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

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Ushering Out August: An 8 Out Of 10

August was almost exactly as I expected it would be: exceptionally busy, a little boring - yes, apparently you can be busy AND bored at the same time! - and tight on cash. The Kiddo started at his new school. (Verdict so far: he likes it. This is the first year he travels from class to class each hour, and I think he's relishing the independence and big kid-ness of it all.) Fortysomething launched into his new job. (Verdict so far: it's exhausting - he's a teacher, so no surprise there - but he loves it.) As for me, work alternated between slow as molasses and 200 miles per hour. There's really no in-between with my gig. 

August views
Outside of work insanity, I struggled a bit with boredom this month. I'm used to filling my thumb-twiddling time with going out to eat or activities that have an entrance fee. I'm still acclimating to evenings and weekends where we're just hanging out at home, taking walks, or making a mess in the kitchen. In August, I realized that my tendency (one shared by many people, I think) is to combat feelings of emotional discomfort by buying STUFF.

For me, it's not so much physical stuff. I've never been that into material possessions. Rather, I am obsessed with THINGS TO DO, which frequently require money, and I often judge myself based on how much I've done. I have serious FOMO when it comes to experiences. Yet... How often do we just sit and BE? Not often, if you're anything like me. I'm sensing this will be an area of growth throughout our debt reduction journey.

Bottom line? Not spending was harder than I expected. Aside from one impulsive restaurant meal, though (more details below), we managed to hold back.


Our complete budget is shown at the end of the post, for anyone wanting to compare our intentions with what actually happened.

Where we were right on the money: We came in at $36 under budget this month, despite our payday constraints. I credit this to careful planning and penny-pinching. Particularly rewarding: we filled up at the gas tank only once, spent little on the Very Expensive Feline, and paid far less for school supplies and new school clothes than I'd anticipated. The school clothes were a big win for me. Thanks to a combination of thrift shopping and Target deals, the growing-like-a-weed Kiddo snagged several almost-new shirts, new pants, and a new pair of shoes for less than $80. 

Where we went over: The only categories in which we overspent were Groceries (we exceeded by 77 cents... I'm not even going to go there, because this mama's tired and a 77 cent excess is close enough) and Unexpected Expenses. Our August unexpected expenses included medication for a cold that refused to let up, a doctor's office visit, and some cleaning supplies. But I can't blame the excess $12 on any of that. No... What happened was that we made a last-minute decision on a Saturday afternoon to walk downtown, grab veggie sushi at our favorite restaurant, and chase it all down with some coffee. I figured, Hey, we have all this money we haven't spent! Let's go have a good time! The sushi was well worth it. I don't regret that. The coffee was a total waste - overpriced and overrated. Lesson learned. 

This sushi was worth it.


We threw $1600 at debt this monthand reduced our debt load to $73,939. Nothing monumental, but hey, we stuck to the plan. If you're interested in the details, check out the link to The Current Debt at the top of the page.
SAVINGS: We budgeted $150 for savings but were able to ramp that up to $200 thanks to savings in other areas. The savings/emergency account now sits at $1298.

I'd give us an 8 out of 10 for August budgeting and finances. For the most part, we did what we said we were going to do and kept our eyes on the long-term prize. I think, though, that we need to be a little more realistic about going out to eat. I know a lot of frugal people eschew restaurants and kind of consider it a badge of honor, and for the most part I'm on board with that... It's all too easy to overspend when going out. But we enjoy having a meal together and eating food we normally don't make at home. We also enjoy not going bonkers. Perhaps we need to incorporate one restaurant meal a month into the budget.


Financial: Both Fortysomething and I have some side hustles lined up! My goal is to put everything I make into our savings account and set it aside for holiday air travel and gifts for family. Fortysomething's extra earnings will also go into savings, but we plan to use that to purchase new tires for our car, something we've put off for months. I also want to make a list of items that we need/want for the winter - like new boots and ice spikes for icy days - and start saving for those. You can find our current budget at the top of the page... or just click here.

Personal: I slowly ramped up my running in August, and I plan to continue doing so in September. Another goal: figure out how to juggle my day job and my side hustle without turning into the world's crankiest human being. Lastly, I'd like to find a hobby outside of work and running to which I can devote my energy and time.

My favorite park for running.

 August Budget: The Plan vs. Reality

State Farm
Student loans and credit cards
Thousand Trails
Gas in car
Netflix + Hulu
Sam School Clothes
School Supplies
Total Expenses
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Why I've Ditched My Car and Walk To Work Instead

This past April, I decided to stop driving the 2.5 miles to work and start walking instead. I eased myself into it, walking on some days and taking the car on others, depending on the weather, my mood, and how many times I'd pressed the snooze button that morning.

Walking accessories: good shoes and a large cup of coffee
Then my parking pass expired, and I faced a choice: pony up for a new pass, or dedicate myself to hoofing it, rain or shine? I made the leap and selected the latter. Now I walk five miles (about 1.5 hours in total) each day. It's a commitment. It takes planning, not to mention an earlier wakeup time and some trusty rain gear. But I'm finding it beneficial in a multitude of ways:

(1) I'm not spending money on parking or gas. A year-long parking pass at my work is nearly $450, which seems exorbitant given that it essentially means I'd be paying my employer for the opportunity to sit in my cubicle all day. No. (In the past, employees would avoid buying a pass by simply parking in surrounding neighborhoods, but now that the city has established a pay-to-park program - which I generally think is a good idea, despite its inconvenience for locals - that's out of the question.) Plus, I'm spending less cash at the gas pump. In the grand scheme of debt repayment, $450 isn't a lot - but every little bit helps when it comes to making our plan materialize. 

(2) I get daily exercise. I enjoy working out, especially running, but when life gets busy, it's one of the first things to go. By walking to work, exercise is incorporated into my routine and becomes non-negotiable by virtue of necessity. Do I want to get paid? Then I have to lace up my shoes and start hiking.

(3) I don't get stuck in traffic. You'd think this wouldn't be an issue in a small town, but it is. Few things are as frustrating as spending 30 minutes in the car when your destination is less than five miles away. That's exactly what happens here: between busses pulling over at every stop, parents driving their kids to school, and the trains bringing traffic to a halt every ten minutes or so, commuting here is nothing short of exasperating. Take it from me: being able to sashay past a line of cars snailing their way towards a stoplight half a mile down the road is a delightful experience.

(4) I'm being kinder to the environment. As an Earth scientist, I feel a particular obligation to avoid blasting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere if and when I can. Again, it was one thing when I lived tens of miles from work and needed to drive. In this small town, though, it just feels wasteful, especially when we have access to miles and miles of sidewalks, urban trails, and bike lanes. 

(5) I get to take advantage of small town life. We moved to this community in part because it's not that big. You really can walk, bike, or bus anywhere you need to go. Small town = small commute. Why not take advantage of that, in true Mustachian fashion?

(6) I have time to transition into, and out of, a work mindset. On the way to work, I contemplate what I need to do for the day and prioritize those items. On the way home from work, I reflect on what I accomplished and try to process any feelings of frustration, stress, or worry. Walking helps me focus. It allows me to be more present in the moment.

(7) It gives me precious time in my preferred environment. A Twitter friend recently asked followers what they would do if they had the time and money they needed to do it, and my response was that I would spend all of my waking hours outdoors. In reality, that's not an option for me. My job requires that I'm inside, in a cubicle, basking under fluorescent lighting, for at least eight hours a day. My walk to work is my compromise, and it's one I relish.

Fellow commuter
Tell me about your commute. Do you walk? Bike? Bus? Drive? Ride a train? How do you use your commute? What would you change about it, if you could?

Disease Called Debt
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Letter From My Future Self

August, 2022

Dear Self of 2017,

Hello from half a decade in the future! I know you must be a bit surprised and confused to hear from me, Self of 2022, but given the inherent challenges of long-term debt repayment and the fact that you seemed pretty darn glum this past weekend, I thought I should write you a note of encouragement. 

Five things I want to emphasize:

1) You're doing great! Like, truly great. You're sticking to your budget, you're paying off some serious debt every month, you're not wasting your money on crap, and you're not filling your time with pricy activities. Not easy, especially when everyone you know seems to be buying whatever their little hearts desire (vacation here, new car there...) Trust me, you'll appreciate these sacrifices and efforts a few years down the line. 

2) You have so many options in 2022. You want to buy a house? You can! You want to take a fabulous trip to the Caribbean every year? Go for it! You want to invest? Be my guest! You decide to work part-time instead of full time? YOU CAN DO THAT TOO! Without that crushing weight of debt, you're free to do pretty much whatever the heck you want. 

The you of 2017 is putting $1600 bucks a month towards your car loan, your credit card debt, and your student loans. But in 2022, you can funnel that hefty chunk of cash into any number of things: savings, vacation fund, whatever you like. The world will be your oyster.

3) On the hardest, financially skimpiest days, remember this: Well before your 45th birthday, your debt will be gone. Nonexistent. Obliterated. That leaves you with (ideally, anyway) decades to revel in a debt-free life. Five years of frugality for many, many more years of freedom. Playing the long game is one of the hardest things you'll ever do, but it will pay off in spades.

4) Time moves slowly in the moment but oh-so-quickly in retrospect. I know what you're thinking right now: five years is forever. But is it? Think back to 2012. That seems like yesterday, right? The time between then and now flew. The next five years will fly by, too, even if the days seem long. So stick with it, kid, and in the meantime...

5) Enjoy your life. You don't need money to appreciate all of the great things happening right now in this moment. You live in a gorgeous area. You can step out your door, walk two miles, and be in the mountains. You have a healthy family. Your kid goes to a fantastic public school. Yeah, I know there are many things you can't do right now while you're paying off debt, but don't let yourself focus on those things for too long. Identify all the great, fun things you can do with the resources you have. 

Take it one day at a time, one month at a time. Stick to your budget. Keep your eye on the fiscal prize.

You've got this.

Your 2022 Self 
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Winning, August 2017 Edition

So far, our August has been all about going back to school and work (or in Fortysomething's case, starting his new job), hanging out at the lake and skipping rocks, and striving to stay within our tight budget. We knew going into this month that we were going to have to hunker down a bit, and that's exactly what we've been doing. We've become true pennypinchers.

Although I'm proud of us for sticking with our financial goals, I'm going to keep it real and admit that I also feel bored, frustrated, and even a little sad: bored and frustrated that I can't always do the things I want to do (like go out to eat or participate with friends in activities that cost money... and so many of them do indeed come with a pricetag), and sad that the summer is coming to an end. I love summertime and the possibilities and freedom it offers, and I just wish it'd last a few more months.

I'm trying to see this mid-August tedium as a prime opportunity to step back and reflect on what's going well so that we can stay motivated for the rest of the month. I need that motivation right now. So here it is - three ways we're winning this August:

(1) We made a budget for back-to-school clothes, and we stuck with it. The Kiddo sorely needed new clothes this school year, thanks to a growth spurt that left him with a closet full of too-short pants. (Him: "I don't want new pants! I like these pants! They still fit - see?!" Me: "You're wearing capris! Those were not designed as capris!" Does anyone else argue with their children about clothing? It's super fun.) I set a budget of $80 for a new wardrobe, and through a combination of thrifting and Target deals, we landed a variety of shirts, shorts, pants, and shoes for a grand total of $73. (Okay, fine, full disclosure: more like $78, as I used some of the leftover money to bribe him with ice cream.)

(2) We experienced the benefits of renting. It's been a warm summer in an apartment with no air conditioning, and our ancient ceiling fan - I think it's been here since this complex was built in the 1980s - has been running nonstop. Last weekend, it stopped working. The maintenance guy came over, fiddled with the motor for a few minutes, pronounced it dead, and ordered an entirely new fan. He installed it on Monday while we were at work.

I appreciated this mildly-inconvenient incident because I've been enduring a recent bout of housing envy. Sometimes I feel like everyone else is buying houses and settling down within their own, unshared walls. I'm a bit jealous. The fan situation was a welcome reminder that although renting can be a real PITA, it also has its benefits. Had we owned said ceiling fan, the time and money to fix it would have been entirely on us. Instead, the landlord took care of all of it, and we didn't spend a dime.

(3) We haven't dipped into savings this month. Not even a little! We knew August's finances would be tight because we're adjusting to Fortysomething's new pay schedule and salary. I was fully expecting to hit up the emergency fund in the first half of the month. Thanks to careful planning, though, we didn't need to. In fact, we still had $400 in the checking account before Fortysomething's first paycheck came through. It feels immensely gratifying to see that our fiscal attentiveness is paying off.

What about you? What are some of your wins this month, financial or otherwise? And is anyone else struggling with the end of summer?

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Making It Work In An Expensive Town (That We Love)

Last year, we moved from the flat, rural Midwest to a picturesque mountain town known for its ubiquitous pine trees, comfortable summertime temperatures, and close proximity to some of the western U.S.'s most popular national parks and monuments. 

Like this one:

And this one:

Aaaaand this one:

(Sorry. I'm a little obsessed with public parks.)

It's a lovely place to live, but it's also exceedingly expensive. Hang out in any coffee shop or bar downtown and you're bound to hear frustrated conversations about the disparity between local salaries (average household income: $65,000) and housing costs (average price for a single-family home: $350,000; average rent for a two-bedroom apartment: $1400/month). High cost of living and homelessness are perennial issues here. It's not New York City or San Francisco, no, but the majority of non-millionaires we know are struggling. 

At least from our wallet’s perspective, we’d have it much easier if we returned to Indiana, where we paid a grand total of $500/month for a three-bedroom house with an enormous front yard. Yet we haven’t even considered it. The mountains, the climate, the outdoorsy culture, and the sunshine (266 days out of the year!) all lend to a quality of life that is exponentially higher for us than where we previously resided. 

That clinical depression that's hounded me for most of my life? Yeah. It’s been in remission since October of 2016, the month we landed here. 

I’m convinced it’s the mountains. We’re not going anywhere.

We're committed to making it work, but in order to afford living expenses AND keep up with our debt repayment plan, we have to be strategic. Here's how we do it: 

(1) We both have salaried jobs. First, can I just say that we are lucky, lucky, lucky? We didn't move here with these gigs. Yes, we worked our butts off to find them, but opportunities are somewhat limited, and we feel incredibly grateful. Prior to this, Fortysomething spent 10 years as a contract worker. Contract work can be lucrative, but it can also be unpredictable, and in this town we need income predictability. Two regular paychecks and employer-sponsored health insurance are crucial for us.

(2) We keep our transportation costs low. We own just one car, and because we never have that far to travel, we budget only ~$45 a month for gas. Fortysomething, the Kiddo, and I all walk to work or school. My commute on foot is about 45 minutes each way, which gets me outside and it allows me to forego my employer's pricy parking pass, an expense that would set us back by at least $500 a year. 

(3) We signed a longer lease. Our apartment complex has month-to-month options as well as a variety of longer options (9-month, 12-month, 16-month, etc.) The longer the lease, the lower the price, so we decided to sign a year-long lease. It's a bit of a gamble in a complex like this one because you never know when you're going to get a noisy neighbor, but so far, it's working out fairly well.

(4) We shop at thrift stores. We have some well-stocked, independently-owned thrift stores here, and we’ve learned that we can find quality goods at low prices. We bought some of our furniture, a bunch of kitchen gear, and part of the Kiddo’s fall wardrobe from these stores and have saved at least a couple hundred dollars in the process.

(5) We stopped going out to eat. Our little town boasts some amazing restaurants, but they’re generally priced for tourists. We were paying anywhere between $50 and $80 every time we went out for dinner. So we gave it up. We'll go out for special occasions, like birthdays and anniversaries, and live it up when we do.

(6) We’re choosy about activities. Things that are out: skiing (we don’t have the gear and we’re not going to rent), bike tours, concerts, and basically anything with an entrance fee. However, there’s still plenty to do without paying a cent, including movies on the town square, music in the park, the library, hiking, and running. I’m not saying we never feel like we’re missing out. Sometimes we do. (And by "we," I mostly mean me.) But the longer we live here, the easier it is to find free fun.

Like going to the lake:

Or taking a hike:

Or catching the sunset:

Thank you, nature. You're the best.

Do any of you live in a particularly expensive area? How do you keep your expenses in check?

Disease Called Debt
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