has narrowed over the last few decades, it's remained relatively constant for the past 15 years. That is unacceptable - and we should be talking about it.

Story time: 

A few years ago I landed a position as an assistant professor at a small college. The administration made their offer, and I countered, angling for a few thousand dollars more. The response I received was that the school lacked the wiggle room to go any higher - not a penny more - and besides, with such a low cost of living for that location, the initial offer should be sufficient. There was nothing they could do, they said.

I acquiesced because I was worried that the offer might be rescinded if I pushed too hard. But a few months later, I found myself in a somewhat awkward conversation with a male colleague (who started at the same level, at the same time, and received the exact same initial offer) who shared that when he countered, the school bumped up his salary.

My guess is that my former employer betted on me not finding out - because hey, who sits around and divulges salary? - so they weren't worried about treating us differently. I suspect this happens in a lot of companies and organizations, many of which expect their workers to keep their salaries to themselves.

It's worth pointing out that websites like Glassdoor and Payscale have made it easier for employees to research going rates in their industries and walk into negotiations armed with a clearer idea of what they should be asking for. But as far as I can tell, these salaries aren't broken down by demographics or time spent in the industry. 

It would be ideal if we could talk about salaries more candidly not only within our industries but also within our own organizations (if possible) so that gender, racial and ethnic wage inequalities are brought out into the open. Otherwise, companies can continue (intentionally or unintentionally) to perpetuate the wage gap.

(Note: I do realize that some organizations see the sharing of salary information as a fireable offense, and obviously we don't want to go there. But then how about sharing a salary range? Or sharing your total household income?)

4. Because we don't need to feel ashamed of what we earn

We don't talk about the things we're ashamed of: mental health problems. Sex. Money. We have no reason to be ashamed of any of those things, salary included. Your income does not reflect your worth as a human being. Your income. Does not. Reflect your worth. As a human being. So whether you make $25K a year (or less), or $300K a year (or more), you have no reason to feel chagrined. You don't have to be ashamed for earning less than someone else. And unless you're exploiting the people working for you, I also don't think you need to feel bad if you're a high earner.

I realize that saying, "Just talk about it!" is easier said than done, especially if you feel like you're opening yourself up to criticism or judgment from others. The thing about shame is that it thrives in silence and embarrassment. When it's brought into the light, it tends to wilt. It loses its power. The more that we as a society talk about money, the easier it becomes for all of us as individuals to talk about money, and the less shameful money talk becomes.

The $76K Project: Putting our income out there

Because I believe in transparency and walking the walk, I'm putting it out there: As a household, my family makes about $110K a year before taxes and benefits. We spend approximately 1/3 of our income on rent, 1/3 on fixed and variable monthly expenses (gas, groceries, energy bill, etc.), and 1/3 on debt. Currently, we are able to put $2K a month towards our remaining student loans. That is a significant chunk of cash, and that is the main reason we're able to pay off our debt quickly (well, quickly by my standards: about 2.5 years to go).

Are we frugal? In some ways. Do we make sacrifices? Yes, but we certainly haven't given up all creature comforts. Is it a challenging journey? Definitely, but it also feels completely sustainable. At the end of the day, it is our six-figure income more than our frugality that makes all of this possible.

These are all things I want readers of my blog to know, so that they have the whole story. If they can take some inspiration or lessons from our story, fantastic - that's one of the main reasons I'm devoted to this blog. It's also likely that some people don't find us relatable, and that's okay, too, because I can guarantee that there are other bloggers out there who they will connect with.

Your thoughts?

I typically don't wade into controversial topics on this blog, so writing this post makes me feel a little uneasy. I know not everyone wants to talk about their salary, and I worry about missing the mark. So give me your take: do you think we should be discussing this more? Less? Or... not at all?

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Sometimes You Gotta Get Away: Our Mini-Vacation to Colorado

I went into this summer knowing that even with our deep-seated commitment to our financial goals, we were eventually going to want to get out of town. See some new sights. Traverse some new trails. Try some new beer. Spend some money.

Sure enough, we started getting antsy for a break in mid-June. Obliterating our credit card debt gave us the perfect excuse to celebrate with a mini-vacation. We decided that for just one month, we'd pay the bare minimums on our student loans and use our remaining disposable July income for a much-anticipated getaway, one that would give us a breather from our debt repayment and the daily grind. 

The destination: the mountains of Colorado

We hemmed and hawed for weeks about our destination. Our requirements: it had to be beautiful and within a day's drive (flying was out of the question due to time and financial constraints), and it couldn't be too hot. We considered New Mexico and coastal California before settling on southwestern Colorado and the breathtaking, cloud-skimming peaks of the San Juan Mountains. Fortysomething and I spent time there while I was in college, and we've been wanting to go back for years. Our only concern was that the area was being ravaged by the 416 wildfire, which ultimately burned more than 54,000 acres. With rain in the forecast, we took a chance and decided to go anyway (our gamble paid off: by the time we got there, the fires were largely out thanks to the tireless efforts of fire crews).

The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado

Five days of R&R

Day 1: After an uneventful six-hour road trip, we arrived in the laid-back creekside town of Durango and treated ourselves to a sushi dinner followed by homemade mulberry crumble ice cream (the sushi was okay; the ice cream was scrumptious: creamy vanilla ice cream streaked through with crunchy crumble topping and fat, fresh, tart berries). We moseyed along Main Street and peeked into shops before heading to the store to stock up on groceries and get gas. 

Durango Main Street. It was decked out with HERO signs for the firefighters.
Then we ventured up the highway to our rental, a vacation condo that we booked for three nights through VRBO. Tucked away into the mountainside, it offered a secluded retreat that was still central to everything we wanted to see and do. It featured two bedrooms, access to a swimming pool, amazing views, and a fully-equipped kitchen, allowing us to prepare some of our own meals instead of depending entirely on restaurant food.

Views near our rental
Day 2: We explored the old mining town of Silverton, where we had lunch at a sandwich shop (three sandwiches plus soda = $38...) and admired the Hardrock 100 ultramarathon rock (shown below in all its glory). Free things to do in Silverton are kind of limited, so we hopped back into the car, toodled around, and eventually found ourselves at Andrew's Lake, a gorgeous spot with hiking trails and fishing access. It would have been easy to spend an entire day there, but the troops got tired and cranky so we returned to the condo for a swim.

Silverton, CO: elevation 9,318 feet
Long-distance runners will understand the significance of this painted rock,
which graces Silverton's main street
Andrew's Lake was one of our favorite stops of the entire trip
Day 3: The Kiddo planned our schedule that morning and chose a diesel-powered train ride. In all honestly, this was really not my thing: the train was crowded with people who seemed to lack a basic understanding of personal space, and the whole setup was pretty kitschy. Plus, it was insanely expensive... like, Disney-level expensive (I said yes to the idea before fully evaluating the cost). But we did see some gorgeous whitewater rapids, and the Kiddo enjoyed himself immensely... so I'll call it a win. Afterwards, we drove back to Durango, visited the fish hatchery (it's free!), strolled along the bike path, had homemade tacos full of fresh local ingredients at Zia Taqueria, and enjoyed a few pints at Ska Brewing. (Did I mention that we absolutely love, love, love Durango?)

I'm comfortable dangling this close to the edge of a bridge.
I am not comfortable being this close to so many people.
View from the bike path in Durango
The SuperTaco at Zia Taqueria in Durango was perfection
Day 4: We checked out of the condo and drove north to Ouray, known as the "Switzerland of America" because it's surrounded on three sides by impressively steep mountains. Before we were married, Fortysomething and I spent several days here holed up in a hotel room during a snowstorm. It was very romantic. You can imagine, then, that my memories were of the rose-colored-glasses variety. What we found as we re-acquainted ourselves with our old haunt was a town that, while still charming, seems somewhat tired and worn despite its eyebrow-raising price tags. The vibe was just... off somehow. Whereas Durango felt cheerful and energetic, Ouray felt like it was in need of a nice long nap.

The Kiddo proudly took this shot of Ouray
We ditched the crowds of Ouray and went to the next town over for a picnic lunch in a tree-shaded park. Later, we enjoyed a taco dinner at the delectable Taco del Gnar. Important side note: I would happily eat tacos every day at every meal for the rest of my life.

We stayed at a Comfort Inn that night and... I kind of wish we hadn't. It was fine, but at $155 a night, it was just too expensive. On the plus side, it did come with a full breakfast.

Day 5: I got up early to run at the track in downtown Ouray, and then we packed up the car to leave. A highlight of the trip home was a foray through Monument Valley, which is particularly spectacular when the monsoon clouds start rolling in.

Monument Valley

Breaking down the budget (and what we'll do differently next time)

Last summer, one of my big financial wins was taking a cross-country trip on the cheap. This trip was... not as budget-friendly. In the interest of full disclosure, here's a complete tally of our trip expenses:

Accommodations: $744 
Gas: $53.60
Food (including groceries and restaurants): $396.69
Activities and souvenirs: $188.71
Cat boarding: $102
Total: $1485

We exceeded our trip budget by more than $300, but instead of beating myself up about it (why ruin a perfectly enjoyable vacay by lamenting the budget in retrospect?), I'm just going to consider what we'll do differently next time:

  • The condo rental was comfortable and cozy, and I'm glad we stayed there. In the future, though, we'll pay more attention to fees that get tacked onto the initial cost. For example, the condo was listed at a reasonable $129/night, but the total price was jacked up thanks to an automatic $100 cleaning fee and a $57 service fee.
  • When (not if!) we go back to the glorious San Juans, we'll probably bring our camping gear and camp for a couple of nights to save money. I can handle that. Plus, now we know where the good local camping spots are.
  • We'll try to avoid expensive one-night hotel stays during the tourist season.
  • While I certainly want the Kiddo to help plan our activities and excursions, I'll research costs in more detail before saying yes to what he wants to do.

Thankfully, although we went over budget, it didn't break the bank and we didn't accrue any credit card debt in the process. We had some financial flexibility on this trip, and it felt rather luxurious. I can't remember the last time I went on vacation and didn't low-key panic about what we were doing to our finances.

In short, I couldn't have asked for a better vacation. Sure, I wish it had been longer, but we packed a surprising amount of activity and relaxation and fun into just a few days. I have a feeling that this trip is going to be a meaningful one for my family, one all three of us will remember fondly and talk about for years. 

In that sense, it was worth every single penny.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Our July 2018 Budget and Credit Card Zero Celebration!

First: We did it! We paid off the credit cards!

I'm still in semi-disbelief, but the credit card balances are now ALL at zero. The big moment happened the day before Independence Day:

Actually, it almost *didn't* happen, because the bonus we'd been planning to use for the final payoff didn't show up when it was supposed to. I got impatient, dragged the money over from our emergency fund, and insisted that we eliminate the remaining $1500 anyway. Boom! (Bonus arrived today, so I replenished the e-fund.)

The fact that we managed to meet this milestone, and well before we ever expected to, feels shocking in an is-this-really-happening (or as my former therapist would have coached me, did-we-really-make-this-happen) sort of way. It hasn't sunk in yet. Credit cards have been my ball-and-chain financial reality for so long that the idea of existing without carrying a balance seems... outside the realm of my understanding. And yet here we are!

July budget: Paying the minimums while we go have fun

As we mentioned a couple of posts ago, we're taking the month of July off from intensive debt repayment to celebrate our credit card win. This means that we'll be paying nothing beyond the minimums on our two student loans.  The rest of our disposable income will be used for a mini-vacation to the mountains and some kitchen supplies. 

Vacay means contending with the following expenses:
  • The cat needs to be boarded (because our friends are all away or not interested in hauling themselves across town to feed our charming little beast)
  • We need vacay lodging (I rented a somewhat reasonably-priced place through VRBO)
  • We'll be going out to eat more (but we'll also be eating meals at home in the rental)
  • We'll be doing some fun and not-free activities
Repeating to myself: I will keep it in budget. I will keep it in budget. I will keep it in budget.

Anyway, here's the July plan in all its messy glory.

July 2018 Budget:

Recurring Fixed Expenses:
  • Rent: $2100
  • Student loans: $650 
  • Phone bill: $78
  • Internet: $65
  • Auto and renter's insurance: $73
  • Thousand Trails: $108
  • Netflix: $13
Recurring Variable Expenses: 
  • Utilities: $180 (darn air conditioner... but it's been necessary the last couple of weeks)
  • Groceries: $800 (don't say it... I already know)
  • Gas in car: $150 (higher this month since we'll be road tripping)
  • Very Expensive Feline: $170 (boarding + vet fees - I am probably overestimating this)
  • Miscellaneous: $390
One-Time Expenses:
  • Vacation + home supplies: $1100
Total budget for July 2018: $5,877
Disease Called Debt

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