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

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Mental Health and Money Mondays: Let's Jump In!


Last weekend at the Seattle CentsPositive retreat, a life-changing (yes, I feel that way) personal finance gathering for women organized by author and blogger Tanja Hester, we were given the opportunity to brainstorm topics for participant-led breakout sessions.

I’m the type of person who starts sweating (like, in an alarmingly profuse manner) at even the thought of leading a conversation, so I tried to convince myself that I had nothing to contribute. But after a few squirmy minutes of hemming and hawing, I decided to share with the group my topic idea: mental health and money.


Talking About Mental Health 


If you’ve read any part of this blog, you probably know that mental health is something that I’ve grappled with for most of my life. Anxiety: I've got that! Depression: that one, too! Also several others! I seem to amass mental health issues the way I used to accumulate Pound Puppies back in 1986. Collect them all!

It became especially challenging once I graduated from school and entered the traditional workforce. I’m smart and hardworking, but I crumble under the pressure and micromanagement of traditional corporate employment, and no amount of therapy or medication has changed that.

In April, after a series of jobs that all left me anxiety-ridden and unable to sleep at night, I finally took a giant leap (of faith, of desperation), penned a resignation letter, and left full-time employment, possibly for good. I spent the spring and summer putting my brain back together and then found part-time work that gives me the space I need to truly take care of myself and thrive within my own limitations.

(Important sidenote: it is okay to have limitations and boundaries! There’s no shame in that.)

Anyway, mental health was something I was eager to discuss at CentsPositive, but I wasn’t sure it would garner much interest, given the variety of applicable breakout sessions on offer. When it was time to split up into groups, however, approximately a dozen women joined me.

Sitting in a tight circle in the hotel ballroom, we explored the mental health issues that concern us the most and how we cope with them. We talked about how our mental health affects our finances and how our financial choices/constraints affect our mental health. We shared our experiences with looking for good therapists, finding affordable medication, coping with stress, and securing insurance that covers the services we need.

When the session ended, I felt heard, supported, and inspired, and I hope the other women did, too. (If you were there and you're reading this, thank you so much.)


Continuing the Conversation


Moving forward, one thing I want to do with this blog is use it as a safe space to dig into the topic of money and mental health. There’s no doubt that the two topics are linked, especially in our current socioeconomic hellhole environment, which is defined in part by things like stagnating wages in many industries; rising costs of housing, tuition, childcare, and healthcare; burdensome student loan balancesworkplace stress; and a widening wealth gap. Combined, these factors create a breeding ground for uncertainty, anxiety, depression, and other debilitating issues.

Based on emails and Twitter comments I’ve received and in-person conversations I’ve had the privilege to be a part of, I think there are many people who want to explore mental health and money, and for a bunch of different reasons:

  • To feel less alone and more understood 
  • To vent 
  • To commiserate 
  • To give and receive advice 
  • To learn 
  • To problem-solve 
  • To be reassured there is hope
  • To know that they are valuable and important simply for being who they are, regardless of their finances or what they do for a living 

There are several people in the personal finance space who are already holding these conversations: Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt, Jessica of The Fioneers, Abigail of I Pick Up PenniesBaristaFIRE, Angela of Tread Lightly, Retire Early, and From One Geek To Another, just to name a few.

To add to the dialogue, I’m starting a new weekly series called Mental Health and Money Mondays. At the start of each week, I’ll write a post on a specific mental health-related topic, or I'll share a reader question/comment. Then I’ll open up the comments for discussion so that people can chime in with their own experiences, advice, and stories.

I chose Mondays because (1) alliteration! and (2) I think it’s a mentally and emotionally hard day for a lot of people. It can be brutal to make the transition from the weekend to the workweek. I’m hoping this series can serve as something of a respite for those of us who look forward to Mondays the way one might look forward to being woken up from a deep slumber via ice bath immersion.

Is this the right place to have these discussions? Do people still see blogs as a place to build community? I’m not sure, but I’m going to give it a try. If it falls flat, I’ll find some other online venue for these conversations.


Your Perspective: I Want It!


To get started, I’d love for you to comment in one or more of the following ways:

(1) Share a mental health-related question, concern, or topic that you think this community needs to talk about.

(2) If there’s a connection between your mental health and your finances and you feel comfortable sharing it, I'd love to hear about it.

(3) Tell us what this community can do to make you feel more supported and more heard as you cope with mental health concerns (whether those concerns are your own or those of a loved one).

And/or

(4) Share a post or article you’ve written about a mental health-related topic. Your stories and experiences are enormously valuable to others. I’ll also be sharing these posts/articles on my Twitter account throughout the week.

Of course, you are welcome to share anonymously.

Footnote #1: This blog occasionally eats comments. People have told me it’s because I’m still using Blogger, being the cheapie that I am. Maybe that’s true, but I’ve seen it happen on other platforms, too. I recommend saving your comment to a note or other document so that if it gets lost, you can just repost it. I appreciate your patience!

Footnote #2: Probably unnecessary to mention, as people are mostly very awesome, but I reserve the right to delete unhelpful comments. I don’t usually take down negative comments when they pertain to me and my own experiences and stories, but I will delete them if they are hurtful towards other people.

Thank you in advance for bringing your voice to the conversation, and happy (or at least tolerable) Monday!
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My Experience With (Sh*tty) Short-Term Health Insurance


When I quit my job back in April to take care of my mental health, my two primary concerns were (1) oh God, what am I going to do with my life now? (answer: nap, learn some Italian, walk some dogs, rant on my blog) and (2) how are we going to... you know... pay for things? Like food. And cat litter. And - dun dun DUNNNNN - health insurance.

The health insurance worried me the most.

Generally, I'm pretty resourceful. I make things happen. Like, hand me some cardboard and a roll of duct tape, and I'll fix a few appliances, build some toys, and maybe craft a pair of zero-drop running sandals. Time me while I'm putting together an Ikea shelf, and I'll wow you with my efficiency. Ask me to conduct some Internet research, and mere hours later, I'll present you with a sheaf of peer-reviewed journal articles and a professional literature review. Drop me in a foreign country in a stranger's house in the middle of nowhere with no money and no language skills and no access to transportation, and I will find a way to get to the nearest city (this happened).

Problem-solving is very much in my wheelhouse.

But health insurance in the U.S.? Not employer-sponsored?

Is that problem even solvable?


Limited Options


My first step in securing health insurance as an unemployed person was to look into the family plan associated with my partner's insurance. As a teacher, he pays almost nothing for his own healthcare, a rare and well-deserved perk of the job. I made a wish on some magical unicorn dust that he'd be able to add us to his plan for, like, a couple hundred a month.

Nope.

Try $800-$900 per month. Way outside the capacity of our single-income budget.

Step two: I checked into ACA (Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare) options. The ACA grants special enrollment periods in certain situations such as job changes, so I knew I could sign up immediately, which was a plus. I also figured that on our substantially reduced income, we'd be eligible for a subsidy to take the edge off the premium.

Turned out that while I did qualify for a special enrollment period, I did not qualify for a subsidy, thanks to a sinister little loophole called the family glitch.

Basically, because Fortysomething has insurance through his work and pays very little for it, and because his employer does offer family coverage (though no teacher's family can actually pay for it), we weren't eligible for ACA assistance. Our unsubsidized premiums would be astronomical: again, $800-$1000 per month, this time for a bronze plan with a laughably (or maybe cry-ably) high deductible.

This situation - the family glitch - affects millions of people, and the government has not stepped up to create a solution (quelle suprise!)

So the ACA option wasn't going to work, either.

I then looked into healthcare sharing ministries, or healthshares. Instead of providing insurance, healthshares offer cost sharing. The idea is that you buy into the healthshare by paying a fixed amount each month, sort of like a premium. When you incur a medical expense, you cover it out of pocket and submit a claim. Then the healthshare dips into its money pool and reimburses you. That's how it's supposed to work, anyway. Several friends who have participated in these programs say they're generally satisfied with the experience.

At around $400/month, a healthshare plan was affordable-ish. But the more I learned about healthshares, the less interested I was in joining one, and not just because they don't cover things like pre-existing conditions, contraceptives, and mental health services. Personally, my biggest issue with healthshares is that all of them are fundamentally religious. As an agnostic, I couldn't shake the squirmy feeling I felt when I thought about having to agree to the moral, religious, and ethical codes that every healthshare asks its members to abide by (though the specifics of those codes do vary).

Basically, I don't think healthcare should be tied up with religion, so healthshares are out for me.


Enter Short-Term Health Insurance


My research finally led me to short-term health insurance plans, which were limited under the Obama administration but have proliferated now that the hairy Cheeto is in office. Short-term insurance is just what it sounds like: health insurance coverage for a short period of time. It's a product offered not by the government but by profit-seeking health insurance companies.

In the past, short-term insurance was a true stop-gap measure intended to cover employment breaks for a maximum of a few months. Now, many states allow short-term insurance for terms of six months to a year, with the option to renew for up to three years.

Because short-term insurance is extremely problematic in many ways, not all states are on board with these plans. The biggest issue is that short-term insurance doesn't have to cover pre-existing conditions, nor is it required to cover maternity care, birth control, substance use disorders, and mental health treatment. In other words, coverage-wise, short-term insurance is no better than what healthshares are offering (and at least in some cases, they're probably worse).

States like California, New York, and New Jersey reject these coverage restrictions and thus do not allow insurance companies to peddle short-term plans. Other states, such as Colorado and Oregon, permit short-term insurance but have adopted strict rules designed to protect consumers.

Still other states, however, have allowed and even encouraged the expansion of short-term insurance options, and my state, Arizona, happens to be one of them. (Our unofficial state motto is, I'm gonna do whatever the hell I want; the state government is generally on board with this unless what you want to do is enact environmental legislation. But I digress.) As of September 2019, Arizonans can purchase short-term insurance plans with terms of up to almost a year and renewals of up to three years.


The Nitty-Gritty of My Short-Term Insurance Plan


I spent days researching short-term plans and eventually found one that had enough coverage to give me some sense of security. This plan includes:

-A $2500 deductible
-A maximum out-of-pocket limit of $2000 (after the deductible is met)
-80/20 coinsurance (i.e., once the deductible is met, I pay 20% of the negotiated bill)
-A maximum lifetime limit of $2 million
-Dental, vision, and Teledoc add-ons
-Prescription discounts

My family doctor, my kid's pediatrician and optometrist, my dentist, and my dermatologist all accept this plan, which was important to me. I didn't want to change providers.

When all was said and done, the monthly premium came out to a little less than $300.

Anxious that the underwriters would flag me for my age and previous antidepressant prescriptions, I applied. When my application was accepted, I worried that I was making a deal with the devil. I also felt an enormous sense of relief.

I've now had short-term insurance for six months, and I just renewed for another six months. So far, my plan has covered two dental visits at no additional cost, two flu shots at no additional cost, and a skin cancer screening at a discounted price (after insurance, I paid $100 out of my old health savings account). Although I've seen reviews of these plans that read like modern-day American horror stories, so far, the service I've received has been pretty standard - no better but no worse than what I experienced with my employer-sponsored Cigna and United Healthcare coverage.



Pros and Cons


Obviously, for us, an enormous benefit of short-term insurance is the cost. Unlike the premiums for Fortysomething's employer-sponsored insurance and the unsubsidized ACA plans, $300/month is within our budget. In fact, it leaves some room for us to continue putting money into savings, something that's extremely important to us.

The relatively low deductible and out-of-pocket maximums are also attractive, especially considering that many of the more affordable ACA plans can have deductibles of well over $10K.

However, my short-term plan comes with some undeniable problems:

1. It doesn't cover pre-existing conditions. How's that for some pre-ACA bullsh*t, huh? In fact, if you have pre-existing conditions, there's a very good chance you'll be denied coverage when you apply.

In contrast, ACA plans do not place restrictions on pre-existing conditions, which is one reason the ACA is so important (and why it's worth protecting and improving upon, at least until something better comes along). Prior to Obamacare, you could be denied coverage for things like, say, being pregnant. Meaning that some women had to go through their pregnancies without insurance.

Ask me how I know.

Ask. Me. How. I. Know.

2. Coverage is spotty. In fact... there are a lot of things short-term insurance doesn't cover: maternity care, fertility treatments, gender reassignment surgery, mental health services, and substance use disorder treatment, to name a few.

Also, if you fall off your horse during a rodeo, get injured while skydiving in your squirrel suit, or find yourself admitted to the hospital on a Friday or Saturday for anything other than an emergency (yes, this is actually a restriction spelled out in the fine print), you're out of luck.

For fun, you can skim examples of other short-term insurance restrictions on p. 14-15 in this here handy brochure.

3. The maximum lifetime limit of $2 million is insufficient. If you have a serious health condition, you're gonna blow through that cap in a jiffy. In contrast, ACA plans do not have lifetime limits.


Compromising My Principles


I'm going to be completely honest with you: I feel like I'm compromising my principles by buying short-term health insurance. Everyone - EVERYONE! - should have their healthcare needs met without endangering their financial well-being. For-profit insurance products are designed to make money for insurance companies, not protect the well-being of the people who would most benefit from good healthcare. Short-term insurance is built for people who are already pretty healthy and who are unlikely to affect the bottom line. The second it becomes clear that your health needs are going to incur substantial costs for the insurance company, you're out.

It's shady and unethical.

However - and I cannot emphasize this enough -

the better options are not affordable.

As in, we cannot afford them.

As in, if we were to purchase them, we will not be able to save anything.

Do I feel comfortable with my current plan? Not really.

But do I feel comfortable paying thousands of dollars a year for a plan that, if I need to use it, will require me to shell out thousands of dollars more before my deductible even kicks in?

Do I feel comfortable returning to an employment situation that makes me sick just to have employer-sponsored health insurance?

Do I feel comfortable having no money to save or invest?

No.

So here we are.

Like most of us, at the end of the day, we have to do what's most beneficial for our family. In this case, we have to select the best option out of several terrible options.


Tips For Purchasing Short-Term Insurance


If you're in a state that doesn't allow short-term insurance plans, good news! Your state is progressive enough to offer other choices. Your state sees you as a human being! Your state cares about your health! Your state understands that medical bankruptcy is expensive for absolutely everyone!

If you're in a state that does support short-term insurance, and if you're considering short-term insurance for yourself or your family, I can offer a few tips:

(1) Look for the lowest deductible you can afford. The deductible is the amount you have to pay before your insurance company helps you cover your costs (although prior to that, the company will negotiate with your providers, meaning that your medical bills will be lower than if you didn't have insurance at all). My current insurance company offers deductibles ranging from $1000 to $12,500.

At $12,500, your monthly premiums will be rather low, but you're going to have to shell out a sh*tload of cash for medical expenses before your insurance company even opens its wallet.

(2) Look for the lowest coinsurance you can afford. Once you've hit your deductible, you'll probably still be responsible for part of your expenses. The percent of your medical bills that you pay out of pocket is called coinsurance. For example, I have 80/20 coinsurance, meaning that once my deductible is met, my insurance company is responsible for 80% of the bill, and I'm responsible for 20%. If you have 50/50 coinsurance, you'll be on the hook for 50% of the cost; your insurance company will take care of the other half.

The lower your coinsurance, the better.

(3) Look for the lowest out-of-pocket maximum you can afford. The out-of-pocket maximum is the maximum amount you'll have to pay - after you reach your deductible - for medical expenses. In my case, I have a deductible of $2500 and an out-of-pocket maximum of $2000, meaning that the most I'd have to shell out (assuming my insurance company sticks to its end of the bargain and doesn't make up arbitrary new rules as we go along) is $4500.

(4) Make sure your providers accept your short-term insurance plan. As far as I can tell, every insurance company offers a Doctor Finder tool on its website. Look into this before you apply for a plan, and call your doctor to double-check if you're not entirely certain they'll accept your insurance.

(5) Read the fine print.

Read. The. Fine. Print.

Carefully review every single page in the benefits guide (here's an example of what to expect in a pre-purchase benefits guide), and call the insurance company if you have any questions. Again, do this before you apply. As I mentioned earlier, short-term insurance plans come with an abundance of stipulations, variations, and exclusions. Don't make any assumptions about what the insurance plan will cover.

(6) Once you have insurance, obsessively review every bill, and be a PITA. Let's say you go to the doctor for a regular checkup. Your doctor takes your short-term insurance; you know this because you confirmed with your provider and the insurance company before you purchased your plan. According to the benefits guide that you've read in detail, your insurance should cover this visit.

But let's say they don't. Let's say they deny your claim, and now you're on the hook for the full cost of the visit.

Do you cry?

Well, if you're me, yes. You cry every time.

It's okay. Cry.

I also encourage you to pen a few Twitter rants for good measure.

But do you give up and just pay the whole bill? NO!

Call the insurance company (I know, I have phone phobia, too... I'm sorry) and ask them what they can do to help. Request that they reconsider the claim. If they won't do that, ask them if the coding of the visit affected the outcome. Then contact your healthcare provider and see if they can either give you a discount or re-code your visit, if it's appropriate.

This seems like a ton of work, and it is. Not every call or request will yield results. Sometimes you'll ask for a discount or a claim re-evaluation, and you'll get nothing. But healthcare costs in this country are highly negotiable, and if you're willing to ask and push, there's a strong likelihood that you'll be able to catch a break at some point.

It shouldn't be this way. Haggling over healthcare costs shouldn't be a thing. This isn't the farmer's market.

Plus, this unspoken rule - that we should be negotiating our healthcare costs - is extremely unfair to certain people and communities. But here we are.


Final Thoughts


Healthcare is a major topic of discussion here in the U.S. Regardless of our political views, I think most of us agree that we can't keep doing what we're doing; something needs to change so that (a) healthcare costs are less extreme and (b) more people have comprehensive coverage.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and your healthcare/health insurance experiences. And although I can't call myself a true expert in this arena, I've navigated the healthcare system and I'm familiar with the lingo and the unwritten rules. So if you have questions, ask! If I can't provide answers, I'll point you to someone who can.
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Debt: Who F*cking Cares



Preface


A few salty notes before I launch in:

1. My child informs me that I swear too much, so I'm asterisking my f-words because I know he reads my blog (hi buddy... I love you! I'm working on my shortcomings but this one's gonna be tough...)

2. I'm currently at CentsPositive (sidenote: it's amazing), but I have a horrible cold and have therefore sequestered myself in my room to eat delicious takeout pizza, sip hot tea, argue with people on Twitter, and edit/publish this post, the first draft of which I wrote a couple of days ago. I may be slightly delirious, but nothing stands between me and my keyboard!

2b. My CentsPositive welcome bag came with candy, beer, and chips. Will these sour gummy worms clear my sinuses? Is hard seltzer medicinal?

3. Someone's going to say, "You're contradicting yourself... I thought you were frustrated about money but here you are SPENDING money, you irresponsible moron." Yes. I am frustrated about money sometimes. However, I am realizing that a) we're exhibiting normal, healthy levels of financial responsibility, b) investing in what we value is a good thing, and c) it's okay to contradict myself as I sort through my thoughts.

4. I'm not saying people shouldn't pay off their debt.

5. I understand the concept of interest, yes.

Anyway.

Here is what I wrote.


That Time We Were "On Track"


I've been struggling lately with the direction of this blog because we've clearly deviated from our original goal: to get out of $76K worth of debt as fast as possible.

For a while - like maybe 1.5 years - we were all in. As we described in our early posts, we made some big changes to make the debt disappear:

We reduced our expenses (bye, Hulu! See ya, magazine subscriptions! Gym membership, don't even bother trying to sell us because we're going to work out FOR FREE, you sneaky money-grubbing bastard.)

We snagged new jobs with higher salaries.

We paid off a credit card, then a car loan, then two more credit cards. Then a student loan.

We were prime candidates for the Debt Payoff Honor Roll.

And then... then we got derailed. I got derailed.

I derailed us.

My brain derailed us.


A New Approach


When I quit full-time work to (literally) save my sanity, the wheels flew off our debt payoff train in spectacular fashion. I mean, we took on air. We careened off the tracks, hit a few trees, slid down a steep hillside, and probably injured a handful of innocent squirrels in the process.

The hypothetical debt repayment train was totaled.

Six months later, we have a new debt repayment vehicle.

I call it The Debt Repayment Tricycle.

It moves much more slowly than the afore-mentioned high-speed train, and man, do my quads hurt.

But when I think about ditching my trike and re-hitching myself to something faster, I've realized that I... just... don't. want. to. do. it.

Somewhere along the way, I got sick of feeling like making money and paying off loans were the most important non-family things in my life. The fact that I was able to make them a centerpiece for almost two years is pretty much a miracle, given my YOLO-infused financial history. I've just never been that interested in making money (I know, I know... I'm not saying that's a good thing, but that's where I was at). It's never motivated me. Until 2017, my debt didn't really bother me.

I've always been most interested in experiencing my life as much as I possibly can, with whatever resources I have available. In the past, those resources included my credit cards.


You Can Live With Debt


Lately, I find the pendulum swinging back towards YOLO.

Exhibit A: I recently paid $91 to run in a 25K trail race.

Exhibit B: We bought a fish tank with all the accouterments. (Granted, I severely underestimated how much this thing would cost, but it's delightful. The cat watches the fish all day long and is living her best life.)

Exhibit C: For CentsPositive, I'm staying in a hotel room in downtown Seattle for two nights, and I'm not sharing.

I'm okay with all this because I KNOW how to manage my money. I'm a budgeting all-star (YES I AM). I'm committed to tracking my expenses and paying my bills on time. I'm a fanatic about maintaining a zero balance my credit card.

Exhibit D: I booked this hotel room on my Mastercard. It's already been paid off.

I've discovered the deep satisfaction of having a tidy, Kondo-esque financial life.

But just as I don't think I can go back to working 40 hours a week, I don't think I can go back to obsessing about debt payoff. Not the way I used to. I'm not interested in devoting our entire disposable income to our student loan.

That loan will go away. It's just not going to go away soon. And that's okay, because I'd rather my family devote our energy and paychecks to other things.

Like going out for an occasional restaurant meal.

Or seeing a movie best viewed on the big screen.

Or taking a memborable family vacation.

Or traveling to a CentsPositive gathering or Lola Retreat to hang out with likeminded friends.

Or signing up for trail races that make me feel like I'm doing exactly what I've been put on this oh-so-runnable Earth to do.

I guess I've realized that it is truly possible to live, really live, with debt. Like, you can have a student loan and also have a life. You can invest in the experiences and things you value and still be good with money.

Can you buy groceries? Can you pay your rent? Can you keep yourself clothed? Ideally, are you not accruing more debt? (Though maybe you are, but if you're reading this, I'm betting you have some darned good reasons for it.)

Then who f*cking cares. 

Paying off your debt fast doesn't make you a better, smarter, more thoughtful, or more moral human being. It makes you someone who's paid off their debt.

And if you're still chipping away at it, as we are, the debt is a line item in your budget, which also includes many other things that are probably way more important to you. And that's totally okay. Your student loan payment doesn't need to carry any more emotional weight than, say, your electric bill.

Yes, I still have money stress. How many of us don't? But after my last post, I realized that most of that stress comes from feeling like I need to move at someone else's pace, guided by someone else's values, instead of my own. I simmered on it a bit and realized... I don't.


Taking the Middle Road


So much of personal finance these days is about doing things as fast as possible, whether that's eliminating student loans or achieving FIRE.

But there can be a very normal, very manageable, very scenic middle road. Just you and your tricycle, ambling down the way, enjoying the view, knowing that if you just keep peddling, you'll eventually reach your destination.

If you've had a different experience and paid off debt super quickly, and if you think that's a good strategy, then I'm here to give you a virtual high five. Rock on, sister or mister.

But this is where I'm at.

Debt:

Who actually f*cking cares.
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Winning AND RANTING, September 2019 Edition


Welcome to another edition of Winning, the consistently inconsistent series in which the $76K family celebrates its financial achievements, from the substantial to the minuscule. The last time I wrote one of these was in... March. Oops. The last few months have felt very messy and uncertain with respect to budgeting and employment. I wasn't up to celebrating, so the series got moved to the back burner.

Six months later, the leaves are changing colors, the nights are getting colder, and both $76K adults are bringing in paychecks again. Time to get back to winning.

To be honest, I'm still not feeling particularly celebratory. I haven't found a way to adequately organize and articulate what's been stewing away in my brain regarding money, but what I can say is that lately, it often has me seeing red - both on my own family's behalf and on the behalf of other people who struggle to pay their bills and meet their financial obligations.

Personally, I feel frustrated by the simple fact that there isn't enough money to fund all of the important things:

  • Rent
  • Student loan repayment
  • Retirement
  • Health insurance 
  • Sinking fund
  • Vacation/hobby fund 

More generally, although I've long been aware of the broader problems that are so intricately woven into personal finance, quitting my job, losing my employer-sponsored health insurance, and cobbling together a rather bare-bones budget have elevated those issues in my mind. I think about systemic inequality a lot, and I'm frustrated by the deepening and widening gap between those with financial security and those without. I'm even more frustrated by the shitty advice and the needless judgment dumped on people who are in debt and/or living paycheck to paycheck and/or barely getting by (if they're getting by at all).

ETA: Clarification for the person/people who are apparently confused by the above comments: I am not saying that me feeling stressed about my bills is systemic inequality. I am not saying that I am not privileged (the fact that I was able to go part time to take care of my health is a privilege). I am not saying that me having to quit my job = the universe shitting on me. Yeah, I realize it was a choice. A good choice.

I am saying TWO DISTINCT THINGS THAT I AM CAPABLE OF PONDERING SIMULTANEOUSLY:

1. Bills are stressful on a limited budget.

2. I think about systemic inequality more than I used to because I now see how easy it would be to fall off a financial cliff. Even if you HAVE some resources, it can be like walking a narrow ridgeline with nothing but air below, thanks to the price of healthcare, rising costs of college tuition and rent, and stagnating wages. Welcome to 'Merica, 2019! So then add in situations where someone is being oppressed, overtly or subtly, by someone specific or by outdated societal norms, and they've got limited finances... It's worrying.

Does that make sense or do I need to spell it out in easier words? If it's just that you don't believe in inequality, then this is the wrong blog for you and you should go somewhere else. Find another smug rich stoic, and together the two of you can talk about how dumb and lazy the rest of us are. Just don't do it here.

Anyway, that mini tirade might be fodder for a longer post at some point.

Moving on to September wins:

1. We paid our rent! We paid our health insurance! We paid all the bills! This is a win.

2. We're thisclose to meeting our emergency fund goal. Just $200 to go! Related win: we didn't dip into our emergency fund this month even though we were a little more lax about spending than we usually are. We went out to eat a couple of times, I bought some not-cheap moisturizer, and my kid talked us into getting a fish tank, which came with a lot of unexpected (to me) accouterments: heater, gravel, plants, decor/fish hiding spaces, water testing kit, water conditioning kit, etc. I was picturing a happy little goldfish in a $5 bowl, but... that's not what happened. Oh well. It looks nice, the cat loves it, and the kiddo is learning about aqueous chemistry and nitrogen cycling.

3. I was offered extra hours at work. I'm slated to work 18 hours per week, but thanks to a big project with a non-negotiable deadline, I've been asked to work 30 hours a week for the foreseeable future (probably through October and maybe November). Money-wise, this is obviously a good thing. We'll be able to sock some cash away into a sinking fund for car repairs. However, the project we're working on is energy-intensive and a bit stressful. I'm glad it's not something I'll have to do indefinitely.

I continue to scour the job boards for a full-time, with-benefits job that I think I could manage, but man, there is really not much out there in the way of well-paying, reliable, halfway-enjoyable employment. Except for benefits (the pay could be a bit better, too, but isn't that always the case), I feel like I've hit the jackpot with my current part-time gig.

4. Our total debt continues to decrease, albeit at a snail's pace. You can check out our latest debt update here. Our total is now under $37,000. If we keep up this pace, we'll have this baby paid off in... 11 years.

Hang on a sec. I need to go bang my head on my desk.

Ideally, by the end of 2019, we'll be able to bring our student loan payment up to $500/month (in which case we'll have it paid off in eight years), but I don't want to count on that. See above re: competing budgetary interests.

In short, I feel conflicted and a little frustrated, but it is what it is, and we're celebrating anyway.

What about you? Do you relate to the "not enough money to go around" situation and/or do you have any financial wins to share this month?
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Closing the Income Gap


I'm just popping on to this here olde blog to say that

We have some discretionary income again!

My part-time work hours have ramped up. I was initially offered 12 hours per week, then 15. Someone quit. I took on some of their responsibilities, so now I'm on the books for 18 hours per week. Today, my boss told me that I can work 30 hours per week for the next month or so because management is starting to get anxious about meeting an upcoming deadline.

For September, anyway, we'll exceed our expenses by at least $300. It's going straight into savings.

*whispering* We may hit our e-fund goal this month.

Woot woot.

If the same thing happens next month, it's sinking funds time!

Yes, I certainly find it problematic that my company won't offer me health insurance or other benefits, but honestly, I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing and can't imagine ditching this gig for a random 8-to-5 desk job. Especially because my daily schedule looks something like this:

     6:30 AM: Wake up; drink coffee
     7:15 AM: Get kid out the door
     7:30 AM: Run and breakfast
     9:30 AM-ish: Work for however many hours
     If time in afternoon: Laundry or random television show watching or trips to library
     4 PM: Help kid get snack and organize homework

Is there another job that's going to afford me this level of flexibility? With benefits? And no micromanagement?

When that unicorn canters into town, I'm there. Until then, I'll stick with what I've got.

Another piece of news: I'm putting Rover on hold. I love that I have it in my back pocket in case I need to earn some quick cash. At any moment, I could unlock my profile and adjust my settings to guarantee some bookings. But I feel like I have enough on my plate, and I don't want to burn out by taking on unnecessary side jobs.
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I Won A Plutus Award!


A few days ago, on the last day of FinCon 2019, The $76K Project won the Plutus Foundation's Best Debt Freedom Blog award, presented by Sandy of Yes, I Am Cheap.

Thank you so much to Sandy, the Plutus Foundation, the people who decided my blog was worth nominating, and the panelists who made the final decision. Oh, and JD Roth of Get Rich Slowly, who accepted the award on my behalf. You guys rock.

The win meant a lot to me. Because I wasn't at FinCon (I mean, how do you maintain your credibility as an in-process debt freedom blogger while shelling out hundreds of dollars for a conference across the country) and had a bunch of stuff going on at the end of last week, I'd completely forgotten about the awards ceremony. I found out about the win while I was out on a run; my phone started pinging like mad. You can bet that news put some extra pep in my step.

The weird thing about winning this award now is that I've been feeling rather conflicted about The $76K Project. I don't know if it's useful for anyone. It's supposed to be a debt freedom blog, but... I rarely give advice on how to tackle debt. I can tell you what we've done, but I cannot in good conscience prescribe a specific approach for getting your finances in order because (a) everyone's circumstances are so different and (b) what do I know. We still have student loan debt, and given that I recently transitioned to a part-time job with no benefits, we're gonna be hanging onto that debt for a while. A long, long while.

If someone were to take a quick peek at our finances and offer advice on how to press the gas on this whole process, I'm pretty sure I know what they'd say:

     Get a higher-paying job!

     Move to an area with a lower cost of living!

     Find a cheaper apartment!

And although the sentiment behind the advice would be appreciated, I'd apply none of it - because that advice doesn't mesh with our current circumstances:

      I had a higher-paying job. It made me depressed, stressed, anxious, and mentally unwell.

     For the first time ever, we live in a place we love, in a community we adore. Plus, the sunshine helps my mood, and that is no small thing.

     If we moved to a cheaper apartment, my partner would have to drive a long way to work and we'd be sharing walls. No more wall sharing.

People can think what they want, but at the end of the day, we have our non-negotiables, and we're not sacrificing them to get out of debt faster.

Because money isn't everything.

If all you're focusing on is your finances - whether that's paying off your student loan as quickly as possible or banking a few million bucks by the time you're 35 - you might find that you're pretty damn unhappy.

Personally? I don't think it's healthy to obsess about money for years on end, and I'm not going to. Our approach now is a blend of "Plan For The Future" and "YOLO".

All this to say: unsolicited advice is a tricky thing. Frankly, it is often completely useless (yes, I'll go there), usually influenced by the advice-giver's own unique experiences, and sometimes harmful (looking at you, Schmave Schmamsey). I don't like getting unsolicited advice. I feel more than a little squirmy giving it.

Which is why I question my efficacy as a debt freedom blogger. I'm not sure I'm a good example, and I can't tell you How To Get Out Of Debt In Ten Easy Steps! (You'll find some advice on this blog about budgeting and tracking expenses, but all of a dozen people have actually read those posts. As it turns out, budgeting and expense tracking are effective but also extremely dull, no matter how many ways the talking head money guys on cable television spin it.)

So. The plan moving forward is to continue with the blog but just keep telling our story. It may be boring, and it may be long, but hey, if you stick around for the next ten years, there might be a final chapter worth waiting for.
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Staying Afloat: 2019 Goals Check-In


My kid started seventh grade a few weeks ago, my birthday is in less than two months, and FinCon 2019 is a mere 48 hours away.

Though I can offer no scientific proof, trust me: time is accelerating.



Anyway, given that it's suddenly September 2 - 2/3 OF THE WAY THROUGH THE YEAR HOW IN THE WORLD - I figured now might be a good time to review our/my 2019 goals and see how we're doing.

Are we succeeding? Failing miserably? Somewhere in between?

Let's take a look.


Goal #1: Quit my current job. 
Status: Goal met! Twice!

That's right, folks: being the overachiever that I am, I met this goal two times by the end of April! First I quit the bullshit job that made me want to crawl under my desk and weep on a daily basis, and then I quit the exploitative job that made me want to crawl under my desk and weep every hour on the hour.

Things were so bad when I quit the second job that I felt like I was jumping off a cliff to get away from a hungry lion while wearing a hastily-donned parachute full of duct-taped holes (i.e., exhilarating! Terrifying! Nothing left to lose!) But the risk was worth it. It gave me the time and headspace I needed to land a job I (generally) enjoy with hours I can tolerate.

Goal #2: Pay off my student loan. 
Status: Goal met!

I paid off my student loan in March. We now owe less than $37,000 in total (on Fortysomething's student loan). You'll find our most recent debt update here.

Goal #3: Pay off our remaining medical bills.
Status: Goal met!

As of the beginning of the year, we still owed $1300 to the hospital for the Kiddo's appendectomy. We wiped out the balance by March.

Goal #4: Save $10,000 in our emergency fund.
Status: We're so close!

Here's what I wrote back in January about the rationale for this goal: "My impending job change makes me nervous. What if it doesn't work out? What if I suck as an editor? Or what if - GOD FORBID BECAUSE PLEASE CAN I ACTUALLY LIKE MY WORK FOR ONCE - I'm miserable again?"

Haha. Ha. Hahahahahahahahaha.

Anyway, as of this writing, we are 95% of the way there. Despite our tight budget, we may still meet this goal in 2019, especially if we're willing to take on some extra side gigs to make it happen.

Goal #5: Pay off our campground membership. 
Status: Not yet. 

We have less than $2000 left on this loan/membership. If we can make our current budget work without dipping into our emergency fund, I'll be tempted to pay it off by the end of the year. That would free up a little more than $100/month.

Goal #6: Achieve a positive net worth.
Status: Nope.

But again, we're not that far off. We probably won't hit this goal in 2019, but that's okay because we have less than $10K to go.

Goal #7: Max out my HSA. 
Status: What HSA?

Before I left The Worst Job Ever, I was planning to max out my HDHP-associated HSA. Now that I'm working part-time with no employer-sponsored benefits, I don't contribute to one. That said, I still have about $1000 left in my previous HSA accounts.

Goal #8. Attend a financial workshop or retreat. 
Status: I'll meet this goal twice!

I attended Lola Retreat back in February after receiving a ticket scholarship. In October, I'll be going to CentsPositive in Seattle, thanks to a very kind hero in the personal finance community who offered to cover my registration costs.

Goals #9, 10, and 11: At least four days a week, meditate for 10-15 minutes, work out, and drink 64 ounces of water.
Status: Wellllll...

I was completely crushing these goals in the first quarter of the year. I fell off the meditation wagon while working the hellhole job, and I stopped tracking water intake back in April or May (although I definitely drink more of it than I used to).

But I'm doing great with working out. I run at least five days a week and lift weights twice a week. I've also been stretching for 15 minutes a day to improve my flexibility.

Goal #12: Get my passport renewed.
Status: Hasn't happened yet.

Because we have no immediate plans to travel internationally, and because passport renewal is kind of expensive, I just haven't gotten around to checking this one off the list. It isn't a top priority.

Goal #13: Attend mini family reunion at Disneyland. 
Status: Goal met!

In retrospect, I'm thrilled that I included a trip to Disney in my goals list. Remind me to do something similar every year. It felt great to count doing something fun and frivolous as a big win. 

Goal #14: Visit family in the northeast.
Status: No, but we did visit other relatives.

We didn't visit Fortysomething's family this year, but we did travel east to see my family.

God, travel is so freaking expensive. So. Expensive. It's a problem.

Goal #15: Visit family in the Pacific Northwest.
Status: It's going to happen!

Because CentsPositive is in Seattle, I'll be able to visit my family then.

Goal #16: Comment on or share three posts, four times per week.
Status: I'm trying?

I'm not meeting this goal right now. I don't read blogs every day. But when I do, I'm making more of an effort to comment and share.

Goal #17: Make $100 on the blog! 
Status: *snort*

I made this goal back when my AdSense account was still functional. Then I switched to my own domain... and I haven't been able to make it work since then. It's fine. I've decided that I probably won't make any money from this blog. The fact that I've been maintaining The $76K Project for two years now is a major success in and of itself.

Goal #18. Read two books per month and log them on Goodreads.
Status: Sort of.

I'm reading (mostly thrillers and mysteries). I'm not logging them on Goodreads. I probably never will.

Goal #19: I'd like to worry less. 
Status: I AM DOING THE OPPOSITE.

Maybe it has to do with the current political climate, or with the fact that the rainforest is burning down, or with my neverending midlife crisis, but I worry now more than ever. If I could make money from worrying, I would be Warren Buffett rich.

My sense is that a lot of this worry stems from this year's massive job upheaval. My whole professional identity has been completely dismantled, an experience that has been unsettling and kind of traumatizing. I'm still working through it. But my hope is that as I start from scratch and build a work life I actually want, my brain will settle down a little.

In short, it looks like we'll meet about half of our original 2019 goals. I think that's pretty darn good, especially considering how much has changed this year.

With that in mind, there are a couple of goals I'd like to add:

Goal #20: Avoid dipping into the emergency fund for regular monthly expenses. That is, I'd like to be able to cover our bills using just our monthly income. It'll be tight - the amount coming in is close to the amount going out - but I think we can do it.

Obviously, if an actual emergency arises, relying on the emergency fund will be a great move.

Goal #21: Make $1200/month from my online teaching job. My hours were recently increased, and they may increase again. I should be able to meet this goal. I can always supplement with Rover gigs if I need to.

Goal #22: Per my Life Elimination Diet, continue culling activities and obligations that are no longer serving me. Rover is still on the chopping block, but I haven't made any final decisions.

What about you? How are you doing with your 2019 goals? Which ones have you met? Which ones have you abandoned? (PSA: It's a great idea to abandon goals if they no longer apply!)
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