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

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Things I Did Not Do In 2017, and Things We Did Instead

I dragged out my list of 2017 resolutions and realized that a) I had too many resolutions and b) I had a 50% success rate:

1. Travel to somewhere out of the country. Nope. Did not happen. Wish it had happened, but I didn't have the money for it... so, probably a good resolution to break.

2. Run an ultramarathon. Nope again. I got injured in February and spent the better part of the year recovering.

3. Earn my running coach certification. I took the class, I aced the test... and then I lost steam and never finished the program. Note to self: stop not finishing things.

4. Spend less time on Facebook. No, though I wish I had. If there's one resolution I want to declare for 2018, it's this. And I'm for serious this time!

5. Volunteer. Be an activist. Participate. I kind of did this. I attended some rallies and made near-daily phone calls to members of Congress. I'm still trying to find my helping niche, one that doesn't deplete me mentally and leave me feeling despondent and depressed. 

6. Maintain a minimalist lifestyle. Yes! We managed to do this mainly because saving money and paying down debt (see below) became major priorities. Reducing credit card balance = less money for random crap at Target.

7. Qualify for good insurance. YES! I did this, too, thanks to the job I landed in February.

8. Generate less consumer waste. Sort of! We're using less plastic now than we did in 2016. I want to take this to the next level and stop purchasing anything wrapped in plastic. That's going to be tough. We'll keep working on it.

What's funny about this list is that none these resolutions pertain to finances, and yet that became the focus of our year once we had our debt epiphany. So although I failed to accomplish all of the things I thought I wanted to accomplish, we actually ended up with a handful of other major achievements that we feel incredibly proud of and that weren't even on our radar a year ago:

3. We made a budget and stuck to it. Well, with the exception of December, when we kind of buried the budget and pretended it didn't exist. But! We didn't go further into debt, so I'm not going to beat myself up about it. Back on track in January!

4. We paid off over $9000 in debt since June (look for a detailed update next week!)

5. We stashed $6000 into savings.

6. I got a full-time job in February.

7. In July, Fortysomething landed a full-time teaching job that he absolutely loves.

8. I found a higher-paying job better suited to my skills and experience. That's right: the day after Christmas, I received a job offer from the company I've been interviewing with over the last month. It'll be more time-consuming than my current gig, but my salary will be significantly higher, I'll be able to work from home, and I'll get to use my science knowledge and skills.

9. I made new friends, joined two clubs, and became more immersed in my community. 

In other words, 2017 was not what I expected it to be. It surprised me, and we surprised ourselves. So this time around, my only resolutions will be to spend less time on Facebook, pay off our credit card debt, and keep sticking to our budget, all of which I'm pretty sure I/we can accomplish. 

Aside from that, I'm going to play it by ear and let life unfold.

What about you? Did you meet your 2017 resolutions? Do you have any resolutions for 2018? And what surprised you this past year?

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Winning, December/Holiday 2017 Edition

Somehow, in spite of the fact that I'm drowning in three million things to do because I take on way too much every.single.time, I have once again managed to NOT forget about Winning, a monthly series in which I identify three concrete ways we're succeeding in this long, slow, sometimes maddening debt-paydown journey. 

That said, this particular post is going to be a bit short because it's Christmas and I am currently being circled by three yelling children who are demanding food/games/entertainment/my undivided attention. The second I sit down to do anything on my computer, their Spidey senses kick in and they rally together in an effort to distract me. Which is fine. I've just gotta work fast here, folks.


So here it is: three ways we're WINNING in December 2017:

(1) We currently have over $3000 in our savings account. I know this sum is practically nothing for some folks, but consider the fact that - like 34% of Americans - we had nothing in savings back in April. As in, we didn't even have a savings account back in April. We're putting most of our money towards debt, but building a "financial airbag" that can cushion us in the event of an emergency is also important to us.


(2) We were able to travel across the country to visit family for the holidays, and we paid for it outright. Again, this is unheard of for us. In the past, we'd charge all of our travel to the credit card and worry about it later... much, much later. This time, we saved up the money first, then booked the flights and hotel. That felt like a real accomplishment.

(3) We've been blogging for six months! Spoiler alert: we plan to keep doing so. Personally, blogging about our experience helps me stay motivated, and it's introduced me to some of the many amazing writers in the personal finance community. It's worth it. We're committed.


So tell us: what are your wins this month? We want to know! Big pre-emptive high fives to you.
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The Connection Between My Mental Health and My Debt

Among a few other mental health conditions that I've been diagnosed with over the years, major depression is something I grapple with on a regular, long-term basis. I can pinpoint the exact month and year it showed up. I was 12. It was February. One day I was happy and stable; the next, I was not. Depression latched on, its grip relentless, and it hasn't let up since.

I knew something was wrong (the suicidal thoughts and obsessive need to plan my own funeral clued me in), but it wasn't until I was 31 years old - a couple of years after my son was born - that I finally saw a therapist and a psychiatrist, got a diagnosis, and figured out how to ride out depressive episodes in a relatively healthy-ish way.

This means that I spent almost 20 years of my life wrestling with mental illness pretty much on my own. If that sounds like a terrible idea, you're right, but I did everything in my power to hide my condition. I chose coping mechanisms that largely masked the chaos in my brain rather than calling attention to it. No drugs, alcohol, or reckless behavior for me: I grew up in a super-conservative household and was too afraid of an unsavory afterlife to engage in anything that risky. 

Instead, my coping mechanisms included the following strategies:
  • Pushing myself to achieve perfection at school. I made A's throughout high school and graduated summa cum laude from college, not because I cared that much about the subject matter (don't ask me to recall anything from Physics II or Differential Equations), but because I just wanted to get everything right.
  • Pushing myself to be the perfect Christian teenager. This went out the window in college, but in high school, my squeaky clean image was everything to me.
  • Sleeping (all the time, especially during bad depressive episodes)
  • Eating (any time I wasn't sleeping)
  • Traveling. A lot. And here's where the debt part comes in...
Traveling has always been one of my favorite things to do, and for various reasons. Before starting therapy, I used travel as a means of escape. Oddly, only when I was completely out of my element in an unfamiliar place did I feel stable, competent, and happy. Thus, I did whatever I could to travel whenever I could. 

As a teenager, I was strategic and savvy about how I organized these escapes. My M.O. was something like this: I would sign up for a church-based missions trip, ask people in my congregation to contribute to said trip, and then head off on what was essentially a fully-funded excursion. (Disclaimer: This now seems awfully sneaky, but I wasn't really aware of why I was doing what I was doing while I was doing it, and I definitely gave my all to the mission of each expedition.) The trips didn't cure me of my mental highs and lows, but they would temporarily bring my emotional rollercoaster to a blessed halt.

Maybe it was the distraction of new surroundings. Maybe it was being away from triggers at home.  Maybe it was the high of not knowing what to expect. 

Whatever the reason, it worked.

By the time I graduated from high school, I'd been to Europe, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, and Venezuela, all on the church's dime. Most of these trips were anything but easy. In Haiti, I encountered poverty the likes of which I've never experienced before or since. In Mexico, on a Habitat for Humanity trip, I got food poisoning and spent the better part of a week huddled in an outhouse. During the first few days of my foreign exchange trip to Jamaica, I wound up trapped in a tiny shack in the Blue Mountains with an elderly couple who didn't speak English and who refused to let me leave (long story; ask me later). While none of these experiences were in any way comfortable, they somehow felt more tolerable than the emotions I lived with when I was home in my safe, suburban American neighborhood.

My mental health didn't improve much after high school, so despite my persistently limited income, I continued to seek escape through (non-budget) travel. Without the generous donations of churchgoers to see me through, I used the magic of credit cards to pay for several trips in the 13-year timespan between graduation and therapy:
  • The romantic getaway to a posh resort in St. Lucia 
  • The month-long hiking trip across the Alps 
  • The tall ship sailing expedition between England and the Canary Islands
  • The babymoon trip to Hawaii
  • The many, many mini-getaways to places within the continental U.S.
  • The cruise to the Bahamas
  • The trip to Europe
  • Wow, this list keeps getting longer...
  • Etc.
When I went back to graduate school, I chose a subject that would allow me to travel frequently. I added Montreal, Montserrat, Brazil, and Italy (twice) to my travel repertoire. During this time, my flight and hotel expenses were largely covered by grants, but these trips inevitably incurred multiple smaller expenses that coalesced as higher and higher balances on my credit card, which I had trouble paying off on a grad student salary.

In short: when I look at my debt, my gut reaction is to think, "I messed up." But on second glance, I see a long history of trying to cope. I see a survival strategy. That's why I am not shaming myself for any of this. I mean, I survived two decades of depression with no help. As long as that's the bottom line, does it matter what that entails? In debt or dead: I'll take the former.

I still struggle with depression. Some days are better than others, but although I have better coping mechanisms now, and great friends, and a supportive family, and manageable goals, and a blog that stokes my creativity, some days are still excruciating. I just do my best. I try to keep my credit card far, far away from Expedia and TripAdvisor.

If you're living with a mental illness, and if that illness is reflected in the way you spend money or the balance on your credit card, I just want to say that I get it. You did the best you could, given that you're living with a condition that is brutal, isolating, and relentless. You're doing it (or did it) so that you survive, and I give you massive, massive props for that.

And if, like me, you've made it out of the abyss with a boatload of debt, just know that there's still time to sort it out. The main thing is that you're here! Awesome, unmatchable you! Yes, money is important. Yes, saving is important. Yes, reducing debt is important. But you are more important. 

There is nothing more important than your life.

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November in Review

November vibes
Financially, two things stand out about November 2017:
  • It was a fairly spendy month. We came in at $14 over budget despite a generous allocation for miscellaneous items (darn it!)
  • We made our first Monster Debt Payment!

Yup, we spent more in November than we have in the previous few months. Not to make excuses (okay, I'm totally making excuses), but I attribute this to four fairly worthy expenses:
  • A mini-vacation to Phoenix for our wedding anniversary. We covered most of these expenses with money from our savings account, so with the exception of extra gas for the car, it didn't make much of a dent in our normal budget. It was a wonderful impromptu getaway, and one that refreshed all three of us.
  • Several unexpected trips to the doctor, resulting in $95 in copays. One visit was to my general practitioner to discuss my insomnia. The other two visits were to my dermatologist, who assessed and removed a suspect - but blessedly innocuous - mole. No regrets here, either, as health is a great asset. 
  • Clothes for The Kiddo's holiday concert. Per Murphy's Law, the choir director wanted clothes in the only two colors The Kiddo refuses to wear and does not feature in his wardrobe. Cue last-minute trip to Target.
  • Fortysomething's birthday celebration, including two meals out and presents. 
Birthday drink
We also overspent on groceries by $6, but I blame that on Thanksgiving.

Our big win in November was making our first Monster Debt payment. We ramped up our debt allocation from $1600 to $2200, per our new repayment plan.  Although it's always a little depressing to see our hard-earned money go straight to our creditors, it definitely made a significant dent. We divvied up the money in the following way:
  • Credit Card #2: $1330
  • Credit Card #3: $275
  • Student Loan #1: $201
  • Student Loan #2: $393

Goals versus reality (not all that different!):

In December, I'd really love to see us stick to our grocery and gift budgets, despite the excitement of the holiday season. 
Disease Called Debt
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The Only Holiday Craft I'll Ever Make: Budget-Friendly Cloth Beeswax Wraps

I love the holidays, but I've never been that interested in the beat-down-the-doors-of-Best-Buy-to-get-a-killer-deal, purchase-a-million-presents-for-a-Pinterest-worthy-tree aspect of this time of year. It's not that I'm too cheap. I'm just too lazy, and honestly, an over-emphasis on buying stuff makes me feel kind of depressed.

This year, I decided I wanted to give presents that are:
  • Cost effective (we have a $200 gifting budget, which has to cover our immediate family plus our parents, our four siblings, and our siblings' kids)
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Homemade
  • But also not hard to make

A few months ago, I saw this video about cloth beeswax wraps, which can be used in place of plastic wrap to cover and store food. Another opportunity to ditch plastic and bolster my treehugger credibility? I was intrigued. So I found a few DIY tutorials and tried making my own. 


The verdict: Even for a novice (read: extremely untalented) crafter like myself, the wraps are super easy to make. Moreover, they're inexpensive, reusable, and - yes - they actually work. 

So here it is, folks: the only crafting tutorial you're ever going to find on this blog:

Budget-Friendly Cloth Beeswax Wraps

What you'll need:
  • Cotton fabric: A legit environmentalist would cut up old clothes or blankets or something.  That's probably what you should do. Personally, I went to the local craft store and bought a bunch of inexpensive cotton fabric scraps in a variety of colors. These were displayed at the front of the store near the registers. They were pre-cut, meaning that I didn't have to ask anyone to help me with giant bolts of cloth. Introvert win! Cost of fabric: $8
  • Beeswax: I was sure I'd have to order this online, but it turns out that you can find beeswax at Michael's craft store alongside all of their candle-making supplies. I bought a big block of it, which would have been somewhat expensive had I not had a 50% off coupon. (Pro tip, even from this clueless crafter: Michael's offers so many discounts that you should never, ever purchase anything for full price.) Cost of beeswax: $10
  • Pinking shears: As I understand it, these mitigate fraying at the edge of the fabric. They also make a cool zig-zag cut. You can find these at most big stores. Cost of pinking shears: $10 or so
  • Cheese grater: You likely already have one of these, but unless you enjoy wax bits in your cheese, I recommend getting a second grater just for this craft. Cost of grater: less than $5
  • Parchment paper: Man, this stuff is nifty. Nothing sticks to it. It's in the same aisle as aluminum foil and - shudder - plastic wrap. Cost of parchment paper: less than $5
  • An oven or toaster oven. Disclaimer: please do not purchase an oven for the purpose of this craft. That is not in the spirit of making an inexpensive gift.
  • A small paintbrush. Any paintbrush will do. I stole the one that came with my kid's watercolor set. It worked great. He probably won't notice, but if he does, I'm going to play the indignance card and remind him who buys his bread and toothpaste. I'm not giving a price for this because every child I know has more paintbrushes than they could ever use, so go find one of those kids and "borrow" their art supplies. It'll be fine.

How to make your cloth beeswax wraps:

Step 1: Wash the fabric. Confession time: I skipped this step because we don't have a washer and drier in our apartment, and I was feeling impatient. You can see why crafting doesn't work out for me that often. Honestly, it really didn't seem to matter, but it's probably a good idea anyway, just so the colors in the fabric don't bleed. 

Step 2: Cut the fabric to desired size. I cut pieces to the following dimensions: 6"x6", 8"x8", and 9"x10".

Step 3: Grate the wax. I grated about half a cup at a time. Pro tip: Keep Bandaids on hand for when you accidentally grate your finger.

Step 4: Preheat your oven to 225 F. 250 F would probably be okay, too. They key is to not inadvertently burn your house down, as that is also not in the spirit of creating an inexpensive craft. If you're using a toaster oven, don't even bother with heating it up. More about this in a second.

Step 5: Place a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet, and place a piece of your cloth on the parchment paper.

Step 6: Sprinkle the cloth with wax. I wish I could tell you how much to use, but I sort of just eyeballed this. If you use too little, you can always add more; if you use too much, you can always sop it up with another piece of cloth.

Step 7: If you're using a regular oven, stick the baking sheet + cloth + wax into the oven for 5 minutes. If you're using a toaster oven, place the sheet on top of the toaster oven and set it to toast for 3-4 minutes. 

Step 8: Once the wax is melty, use the paintbrush to saturate the entire cloth. If you find that parts of the cloth are unsaturated, add more wax and repeat the melting process. By the time you're done, the cloth should be fully imbued with the wax, but it shouldn't be dripping, and chunks of wax shouldn't be falling off the cloth once it cools. If you find that you've been a bit wax happy, you can use another piece of cloth to sop it up. Or, you can be like me: throw your hands up in frustration and start over.

Step 9: Let the cloth cool. Logically, other DIYers recommend using clothing pins to hang them up, but I like to flip them around like pizza dough. It's fun and they cool fast.

Note: when covering dishes or bowls, the wrap isn't going to automatically stick to the sides the way plastic wrap does. You'll need to get it a bit warm and pliable first. I recommend sticking it in the microwave for 10-15 seconds.

To clean your wrap, just use dishwashing detergent and cold water. Get it nice and sudsy, and then rinse.

If you find that your wraps are looking a little worse for the wear, stick them back in a warm oven so that the wax can re-melt and redistribute.

If you try this, let me know how it goes! Happy budget-friendly treehugger holidays!
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Tentative Goals for 2018

As we hurtle into December, I find myself in that familiar end-of-year reflection headspace. I've been thinking a lot about our 2017 financial accomplishments and what we hope to accomplish in 2018.

Truth to tell, we went into 2017 with zero financial goals. Not a single one. Nevertheless, we found ourselves making progress, especially after we finally took a good hard look at our >$76K in debt in April and made the decision to dig ourselves out. And all in all, we've made some major progress:
  • Both Fortysomething and I found stable jobs with benefits in a town notorious for few job opportunities (I credit this to a combination of persistence and blatant luck). I'm beyond grateful that this happened.
  • We created a budget, and we've been fairly devoted to sticking to it.
  • We paid off one of our credit cards as well as our car loan.
  • By the end of December, we'll have reduced our debt by more than $8000.

We're going into the new year with a few big, specific goals:
  • Pay off our credit cards by May 2018. This is way ahead of the payoff schedule we developed a couple of months ago, but between side hustles and a tax refund (fingers crossed), we should be able to make it happen. 
  • Become homeowners by the end of the summer. I know there are pros and cons to home ownership. We totally get that it's expensive and that 10 different things are bound to break within a month of us moving in. Nevertheless, we feel it's worth it for us, especially given that a) rents here are exorbitant, b) we don't plan on leaving this town, like, ever, and c) living in an apartment complex is driving me insane. I'll write a longer post about this in the next few months.
  • For me, I want to find a job that better aligns with my education, experience, and interests. Yeah, I know I said that I was going to let this one go, but as it turns out, I really need to find something else. Working on it!
  • Put at least $600 a month into savings (not including retirement savings - we'll be doing that, too). Debt payoff is a priority, but we also need to set some money aside for emergencies, travel, and various annual fees.
  • Reassess our student loan repayments. We want to get these paid off as soon as possible, but depending on mortgage + salary of new job that I am determined to get, we may need to adjust. Hopefully, we'll be able to devote a big, BIG chunk of money to student loans each month.
What about you? What are some of your financial goals for 2018? Pay off some debt? Build your savings? Max out your retirement fund? Get a side hustle or two? Do tell!

Disease Called Debt
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