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

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Winning!: October 2018 Edition

It's another edition of WINNING, a semi-monthly series in which I focus on the things that are going well on this long, slow, and sometimes painful debt repayment journey.

Welcome back! Here - grab a slice of cake!

As those of you who follow this blog are well aware, I've been in the weeds lately. Part of it is probably seasonal depression, something I've struggled with every autumn for as long as I can remember (and yet somehow I'm caught off guard every. single. year... Who's with me?) 

Part of it is my job. It's hard to show up every day for something that generally makes me unhappy. 

Part of it is this current spot in our financial journey. Progress demands sacrifice. Sacrifice is hard. It's especially hard when you have to do it for a long time. Makes me cranky.

Part of it is turning 40, which was a surprisingly tough pill to swallow. I wouldn't have expected that - I've always believed age is just a number - but as the day approached, I couldn't stop thinking about where I thought I'd be right now versus where I'm at. It was a bit of a mindfuck.

But dare I say it? I'm feeling a bit better, and I think things are looking up. I hope it sticks. C'mon, brain! I believe in you!

So for today anyway, let's focus on the positive, shall we?

(1) The personal finance community is awesome, and I'm grateful to be a part of it.

Not only have I learned oodles and oodles from you (I mean, thanks to PF Twitter, I'm at the point where I can explain the pros and cons of Roth vs. Traditional 401ks... WHO AM I), I've benefited enormously from your support. So thank you. Thank you for being so kind in response to my last few posts. Thanks for not telling me I'm a narcissistic, self-indulgent, navel-gazing whiner. Thanks for giving me the space to let me feel my feelings about my job, debt, goals, and the future. Thanks for empathizing. Thanks for your encouragement. Thanks for not judging. Thanks for accepting me even when I'm a mess.

I'm here for you whenever I can return the favor. Need a boost? Need someone to tell you how awesome you are? Need someone to commiserate about budgeting, debt, or the state of the world? You can email me (the76kproject@gmail.com), message me on Twitter (@The76KProject), or comment on the blog. I will warn you that I am TERRIBLE at giving advice, but if you're looking for compassion and empathy, I can do that.

(2) I turned 40. I TURNED 40!

Hence the invitation to share some virtual cake with me.

As my incredibly supportive and extraordinarily talented friend Penny at Picks Up Pennies often points out, getting older is a privilege. And she's so right. 

I turned 40! And yes, it did force me to reflect on my life so far. I'm human, so I can identify several things that I regret doing (credit card debt, I'm looking at you) and not doing (should have had way more fun in college). But damn, I've also packed some pretty amazing things into the first 40 years:

  • I gave birth to a beautiful kid who's smart, funny, and more emotionally savvy than most adults I know.
  • My partner and I have made our relationship work for the past 20 years. Whaaaaat?! (We credit our marital longevity to our love of dumb jokes, our shared coffee addiction, and the fact that neither of us ever remembers our anniversary.)
  • I've earned graduate degrees in a field I truly enjoyed for a long time, and I was able to make some meaningful contributions to that field.
  • I've hiked the Alps, sailed from England to Spain (yes! I did that!), been sort-of kidnapped in Jamaica (a misunderstanding, as it happens, but I was 15 years old so it was quite a disconcerting and memorable experience), and had all sorts of other travel adventures and misadventures.
  • Thanks to therapy and time, I've come to terms and mostly made peace with some difficult circumstances in my past.

Not everything has worked out the way I wanted it to, but SO MUCH HAS WORKED OUT. Even as I gripe about my current situation, I know I've got it good. And I'm realizing that as much as the last 10 years were about grappling with my past, the next 10 years are wide open. It's all about the future now!

(3) I've got some goals and a mission for this year!

Back in August, I shared that I was developing some goals for my 40th year. And let me tell you, it took FOREVER to draft these goals. Just last week, I was telling some other badass babes in the PF community that I was having a hard time coming up with goals that are feasible and affordable and that I truly want to pursue. It forced me to accept - or at least try to accept - that some of the things I used to care about, some of the things I used to want very badly, are simply not in the picture any longer.

Once I allowed myself to let go a little, I discovered that there are a whole bunch of nascent goals that are just waiting to be cultivated. Not all of them will come to fruition, but some might will, and I'm excited about that.

I also put some thought into what I want my personal mission to be this year:

Take more risks and be more transparent.

I've already taken a leap of faith that I hope will give me an opportunity to be more transparent about my mental health issues. I really care about this topic and want to talk more about because I know how isolating mental health challenges can be. It doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be that way. I'll be writing more about this soon!

(4) We paid down almost $2000 in student loan debt in October!

I'm not sure whether we'll be saving next month or continuing to focus on obliterating my student loan, but for this month, anyway, the student loan balance took a big hit, and in a good way! 

Note: in order to screenshot this graph, I had to log into my Personal Capital account and scroll past the Investments section. I tried to avert my eyes, but it didn't work. Talk about a Halloween horror show. IT ISN'T PRETTY, GUYS. 

But this is: 

As someone on Twitter pointed out, "Those are some nice cliffs you've got there." 

Why, thank you!

What about you? What are your wins for October? And what are you super excited about as you head into the end of the year?

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Breaking: Debt Repayment Journey Gets Delayed By Midlife Crisis!

Before we became financially responsible, we very much lived by the principles of YOLO. We took the vacations we wanted to take, bought the things we wanted to buy, and moved when we wanted to move. We paid little attention to whether we could afford those choices, which explains why we're now digging out of debt.

When we started our debt repayment journey in April of 2017, we wholeheartedly abandoned our YOLO ways so that we could reach our goals as quickly as possible. Every choice we made - from the things we purchased (or didn't purchase) to the jobs we took to the money we started investing - became about setting ourselves up for success down the line.

We've become obsessed with our financial future.

I'm not sure that's entirely a good thing.

I miss YOLO me

I'm proud of how far we've come. I really am. 

But here's the thing: I'm not necessarily happy with who I've become in this process. 

Before we started tackling our debt, I was:

  • Adventurous
  • Spontaneous
  • Relatively optimistic about the future
  • A risk taker
I wasn't always happy - who is? - but I was idealistic. I had faith that things would work out if I just had the courage to take the next step. I was excited about life and its possibilities. Some of the best and most indelible things I've done in my life have been done on credit, supported by crappy health insurance.

Now we're out of credit card debt and well into our student loan repayment. We have real jobs and employer-sponsored health insurance and I am:

  • Unfulfilled in my work
  • Bored out of my mind most days
  • Constantly worried about things that could go wrong, financially or otherwise
  • Cautious
  • Not really excited about the future
This past weekend I sat down to make some personal goals, and outside of some well-defined financial benchmarks, I couldn't bring myself to write down anything. Why? Because I'm completely uninspired right now. Every goal I could think of that fits into our current debt repayment paradigm seems lackluster and pointless.

Something needs to change, and I think the thing that needs to change is that we need step back for a few months and prioritize the present over the future. I don't mean that we should go back into credit card debt or that we should quit our jobs tomorrow. But maybe it's okay to slow this whole thing down a little bit, because I really don't see why I should sacrifice the things I like about myself for the unknowns of tomorrow.

So what's that going to take?

One, I need to find a satisfying career path. That could mean getting a new job, but more likely it means saving up and planning for that career break I've talked about and figuring out a way to work for myself. Which feels scary. What about health insurance? What about a steady paycheck? What about being able to afford our rent? Will we be able to get by on one income for a while?

I don't know, but venturing into the unknown, even if it means occasionally MacGyvering my way along, sounds way more appealing than sitting at a desk for the next 25 years. 

Two, at least for now, we need to change our emphasis from debt repayment to saving. I've had a lot of good conversations on Twitter this week about the best way to use money: pay off debt? Invest? Build up the emergency fund? As several smart people keep pointing out, there's no right answer because personal finance is personal. 

Yes, paying off debt feels fantastic. It's a high, and it's addictive. But. I also want to be able to make this career shift. I want to be able to attend events like CentsPositive and Lola Retreat. I want to be able to take a trip outside the country with my family. I don't want to wait two or three more years to do that.

Is it worth it to me to keep paying $600 a month to student loans a while longer? 

I think so.

So in November, we're going to take a little break from the student loans. We're going on a family hiking trip over Thanksgiving, and then we're going to put the rest of our disposable income into our savings account. We'll build up that savings until the end of next summer while we try to map out a career plan, whether that means me finding a new job, re-training, or building my own business.

It doesn't sound like the wisest move financially, and yet it feels like the right path.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for planning for the future and making wise financial choices. But not at the expense of the things that make me who I am.
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Coming To You LIVE From The Debt Repayment Pain Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes life, like a long race, is going to be difficult, and the only way through is through.
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Why I'm Sticking With This Job (For Now)

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

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


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

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

1. Limited job prospects 

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

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

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

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


3. I got a raise!

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

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

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

4. These student loans have got to go

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


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

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

6. I'm still sleeping at night. 

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

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

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

7. Maybe I can learn to deal?

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


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

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

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

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

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

Here's a breakdown of our September finances:

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

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

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

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

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