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


I Quit. I'm Taking A Career Break.

A little over a month ago, I wrote about my overwhelming situation at work and the crippling anxiety I was experiencing as a result. I was just six weeks into my new editing job, and it was already a disaster. I was a disaster. At night, I was plagued with insomnia; during the day, I was battling panic attacks and fighting to focus on the words on the page - problematic, since the job required rapid, quality editing of multiple manuscripts on a daily basis. I was cranky and irritable. My family tiptoed around me like I was a human minefield.

Although I’ve grappled with anxiety for most of my life (and particularly with work anxiety over the past five years - you can read alllll about that here, here, and here), this time it felt different. It felt damaging and dangerous and wrong. A lot of you got that impression, too, and in your comments on my post, you suggested I walk away.

But I forced myself to hang in there a little while longer, first because I wanted to save as much FU money as possible, and second because I needed to make sure that the problem wasn't simply my lack of confidence. 

So for a few weeks, I gave it my all. I talked to my manager and received an extended training schedule. I flipped open my laptop early every morning and resolutely made my way through each manuscript. I worked as long as it took to get the job done. I met my quotas. Outside of my job, I started seeing a therapist. Talking about my anxiety helped me get my sleep schedule back on track.

But every week, the quota increased, and every week, I raced to work fast enough to keep up. One week the training team told me my edits shouldn't take more than 26 hours; it took me at least 45, and I accomplished that feat only by tearing through my assignments with the precision and delicacy of a tank. Working on the weekends became a necessity (I wasn't alone - many of my colleagues did the same).

I felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails.

I cried daily.

Last Monday, I opened up a manuscript in Word, read the first line, and found that I was staring into a jumble of letters. I read it again. I read it three more times. It still made no sense, so I moved on - only to find that the following words, sentences, and paragraphs were also gibberish. The next few papers produced similar results.

It dawned on me that my brain was done.

I Did Everything I Could To Make It Work

The truth is, I liked several aspects of the job. I liked working from home, I liked reading papers about research in my field of study, and I liked editing. I liked seeing how a light application of minor tweaks could make a paper sparkle with clarity. I liked honing my editing skills. I thought I had potential - and so did my manager.

"You've got the best edits on the team right now," she said at one point. "You're a natural."

I was slow, but since it appeared that I was doing well, I thought the job might be worth fighting for. I looked for solutions.

Borrowing inspiration from The Fioneers and Tread Lightly, Retire Early, I mustered up my courage and asked if I could transition to a part-time schedule so that I wouldn't feel so rushed and stressed. It was something that the employee handbook listed as an option. I'd crunched the numbers; the budget would be tight, but we could make it work.

I figured it was a win-win: I'd be able to proceed at a slower pace, continue to bring in a paycheck, and improve my editing skills, and they'd get a return on their training investment. Plus, they wouldn't have to cover my health insurance.

Instead of entertaining the possibility of a compromise, my boss came back with an unexpected ultimatum: get with the program and meet the quota requirements for a full-time editor, or leave. "Maybe this isn’t the right fit for you," she said (days after telling me how well I was doing). "Not everyone can edit at the pace we require. If you want to leave, we will support that. But part-time work isn't an option because your efficiency isn't there."

And with that, I was done. I'm not a word-crunching robot, and I never will be. I want a reasonable job that utilizes my skills and experience and generally makes me feel good about what I'm contributing to my organization. I want a job that energizes me rather than depletes me. I want a job with an employer who is willing to work with me and help me be the best I can be. I want a job that doesn't make me feel like I'm as disposable as a piece of trash.*

I sent in my letter of resignation the next day. I let them know I was quitting immediately.

Have I done my best? Yes. Have I given it time? Yes. Is it super disappointing? Yes. Am I scared? God, yes. Even though quitting was the best option of the options available, it's accurate to say that I was terrified to make this call and make this leap.

But I'm also concerned about my own health. Even though most people in my everyday life can't tell, I know that I've reached a breaking point. You can't hear the sirens going off in my brain, but I can. So it's time to press pause.

I Have Nothing Lined Up. At All.

Several people have asked if I have something else lined up. I do not.

Contract work?



Not yet.


No. Nothing.

Instead, I'm taking a career break for the next several months.

Going into this job, I was already burnt out. Ever so diligently, I'd been following that well-worn advice to never leave one gig without something new in the hopper. When I quit my part-time retail job, I had an advising job lined up. When I quit advising, I had a teaching job lined up. And when I quit teaching, I had the editing job lined up.

Perhaps I was being responsible, but the problem was, this approach didn’t give me any time to reflect on my experiences or recover my energy. So when the workload piled on at this latest endeavor, I didn’t have the wherewithal to cope. I buckled, and quickly.

Jumping Off The Hamster Wheel

I have to remind myself that this isn’t the first time that I’ve jumped off the 9-to-5 hamster wheel. I've done it before, and it's worked out.

When I was 25, just after I'd finished my Master's degree with a sociopathic advisor, I decided to walk away from it all - quite literally. I went to Europe and spent two months hiking in the Alps and crewing on a sailboat. When I came home, I got a job at Starbucks and devoted the next six months to slamming out peppermint mochas and caramel macchiatos (while listening to clueless customers tell me to go back to school, get a degree, and find a real job). In my free time, I wrote. I smelled like sour milk, but I was pretty happy.

Hiking in Italy
A few years ago, I gave notice at my dysfunctional academic job, and we bought an RV. We sold most of our stuff and slowly made our way out west. At the time, Fortysomething was a contractor, and I was picking up some online classes every now and then. Mostly, I ran, parented, cooked food in our tiny RV kitchen, and explored. We didn’t have much money, but I wasn’t particularly worried. I felt free and optimistic, and daily life was simple. When we finally landed in our small town, I got a job at REI. Once again, I was completely and totally fine with the situation.

Living the big-sky RV life
We're in a much better financial position than we were back then. I'm really glad we've gotten our spending and budget under control, and I don't want to slide back into debt. We've worked too hard to let that happen.

But money isn't everything. I also want to get back to feeling more like myself. 

The fact is, I'm not sure that full-time employment is for me. I'm not sure it was ever for me. Between my mental health constraints, my desire to do what I want to do, my hatred for unnecessary meetings, my disdain for pointless tasks, and my resentment of micromanagement, perhaps I'm not a good fit for corporate culture. I did it because I thought it was something I had to do. I did it because I was told that I was above making coffee and selling Goretex... and I believed that, because our culture has brainwashed us into thinking that some jobs are more dignified than others.

But I don't have to do it that way. I won't do it that way. There has to be room for those of us whose brains aren't built to deal with the seemingly ubiquitous dysfunction, who can't think properly in a cubicle, and who won't drink the corporate Koolaid.

Now comes the task of decompressing and figuring out what's next.

For the next couple of months, I won't be looking for work. Instead, I'll tinker with the blog, get back into running shape, visit family, spend time with Fortysomething and the Kiddo, read, hang out with friends, and maybe volunteer. I'd like to set up a regular writing schedule for myself. I'd like to re-learn calculus.

In mid-summer, I'll start job hunting. I can tell you this right now, though: I won't be seeking full-time employment unless an absolutely perfect position hits me in the face. I'll be seeking freelance, contract, and part-time positions so that I can have more balance in my life. And I'm going to be very, very picky.

Just Stop

On that trip to Europe when I was 25, my hiking guide offered the following advice:

If you don't know where you are, stop walking. You will want to move because when you move, you feel like you're taking action. You feel like you're making progress. In reality, you're probably getting more lost. Fight the urge to keep going, and sit down. Wait. Look at your map, orient yourself, rest, and trust. You will either figure out where you are, or someone will find you. 

I never got lost in the wilderness, but feel like I've gotten lost in my everyday life. Each career move has been an effort to find my way back to the right path. Instead, I've become increasingly disoriented - not just with my career, but with who I am. So now I'm going to stop right here. It’s impossible to know if I will figure it out myself or if the right situation will find me, but regardless, I have to trust that it will work out.

As for how this will work financially, stay tuned. I'll be sharing our budget along the way. One thing's for sure: from a financial standpoint, this decision is a bit risky. But is it worth it? Absolutely, because mental health is priceless.

*If I sound bitter and angry, it's because... I am. I'll get past it, but a little anger is a perfectly healthy thing.
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Finances After 40 #2: Building Her Business, Finding Her Purpose (Kassandra's Story)

I'm thrilled that the second installment of Finances After 40 features 42-year-old Kassandra Dasent,  personal finance consultant and owner of Minding Your Money, LLCKassandra's goal is to help people "go from broke to woke". She offers personal coaching and hosts monthly Facebook Live video events in which she discusses financial topics and challenges, particularly those that pertain to Gen X. This August, she's slated to speak at the Fearless Women's Summit in Ottawa and the Lola Retreat in Seattle. 

Kassandra is one of the most thoughtful, generous, and genuine people I've met in the personal finance community, and as you'll see, her story is inspiring. Over to you, Kassandra!

"At the core, everything I do is for the betterment of my family and others; my work has a fundamental purpose."

I live in Orange Park, FL with my sound engineer husband and our adorable dog Riley. I and am a long-distance stepmother to our 11-year-old son who lives in Trinidad. I am also a long-distance caregiver to my elderly mother who resides in Montreal, QC, Canada.

I not long ago quit my well-paid corporate job as a software project manager in Engineering in order to preserve my mental health and start my own business, Minding Your Money, LLC. I am a personal finance consultant, educator and speaker who primarily serves Gen X women and the disadvantaged. In addition, I am a singer-songwriter and perform live as often as I can. I love to travel, and I am fluent in French.

Kassandra's Current Financial Situation

We are not yet financially independent, but we are in a healthy financial position. I paid off $55K of consumer debt in 2012 and have maintained a debt-free status for 6+ years. We only have our mortgage left and hope to pay it off within the next five years. We have self-directed retirement accounts and a brokerage account. We have enough saved in our Kiss Off Fund to have afforded me to quit my corporate role and fund my business venture.

"I can afford the time to teach and share with women what they can do to create their own definition of wealth regardless of their starting point."

Due to our late start investing for retirement (late 30s), we usually max out our contributions every year, in order to give us the best possible shot of a decent retirement. Since I started the business this year, I am not certain what we can contribute to our accounts, which irritates me and makes me slightly anxious. For 2019, instead of immediately investing our cash, we will keep it in a high yield savings account and make our investing decisions near year end. I do regret that I did not save a lot more for my retirement when I was in my twenties and early thirties. Those lost years to a debt lifestyle have a lasting financial effect, but what is done, is done.

Work With A Fundamental Purpose

I'm proud of being able to afford the time to build my business. Having saved up enough money to be able to take a step back and identify what I truly want to do is something I am very proud of us accomplishing. We were able to buy a measure of freedom. Having the means to pay some of the costs for my mother’s private residence and care and helping out other family members is also a source of pride for me. At the core, everything I do is for the betterment of my family and others; my work has a fundamental purpose.

I firmly believe that we will attain a level of financial wealth that will allow me to truly make a lasting impact on the lives of others. Not solely from a charitable standpoint, but I can also afford the time to teach and share with women what they can do to create their own definition of wealth regardless of their starting point. I especially want to encourage people of color to build generational wealth. I have already started to do this through my business, but I want to magnify my efforts.

Tackling Finances After 40: Kassandra's Perspective

There is a sense that many women 40+ are struggling with where they are in life. They are asking themselves, “Is this all there is to life?” Feeling unfulfilled or devalued in the workplace or at home, dealing with the pressures of life, raising children, caring for other family members, rising costs for just about everything we consume, not having enough or anything saved for retirement. It feels overwhelming and there is a financial impact and cost that compounds the anxiety of not being able to do enough for themselves and/or their families.

"There is a sense that many women 40+ are struggling with where they are in life. They are asking themselves, 'Is this all there is to life?'"

Without a doubt, present and future healthcare costs is the biggest concern. My husband and I are both self-employed and pay a high cost in monthly premiums. I was born in Trinidad and lived the majority of my life in Canada, before immigrating to the USA in late 2013. As a Canadian, I often took it for granted how accessible and affordable basic health care was to me, until I moved to the States and learned how the healthcare system operates and its complexity.

Advice For Other Women

If I could turn back time and impart wisdom on my younger self, I would tell her to never marry her self worth to her net worth and to not numb her pain through mindless spending. I also married my ex-husband when I was 24 and divorced him at the age of 30. Although living through the divorce was a very painful process, I know that it was absolutely the best decision for both him and myself. My ex-husband and I are both thriving in life and that is a desirable end result.

"Focus on building your self-esteem and financially advocate for yourself, whether in the workplace or as a business owner."

I encourage women to savour their youth and take advantage of it as well. It may not feel fun to save and invest, but if they do, they will surely thank themselves down the road. They have time to weather the fluctuations of the market, so it’s important to educate themselves about investing and make financial decisions from a place of confidence. Also, they should focus on building their self-esteem and financially advocate for themselves, whether in the workplace or as a business owner.

How To Reach Kassandra

Her website and blog: www.kassandradasent.com
Email: kassandra@kassandradasent.com
Facebook: Minding Your Money
Twitter: @kassandradasent
Instagram: @kassandradasent
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Our Financial Journey Two Years In

From a budget-friendly hike we took back in April 2017
Amidst all of the current craziness/life anxiety, I suddenly remembered that we started our financial overhaul two years ago. It feels like it's been eons. It feels like yesterday. It feels like I should acknowledge our progress in some way, so here I am.

The situation back in April of 2017 looked like this:

We’d moved to our town six months prior and were still in our new-place honeymoon phase, basking in the cool mountain air and taking every opportunity to wander through the pine forests. Our tiny apartment was dingy and hadn’t been updated since 1985, but the view out the front window was priceless. We were earning a solid combined income - Fortysomething was working as a contractor, I'd just started an academic advising job - and we were generally feeling pleased with the trajectory of our lives.

But our finances were another story.

We’d never had a budget and generally had no idea how much money was in our bank account (on average, not much). We'd splurge on last-second getaways and goodies from Target, and thus, we lived paycheck to paycheck. We went into overdraft more often than I’d like to admit. We had no savings, no emergency fund and very little in retirement. We had over $50K in student loan debt and at least $26K in credit card debt.

Although it seems batshit insane to me now, we were not at all concerned at the time. We lived in blissful ignorance. It helped that we’d managed to dodge the kinds of expenses that can wipe out a paltry bank account in a matter of minutes.

And then one day, after purchasing an overpriced, brand-new piece of furniture, it suddenly dawned on me that we were in code red territory. We couldn't afford it. We'd be paying it off for months. We had no money but we were buying expensive things.

Then I became concerned.

At first, I didn’t know what to do, so I watched every episode of ‘Til Debt Do Us Part and Money Moron than I could find on YouTube. Then we took everything we’d learned from our DIY Gail Vaz Oxlade crash course and created a budget and a tentative 5-year debt repayment plan.

We jumped in with enthusiasm, knowing that it was going to be a long road and that we’d need to conjure up major motivation to make it happen over the next few years. But we got started, and we followed the plan.

For the past two years, we've followed it with fervor. Sure, we've had some missteps along the way. Sure, it's gotten really fucking old at times. Sure, I'd like to splurge on a nice vacation at some point. Overall, though, we've been consistent. We've resisted backsliding.

We stuck to our budget, cut our expenses, and found some frugal hacks we could live with (like checking out books from the library rather than buying them at the bookstore, purchasing clothes at thrift stores, ditching most of our subscriptions, walking instead if driving, etc.) We took advantage of the local outdoor scene and did all the free outdoorsy things. We paid off our smallest debts first and celebrated every win, which helped us stay motivated. We built up some savings.

Taking advantage of our parks pass

Two Years Of Imperfect Consistency

After nearly 730 days, I’m here to say that two years of imperfect consistency can make a giant difference. Here’s the rundown:


Debt then: >$76,000
Debt now: ~$37,000

When we started our financial overhaul, we had about $50,000 in student loan debt (two student loans - one for me, one for Fortysomething) and $26,000 in credit card debt (three credit cards in total). We also had a small balance of $1,500 remaining on our car loan.

Now, all of our credit cards are paid off. The car loan and my student loan are gone. We're just chipping away, penny by penny, at Fortysomething's student loan.

Over these two years, my attitude about debt repayment has changed. I still think it's important, and I still think people need to get rid of their high-interest debt as fast as they possibly can. But I'm no longer of the opinion that every other financial maneuver should get sidelined while you pay off your loans. If you don't have savings, you run the risk of having nothing to work with in the event of an emergency. If you're not contributing to a retirement fund, you lose out on compounding interest (the good kind) and tax breaks.

My perspective is a lot more nuanced than it was back in 2017, but I'm glad we went all-out on the first half of our debt. Not having a monthly credit card bill or car payment is huge. It frees up a lot of space in the budget for other things (like saving).

I'll admit that we're far more focused on savings and retirement than on the student loan right now, but we hope to go back to making large debt payments later this year.

I didn't start tracking our debt repayment until June 2017 - so actually, we probably had well over $76K of debt in April of that year.


Savings then: $0
Savings now: $8500 and counting

I kind of can't believe it (what were we thinking?), but we didn't even have a savings account when we started our financial journey. Once we finally opened one, we built up our cash reserves slowly, mostly because debt repayment was the real priority for us. We started with the Dave Ramsey-mandated $1000, then moved into the realm of $4-$5K once we'd paid off our credit cards in summer 2018.

Now we're sprinting to build this baby up to $10K or more. That's mostly because I don't know what to do about my job, and I want to be able to cover several months of expenses in the event that I decide to quit. I kind of wish I'd started this process sooner, but then again, at what point does one really feel secure enough to walk out on a regular paycheck without something else lined up?


Retirement funds then: $1,000 (somewhere around there - I wasn't paying attention)
Retirement funds now: $17,000

Okay, so YES, we are very behind. But that's not the point of this post. What I want to emphasize is that in just two years, while most of our disposable income was going towards debt, we were able to put $16,000 into retirement. And that's with pretty small contributions. Only recently have we ramped up our contributions to ~10%.

Honestly, it's this aspect of our finances that makes it so difficult to ditch this shitty job. In just two months, thanks to the employer match, I've socked $2,000 into my 401K. My health is important, but it's hard to say no to free money when I kind of need it.

I haven't shared our specific retirement fund numbers until now because I don't want anyone to swoop in with criticism regarding our lack of planning. On the other hand, I know there are other people in similar situations. We're late to the party, but hey, we're here now. Let's cheer each other on!

Net Worth

Net Worth in November 2017: -$65K (somewhere around there)
Net worth now: -$13,600

We still have a negative net worth, but look at that rate of increase! We anticipate hitting the $0 mark sometime this year.

The point is, you can make a lot of progress in a relatively short amount of time if you keep at it. That doesn't mean you have to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. It doesn't mean you can't have any fun. It doesn't mean you have to be a perfect steward of your finances. It just means... you have to keep going, one step at a time. That is literally the only way to make it happen if you're a person with an average income and a lot of debt.

It's Not All About Money

Currently, the thing I'm most struggling with is this idea that money isn't everything. Historically, that hasn't been a tough concept for me. Until 2017, I just... didn't care about money. We didn't have a lot of financial security, but I didn't let money stop me from taking risks and having adventures, none of which I regret. I look at our debt and I see the bad. I also see the good it brought. (Unpopular opinion alert!)

In contrast, the past two years have been an unprecedented season of financial responsibility and restraint in my life. We've made our finances a top priority. But now I'm worried that maybe I should be prioritizing other things, like my health. Toying with the idea of taking a career break brings up a lot of emotions for me. It feels scary to pull back when we've finally built up momentum. It's like trying to run a marathon on a broken leg and not wanting to quit because you've come so far.

It's hard for me to walk away from financial security now that I've gotten a taste of it.

At the same time, I appreciate that our hard work has brought us to a point where we have more options. That's really the most important aspect of money, isn't it? Not that it allows us to buy more stuff, but that it gives us an opportunity to consider more possibilities. It gives us some breathing room, some freedom.

Anyway, guys, that's what I've got right now. Please ignore any and all awkward wording, misspellings, and grammar issues. I'm just glad I found the time to stop and reflect.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for your encouragement.
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Finances After 40 #1: Life Settles Down After Divorce (Abigail's Story)

Welcome to the Finances After 40 series! 

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts featuring the stories of women 40 years and older. The financial (and related) issues that women in this age bracket face are somewhat unique, but I think they often get overlooked. The goal of this series is to contribute to a conversation about finances after 40 - and based on the responses I received when I first mentioned this series on Twitter, it seems like other people want to have this conversation, too. 

The first Finances After 40 story comes from Abigail Perry, a 40-year-old author, trivia whiz, and veteran personal finance blogger who lives in the southwestern US. I was lucky to meet Abigail via the Twitter personal finance community. She's encouraged us throughout our debt journey and has reached out with comfort and support during difficult times. I'm thrilled that she's volunteered to share her experience and advice. 

Be sure to check out Abby's blog, I Pick Up Pennies. You can also find her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook. Furthermore, she's an author! You can pick up a copy of Frugality For Depressives here.

Take it away, Abigail!

I live in Phoenix with my cat, Josie, who still acts like an insane kitten. She keeps life interesting and loves to lie on me, particularly if I’m trying to type at the time. (She’s across my arms as I type this.) I have a trivia team (yes, I’m a nerd) that I go out with once a week, and we get together on the weekends about every other week. I’m newly divorced, so life is still settling down overall. 

Abigail's Current Financial Situation 

As a new divorcee, I’m still seeing how my financial situation shakes down. I already know that it’s significantly cheaper – my husband was a bit of a spender and had expensive chronic conditions – and easier to manage.

I make a fair amount of money for customer service, so I’m comfortable financially. But I’m getting a late start saving for retirement thanks to the fact that my now ex-husband was something of a spender. I’ve increased my retirement contributions, though they’re still not as high as I’d like, but there’s no getting back those years of compound interest. Sigh.

"I’m working on increasing my retirement contributions. I hope one day to max them out, but I’m not sure that’s feasible because I’m also trying to pay off my mortgage quickly."

I didn’t worry about retirement enough in my 30s. I knew I should make it a priority, but we had my husband’s bills to deal with (including $26,000 for dental implants) and big fixes to the house ($10,000 for new windows). So I let those take precedence, and it just didn’t feel like we had enough money to save. I’m kicking myself now. I’m working on increasing my retirement contributions. I hope one day to max them out, but I’m not sure that’s feasible because I’m also trying to pay off my mortgage quickly.

I have health issues that keep me from working a job outside the house, and competition in my company’s industry has really heated up over the past few years. It’s almost certain that my job is secure – even if things got pretty bad, I’d probably just have to take a pay cut – but anxiety is a thing. So I would like to have the place paid off as one financial worry in “What if?” scenarios.

Reflecting On Past Financial Decisions

Obviously, I should have been saving more for retirement in my 30s. (My 20s were spent unsuccessfully trying to work outside the house, then going on disability. So saving during that decade wasn’t an option.) Once our financial situation stabilized, I wish I’d have started making it a priority to max out the Roth and to finally open up a SEP-IRA through my S-corp.

To that end, we could have waited longer to get my husband’s dental implants if it meant saving more money toward retirement. Even once those and the windows were done, I didn’t max out my Roth IRA, which was just silly. I also made the mistake of being a little conservative in my portfolio. I was worried about losing what little money we were putting aside. As a result, my investments barely grew over what I was putting in. I’m being aggressive now, but again… That’s a lost decade.

But I’m glad I got my ex-husband’s teeth done even if we didn’t end up together forever. He wouldn’t have been able to afford the implants on his own, and they did need to get done or he’d have ended up with bone spurs (ick ick ick) and dentures that didn’t fit. So while I’d love to have that $26,000, it saves me a lot of guilt.

Financial Wins and Future Goals

I finally did start maxing out my Roth IRA and opened a SEP-IRA through my business. I can now make larger contributions to try to make up for some of the time I lost in my 30s. I’ve also started taking my guest house rent and putting that toward the mortgage, along with a couple hundred more each month. This means I should be able to pay off my house within the next 6 years (assuming my guest house stays rented).

I envision a paid-off house and retirement around 65 or 70. Pretty dull, but due to my slacking in my 30s, early retirement isn’t an option. And honestly, I don’t know what I’d do with myself in early retirement anyway. I’m easily bored and, thanks to my health issues, can’t go out and do a ton of activities. So having a day job, while less than fun at times, keeps the hours from dragging on quite so much.

"I think retirement becomes a bigger issue for a lot of women once they hit 40. I worry that we don’t take it as seriously in our 30s as our male counterparts."

Tackling Finances After 40: Abigail's Perspective

I think retirement becomes a bigger issue for a lot of women once they hit 40. I worry that we don’t take it as seriously in our 30s as our male counterparts. Also, once you hit 40, I think retirement age suddenly becomes a little more real/imminent than it did even at 39. So it sort of shakes things up. Unfortunately, by that point they’ve lost an important decade.

There’s also the fun balancing act of trying to save for retirement, build up savings and get serious about paying down the mortgage so that you don’t go into your golden years owing the bank. This is made all the more difficult as any kids start to creep toward college age and you have to consider how much you can/want to help them with costs.

"Make sure you’re getting a house for you, not just because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do."

Save for retirement and be aggressive in your portfolio. Do this in your 20s and 30s and you’ll be a lot less stressed in your 40s! I think [women] also need to really consider whether they want a house because they think that’s what they should do or if they really want to own. It’s a huge financial commitment, and paying down a mortgage can be a huge financial drain while you’re trying to also focus on retirement. So make sure you’re getting a house for you, not just because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do.

How To Reach Abigail

Her blog: I Pick Up Pennies
Twitter: @ipickuppennies
Pinterest: @ipickuppennies
Facebook: I Pick Up Pennies PF
Pick up her book here: Frugality For Depressives
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Winning, March 2019 Edition

I usually feel jubilant when writing our sort-of monthly posts for the Winning series. It's an opportunity for us to stop and reflect on what's going well in our financial journey. So far, we’ve celebrated paying off debts, saving money, and watching our net worth increase - all notable money wins, all worth cheering for.

But I want to be totally honest with you: this month, I don’t feel like much of a winner. I feel... kinda like a loser. A very confused 40-year-old loser who can’t get her life together and who's financially behind. Someone who's suddenly comparing herself to others and coming up short.

On a rational level, I know that I’m being ten thousand times harder on myself than I would be on anyone else. On an emotional level, though, I’m struggling to keep my head above water. (It's not pretty, I know. Also, you don't have to tell me I'm not a loser. I just feel loser-y.)

My new therapist (I'm doing something good for myself!) says I get to define my narrative in whatever way I choose. The problem is that said narrative is currently being held captive by the brain troll that lives in the deep, dark recesses of my mind. The brain troll has been keeping a careful record of all of my failures and shortcomings and has now constructed a long, sad story that he'd like to etch into stone. I'm trying to wrest that narrative away from him, but he's got a strong grip.

It’s quite the mental kerfuffle.

Nevertheless, here we are at the end of the month, and it's time to write about some wins. And there are wins. There are always some wins. In the spirit of creating my own narrative, here they are:

1. I’ve put $1600 into retirement in the last two months. Thanks, employer match!

Half of that money has come from an employer match, arguably one of the best things this company has to offer. Even better, the match vests immediately. If I leave, it’s still mine. I don’t have to give it back. Yasssssss. And that's just me. Fortysomething has also been socking away retirement money. We're late to the retirement savings party, but... we're here now!


2. Our March budget is on point. 

Because we’re hoarding as much cash as possible right now, we haven’t been buying any unnecessary items or going out to eat. We’ve actually reined in our grocery bill a little bit (if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that our grocery bill is our Achilles' heel). This is the most on track we’ve been in a while. Icing on the cake: we'll be able to throw $200 into savings (!), which is especially gratifying given all of the extra expenses that came up this month.


3. The emergency/FU fund is growing!

We currently have about $5000 in our emergency fund, and it will grow to over $7000 when our tax refund arrives. If the need arises, that's enough to see us through for several months. Two years ago, we didn't even have a savings account, so that's some pretty substantial progress. Our goal is to grow the emergency fund to a little more than $10K this year.

4. I haven't quit my job. Yet.

This is quite a feat considering that I've been thisclose to pulling the plug about 10 times in the last three weeks. I'm trying hard to make it work because a) I have no motivation to look for another job right now and b) I like getting paid. Also, c) I'll know when it's time to walk away. That moment hasn't come yet. Blah blah persistence blah.

In an effort to make it work, I'm trying different strategies to see which ones are most helpful for my productivity. I've learned that I feel less overwhelmed when I work in short blocks of time and when I start earlier in the day (despite the fact that I'm not a morning person). I've also learned that putting in more effort doesn't always yield better results, so maybe half-assing it is the key?

Or... maybe the key is not sleeping much?


I really don't know. I'm taking it a day at a time, and I could change my mind tomorrow. But for now, here I am. And you know, I really have to give myself some credit: I've proven to myself that I can persist through difficult job situations.

Take that, brain troll.

What about you? What are some of your recent wins, financial and/or otherwise?

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A Reluctant Advice-Giver's Best Financial Advice

Like many people (probably almost everyone?), I often feel like an imposter. I especially feel like an imposter as a personal finance blogger.

An implogger, if you will. Ha.

Why? Because people generally visit personal finance blogs for advice: How to pay off debt. How to invest. How to save. And I rarely try to tell anyone how to do any of that. Instead, I just talk about our experiences in the hope that maybe some part of our story will resonate with someone.

Why giving advice is not my thing

I give very little advice on this blog for a few reasons.

One is that I don’t feel qualified. As of today, we’re a little less than $38K in debt, our net worth is less than zero, and I'm thinking about quitting my job without having a new one in place. Sure, we’ve made some big changes and some massive progress over the past two years, but we’re still in the hole, and I don’t expect anyone to look at us and be like, Brilliant! Let’s do it that way. 

Plus, I don't have a finance or accounting degree. I'm an armchair personal finance enthusiast. There are other people who are more qualified and can give you better guidance than I can.

The other reason I don't give advice is that every situation is so unique that many one-size-fits-all approaches don't work for everyone. Maybe the Dave Ramseys of the world - people who benefit from packaging up advice and selling it in neat little bundles - would disagree, but I get really, really hung up on the exceptions to the rule.

There's always an exception to the rule.

For example, some popular finance gurus would tell you that

You should pay off all your debt before you start saving more than a skeleton emergency fund. 

But what if...

...you have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and it’s going to take you years to pay it off?

...you live in a high-cost-of-living area and a skeleton emergency fund won’t cover even one month of rent in the event that you lose your job?

...you have health conditions that are likely to worsen over time or kids who need braces or a roof that’s leaking water into your living quarters?

Or one of my favorites:

Only change jobs if your salary will increase. 

But what if... 

...your current job is making you miserable and you need to get out before you lose your mind?

...the new job has lower pay but better benefits?

...the lower-paying job comes with fewer hours and less stress? Alternatively, what if the lower-paying job means more hours but also more purpose and enjoyment?

The exceptions make giving advice difficult. I don’t know your particular situation. I don’t know your history, I don’t know your hang-ups, and I don’t know whether what I say is going to motivate you or take the wind out of your sails. Furthermore, any advice I can give to you is probably something you've already heard. You've likely made a list of your options already.

Let's face it: Deep down, you probably already know what you need to do.

But here's some advice I feel comfortable sharing

Still, let's pretend you took a wrong turn on the Internet and have come here looking for guidance of some sort. I don't want you to leave completely empty handed. In fact, I do have some suggestions that I'd feel comfortable sharing with pretty much anyone:

1. Do your best with what you’ve got, and give yourself credit for that.

We all have different jobs, salaries, obligations, and costs of living. Our savings accounts and our debt loads vary. So do our priorities.

But no matter where you're at, you can still do something with what you've got. You can probably cut something from your budget, put something into savings, do something to get yourself one step closer to your goals. But what you don't have to do is compare your financial situation to anyone else's. If you're doing your best, you're on the right track.

2. Pay off your debt when you can, at a rate that is commensurate with your budget and your needs, and celebrate the small wins.

I don't know about you, but I have a weakness for articles with captivating titles like I Paid Off My $400K Student Loan in Two Months! 

Cool and yay, but most of us are not in the position to do the same.

If you have debt, pay it off in a manner that aligns with your income and budget and that facilitates sustainable progress. (Sidenote #1: To experiment with different debt paydown scenarios, I use the What's the Cost calculator.) Even if it's going to take longer than other people say it should. Too bad. This is your life, not theirs, and if you've found a payoff approach that works for you, then again, you're doing it right. There is no one right way to pay off debt.

Furthermore, I'm a big believer in setting small, achievable goals and celebrating each win. You paid off $50 of debt this month? YOU ARE A CHAMPION. Pat yourself on the back and find a (free or low-cost) way to congratulate yourself for that achievement.

3. Pay yourself first.

Okay, fine. This is the epitome of one-size-fits-all personal finance advice, and everybody gives it. But that's because there are so many people and things ready and willing to separate us from our money as soon as it hits our wallets. Even if it's just a few dollars, honor yourself and your hard work by socking away some of your cash when you get paid. Yes, you have bills to pay and debt to demolish, but you deserve to keep some of that hard-earned money for yourself.

4. If you have money to give, share it with people who would benefit from it.

Having money that you can use for yourself is nice, but having money that can benefit others is powerful. So use that power. Don't hoard your money - share some of it with others. (Sidenote #2: If you're looking to give, consider donating to Uriah and his family. Uriah is a music-loving little superhero who's fighting a rare form of childhood cancer. He's amazing.)

5. Figure out what your priorities are, and let your financial choices reflect those priorities. 

In our family, we don't care that much about nice clothes, good haircuts, or new cars - so we rarely purchase them. We do, on the other hand, invest in things like going out to eat and road trips; those are experiences that bring us together and that we all enjoy. Other people have different priorities and thus different budgets and assets.

Hi. If you're trying, you're on your way.

If you're making an effort to get or keep your finances in order, well, I'm that annoying lady who's standing on the sidelines, jumping up and down, waving a participation trophy, telling you that you're doing a damn good job. Because you are. In my mind, if you're making an effort, if you're reflecting on your finances and making an effort to put yourself in the best position possible, you're doing it right. At the very least, you're well on your way.

What about you? Do you have any financial advice that you'd feel comfortable sharing with pretty much anyone? What advice, financial or otherwise, has been most helpful for you?
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I Don't Actually Know, But Here's The March Budget

Now that it's almost the end of March, I figure it's a good time to share our March budget. I didn't post it earlier because a) I forgot (this happens regularly, which is why I post our monthly budget approximately 5 times a year) and b) I didn't know what was going on with my job and therefore couldn't set the budget in stone. 

So speaking of my job...

First, an update

I haven't quit my job.

Yup. It's practically a miracle. I've been on the verge of walking out about four times in the past week, but here I am, still hanging on by my pinky.

After writing that post, I was engulfed in a giant fuzzy blanket of virtual support and love. Who knew the Internet could be such a kind place? Thank you, thank you, thank you to all of you who posted a comment, sent me a DM, or Tweeted at me to offer encouragement and/or commiseration. Thanks for sharing your own stories with me; I felt honored to read them. (Clearly, there are a lot of people in similar situations. I'm sorry we're going through this.) And thank you to those of you who were probably thinking STOP BEING SUCH A MESS AND PULL IT TOGETHER LADY but who wisely chose to keep it to yourselves. 

Anyway, fortified by your encouragement, I set aside the idea of quitting for a moment and did some other things instead: I contacted HR, explained my health condition, and asked if we could discuss accommodations. I took three days off from work with HR's blessing. I caught up on sleep. I found a therapist and attended my first session with him. I read a book about anxiety. I went to the library and the park. And I finally met with my boss, who agreed to let me train at a slightly slower pace. 

All of the things I did were good, practical, proactive steps - things you're supposed to do when you're on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was so proud of myself that I was tempted turn around and pen a jazzy, rah-rah article entitled How To Kick Your Mental Issues Out the Door in Seven Easy Steps. After all, it's always empowering to take control of a tough situation, and I did that. I also learned some key lessons - for example, if you want your employer to help you, sometimes you have to be a giant pain in the ass. Huzzah!

In reality, though, I'm nowhere close to being able to write a self-congratulatory post about my brain or my career. I'm still having trouble sleeping, I'm still struggling to keep up at work, I'm still questioning whether the job is sustainable, and I'm still worried about my health. I still feel like I need a break, and I'm still really nervous about ditching standard employment and leaping into who knows what.

It's just that now I have a little breathing room to figure out my next move. 

My current goal, however pitiful it might seem, is to make it to the end of next week - payday. That's all I can commit to right now. After that? Maybe I'll vow to stay for another two weeks. Or maybe I won't. I'm taking it paycheck by paycheck.

Speaking of paychecks, that brings me full circle back to the March budget. I'm glad I haven't quit because this month... wow. It's been the month of a thousand expenses. 

The March budget (ouch)

We were hit with four major expenses in March, and they did a number on our budget. Here's the rundown:

1. Southwest card annual fee ($149): Every year, I tell myself I'm going to cancel my Southwest card because the annual fee just isn't worth it. Every year, I don't. And this year, I got reeled in by the new Priority card, so I upgraded... thereby saddling myself with an even steeper annual fee (I don't think I'm doing this right). It may be an okay move if I actually travel a couple of times this year. If not, I have until next February to cancel or downgrade.

2. Car registration renewal ($131): We always seem to forget about this until the bill shows up in the mail.

3. Campground membership fee ($545): A few months ago, I divulged that we purchased a campground membership while we were living in an RV. Campground memberships are great if you're an RVer but pointless if you're not. Ours comes with an annual fee. I don't want to talk about it. (We do still use the campgrounds, but it's not like we're there every week - more like a few times a year.)

4. Rent increase ($100): Our rent will go up this month. I'm not happy about it, but when the management company made the big announcement, we weren't in the mood to pack up and move again. We'll make do for another year and then decide whether to stay in this place or leave. Rent where we live is high, to say the least, and finding something less expensive but still liveable isn't as easy as it sounds. 

Total additional money flying out the door in March: $925

Other items of note:

Electric bill: Our electric bill this month is ridiculous ($320). Until last week, it was damp and cold, and we experienced a major snowstorm. The heater was working overtime. I suspect that the numerous baths I took to try to de-stress myself also contributed to our energy costs. From here on out, I'll stick to short showers.

Savings: Our bank account seems to be bleeding right now, but I'm still determined to shuffle $300 into the emergency fund (which is quickly becoming an FU fund, given the job situation).

Student loan: Admittedly, we're still in a holding pattern here, and at best, that's probably not going to change until later in the year. Our slow progress is a bit dispiriting after so many months of rapid progress, but sometimes it's not possible to go all-out.

Retirement and HSA: What the budget doesn't show is the money going straight into our retirement funds and our HSA. Including employer matches, that total comes out to something like $1600/month. I'm thrilled with that. 

The nitty-gritty budget breakdown for March:

What about you? How's your March budget looking? Have you had any major or unexpected expenses recently? 
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Five of My Favorite Frugal Instant Pot Recipes

A few months ago, right around the holidays, several of my favorite personal finance bloggers took to Twitter to announce that they were the proud new owners of Instant Pots - high-tech pressure cookers that are all the rage in the cooking community. (I'm making that up. I know nothing about the cooking community. The cooking community may, in fact, harbor a deep resentment towards Instant Pots.)

I've been an Instant Pot fan since we purchased ours three years ago while living in an RV, and I enthusiastically replied to my blogger friends to let them know that I'd share some recipes with them.

And then I... shared nothing with them. I'm a slacker.

But! Now that I have a few days off (to, you know, manage my mental breakdown), I've decided to share five of my favorite Instant Pot recipes. 

These recipes are:
  • inexpensive!
  • fast!
  • healthy!
  • vegan/vegetarian!
  • great for leftovers!
  • easy to make while you're also trying to get other things done!

They're also not fancy AT ALL, so if you're looking for that... you might want to find a real food blogger.

The five recipes I'm sharing today are:
  • Steamed Broccoli
  • Mashed Sweet Potatoes
  • Spicy Rice
  • Garlicky Black Beans
  • $76K Soup (aka vegetable soup with rice)


My Instant Pot is three years old. It's possible that yours is newer and better and has a slightly updated design. ALSO: Instant Pots are easy to use, but they create high pressure and steam. Both can be extremely dangerous. It's up to you to know how to use your Instant Pot safely. For example, sticking your face right over the steam vent when you release it is a terrible idea. Don't do that. Read the user manual if you're setting up your Instant Pot for the first time. 

Also, if you're scrolling through this post and thinking, Damn, 76, these pictures are shit... Well yeah. I'm not a food blogger or a photographer. My phone camera is about five years old and the lens is damaged. Remember, we're aiming for frugality here! 

Lastly, you'll note that I don't give serving sizes. I'm basically sharing the amounts that I make for my own 3-person family. My husband is a big guy, my kid is a ravenous pre-teen, and I have the appetite of a linebacker. We like to eat, so what we consider one portion size is probably larger than what many other people consider one portion size. Whatever. If you end up with extras, stick them in the fridge and eat them as leftovers.

What if I don't own an Instant Pot?

If you read this post and get inspired to buy your own Instant Pot (you should, it's awesome), consider purchasing one via this link. This is Frugal Pharmacist's Amazon affiliate link. Frugal Pharmacist is a blogger, pharmacist, and mom whose little boy Uriah is currently undergoing treatment for a rare childhood cancer (you can read his story here). The personal finance community is using her affiliate link as one way to help show support for her family. For additional ways to donate, check out this page

Tools of the trade

You'll need an Instant Pot, obviously. For some recipes, you may also need a steamer basket or a steamer rack:

For the recipes shown here, you'll mostly be using the Manual button (on newer models, the equivalent button is the "Pressure Cook" button):

The other thing to keep in mind is that the valve on the top of the Instant Pot needs to be sealed for all of these recipes. You'll unseal the valve to vent steam. If you don't put the valve in the sealed position, the steam will just vent continuously. That means pressure won't build up, and your food won't cook. (Note that not all recipes call for the valve to be placed in the unsealed position - it just depends on what you're cooking and how quickly you want to cook it.)

Valve in sealed position:

Valve in unsealed position:

Let's get cooking, shall we?

Steamed Broccoli

What you'll need:
  • Steamer basket
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2-3 heads of broccoli
  • Salt and/or pepper to taste
Time needed: ~10 minutes 

How to make it:

1. Separate the broccoli florets into bite-size pieces (whatever that means for you).
2. Cut the broccoli stems into ~1/2-inch slices.
3. Place the steamer basket into the Instant Pot. Place the broccoli into the steamer basket.
4. Add the 1/2 cup water.
5. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the valve is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
6. If you like your steamed broccoli pretty crisp, bring the time down to 0. If you like it a little softer, bring the time down to 1.
7. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. It won't take long at all, so don't wander off too far. Wait until it beeps to indicate it's done.
8. Stand back and use the end of a wooden spoon to release the vent valve. This will release A LOT of steam.
9. When the Instant Pot is done venting, open the lid.

Recommendations: Add some salt and pepper and eat the broccoli as a side. I also like to slice up some veggie sausages (of course, you can use carnivore sausages instead), fry them up, and mix them with the steamed broccoli for a protein- and veggie-rich meal.



Mashed Sweet Potatoes

These are the best things EVER. Super fast, super easy, and they never fail to impress. Here's a preview:

What you'll need:
  • Two medium to large sweet potatoes 
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/8 - 1/4 cup milk or milk alternative (I like to use almond milk)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Steamer rack
Time needed: ~35-40 minutes 

How to make it:

1. Wash the sweet potatoes. Leave the skin on.
2. Cut the sweet potatoes crosswise. Then cut each piece once along its length. Here's how they should look (sort of - I was using the wrong knife, so I really bungled this... But guess what? It doesn't matter! It still works!)

3. Place the sweet potatoes on the steamer rack flesh side down.
4. Add 1 cup water.
5. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the lid is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
6. Adjust the time to 10 minutes.
7. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. When it beeps to indicate it's done, ignore it. Let it sit for 10 more minutes.
8. After the 10 minutes are up, release the valve. Very little steam should emerge at this point.
9. Open the lid. The sweet potatoes should be fork tender. 
10. Peel the skin off. Yep, it'll come straight off, like so:

11. Place the peeled sweet potatoes in a bowl. Mash them with a fork. Add the salt and almond milk. 

12. Mash it all up a little more, and... done!

Recommendations: Add more or less salt and milk to taste. You can let these cool and store them in the fridge for later. They heat up nicely in the microwave or on the stove.

Spicy Rice

You can make perfectly cooked, tasty rice in about 30 minutes using the Instant Pot. For flavoring, you can use a bouillon cube OR a little salt OR some salsa (shown above - salsa's great if you want a kick). Regardless, it's super easy.

What you'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cups dry brown rice
  • 1 vegetable bouillon cube OR 1/2 cup salsa OR salt to taste
  • Water:
    • 3 cups if you're using a bouillon cube or salt
    • 2.5 cups if you're using salsa
Time needed: 40 minutes

How to make it:

1. Dump the rice into the Instant Pot.
2. Add the salsa or bouillon cube.
3. Add the water (see above for amounts).
4. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the lid is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
5. Adjust the time to 23 minutes.
6. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. When it beeps to indicate it's done, ignore it. Let it sit for 10 more minutes.

7. After the 10 minutes are up, release the valve. Very little steam should emerge at this point.

Recommendations: Use this for rice and beans, tacos, rice casserole, whatever you usually use rice for. The rice stores very well in the fridge. Make a big batch on Sunday, and eat the leftovers for lunch the rest of the week.

Need to adjust the amount of rice you're making? No problem. Just maintain a 1:2 ratio between the rice and the liquid. For example, if you measure out 1 cup of rice, add 2 cups of liquid (salsa counts as part of the liquid in this recipe).

Garlicky Black Beans

Canned black beans are inexpensive, but I'd argue that they're not as tasty as black beans made from scratch. This recipe cuts the cooking time - from dry beans to ready to eat - to about an hour and a half.

What you'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cups dry black beans
  • 1 vegetable bouillon cube 
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 3 cups water
  • Optional: hot sauce of your choice

Time needed: 80-90 minutes

How to make it:

1. Rinse the beans and remove any rocky bits or weird-looking pieces (occasionally you'll find little pieces of gravel in a bag of beans - totally normal).
2. Chop the garlic into little pieces.
3. Add the beans, garlic, and bouillon cube to the Instant Pot. Pour in the water. Add a few splashes of hot sauce if you're into that.
4. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the lid is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
6. Adjust the time to 60 minutes.
7. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. When it beeps to indicate it's done, ignore it. Let it sit for 15 more minutes.
8. After the 15 minutes are up, release the valve. Very little steam should emerge at this point.

I don't know how to make beans look attractive in a photo, but they taste good.

Recommendations: I like to serve these with Spicy Rice or quinoa or in Buddha bowls (basically a bowl of rice or quinoa plus a variety of veggies and protein). The beans store well in the fridge and make great leftovers.

$76K Soup

What you'll need:
  • 1/4 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 carrots
  • 3 small tomatoes
  • 12 new potatoes (new potatoes = small potatoes)
  • 1 cup of dry brown rice 
  • Hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 bouillon cube
  • 8 cups of water
  • Handful of chopped kale or spinach (optional)

How to make it:

1. Wash the carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes.
2. Cut the carrots into thin slices. Cut the potatoes into 4 quarters. Dice the tomatoes and onion. Chop the garlic.

3. Dump the veggies into the Instant Pot. Add the rice.
4. Drop in a bouillon cube. Add a few splashes of hot sauce, if desired.
5. Add the 8 cups of water.
6. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the lid is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
7. Adjust the time to 30 minutes.
8. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. When it beeps to indicate it's done, ignore it. Let it sit for 20 more minutes. (A lot of water = a lot of steam, so I like to give soups some extra time to simmer down - HA! - before releasing the valve.)
9. After the 10 minutes are up, release the valve using the end of a wooden spoon. Be prepared for some steam.
10. If you're adding kale or spinach, toss it into the soup and latch the lid back into place for two minutes. The heat will wilt the greens so that they're tender enough to eat.
11. Add additional salt to taste.

What's your favorite Instant Pot recipe? 

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My Job vs. My Mental Health: At A Crossroads

This is a long post about my mental health in the context of modern work culture.

(Note: I've written two other posts about mental health and money: The Connection Between My Mental Health and My Debt and When Your Mental Health Affects Your Financial Well-Being)

Publicly sharing my mental health challenges isn't easy for me, in part because there's so much skepticism surrounding those of us who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Are these illnesses real? Are we complaining too much? Not getting enough vitamin D? Do we just need to try harder? Have more grit? Be more resilient? I know some people will read this post, roll their eyes, and think, Suck it up, Buttercup. Life is hard.

Most people dealing with mental illness have tried everything from hot baths to medication to therapy. We're well aware of treatment options, and frankly, "You should try x, y, and z"-type advice isn't particularly helpful. Same goes for "Look on the bright side" or "Make a gratitude list" or "Others have it worse". These statements send the message that mental illness is a choice, and we're choosing to feel the way we do. But we live with this stuff, and we know that nobody who's experienced it would choose it. Most of us have probably tried all the things, and oftentimes we feel guilty for not being able improve the situation even when we really, really want to.

If you haven't been in this position, I'm genuinely glad for you. I simply ask that you be open to the possibility that some conditions are more complicated and intractable than they might seem from the outside.

I talk about my mental health on this blog because it's something that continues to affect my life, my relationships, and my financial security. I know other people have experienced this, too, and I want them to know they're not alone. I want me to know I'm not alone.

So here's what's going on.

I'm failing.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that my new job is not going well. I think I have potential as an editor, but an extremely heavy workload combined with accumulated burnout has created a perfect storm of anxiety, insomnia, self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness. I feel like I'm drowning.

When I interviewed for my current job, I was told by multiple people that they work a standard schedule: 40 hours a week, occasionally more when things get busy. That sounded perfect, and during my interviews, I expressed my desire for a work-life balance that would allow me to flourish at work and in other aspects of my life. I felt like we were all on the same page.

Now I think they were lying to me.

Here's how my job works: each week, we're required to meet a certain word count quota. For the first two months of training, our quota increases every week. It was relatively low in the first couple of weeks, and I was able to meet my targets. But in the third week, when the word count quota really ramped up, I started to struggle. A forty-hour schedule wasn't cutting it. I began extending my workday and logging in for a few hours on the weekend. 

We're required to not only meet our quotas and deadlines but also adhere to strict quality standards. During training, our edits are reviewed, critiqued, and graded. We receive constant feedback (much of which is contradictory, but that's beside the point). Now, more than halfway through training, I'm hanging on by my fingernails just to get the work done. Finding and correcting every error in a timely fashion seems absolutely impossible.

I'm working 9-10 hours a day, including Saturday, and I've developed anxiety-related insomnia. Every single night goes something like this: 10 PM: kind of tired. 11 PM: still not asleep. Midnight: still awake. 2 AM: I am wide awake and will never sleep again. 3 AM: FUCK HOW AM I STILL AWAKE. And nothing - not warm baths, not reading, not yoga, not soothing music, not sleep podcasts, not pretending that I didn't want to go to sleep anyway! - seems to work. The only thing that knocks me out is Benadryl, but that leaves me feeling drugged the next day.

It's a never-ending cycle: the anxiety causes insomnia, the insomnia makes me feel strung-out and anxious, and on and on.

Aside from being completely exhausted, I'm snappy, and I feel totally panicked most of the time. The crazy thing is that over the next few weeks, my quota is scheduled to further increase by more than a third of the current word count. I can't wrap my head around it, and I don't understand how even the most experienced editors reach their quotas while submitting high-quality edits. I suspect they don't; that, or they're working every single day, all day long. 

(Last night I logged into Glassdoor and took a good hard look at the reviews for my company. It's clear I'm not alone: many people are floundering, and turnover is apparently sky-high. I have quite a knack for finding exploitative employers!)

A history of grappling with work-related anxiety

The truth is, this experience probably wouldn't be so terrible - or at least, it wouldn't be so terrible this early on - if it weren't for the fact that I'm now at a critical point of accumulated burnout. What's happening now is just another iteration of what's been going on since I finished graduate school. For the past four years, my anxiety has dogged me in every single job I've worked:

Job 1: Two years, assistant professor. Worked non-stop, as one does as a tenure-track professor. Developed panic attacks; at one point, had a massive panic attack in front of 100 students. Occasionally lost the ability to speak while lecturing. Cried on the kitchen floor every morning. Felt suicidal. Coping mechanisms: Saw a therapist regularly. Took meds. Worked out like crazy. Meditated. Found a new job.

Job 2: One year, academic advisor. Generally 40 hours a week, with weeks of 10-12 hour days in the summer. During particularly busy times, completely lost my words, making advising meetings awkward and torturous. Regularly broke out in a cold sweat. Developed severe insomnia and at one point didn't sleep for nearly three days. Coping mechanisms: Sleeping pills. Spent time with friends and family. Ran. Took walks around my office building. Found a new job.

Job 3: One year, online educator. 40 hours a week from home, which I thought would solve all of my work problems. Job was not as advertised; I was more of a salesperson than a teacher. Expected to make people do things they didn't want to do. Employer was obsessed with metrics, metrics, metrics. Nothing was ever good enough. You met your goal? WHY DIDN'T YOU SET A BIGGER GOAL. Had panic attacks on the regular. Often couldn't find my words when meeting with students (this seems to be one of my biggest anxiety symptoms). Coping mechanisms: Everything. Meditation. Healthy eating. Working out. Power poses. Frequent vacations.

Found a new job.

And now here I am.

Disclosing my anxiety 

Earlier this week, I decided that as much as I don't like to advertise my wobbly mental health, nobody can help me if they don't know I need help. So I decided to take a chance and send an SOS to my manager, something I've never done before at work. I've never, ever disclosed my anxiety and depression or admitted that I'm having trouble. It just doesn't feel like a safe thing to do in a world of at-will employment. Usually, I just take some sick days and try to figure it out on my own.

But since one of my employer's stated values is vulnerability, and since I need to find a way to make this job sustainable, I decided it was worth letting my guard down and taking a chance.

I wrote a detailed email to my boss explaining that I deal with anxiety and anxiety-related insomnia and that I'm struggling in a major way. I emphasized that I enjoy the job itself but that I can't keep up with the pace. I let her know that I really, really want this to work out, but I also want to protect my health. And I offered some possible solutions, namely, slowing the pace of training or dropping down to a part-time schedule. Although working part-time would mean I'd lose my company-sponsored health insurance, it would also allow me to have some semblance of work-life balance.

My boss wrote back and thanked me for my candidness. She said she'd talk to her boss and come back to me the next day with some options.

And the next day? She came back to me with... no options at all. She didn't offer any empathy or suggestions. She didn't comment on my proposed solutions. She didn't say anything about her meeting with her boss. Instead, she sent a brief, two-line reply and said she'll meet with me in 10 days (she's going out of town) to "check in". She asked me to consider what I can do to improve my situation. 

In the meantime, my workload is slated to increase and my quota will be even higher next week. 

At a crossroads

Although there are many things in my life that are going extremely well, work has been a disaster. I'm tired of trying so hard and finding myself in the same situation every time. I'm exhausted and depleted, and I feel like I'm on the verge of having a nervous breakdown. I've been able to last at least a year in my previous jobs, but this time, the situation feels different. I'll be amazed if I survive next week.

Employment is not supposed to be an endurance sport. It shouldn't be this hard. But for people with anxiety or other mental health conditions, modern workplace culture is fraught with obstacles: heavy workloads, an obsession with metrics, constant feedback, and micromanagement. Companies expect loyalty, time, self-sacrifice, gratitude, and unwavering devotion to the bottom line. Moreover, they want it all at the lowest cost possible. Some of us (...most of us?) can't give all that without destroying ourselves in the process.

Nevertheless, I'm ashamed. Embarrassed. Frustrated. Why am I having so much trouble being an employee? Why can't I do what millions and millions of people do every day? Why can't I live up to my education? Why can't I just go to work, do my job, come home, and repeat? Am I lazy? Am I not trying hard enough? Are my expectations too high?

But here’s the thing. It’s not a matter of not wanting to do my job. It’s not a matter of laziness or an unwillingness to try. I’m a hard worker; I give it my all, and I've always delivered.

Until now. If work is an endurance race, my brain seems to be walking off the course. It is done. 

Time to hit the pause button

Anxiety is an illness like any other serious illness in that it can be completely debilitating. However, it's also largely invisible - especially if you’re one of those people who’s been living with it for so long that you are an absolute expert at hiding it. Sometimes, the people who look the happiest, who seem the most stable and the most determined, are the people being crushed from the inside out. The invisible nature of mental illness is what makes it particularly insidious and dangerous. It means that it's often the person who's living with the illness who has to make the call when things have reached a breaking point. And that's a very, very difficult call to make, especially when you're not functioning at your optimal level.

But I've been living with this a long time. I know myself, and I'm ready to make that tough call - if not right now, very soon.

First of all, I'm taking this weekend off. I haven't met my quota. I'm behind. I don't know what will happen on Monday. But I need this time.

My immediate plan is to stick it out, but on my own terms. That is, I'll work 8-5 Monday through Friday and do what I can in that amount of time. This is purely a stop-gap measure. I won't meet my quotas, but at least for the immediate future, I'll still be getting paid.

I've also contacted HR to see if they can work with me on accommodations. The Fioneers encouraged me to do this (thank you so much for the support, Fioneers!) If my boss won't help me, maybe HR will.

Ultimately, though, the writing on the wall says that I need a career break. Taking a few months off is something I've been considering for over a year, and my body and mind are screaming at me to do it now. From a financial standpoint, it might be a terrible decision. Our emergency fund isn't large enough to cover us for more than a few months, we'd end up spending more on health insurance either through Fortysomething's work or through the ACA, and we'd have to live on a bare-bones budget. We would be contributing far less to our retirement accounts than we do now.

But stress takes a terrible toll. No amount of money is worth destroying my health. I'm not willing to throw it away.

Instead, I want to take some time to do the things I love: spend time with my family, hang out with friends, actually read the books for book club, write/blog, run, hike, cook dinner every night, volunteer at my son's school, tutor, be creative. I'd love to expand the blog. I'd love to establish a regular series, similar to what Tread Lightly, Retire Early does on her blog. I'd love to write some guest posts. I'd love to develop some collaborations with people in the personal finance community and work on some projects together.

Sometimes we need to hit the pause button. As one of my Twitter friends reminded me, I need to be there for my son and family. That's the most important thing.

Taking a time out from a work culture that values never stopping feels like a big risk. It would be a complete leap of faith - but it's a leap I'm seriously considering.

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