Thursday, October 18, 2018

Coming To You LIVE From The Debt Repayment Pain Cave

There's a point in every long race that's known as The Pain Cave.

It's the point where you can't remember why you ever thought this was a good idea in the first place and where the finish line seems about eight million light years away.

It's the point where the only things you can think about are the giant blister on your big toe and how much your quads hurt and how you'd love to eat something except that if you do, you'll probably just puke it right back up.

It's the point where you want to punch all of the cheerful bystanders who are yelling that you look great and just keep going! (WHAT DO THEY KNOW. THEY'RE JUST STANDING THERE.)

It's the point where you say to yourself, You're closer to the finish than you've ever been! and somehow that doesn't help.

It's the point where your only motivation for persisting is your allegiance to your selves: your past self, who worked so hard to get here, and your future self, who will reap the rewards when you somehow make it to the finish line.

Yeah, you'll do it for them. But it's hard, because for once in your life you are so 100 percent in your present self, and your present self is miserable.

Right now, I feel like I'm in the debt repayment version of the pain cave.

Real talk (and don't you dare lecture me for being totally honest): I'm sick of it. 

I'm sick of 1/3 of our salary going to our student loan companies every month.

I'm sick of saying no when friends invite us out for dinner or to other activities that cost money (why can't we stay in and play board games? But they don't want to.)

I'm sick of the FOMO that comes with watching other people travel to amazing places and eat amazing food and have amazing experiences.

I'm sick of my kid complaining that we never go anywhere.

I'm sick of feeling alone in this. I know other people have debt, but so many of them don't talk about it. I wish they would.

I'm sick of certain people on social media acting like I'm a complete idiot because somehow my student loan debt is "bad" while their mortgage debt is so much... better?

I'm sick of financial success stories that provide no details. "One day I was working in fast food. I quit, and the next day I just put my mind to it really, really hard and now I'm a millionaire! If you work hard, you can do it, too!" 

I'm sick of being stuck doing something I intensely dislike because I need the paycheck and the health insurance.

Cold hard truth? I'm sick of feeling like a financial failure.

I'm fully aware that these feelings, though difficult, are temporary.

No worries: I'll keep going; I'm too far in to quit now. Present moment self isn't feeling great, but I'm doing this for the self that started the journey and the self that will end this journey with a $0 debt balance, a much higher net worth, and the satisfaction of finishing something so hard that many people never even start.

Sometimes life, like a long race, is going to be difficult, and the only way through is through.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Why I'm Sticking With This Job (For Now)

A few weeks ago, after two months of non-stop organizational turmoil and a meeting with my boss in which I took the heat for something completely inane, I was ready to walk out on my job.

Put in my notice. Shut off my computer and phone for good. Quit. Leave, a la Peggy Olson.


And yet despite the overwhelming temptation to pack it in, here I am, still employed.

Don't get me wrong: I still feel bored most days, disengaged, and underutilized. I still get the sense that nobody above me has ever looked at my resume or ever will and therefore doesn't quite know what I can bring to the table. Not sure they care. This is still not my dream job (do those even exist, actually?) But for now - not necessarily forever! - I'm staying put. Here's why:

1. Limited job prospects 

Currently, there's nothing else in my smallish town that (a) I'm qualified for, (b) pays a worthwhile salary, and (c) doesn't involve sales or customer service. I've been stalking job sites for weeks and despite the supposedly low unemployment rate, there's just NOT a lot out there beyond minimum wage positions. If I were to find a lower-paying job that made me jump out of bed with excitement every morning, sure, I'd take the salary cut. But to earn less money for some tepid gig that isn't going to get me anywhere in the long run? Nah.

I'll keep looking, but it's clear that if making the move to a different company is the answer, it's going to take a while. And I'm going to be picky.

2. We're on an upward financial trajectory for the first time in... ever

I've never been the kind of person who does anything just for money, and yet now I'm sticking around mostly because I enjoy my paycheck, my 401k, and my HSA match. All of these things have given us a level of financial security that we haven't experienced in years. Our savings account is growing, our debt is diminishing, and I don't worry about being bankrupted by a medical emergency. For now, it's worth it. Even on the days when I want to scream every few minutes.


3. I got a raise!

I actually found out about this after I started writing this post. I knew that my company was making compensation adjustments, but I had no idea if I'd receive one given that I haven't been in my position for long. Skeptic that I am, I was prepared for disappointment. Then, earlier this week, I received an email announcing that I'll receive a modest raise, effective immediately, and that I'm on track for an in-line promotion within the next year.

What most pleases me about the raise is that I didn't have to beg for it. It just happened. My company seems to understand that increasing compensation is a great way to retain good employees (which I am; I know I complain, but I work hard and have high expectations of myself). That's something I didn't experience in previous workplaces.

(In my last job, nobody in the office had received a raise in four years. In the job before that, the organization pushed back against demands for higher pay for months before unsuccessfully trying to shut down complaints with a $200 holiday bonus. Lesson learned: few things damage employee morale more than stagnant compensation.)

4. These student loans have got to go

Epiphany as of last week: at the moment, I care more about eliminating my student loan debt than I do about job hunting. My calculations show that I should be able to pay off my loan by February. That's so far away! But... it's so close! Unless something completely intolerable transpires at work between now and then, this goal alone should be enough to make me hang in there even when I really want to quit. I mean, ideally I'll be able to keep going longer than that, but February represents the first goalpost here.


5. I need to demonstrate that I'm not a serial job hopper. 

I've changed jobs three times in four years. I lasted in my last job for 11 months, and I've been at this one for about nine. I worry that if I continue with this pattern of short-term employment, my resume will start to raise red flags and end up in the "no" pile without a second glance, regardless of how qualified I might be. Begrudgingly, I'll admit that if I want to shift gears at some point, sticking around here for a while longer will probably be beneficial.

6. I'm still sleeping at night. 

My last job (you can read about it here) was so stressful that I developed an intractable case of insomnia. I'd regularly go in to work after having slept only a couple of hours. I blazed through my sick time and vacation days within a month and had to start taking leave without pay. When I finally dragged myself to the doctor, she prescribed sleeping pills and advised that I quit my job immediately.

In retrospect, I should have quit long before I did. I stuck it out because I was afraid to be unemployed without another job lined up and because I wasn't thinking clearly about my health and well-being.

On the up side, now I know: if it ever gets that bad again, I'll follow Xennial Blogger's lead, put my own well-being first, and peace out. But in actuality, it hasn't gotten that bad. Nowhere close to it. Sure, I have bad days. Sure, I cry at my desk (less so now). But I sleep just fine and I'm healthy and functional, signs that even though I don't love this job, it's not completely toxic.

7. Maybe I can learn to deal?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about some techniques I'm going to use to make this job more tolerable. So far I've tried power posing, meditating, and watching motivational TED talks. I don't know whether it's the techniques themselves that are making a difference or simply the fact that I'm doing something that I have some control over, but I do get the sense that it's actually working. Especially the power posing. Like, it doesn't seem as though standing in front of my mirror and assuming a Wonder Woman stance should have any effect, and yet every time I do it I have better, more articulate interactions with people, including my supervisor. I even feel more confident about how I'm using my time.


Of course, I reserve the right to retract every single word of this if the shit hits the fan next week and I can't take it anymore. But for now, I'm sticking it out.


Monday, October 1, 2018

September 2018 In Review: Budget, Savings, and Debt Payments

Current status: I'm sitting at my kitchen table on my day off, sipping coffee out of my favorite mug, admiring the blazing red leaves on the tree right outside the window and watching fog roll across the hills on what is supposed to be a very rainy day if the weather forecast pans out. The forecast here is usually completely off base - by this afternoon it could be 80 degrees and sunny again - but for now I'm enjoying a moment of unquestionable fall. I grew up in the northeast and still miss a traditional autumn.

Reflecting on September, it was a month of running, obsessing about work, and depression. September is a month for depression. Something about the changing of the light. It freaked me out until I remembered that I go through this mindfuck every year at around the same time. I think I'm on the upswing, but I can't say for sure. My approach is to take it day by day.

September was also a month when we took a careful look at our current financial strategy. As Simplistic Steph pondered in her recent September-in-review post, "I don't know if I'm doing the right thing with our finances. Does anyone ever feel 100% confident in their money decisions?" And for us, the answer is a definite no. Last month, for example, we found ourselves wondering whether we should pull back on debt repayment and dump more into savings. In the end we decided to increase our automatic investments a smidge but otherwise stay the course and keep throwing money at my interminable student loan. Said loan will be paid off by February if we don't alter our plans.

Here's a breakdown of our September finances:

Budget: Although we stayed fairly well on track overall, we were off our September budget in a few categories. Our grocery bill was partly to blame, as usual, but we also had a couple of surprise expenses come up. The Kiddo had an eye exam and discovered that he badly needed glasses, so that was an unplanned $240 (I adjusted our planned loan payment by a couple hundred dollars to accommodate this). Then there were some books for school and a couple of unnecessary restaurant outings. Oh, and a $310 car repair, but that came out of our emergency fund. On the savings side, the Kiddo decided not to play soccer for his school, something that would have cost $150.

Debt repayment: After a slow summer, we're back in business with our debt repayment plan. I paid a total of $1300 to my student loan, bringing the balance from $9,800 to $8,570. With Fortysomething's usual $400 payment, our total debt dropped from $48,776 to $47,361 - a total of $1415!

Investments and HSA: Although we didn't add much to our regular savings account in September, Fortysomething and I both increased our 403b contributions to 6%. He has a 3% match from his employer and I have a 6% match from mine. All told, we're putting about $800 a month into our collective investments. We're also putting $500 a month (including my employer match) into our HSA, though much of that money is getting funneled directly to medical bill repayment. Thus, while it might not feel like we're saving much right now, in actuality we're making some progress in that area, too.

What about you? How was your September, financially or otherwise?

Monday, September 24, 2018

Announcing The I'm A F*#&ing Badass Experiment

The thing I hate the most about the past four years of my job history is the way it's eroded my confidence. Being in the wrong line of work will do that to a person. All I can see are the things I'm *not* good at: public speaking, talking on the phone, dealing with upset customers, stroking the egos of cranky managers. My job doesn't provide much opportunity for me to play to my strengths, and as a result, I've forgotten just how skilled, educated, and experienced I am. I'm convinced this lack of confidence has contributed to my recent feelings of depression and low self-worth.

But then this past weekend happened: I ran in a long-distance relay and was reminded that actually, I'm pretty fucking awesome, and I deserve to feel that way every single day. We all do.

Ready to conquer 18 miles
A bit of background: As many of you know, I'm passionate about running. But I'm not a natural runner. I didn't participate in track or cross country in grade school; I was the kid who'd look for every excuse to miss the one-mile run in gym class each semester. I began a jogging regimen only because it's something my partner was into when I first met him 20 years ago. On our first outing together, I huffed and puffed down one city block before I called it a day. A year later I finished a marathon. I've been a runner ever since.

I've improved my times over the years but never beyond middle of the pack. At my Tuesday night track club, I amble along in the drafts created by Olympic-level speedsters as they fly by at less than five minutes a mile, all taut muscle and perfect form. The thing is, though, I really don't care about the disparity in our performances. I'm happy for their talent. I'm happy for me, too. I love how running makes me feel. I see my limitations, I fully accept them, and I do my best with what I've got.

And what I've got is perfectly fine, something I was reminded of as I was running 18 miles through the desert last Saturday. I'd tapered well and felt fresh as I headed to the aid station at the start of my leg. During the run, my nutrition/hydration plan was on point. The trail was rocky, but I didn't fall once. I implemented my crush-the-downhills-speedwalk-the-uphills strategy. And by the time I reached my end point, I was ahead of schedule. Fast? No. But I delivered for my team.

It helped to be amongst others in the running community, where every person is treated as an absolute hero regardless of their gender, race, age, weight, pace, whatever. You run past someone, you tell them how outstanding they are, and they reciprocate. You get to an aid station, they tell you how amazing you are, and you thank them profusely for taking time out of their day to help host the event.

The ethos in the running community is just... inspiring. It's about unconditional acceptance and appreciation. It's about valuing people simply for being present, for participating, for existing.  Experiencing it again at Saturday's race was such a contrast to the messages I've been receiving in my work over the past few years and particularly over the past two months.

Basking in that spirit made me realize that I deserve better in my job. I cannot continue to work for a manager who yells at me and a company with policies that leave me feeling like a pile of shit at the end of each day. Work shouldn't make us feel that way. It's emotionally draining. It's bad for our health.

Which is why I'm determined to pivot, make a career shift, and find a way out of this employment rut. It's going to happen, but I know I need to stick it out for at least a few more months at my current job so that we can save some money and make a clear plan.


In the meantime, I don't want to feel powerless. I don't want to keep crying at my desk every morning. I don't want to feel like a worthless pile of slime on my office floor. For this job to be sustainable until next summer, I need to find a way to regain my confidence, or at least some of it. And I can't wait for my company or my boss to help me out in that respect, because that's never going to happen.

So I've decided to take on a little life experiment. I'm calling it my I'm A Fucking Badass Experiment, and here's how it's going to work: every week, I'm going to try out a strategy that I hope will help me feel better and more confident about myself. Whatever that strategy is, I'll implement it each and every day during that given week. At the end of the week, I'll report back: was it effective? Did it flop? Would I recommend it to others? (On the docket for Week 1: Power Posing!) 

Thanks to the messages we receive from the world around us, oftentimes especially from our work, we get brainwashed into thinking that we deserve less than we do. But as one of my running heroes, Sally McRae, has said, we don't need a why to matter. We matter because we exist. We should feel confident simply because we are here, doing the best we can every single day. And that's what I want for myself.

(Well, that and a better job.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Five Frugal Habit Changes That Have Helped Us Meet Our Financial Goals

Back in the day - before that transformative moment in April 2017 when we finally decided to get our financial act together - my family and I were impulsive spenders.

Fresh piece of furniture or some art for the walls?

Buy it.

Last-minute trip to a fancy hotel?

Do it.

Brand-new hardcover by favorite author?

Need it.

Cool new restaurant with $14 cocktails?


This past weekend, which consisted largely of wallet-friendly activities like making homemade meals, watching Netflix movies on the couch, tackling the laundry, and of course napping, I found myself reflecting on all that's changed in the last 1.5 years. Developing and especially maintaining new habits has always been challenging for my partner and me... especially me.

And yet somehow we've done it. We've adopted habits that have made us more aware of our spending and more frugal overall.

So what habits have stuck?

We track our spending religiously

For the past 18 months, I've kept an Excel spreadsheet that documents every single thing we've bought and every single bill we've paid. Automated tools like Mint and YNAB would do this for me, but I'm convinced that manually tracking our expenses plays a big role in our success so far. It forces to take a hard look at our choices on a regular basis. Does that mean we always hit our budget? Haaaaa. Nope. But we're at least aware of our biggest opportunities for improvement (grocery bill, I'm looking at you). They're always staring us in the face, and as a result, we never veer too far off the rails.

Forget bookstores: we're all about the library now

Slightly embarrassing admission: the library used to gross me out. I'd find myself obsessing about the number of other people who'd touched the books and the abundance of invisible germs crawling all over the covers. Then I'd head over to Barnes and Noble and buy my own copy of whatever shiny, fingerprint-free tome I wanted to read. At up to $24 a pop a few times a month, these literary purchases became expensive.

Now that our finances are on firmer footing, the library seems infinitely more appealing. Any slight aversion I may still have to book germs pales in the face of the gleeful reality that I can check out pretty much as many books as I want for free. Doesn't cost a thing! It's brilliant! I'm completely converted.

We go out to eat less (and use coupons or Swagbucks to help offset the cost when we do)

I so admire those of you who save money by never going out to eat. It makes sense: restaurants are expensive, especially when you factor in tips (and I believe in tipping well). Eating every meal at home saves a bundle.

For our family, though, this hasn't worked. We have some of our best conversations when we're sharing a meal prepared by someone else in a setting other than our kitchen. We just really enjoy going out to eat as a family, and we used to do so a couple of times a week.

We compromise by a) going out to eat less often and b) offsetting our costs with giftcards that we earn through Swagbucks. Granted, this means that Olive Garden and Dominoes feature heavily in our dining rotation (my kid loves Olive Garden; I hate it), but it makes us feel like we're not depriving ourselves.

Once or twice a month, we'll splurge at one of our favorite non-chain restaurants in town. That's always a massive treat and we never feel guilty about it because we know we've made improvements in this portion of our budget overall.

We curtailed traveling (for now, anyway) 

Before we started our debt reduction journey, our family traveled on a regular basis, both in-country and internationally, by car, by train, by plane. But traveling is so expensive that we've put the brakes on it for now. Our big excursion this year was a four-day road trip to Colorado; outside of that, we've stuck very close to home and watched as our friends took delightful-looking vacations to France, South America, New Zealand, and Iceland.

I can't see adopting this as a long-term habit because I think travel is enormously beneficial and educational. I do miss it. I want my son to see more of the world. But for now, it's a sacrifice we feel we need to make in order to meet our financial goals.

We spend almost nothing on home decor

A few months ago, a friend came over for dinner, glanced around at our sparse furnishings, and asked if we'd joined the minimalist movement. We explained that no, we just don't want to invest hundreds of dollars in home goods.

I'd be lying if I told you that I don't care how my house looks. I get FOMO every time I watch Property Brothers and Fixer Upper. Do I sometimes wish our home were more fashionable? More furnished? Sure.

But do I want to spend $800 on a new sofa? Or $150 on a piece of wall art? No. (I suppose I could do the next logical thing and see what I can find at thrift stores, but I'm a bit lazy.)

So we go with what we've currently got: worn second-hand seating, an abstract painting that a friend made and gifted to us, a faded tablecloth that my mom gave me 10 years ago, some photographs in inexpensive frames, a Target lamp, a small table, and a few plants. The place does look a bit empty, but I'm not willing to devote our paychecks to filling it up. I can live with this habit.

Focus on habits that are sustainable for you

I think it's important to focus on developing habits that you have the will to maintain. For example, our grocery bill is a bit of a disaster. We could develop better habits there, but frankly, we're not ready to. We've tried and failed multiple times because we're not committed enough. So we put our focus and efforts elsewhere, knowing that habits are hard to create and we've made some big strides in other areas.

What habits have you changed in order to pursue your financial goals?

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Stuck: A Job Post

This isn't going to be a particularly positive or eloquent post, but I'll forge ahead with it anyway because I want to share what's going on in 76K land. I haven't been writing because I've been feeling down. When I'm down, words elude me. But let me try to get something out.

Please note: this is me putting my thoughts on a page and not judging myself in the process. I don't feel the need to censor myself or make myself sound cheerier than I am. Yes, I know other people are experiencing much worse things, but that doesn't mean I can't share my own frustrations. If this bothers you, you don't need to comment on it. 

For the past two months or so, I've been feeling increasingly discouraged and depressed about my job. The reasons are fairly common. Look up any "I hate my corporate job" Reddit thread and you'll get the drift. Clearly I'm not alone in this.

My current strategy is to keep plodding on and doing my best while at the same time looking for another gig. I've been on the hunt for about two months. Despite all the chatter about this being the best job market in years!, I'm not seeing evidence of this supposed job hunter's paradise in my neck of the woods. Or at least, I'm not seeing any jobs that a) I'm qualified for, b) offer a living wage, and c) don't involve sales. But I'm networking and keeping my eyes peeled. 

I feel like I made a handful of mistakes with respect to my career. One, I chose an area of study/expertise that I assumed would offer plenty of job opportunities... but unless I want to move to Texas or Louisiana (I don't), that's not actually the case. I should have done my research. (I didn't.)

Two, when I left my academic job two years ago, I didn't give myself enough time and space to figure out what I wanted to do instead. I just jumped into the first available opportunity for which I was qualified, an opportunity that happened to be another iteration of the job I'd left. I've done that twice now: bounced from one not-right-for-me job straight into the next not-right-for-me job. Why? I guess because I needed the paycheck and I was following the path of least resistance.

As a result, I've backed myself into a corner in my career. My resume gives the distinct impression that I have a deep, vested interest in an area that I actually couldn't care less about. 

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.

In the short-term, I'll keep taking it day by day, looking for other opportunities, re-tooling my resume, doing things I enjoy outside of work, and paying off my student loan so that this frustration is ultimately worthwhile. 

I'm also developing something of a long-term exit strategy. Although our finances dictate that I can't up and quit my job right now, I'm giving serious thought to taking a career break next year. My tentative plan is to pay off my student loan in February (six months from now!) and then save as much money as possible by the end of the summer. That should give us enough of a financial cushion so that I can take six to eight months off.

It wouldn't be a vacation. I'd use that time to learn some new skills (specific areas TBD), brush up on some old ones, and give some deep thought to what it is I want to do. It would be a risk, but I think it would be a worthwhile risk. I can't keep doing what I'm doing and expect anything to change. 

My challenge: to stick it out until then.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

September 2018 Budget: Sports Fees and Credit Card Gripes

It's been a while since I've written a budget postI didn't share our August budget because it was so outside the norm for us, what with yearly bonuses and shuffling money into savings. Much of this summer was not a reflection of our day-to-day financial reality.

But now we're back to business as usual, so I figured I'd share our plans for September. The trick this month will be to rein it in: we won't have much extra cash to play with. I've tried to be realistic, though, knowing that we tend to overspend when we feel too restricted.

A few highlights and items of note:

(1) Southwest credit card annual fee: AAAARGH. GRRRRR. Note to all: the Southwest credit card is NOT worth the $99 annual fee. It just isn't. Aside from the 6,000 anniversary points, this card has little to offer, and 2019 will be my last year as a cardholder. New plan: use up my miles by middle of next summer and then cancel. I've even set up a reminder on my phone.

(2) Running gear: For months, I've put off buying some much-needed running gear. I'm reluctant to spend the money, but in a few weeks I'm running a long leg in a 100-mile relay - at night. I'm nervous (petrified is more like it) about trying to find my way along a single-track trail in the cold and dark. So today I finally made some purchases that will hopefully keep me comfortable and put my mind more at ease (links so that other runners can check these out and tell me what they think): a Petzl Tikkina headlamp, an UltrAspire clip-on light for my running vest, two flexible HydraPak UltraFlask water bottles that I can fold up when not in use, a 2-liter Platypus, and a hat. I bought them from REI because I like the membership dividend and the excellent customer service.

(3) Soccer fee: While playing for the city soccer league this summer, the Kiddo developed a passion for the sport and now wants to join his school club this fall. I've never seen him this invested in something other than video games. He bought a new soccer ball and some cones with a gift card he received from the grandparents, and recently he's at the park almost every day doing wind sprints and practicing drills. The school club is a bit expensive, but if he's willing to invest his time and energy into this hobby, we're willing to invest some money and give him all the support we can provide.

(4) Savings OR loans: We've allocated $1300 for one or the other. We're still trying to decide if we want to save a little more or start demolishing my student loan, which could be gone by February if we're willing to throw most of our disposable income at it. *At the moment* I'm feeling very anti-loan and would like to burn it to the ground, but that could change tomorrow. So we'll just wait until the middle-of-the-month paycheck shows up and make our final decision then.

September 2018 Budget:

Rent (including water, sewer, trash)
Student Loan #1
Student Loan #2
Thousand Trails
Very Expensive Feline
School Supplies
SW Card Fee
Running Gear
Soccer Fee
Savings OR Loans
Total Planned Expenses

Coming To You LIVE From The Debt Repayment Pain Cave

There's a point in every long race that's known as The Pain Cave. It's the point where you can't remember why you ever...