A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

Why I'm Addicted To Goal Setting (And 2018 Goals In Review)


I've recently realized that I am addicted to goal setting. 

In my life, there's a goal for everything:

I set daily goals, monthly goals, and yearly goals. 

I set personal goals and professional goals. 

I set goals related to finances, hobbies, travel, blogging, and family. 

Heck, I even set goals for my vacations:


I crave challenges, and goal setting allows me to create personal challenges for every aspect of my life. It's stimulating. It makes even the most boring daily grind feel like a playful experiment.

Another benefit of goal setting: it helps me distinguish between what I actually want and what I only think I want. I can't tell you how many times I've drifted completely off course while going after something I felt obligated to pursue or that I thought I might enjoy doing because it looked cool on paper (remind me to tell you about the time I signed up for boat-building school...) As a result, I'm now plagued by indecision and uncertainty: do I want to work for a company or work for myself? Do I want to stay in my current career or make a big change? Do I want to prioritize saving or paying off student loans? Do I want to lose a couple of pounds or enjoy my wine, chocolate, and bagels? 

Feeling directionless and muddling through myriad possibilities seemed okay (even good!) when I was younger, but now that I'm 40, I'm more inclined to cut to the chase. More than ever, I desire clarity.

To this end, specific and manageable goals help. If I care about my goals, I'll make them happen. If I don't, I'll quickly lose interest - a sure sign that I'm moving in the wrong direction. It's a great way for me to shuck off the dead weight of pursuits that don't mean that much to me and focus my energy on the things that do.

So What Did I Learn From Our 2018 Goals?


In 2018, I collected lots and lots (and lots) of goals:
Here's how some of them panned out and what I/we learned from them:

Goal 1: Pay off our credit cards by May 2018.


Did we do it?: Sort of! We didn't meet our May deadline, but we did pay them off at the beginning of July. Considering that we landed a hefty hospital bill earlier in the spring, I'm counting it as a major win.

What did we learn? As we worked to bring our credit card balances to zero, we realized that paying off our debts is one of our biggest priorities. Reaching that goal made us even more determined to knock out our student loan debt.

Goal 2: Become homeowners!


Did we do it?: Oh my sweet summer child (I'm talking to end-of-2017 me here). Not even close.

What did we learn? Realistically, buying a house was always more of a pie-in-the-sky dream than a true goal because houses here are expensive and we had/have little money for a down payment. We are in no position to take on the financial responsibility of owning and maintaining our own home. We know it now, and we knew it then. But when I wrote this goal at the end of 2017, we were in a horrible, noisy, smoky-smelling rental situation and I was looking for a way out.

Luckily, we managed to find a new rental in February. We paid thousands of dollars to break our former lease, but we love our place and have no regrets whatsoever. Not a night goes by that I don't bask in the glory of the silence that surrounds me. I'd live here forever if we had rent control.

Goal 3: Find a new job that better aligns with my education, experience, and interests.


Did I do it? Yes! I was offered a new, higher-paying position almost exactly a year ago.

What did I learn? My old job was terrible and I stayed much longer than I should have. So when I landed my current job, I was over the moon... for about two months. Then I realized that I'd jumped out of a frying pan and straight into a fire. Pro tip: do not leave a job in a field you've grown to despise for another job in the same field. Now I'm in the process of trying to change careers. We'll see how it turns out.

Goal 4: Refinance our student loan payments.


Did we do it: Nope. 

What did we learn?: One, it's possible that we're a little lazy. Two, we're okay with our current monthly payments. Three, although our interest rates are somewhat high (at 7% and 7.25%), federal student loans come with some nice perks, including the ability to defer payments if needed. I'm not completely convinced that refinancing with a private lender is worth giving up that wiggle room, but we will look into it in the coming year after I pay off my loan. 

Goal 5: Volunteer with a local running group.


Did I do it? Yes! I volunteered with a Couch-to-5K program that prepares new runners for their first race. 

What did I learn?: I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I thought I would. I'm not good at making small talk with people I don't know that well. Nevertheless, I'm glad I did it and would consider doing it again because it's a good way to be involved in my community.

Goal 6: Run a 50K.


Did I do it? No. 

What did I learn?: I learned that running for long periods of time can actually exacerbate my depression. I ramped up my running mileage throughout the summer and into the early fall with the intention of completing my first 50K in November. But as September wore on, I started to dread being out on the trails by myself for hours at a time. It wasn't fun. It felt like punishment. It made my seasonal depression even more painful.

As a compromise to myself and a nod to the hard work I'd already put in, I ran a 20-mile relay with a bunch of other women in September but backed out of the ultra. Then I shifted gears and began weight training. I'm not sure I'll set a running goal in 2019. I'll have to see how I feel in the spring.

Goal 7: Open my own Etsy store.


Did I do it? Yes, and I made several sales.

What did I learn? This is a classic example of me realizing that I don't want what I thought I did. I quickly lost interest in maintaining and advertising the store. I just didn't feel passionate enough about it and didn't have the time or motivation to improve my product. Now I know!

Goal 8: Do a dry June.


Did I do it? No again.

What did I learn? For a goal that involves habit change, you have to really want it. I was on the right track: I started my dry spell at the end of May and made it through the first week of June without touching any alcohol. Then Anthony Bourdain died. I don't know why it hit me so hard, but it did. My partner and I had a few beers to celebrate his life and that was that. I could have picked up where I left off, but I didn't, because I didn't want it that badly.

The Tally


Four out of eight. Not the greatest outcome, if you're looking at it from a pure numbers perspective. But for me, it's not about success or failure. It's about staying motivated and learning more about myself. As I make my goals for 2019 (stay tuned!), I'll keep these lessons in mind and focus my efforts accordingly.

What about you? What goals did you set for 2018? Which ones did you reach, and which ones didn't work out?
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Winning: December 2018 Edition

Current status
Y'all.

It has been a week. 

A. 

Week.

This interminable f&*%ing week featured a packed work calendar that left me exhausted at the end of every day, multiple parenting fails, and at least two ugly meltdowns. The meltdowns were from me, not my kid. I was the meltdown-er. Rather embarrassing, given that I'm a 40-year-old professional who's supposed to have her shiz together.

I do not have my shiz together. 

Luckily, it's now VACATION TIME, and for the next few days I can be as un-together as I want to be. I'm going to put this job mess on hold, drink some delicious wine, watch some of my favorite Christmas movies, sleep in until whenever, and eat my body weight in holiday-themed Reese's peanut butter cups. I might maybe also get some fancy hair products to cover all the extra gray hairs that have suddenly sprouted across my head.

To kick off my five days of unrepentant slothdom, I figured I'd crack open said wine and delve into our December wins. You know: turn my frown upside down and all that.

And actually, there's a lot to smile about:

1. I completed a full round of interviews for a job that would tap into my strengths and that I think I'd enjoy. I don't want to speculate on the outcome because I won't hear back for at least another week, but I will happily celebrate the fact that I applied for the job, jumped through all the hoops they asked me to jump through, and lined up some solid references. It's evidence that I'm trying to improve my current employment situation instead of just complaining about it.

It's out of my hands now. If they want me, yay! If they don't want me, well, that's more experience that I can tap into the next time around. (Sigh.)

2. We paid another $1600 to my student loan, bringing the balance to $3700! In the chart below, you can see that our progress really ramped up (ramped down?) after we paid off our credit cards in July of this year:


*If* everything goes to plan, we'll pay off the entire loan by the end of February. This assumes that my salary holds steady. It might not. If I get this new job, my salary will decrease substantially and we'll need to recalibrate our payoff plan. Stay tuned!

Shoutout to the debt snowball method. It's the reason we're now able to pay $1600 a month to my student loan. If you go back to our posts from summer of 2017, you'll see that we were making rather small payments towards all of our debts (credit cards, car loan, student loans). But once we knocked out a couple of them and re-applied the money to the remaining loans, our progress accelerated.

3. The Kiddo and I found a new dentist and got some much-needed dental work. I don't know if I ever wrote about it here, but at the beginning of the year we started seeing a dentist who was just... creepy. 


We have an extremely limited dental network under our insurance plan and he was the only one who had an immediate opening. But after he nearly broke my jaw during a filling (okay, not really... it just felt like it) and did some shady stuff with my kid's dental records (really), I decided we needed to find someone else, even if it meant waiting a couple of months for an appointment.

We lucked out. New dentist is as fantastic and un-creepy as a dentist can get. He takes my insurance, his office is clean, and he doesn't make weird sexist comments to his staff. He did, however, identify a couple of items we needed to take care of: a small filling for the Kiddo and a crown for me, because one of my teeth was disintegrating under a hodgepodge of previous dental work.

The total bill came out to around $700. Although it's never fun to spend that much money on mouth ceramic, I was able to work out a payment plan wherein I paid half the balance up front and will pay the rest in three monthly installments at zero percent interest. As with the Kiddo's appendectomy, I'm using our HSA to cover the cost and thus we won't feel the effects in our monthly budget. YAY!

Other December wins:
-Kiddo has discovered a renewed interest in school and is generally enjoying himself.
-Kiddo has realized that more studying = more retention = higher grades, and he's digging it.
-Fortysomething finished out his third semester of teaching and still loves it.
-It's vacation time!
-The PF Twitter community is a neverending source of information, advice, and encouragement. I love you guys!

What about you? What are your December wins?

Happy holidays, everyone, and thanks so much for reading.
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Coping With My Job While I'm Searching For My Unicorn


Not much has changed on the job front since I first wrote about my work woes back in September. To be completely honest, I'm dealing with the exact same issues three months later. It's stressful, frustrating, and sometimes exhausting. It is an exercise in endurance.

Endurance is hard.

I'm in the process of exploring other employment opportunities. I've even had a couple of preliminary interviews. Unfortunately, many of the openings I'm seeing on the job boards would involve a significant pay cut, and while I'm not totally opposed to a salary reduction, I'm willing to go that route only if it's a gig I'm truly excited about. I'm hesitant to scale back our debt repayment plans to take a lower-paying job that doesn't make me want to jump out of bed in the morning. 

I want that debt-free life bad. Real, real bad.

So I'm being picky. Really, really picky. As I told my writer/Twitter friend Lisa Munro, I feel like I'm searching for a unicorn.

To save my sanity while I'm out unicorn hunting, I'm busting out every coping mechanism I can reasonably sustain, including:

  • meditating at least 10 minutes a day (inspired by my friend Frugalish Physician)
  • working out daily
  • taking frequent work breaks (I aim for every 15 minutes or so)
  • setting three non-work goals every day 
  • reading the job discussion boards on Reddit if I feel like I need some commiseration and understanding
  • avoiding unnecessary meetings (or, if it's a phone meeting, muting parts of the call)
  • taking at least one mental health day every few weeks - that way, I always have a break to look forward to
  • spending more time with friends outside of work and making my non-work life as big as possible 
  • incessantly reminding myself of the benefits of my job: paycheck, insurance, paid time off. Paycheck, insurance, paid time off. PAID TIME OFF. PAID TIME OFF.

I'm also finding that my work life is easier if I don't think too far out into the future. Can I deal until the end of January? Sure. Can I deal for another year? Cue panic attack. So I don't focus on a year from now. I focus on getting through the next few weeks. I focus on making it to the next break or vacation.

Lastly, I do not allow myself to fall into the "I'm wasting my life away" rabbit hole. It's a very unhealthy and dangerous line of self-talk - especially for someone with chronic depression - so when my mind veers in that direction, I immediately try to put up a mental roadblock and stop that thought in its tracks. I am not wasting my life. Ultimately, as not-thrilled as I am with this job, it is benefitting me and my family in myriad ways and therefore is not a waste of my time or energy.

I know I'm not the only one dealing with this challenge, so tell me: have you ever been in a similar situation with your work? What are your strategies for coping with a job that seems generally unsustainable?
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The $76K Project's Top Twelve Posts For 2018


I'm talking directly to you: thank you thank you thank you for reading The $76K Project. When I started this blog in the summer of 2017, I suspected my enthusiasm would dwindle after only a few months. But this blog has become something I'm deeply invested in from an emotional standpoint, and it's still going strong. A big part of its (relative) longevity is due to your encouragement. Every pageview and every comment means something to me.

My Early Retirement Journey recently compiled her top 10 posts for 2018, and she's inspired me to do something similar. Looking at my list, I'm realizing that the pieces people seem to like the most are the ones that display the greatest degree of vulnerability. Which is a little scary, to be honest. It's hard to put myself out there, to admit my fears and mistakes and frustrations. But clearly those are the posts that resonate the most, and so one of my goals for 2019 is to be even more transparent about finances, mental health, midlife crises, money dilemmas, career hurdles, and other life challenges. 

So grab a glass of wine or a cup of tea, curl up in your favorite reading spot, and enjoy the most popular $76K posts from 2018:

1. Why I Decided To Quit My Job And Find A New One (January 2018): "Your job shouldn't be creating 40 hours of weekly unhappiness. You deserve to have a job that doesn't make you lose sleep, that offers decent pay and opportunities for growth, and that harnesses your knowledge, experience, and passion. You shouldn't settle for less."

2. Here's What Our Financial Recalibration Looks Like (February 2018): "Financial situations fluctuate, meaning that the achievement of our long-term goals depends in part on our ability to adapt and be flexible."

3. Dollar Dilemma: To Sign Up For The Race Series, Or Not (March 2018): "My attitude has clearly evolved in this respect: in the past, I had no problem shoving the budget aside, doing what I wanted to do, and telling myself I'd worry about the cost later. Now, I take our budget seriously: it tells us the unwavering truth about our financial situation and what we can afford."

4. Doing More Of What I Love (May 2018): "What I hope to achieve by doing more of what I love is to stop treating work as the centerpiece of my daily life. If I can re-allocate some of the massive amounts of mental space that I currently devote to my job to the things I love, I think I'll feel more rooted in my own life, and less frustrated by the sense that work is stealing my time."

5. Why We're Taking A (Short) Break From Debt Repayment (June 2018): "For more than a year now, a huge chunk of our lives has been about debt. Frankly, it's tiring: tiring to always be tracking expenses to the penny, tiring to have to say no to so many things, tiring to constantly be reminded of our mistakes. We need some time away from this whole process so that we can re-energize and gear up for the next phase."

6. These two go together: How We Crushed Nearly $25K Of Debt In One Year (June 2018) and Our July 2018 Budget And Credit Card Zero Celebration! (July 2018): "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!"

7. We Should Be Talking About Our Salaries. Here's Why. (July 2018): "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 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."

8. Why We're Prioritizing Our Emergency Fund Over Student Loan Repayment (August 2018): "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."

9. When Your Mental Health Affects Your Financial Well-Being (August 2018): "But the way I respond to these challenges has changed for the better - mostly in the sense that I act less impulsively now - and as a result, I have a much better handle on my personal finances than I used to. I'm very proud of that. Do I think it's going to all go perfectly from here on out? Nope. The goal is to simply do my best with the quirky mind I've got, consider the long-term effects of the decisions I make, and let go of non-ideal choices made when things get difficult."

10. Stuck: A Job Post (September 2018): "I do see the pros of my job: the paycheck, the benefits, the chance to finally pay down my debt. But if you've never experienced it for yourself, it's hard to describe how mentally and emotionally taxing it is to feel as though you are throwing away 40+ hours of your life every week. If you've been there, you know what I mean. It's exhausting. It shouldn't be that way."

11. These two go hand in hand, too, because they revealed the same lesson: Coming To You LIVE From The Debt Repayment Pain Cave and Breaking: Debt Repayment Journey Gets Delayed By Midlife Crisis! (October 2018): "I don't mean that we should go back into credit card debt or that we should quit our jobs tomorrow. But maybe it's okay to slow this whole thing down a little bit, because I really don't see why I should sacrifice the things I like about myself for the unknowns of tomorrow."

12. This Financial Update Comes With A Free Blogging Rant (December 2018): "It's not that I don't want to blog. I do. I enjoy it: the writing, the interaction with readers, the creating of a detailed record of our financial journey. I like knowing that some readers might relate to our goals, challenges, setbacks, and wins. But do I want to do all the things you're supposed to do in order to be a successful blogger?

Well. No."

What about you? If you're a blogger, what post or posts are you most proud of? Share them here and I'll post them on my Twitter feed. 

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This Financial Update Comes With A Free Blogging Rant


It's been a couple of weeks since I've posted here, and even longer than that since I've offered an update on the $76K Project's financial progress. The delay is due in part to end-of-year busy-ness: work, everyday chores and tasks, appointments, and getting ready for the holidays are taking up a lot of time. (Also napping. And arguing with people on Twitter. You know how it goes.)

But it has more to do with my conflicting feelings about this blog.

Wherein I go off on a tangent about blogging


I see so many personal finance bloggers on my feed absolutely killing it. Some of them are creating snazzy fresh websites and/or re-shaping their brands. Others are broadening their content by delving into new realms of commentary and advice. Several of my PF blogging friends have even invested in courses through Pete McPherson's BloggerU*, and they're seeing results. They're growing their audiences. Which is awesome.

*Please note that this is not an affiliate link. Pete McPherson has no idea who I am. I'm not even sure I spelled his name right.

Me?

Clearly I'm not doing any of that. If I were anywhere near serious about growing, I'd at least have the decency to move to Wordpress. Instead, I haven't even found the motivation to figure out how you can comment without having to identify every single car or crosswalk in the picture and if you don't do it right the first time, you're done, goodbye.

It's not that I don't want to blog. I do. I enjoy it: the writing, the interaction with readers, the creating of a detailed record of our financial journey. I like knowing that some readers might relate to our goals, challenges, setbacks, and wins.

But do I want to do all the things you're supposed to do in order to be a successful blogger?

Well. No.

For the past few weeks, I've been feeling stuck on the things I feel I *should* be doing with this blog. And the more I try to convince myself that I need to do and write about what other, more successful writers are doing and writing about, the less I want to do anything at all.

I don't want to feel like I'm writing things just to be noticed by Rockstar Finance (I'm not saying anyone else is doing it; I'm saying I found myself feeling this way). I don't want to create an email subscription thing. I don't want to learn SEO. I don't want to make my blog look better, even though I am very much aware that the current design is very 2002.

I don't want to write about things like: 

...how to invest (no idea; I just stick everything into index funds)

...how to travel hack (I'm convinced I'd just end up in credit card debt again)

...how to negotiate your salary (though I know people who can help you with that)

...how to find a better job (hell if I know)

...how to make frugal Christmas crafts (though I would like to *make* frugal Christmas crafts)

...FIRE (so not my wheelhouse...)

(If YOU are writing about any of these things, know that I think YOU are doing a tremendous job.)

Really, I don't want to tell you how to do anything. You should not be here for advice. That is not my strong suit. I mean, I know I've offered some advice in the past, and maybe some of it is a little helpful, but there are other people who are saying the same things in a better way. And okay, I've also written some how-to posts, like how to make a budget and how to find cheap shoes on eBay, but I don't always enjoy writing those types of pieces and don't want to feel like I have to.

Instead, I'll keep doing what I'm good at doing and want to do, which is shamelessly talk about myself. And if there's something in here that you can relate to, or find encouragement in, then that's awesome.

Anyhoo, here's a financial update


So here's what happened in November.

We did all the things we said we were going to do. We made a budget and mostly stuck to it. We went on a mini-vacation over the Thanksgiving holiday and had a pretty good time, except that I ended up with food poisoning on the last day and now feel that I deserve a complete vacation do-over.

We went out to eat less. We tried some new recipes and drank less wine.

The emphasis going into this month was on saving, not paying down debt, and so we initally put money into savings, as planned, and paid just the minimum on our student loans. 

But a few weeks ago, Fortysomething shared with me that he's really sick of the student loans. Like, vomitously sick of them. We've been dragging them around for over a decade (I know, I know) and he's getting older and it's just ridiculous to have them and BLURGH.

We've both wanted to have these loans gone, but he's never made such a passionate case for getting rid of them ASAP. I think he brought it up because he was worried I'd up and quit my job, and then we'd be looking at several more years of paying off the damn things.

In that moment, we decided: we're going to stick to the original plan and obliterate the loans as fast as we possibly can given the constraints of our income and budget. 

This means that for now, I need to stick with my job (either my current one or a new one, if a viable new one comes along) even if I'm not thrilled with it. Fine. Paying off the loans in full will take about 1.5 years if we go all-out; I can last that long (I think). 

Can we do it?

YES!

Will it be fun?

NO!

Will I complain along the way? 

ABSOLUTELY!

To seal the deal, we took some of the extra money we'd put into savings and threw another $1600 at my student loan.

And it felt good:


Total debt as of today: $43,802.

Keep in mind that in January of this year, our debt total stood at $65,934.

If I have any lesson to offer, it's that you can make progress if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You can even complain while doing it, like I do.

Anyway, that's where we're at. I'll post the nuts and bolts of our December debt totals in the link at the top of the page, so check it out if you're interested. 

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How We Used Our HSA To Pay For A Medical Emergency


It Started With A Stomachache


One early morning last March, my son shuffled into our bedroom, his hands clenched to his abdomen.

"Mom," he whispered. "Mom. I don't feel good. My stomach hurts. Can I stay home today?"

"Mrrrph," I said from beneath the covers, wondering how long it'd be before I'd be cleaning up puke off the bathroom floor.

Three hours later, I was about to log into a conference call with my boss when I heard an odd, gut-wrenching moan from across the house. Parental alarm bells went off in my head. I hurried into the Kiddo's room to find him curled up in a ball on the bed, his skin pale, his face scrunched up in pain. 

I cancelled my meeting and we headed to urgent care, where the doctor took one look at him and announced that we'd need to go straight to the ER.

The verdict: a classic presentation of appendicitis. By 8 PM that evening, the Kiddo was in surgery. By 9 PM, he was enjoying a popsicle in the recovery room. By noon the next day, we were on our way back home with instructions to let him rest for a week. Two weeks later, he met with the surgeon and received a clean bill of health.

All in all, it was a sudden but relatively short-lived emergency, and we quickly returned to life as usual... until the medical bills started rolling in.

A Hit To The Old Bank Account


As anyone who lives in the United States and has encountered a medical emergency knows all too well, the aftermath of a hospital visit looks something like this - but with demands for payment instead of invitations to Hogwarts:


via GIPHY

Once the bills started showing up in our mailbox, they just kept coming. For months.

Our 30-hour medical emergency generated bills from the following providers and offices:

  • Urgent care
  • Ultrasound technician
  • Ultrasound analysis
  • Pathology
  • ER services
  • ER doctor
  • Surgeon
  • Anesthesiologist
  • Nurse anesthetist 
  • Use of operating room
  • Use of recovery room
  • Follow-up visit with surgeon
  • Hospital stay

Luckily, I have health insurance through my employer, so we weren't responsible for the full amount. But because I have a high deductible health plan with a family deductible of $2500 and an out-of-pocket maximum of $7000, we were still on the hook for thousands and thousands of dollars. 

Did we have thousands and thousands of dollars saved up?

Nope, sure didn't.

We evaluated our options:

-Call providers and ask for a big discount. If you ever get hit with a medical bill, you should absolutely request a discount. Just know that results vary widely. When my son was born via C-section, we didn't have insurance. That was fun. On the bright side, the hospital was willing to chop off a huge portion of the balance if we paid in full (which we were able to do with my parents' help). This time, though, we negotiated only 10 percent off the total. The remainder was still too high for us to pay outright, so this option was a non-starter.

-Pay with a credit card. We may have done it for the points had we had cash on hand, but since we knew we couldn't pay it off right away, the credit card route was a great big NOPE.

-Request a payment plan. Ultimately, this is what we ended up doing, and with the help of our HSA, it was a relatively painless choice. Even if you don't have an HSA, I highly recommend that you do this. I've heard that hospitals will generally agree to proposed terms of payment, at low or no interest, as long as you are paying something each month.

HSA To The Rescue


High deductible health plans kind of suck, but one of their few redeeming qualities is that many of them come with a health savings account, or HSA. You (and possibly your employer, if it's an employer-sponsored plan) contribute money to the account, which rolls over from year to year and is yours to keep forever. Not only are your HSA contributions tax-deductible (up to $3500 for an individual and $7000 for a family in 2019), once you reach a balance threshold, you can invest your HSA cash and earn tax-free interest. Woohoo!

Anyway, when my son ended up in the hospital, I'd been at my current job for only a couple of months and had only a few hundred dollars in my HSA. But I was still able to use my HSA to pay all of our medical bills with little impact to our monthly budget. 

Here's how we did it:

1. I made a list of healthcare providers and how much we owed to each of them. 

2. I reviewed every bill carefully and contacted the insurance company and providers to discuss apparent errors. Have I mentioned that I hate talking on the phone? This part was challenging for me but ultimately worthwhile. In a couple of instances, the providers made some... interesting billing choices, and the insurance company stepped in on our behalf. We saved a few hundred dollars in the process.

3. I paid off some of the smaller bills with the money I'd already saved in my HSA. I did this for organizational and motivational purposes: eliminating a few bills right off the bat made me feel like I'd accomplished something. It also meant I had fewer accounts to keep track of.

4. I maximized my HSA contribution. I calculated how much my employer would contribute in 2018 (close to $2000), figured out how much I'd need to chip in to meet the HSA maximum, and adjusted my biweekly HSA contribution accordingly. It did make a dent in my paycheck, but not an exceedingly large one. The fact that contributions are tax deductible made it an easy choice. I'll be maxing out my HSA contribution every year from now on.

5. I participated in my company's wellness incentive program. Many big companies have programs like this. Basically, you accrue points by completing a bunch of health-oriented tasks - getting a flu shot, scheduling a yearly physical, participating in a sport or other healthy activity - and when you earn enough points, you receive a discount on your monthly premium or some extra HSA cash. In my case, my company deposited an additional $500 into my HSA upon my successful completion of the program. I used this windfall to pay off the anesthesiology bill.

6. I calculated how much money would be coming into my HSA each month - about $500 - and set up automated monthly payments accordingly. Basically, I called each provider's billing department and told them what we could afford to pay each month. To my surprise, they all agreed to my suggested terms. I then set up automated monthly payments directly from the HSA. That was key: money goes into the HSA and comes out of the HSA, but it never touches my bank account. Which means that it never touches our budget. 

7. As I paid off smaller bills, I used the debt snowball method to increase payments to other providers. A few weeks ago we paid the balance of the surgeon's bill, so now we can allocate $500/month to the last remaining bill for hospital services.

As of today, that bill holds a balance of $1800. We'll pay it off by March - one year after my son's surgery.

A Member of the HSA Fan Club


My company does offer a more traditional health insurance plan, one that would have us paying higher monthly premiums but much lower deductibles. Personally, though, I'll never go back to a more traditional plan because the HSA offers so many benefits. 

Lower monthly premiums? Nice.

Free money from my employer? Yes please.

A tax deduction to the tune of nearly $7K? Mmmhmmm.

Tax-free interest? Ooooooh yeah.

An account that we can use to pay for healthcare expenses as long as there's money in it? Sign me up.

DON'T GET ME WRONG: the healthcare system in the United States is a complete shitshow (hashtag TRUEFACT), and if you don't see that, well, lucky you because clearly you've been sheltered from its horrors up to this point. I also know that I am writing this from a relatively privileged position: we have the financial wiggle room to contribute to an HSA. But if you have an HSA available to you, you might be able to use it as a tool to wrangle a little bit of control if/when you face a medical emergency.

Have you ever been hit with a big medical bill? How did you handle it? Do you have advice for others going through a similar experience?


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,

November 2018: Budgeting For Celebration Season


Budgeting at the end of the year is always a challenge for us. During October, November, and December, we've got a lot to celebrate in our household:
  • Two birthdays
  • Our anniversary
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas
  • New Years Eve (this one doesn't actually count because our celebration usually consists of eating potato chips in our pajamas and falling asleep at 11:15 PM)
Although we make an effort to restrain ourselves, we often end up going a little overboard on extras during these special occasions. Last year, for example, we had every intention to lay low at Thanksgiving and enjoy a quiet long weekend at home. Instead, we found an impressive hotel deal and ended up taking a last-minute, three-day getaway to the desert

Last year's desert pool party
We had such a good time that we decided to take a similar get-out-of-town approach to Thanksgiving 2018. This time we're going on a road trip and visiting a national park a few hours away from home. It's going to be more expensive than last year's adventure because we're staying in a hotel for four nights. Breakfast is included with the room, but we'll be paying for groceries and some meals out, plus gas, plus kitty camp for our Very Expensive Feline. 

Will it be cheap? No. But do I need this mini-vacation? Yes. YESSSSSSS. I don't feel bad about spending the money to enjoy ourselves. 

(P.S. IMPORTANT PSA: You shouldn't feel bad about spending money on things you care about, either. Okay? If you need a break, if you need to get away because your brain is on the verge of cracking into a million little pieces like mine is, SPEND THE MONEY AND TAKE THE BREAK.)

As you'll see in our budget below, we're paying the bare minimum towards student loans this month. Half of our disposable income will be reserved for our getaway; the other half has already gone into savings. 

Speaking of savings, the student loan vs. savings dilemma continues. Part of me wants to go all-out on our loans and get them paid off lickety split. Another part of me is so miserable in my job that it seems wiser to put intensive debt payoff on hold and save up the cash for a one-year career break. For now, we're going the savings route, but we'll re-assess the situation in February and possibly pay off my remaining balance then. 

November 2018 Budget


Note: I may have overestimated gas and pet expenses. I'd rather overestimate than underestimate, though, and if we do have extra at the end of the month, it'll go right into savings.


Expense:
Budgeted:
Rent (including water, sewer, trash)
2100
Internet
65
Phone
78
Insurance
73
Student Loan #1
202
Student Loan #2
400
Thousand Trails
108
Gas/electric/utilities
140
Food
870
Gas
125
Cat
160
Netflix
13
Classroom stuff
40
Other
840
Savings
800
Total Expenses
6014


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Step Into My Time Machine: Highlights Of My 30s


I turned 40 last month, and in the weeks leading up to the big day, I couldn't help but reflect on the previous decade. Overall, my 30s were a wild, fun ride, and although I have clearly made some career and financial mistakes, I regret very, very little about any of it.

Want to take a trip back in time with me? 


Age 30-32:


When I turned 30, we had just purchased our own home in a bedroom community outside a big city. Although I wasn't a fan of the neighborhood - too cookie cutter - I loved everything about our cozy little house. It was the first time I'd lived in a place that felt like home. We were also the proud, exhausted parents of a two year old who refused to sleep through the night (he didn't sleep through the night until he was five).

My little dude, back when his motto was,
"Sleep is for the weak!"
This was 2008 - Great Recession time. We were lucky. Other than the fact that the value of our house plummeted right after we bought it, we didn't feel the direct effects of the economic downturn because both Fortysomething and I were working as contractors in online higher education. Many people went back to school when they lost their jobs, and universities couldn't seem to hire instructors fast enough to keep up with the pace of registration. We were able to teach as many classes as we wanted to. Financially speaking, 2008 and 2009 were actually banner years for us. We made over $100,000 in 2009 from contract work and were able to pay off $30K in credit card debt that we'd amassed in the previous decade.

The upshot was that we were earning a good income, but we were chained to our computers all. the. time. I despised it. We'd just moved to town, so we didn't know many people, and we didn't know how to meet anyone because we were so busy working within the confines of our house. I often felt trapped and miserable. I wanted to throw my computer out the window and smash my desk to smithereens with a sledgehammer. 

Age 32-35:


Frustrated with my dead-end career, I researched graduate school opportunities at local universities and applied to a program in the physical sciences. I landed a full ride complete with health insurance, tuition, and a small teaching stipend. Initially, I was nervous about being one of the older students in the department, but it turned out to be an excellent fit. Every day was full of new information and new adventures and I just soaked it all in. 

Plus, I got to travel. I presented at conferences throughout the United States, conducted fieldwork in the southwest and South America, and even traveled to the Caribbean and Italy (twice!) I missed my family while I was abroad, but I'm not ashamed to say that I relished every moment of these experiences. (Sidenote: when I ask my son now how he felt about me being away for weeks at a time when he was little, his response is usually, "Huh? Where'd you go? CAN I GO?" so it's nice to know that I don't need to hang onto any guilt in that department.)

My favorite part of graduate school was the fieldwork and the labwork, but I was also a good teacher. I had creative ideas for the classroom, and students liked me. People kept telling me that I should teach. I kept trying to explain that I don't actually enjoy human interaction that much, but I kind of got pigeonholed. My advisors pigeonholed me and I pigeonholed myself. It is my one regret from my grad school experience.

Fieldwork in the desert = heaven on Earth
Also heaven: when you have to present at a conference in Florence, Italy. DARN.
Financially, these were not great years for us. I wasn't making much money. Fortysomething - who was also the primary parent during this time and didn't question it once because gender roles aren't his thing - busted his butt with contract work to make sure that the mortgage and bills got paid. I'll admit that I was almost completely checked out of the money side of things, especially when I was traveling. The credit card debt crept back up again.

Age 35-38:


Because my graduate program was committed to helping people obtain their degrees in a timely fashion, I defended my dissertation and earned my doctorate exactly four years after I started my PhD. I don't think I've ever been more proud of myself.

My family was also relieved that grad school was done.
The academic job market is a shitshow, but I somehow managed to find a tenure-track teaching position with my very first application. In retrospect, it's probably because everyone else took one look at that particular job ad and thought, "NO WAY IN HELL." The school was located a tiny, middle-of-nowhere Midwest town populated by lots of corn and a few people. Not really my cup of tea, location-wise, but it sounded like an adventure, and I'm always up for that. So we sold our house (at almost the exact same price for which we bought it), packed up the moving truck, and headed north for a glorious new life in the academic ivory tower.

Ha.

We lived in a moldy house with a rent of $500 per month. My salary wasn't anything to write home about, but given the rock-bottom cost of living in the area and the fact that Fortysomething was still doing well with contract work, we didn't have to worry about money. We paid off some of our credit card debt and upped our student loan payments.

Exploring our new area
I quickly realized that the job itself was a dud, in no small part because my school announced budget cuts right as we were moving in. Disconcerting, to say the least. Halfway through the first semester, I almost had a nervous breakdown (for a variety of reasons - another story for another time). I forced myself to finish out the year and decided that I just needed to give the job a chance. The first year of academia is hard for everyone, I told myself. Give it another go. But the second year was also hell and involved another brush with severe mental illness, so in the spring of that year I announced to the dean that I would not be returning in the fall.

Fortysomething was still working as a contractor and I was feeling totally lost, so we did what seemed like the most logical thing at the time, which was to sell everything we owned, buy an RV, and start traveling around the country. For six months we lived as vagabonds, saw some amazing scenery and landmarks, and bonded as a family. We intended to travel indefinitely. Then we rolled into our current town and immediately fell in love. We meant to leave. We just... didn't.

This sign in Austin, TX summed up our philosophy.
Note: At some point I'll have to write a post about full-time RVing. It's actually a very affordable way to live and we truly enjoyed it. 15/10, would do again.


Age 38-40: 


New town! No job! Money got tight. I applied for a part-time hourly position at REI and landed the gig. Much to my surprise, I loved it. I loved not being confined to a desk, loved learning about hiking and climbing, loved talking about the outdoors with coworkers and customers, and loved the culture of the company. But it paid next to nothing, and this is an expensive town. So I started looking for other work.

I found a position at the local university and quickly realized that meeting with 16-20 students every day was not my idea of a good time. When will this introvert learn? I lasted about a year. 

Back to the classified ads. This time I found a position as an online course instructor. I applied, interviewed, hit it off with my boss, and thought I'd found my dream job... which explains where I am now. My boss left unexpectedly and since then I've struggled. It isn't lost on me that at 40, my job is similar to the job I had at 30, though my pay and benefits are much better. My feelings about said job are also similar. 

And so here I am!

I've actually been working on this post for the past few days and almost gave up on it twice. But then I started to relish the walk down memory lane and see it as an opportunity: an opportunity to reflect on what works for me and what doesn't. 

What I've learned from looking back and writing this post is that...
  • ...throwing myself into new situations doesn't faze me. 
  • ...my family is awesome (I already knew that).
  • ...I'm at my best when I'm having an adventure.
  • ...I need to stop trying to force myself into job situations that are clearly not working for me. 
  • ...it feels good to look back and see all the things I'm proud of.
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