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

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Holiday Sadness and Money Wins



The Holiday Blues


Whewwwww. Two days after Christmas, and I'm kind of ready - okay, no, very much ready - for this holiday season to be over.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy many aspects of the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years trifecta, including the lights, the food, spending time with my immediate family, more food, and yes, the presents (this is the time of year when I get new running clothes, so I can't help but feel excited about the gifts under the tree).

But parts of it were just... a lot. We had visitors over Thanksgiving, which was exhausting. My workload has been relatively high (for me): I had to take advantage of extra hours while I could, which meant working 7-8 hours every day this week except Christmas Day.

Most blah of all, this season has felt lonely in a way that I was not anticipating. I'm sure part of it has to do with the isolation of working from home, but after three years of living here, I feel like we should have more friends, or at least friends that we see on a more regular basis. I feel like our social fabric should be stronger than it is. We should be out visiting! And partying! And celebrating! With other humans! And... we didn't. We weren't.

I visited cats. We partied with a laser toy. Does that count?

I found myself wondering whether it's worth it to stay here. As much as I love the physical beauty that we appreciate every single day, this place is freaking expensive, and people can be a bit shut off. Do I want to pay this much money to feel like a social outcast? Would it be worthwhile to move to a more affordable and larger city with more job and social opportunities? And how great would it be to live in a place with a personal finance/FI community? (Yes, I know I could create one, but I don't want to lead and organize a group. Been there, done that. No thank you.)

Absolutely zero decisions were made. If I had to make a bet, I'd wager that no decisions will be made anytime soon. I mean, maybe I just have a touch of seasonal depression, and maybe my outlook will change when the days get longer.

But those were the things I thought about, and it kind of sucked.

Obviously, turning the page on a new year doesn't make those questions and issues disappear, but we need to be able to consider them without the extra pressure of the holidays. Now that they're almost over, I'm already feeling like I have a little more breathing room.

Next week, my work hours will drop to half time. Although that means less money coming in and a tighter budget than we've been keeping over the past three months, I'm looking forward to giving some space and time to my creative side. I'm excited to figure out what I want to focus on in 2020 and develop some goals. I need to put together a training plan for the TransRockies Race. I'd like to get more involved in local trail and environmental organizations (which might help with the whole I-have-no-friends thing). We're also gearing up to fill out some home loan paperwork, just to see what we qualify for (does not address the friend thing, but it might help with housing costs, if we're lucky).

And if finances gets tight and I need to find another job, well, I'll have some extra time to get that sorted out.


Winning, December 2019 Edition


Fun fact: this post was supposed to be about December money wins.

I'm way off track.

To get this post back to where it's supposed to be, I'll share that we did have some good financial stuff happen this month:

(1) Now that our campground membership is gone, we can devote another $100/month to the student loan. In December, we paid $508. It's still a very long, slow road to loan payoff, but at least we picked up the pace a little. I'm hoping we can continue paying this much. If our rent goes up again in May (sigh), we might have to reconsider.

(2) We increased Fortysomething's retirement contributions by 1%. Happily, his paycheck decreased by only about $20. After we let the dust settle on the holidays, we'll revisit retirement contributions and possibly increase them by another 1% in the new year.

(3) I convinced one of my petsitting clients to abandon Rover and pay me directly. Man, it was NICE to keep that 20%. I made $200 from one booking over the holidays! I'm going to check with my other regular to see if she'd be willing to cut out the middleman (middleapp?) as well.

What about you? How was your holiday? Do you ever have the blues during what's supposed to be a festive and celebratory season? And what about your December money wins?
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I Just Spent A Lot To Do A Thing


Hello, $76K readers.

Welcome back.

Now that you're here, please allow me to take a minute to just

scream.

*ahem*


AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

FYI, that was a good scream. A happy scream.

Because I have MADE A PERSONAL/LIFE/FINANCIAL DECISION after weeks (I mean it, weeks) of agonizing and obsessing.

(First off, a disclaimer: YES, I involved my family in this decision, and YES, everyone's on board. We've talked about it to the point that Fortysomething's like, I don't know how many ways to tell you that it's absolutely fine, why are we still discussing it.)


Do You Want To Know What It Is?


Okay.

Here, watch this:


That's right, people:

I'M GOING TO RUNNER SUMMER CAMP IN COLORADO!

As of last night, I'm signed up for part of the Transrockies Run 2020, a multi-day stage race across the mountains of Colorado. This race has an outstanding reputation not only for the scenery, but also for the logistics. Registration includes pretty much everything: accommodations (a tent each night), breakfast and dinner, a shower truck, and luggage transport from one stage to the next. Also, beverages (aka beer). People rave about the experience. The race definitely attracts high-caliber runners, but it also welcomes average runners of all ages and body types who just love the sport and want to cover some major distance in a beautiful place.

The full experience is six days long and covers a total of 120 miles, but I'm signed up for the three-day option: 21 miles the first day, 13 miles the second, and 24 miles the third. At altitude. It'll be a challenge, but I think I can do it. (The six-day option averages 20 miles a day for six days in a row. I'm not ready for that. It's also way more expensive.)


So How Much Does It Cost?


...What's that you say?

You want to know the registration fee?

*cough*

*cough cough*

Something in my throat, sorry.

What now?

Oh.

It's... well, it's expensive.

To cut to the chase, the total cost is about $1400. That's why I've spent so long talking myself out of (and then into) signing up. I think the price tag makes sense - again, it covers the race itself, food, tent rental, five nights of camping, and sports therapy stuff - but whewwwww.


Why Am I Doing This Thing?


If you've read even just a few posts on this blog, you probably know that I'm pretty obsessed with running. It's weird, given that a) I'm not fast, b) I'm not agile, and c) I'm a perfectionist who likes to do things she can excel in. When people picture runners, they conjure images of lean, gazelle-like Olympians.

But I am not lean. I am not quick. I have more in common with a fire hydrant than a "real runner."

Typically, I don't bother doing things I'm not that good at because it damages my sensitive little ego. But for reasons I haven't fully deciphered, I love running despite myself. I love who I am as a runner. I can't tell if I turn into a different person when I put on my running shoes or if I just morph into the best version of myself, but either way, especially as someone prone to mental illness, it's good for me.

Whereas other aspects of life easily make me crumble, as a runner, I am determined, consistent, persistent, pragmatic, and surprisingly cheerful. In my snail-like way, I get out there and keep going. I can continue putting one foot in front of the other even when the experience is painful and/or boring.

I've been running for more than 20 years and have had only one injury (I overtrained, and my IT band rebelled).

So in my mind, by my own standards, I am a runner, and a pretty successful one at that.

Running a multi-day stage race is something I've been wanting to do for at least a decade. The Transrockies Race has been on my radar for a couple of years, but I've been particularly aware of it since registration opened up several months ago. Given the reputation of this event, I was intrigued. But I also felt that signing up would be completely unreasonable and selfish given that we could be saving that money or using it for other things.

I shoved the thought out of my head, but it kept coming back, over and over again.


Once Again, Finding Balance


In order to pay for this race, we'll have to dip into savings. That's what gave me so much pause.

We've spent the last two years paying off debt and building an emergency fund, and to throw so much at one experience feels like we're moving backwards in a way. We've got momentum now! Shouldn't we just keep saving and investing and gaining financial ground?

Once again, I find myself trying to find that balance between planning for the future and making the most of the moment. I am 41 years old. I am healthy. I can easily take a week off from my part-time job to go run in the woods. And while I hope I'll be able to keep running for the rest of my life, while I hope that I could make this same choice any year and not just this year, nothing is guaranteed.

After four decades of life and watching random and terrible things happen to people you love, that fact really starts to sink in. The phrase "Make hay while the sun shines" takes on new significance.


Don't Just Save The Fish, Eat The Fish


Part of my hesitation in signing up was the thought that continuing to add to the already-stocked emergency fund would be a smarter move. But that started to feel strangely icky.

It took me a while to figure out why:

Would I rather throw more money into an untouchable account intended to cover us in the event of future problems, or would I rather invest in something that excites me and makes me feel alive in the here and now?

Would I rather prepare even more than we already have for the nebulous bad stuff that could be awaiting us somewhere, sometime down the road, or would I rather focus on the more immediate things that I so clearly care about in the present?

The former seemed like the smarter move, but it also made me feel deeply depressed, as if we'd just be sitting around waiting for the other shoe to drop. That was the part making me feel blurghy: the notion that we're supposed to hoard money and deprive ourselves of things that bring us joy, spending the cash only when truly awful and expensive things to happen to us.

Fortysomething and I are into survival reality television. We recently watched a season of Alone (a show about surviving alone in the wilderness) in which one of the participants spent weeks conscientiously drying and storing fish for the winter. In the meantime, he allowed himself a mere half a fish every 48 hours. One day, the medical team came in for a routine check and discovered that his body mass index had dipped below 17% - an indication that he was actually starving.

When they evacuated him, the guy was severely emaciated, had something like 40 whole fish hanging in his shelter, and was screaming promises that he'd eat more if they'd just let him stay.

Point being: there has to be a balance between preparing for the future and nourishing yourself now. You can't sacrifice present-day you for future you; that defeats the whole purpose of preparation.


Moving On From Sunk Costs


Aside from the adventure and the challenge, the other reason I want to run this race is because I need something new and big to focus on.

Since leaving an academic job in 2016, much of my brain space has been taken up by thoughts of finding work, hating work, quitting work, feeling like a job hopper, feeling like a failure for not using my degree, and feeling like graduate school was a pointless endeavor. I've been sad about all of the knowledge I won't use and all the so-called friends I've lost now that we aren't in the same career field. I've obsessed about wasted time.

In other words, I've been focused on the things that didn't pan out despite enormous investments in time and energy - the sunk costs. And that's okay. It's okay (and necessary) to grieve.

But at this point, I'm ready to invest in what is working in my life instead of agonizing over my perceived inadequacies. I'm ready to place my focus on what I can mostly control.

Preparing for this race - because it will take a lot of preparation - is a way for me to redirect my attention so that I don't get stuck in the Land of Shoulda Wouldas and can keep moving forward.

I don't know where my "career," such that it is, is going, but this race gives me a better sense of where my life is going.

ANNNNNNYWAY, that was very long. Thanks for reading the whole post. Thanks for letting me dig into my thoughts. Thanks for listening. (And if you have annny interest in living in a running camp for four days and crewing for me, let me know.)
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19 For '19 Goals: A Wrap-Up


Way back in January of this year, I posted an ambitious, finance-heavy list of 19 goals. I called it "19 for '19". (Had it been 2017, I would have posted 17 goals. 2010? Ten goals. You get the picture. I'm going to be in real trouble in 2050.)

When I developed this list, I was feeling optimistic. We were building our savings. We were paying off debt and ramping up on investments. Plus, I had a fancy new job in the works.

We were on a roll! Prepare to be crushed, goals!

And then... Then, life did its thing. My "career" (if you could call it that) exploded in a spectacular, irreversible way. Or perhaps more accurately, I felt the need to start over and blew it all up. I left The Worst Job Ever and became a quitter without a plan.

I spent a few random months as a lady of leisure. I learned some Italian, took daily afternoon naps, watched every documentary that caught my attention on Netflix (might I recommend The Dawn Wall and Losing Sight of Shore?), and walked dogs for what amounted to pocket change.

It was fun. It was not lucrative.

I started to think that perhaps we should scrap the entire goals list. I mean, it's tough to meet your money goals if you have no money. Everything felt so uncertain.

By the end of July, I had a new part-time job that I liked for the most part. Money started trickling in again - less of it than before I quit, but enough. Somehow, it all worked out okay, and somehow, we ended up meeting many of our goals anyway.

So here are the goals in review, along with an assessment of how these priorities evolved throughout the year.


Success!: The Goals I/We Met


1. Quit my job. I quit a well-paying but mindnumbing job in January of 2019, took a week off, launched into The Worst Job Ever, and walked out three months later. Technically, I met this goal twice. Bonus points!

A few weeks ago, I actually saw an ad for the mindnumbing job. Same company, same position, same responsibilities, and I had to ask myself: do I regret leaving, especially considering that I left for a total disaster? Could I ever see myself going back?

Answers: no, and NO. There was a reason I was so desperate to get out of that job. True, I was compensated fairly, but I was also bored out of my mind, and management treated me and my perfectly capable coworkers like wayward children who needed constant supervision and feedback. It wasn't as bad as The Worst Job Ever, but it was still pretty terrible. The money wasn't worth it, and I'm glad I left. 

2. Paid off my student loan. We paid off the last $3500 in March. Getting rid of one of our student loans was so motivating. It was a bright spot during a dark, insomnia-ridden spring.

3. Paid off our remaining medical bills. We had a balance of $1300 for my kid's 2018 appendectomy. We paid that off in March, too.

4. Saved $10,000 in our emergency fund. We crossed this threshold in October. Of all of the goals on the original list, this is the one I most wanted to achieve. When I quit my job, I was skeptical that we'd be able to do it. I thought we'd end up depleting our cash stash, not adding to it. We were able to accomplish it thanks to a combination of extra hours at my new (well, new-ish) part-time job and some good bonuses for Fortysomething.

5. Paid off our campground membership. I definitely didn't think this was going to happen, but then... surprise bonus to the rescue! We were able to pay off the $1700 balance in November. Lesson learned this year: Fortysomething's got some good bonuses.

6. Attended TWO financial retreats! I had an opportunity to go to the Lola Retreat in Los Angeles in February and CentsPositive in Seattle in October. The main thing I took from these experiences is that I want to have more of them. I WANT TO DO ALLLLLL OF THE RETREATS. The women I met at these events went above and beyond my expectations in terms of how genuine, kind, openminded, and supportive they were, and talking finances in a women-only environment was incredibly empowering.

7. Attended a mini family reunion at Disneyland and visited family. Disney happened because we were invited to mooch off my family, and we did. Like, you want to give us this amazing thing? We will not argue or decline! And I'm so glad we went, because Scrooge McDuck here (me) ended up LOVING Disneyland. I can completely understand why people go back every year and spend hundreds of dollars to do it. We won't. But I want to.


Things That Did Not Happen


I mean, I had 19 goals on the list. No way was I going to check all of them off. Here's what fell to the wayside or had to be put off:

1. Achieve a positive net worth. We fell just short of this goal in 2019. That's okay. We're only about $4000 away at this point. SO CLOSE. As long as we continue to contribute to Fortysomething's retirement fund and make monthly student loan payments, we'll likely get there in 2020.

2. Max out my HSA. Once I left my job and decided to sign up for short-term health insurance instead of ACA insurance, contributing to an HSA was off the table. However, I still have about $800 in the HSA from The Worst Job Ever.

Can I just say this? I may have been at that gig for only a couple of months, but I am SO GLAD that I dumped enough into my 401K and HSA to get the company matches for those benefits. The whole experience was terrible, but knowing that they had to give me some extra money and couldn't take it back (because it vested immediately) was a silver lining.

3. Each day, meditate for 10-15 minutes, work out, and drink 64 ounces of water. Why do I continue to make health- and fitness-related goals? By now, I should know that I'm more successful with this sort of thing when I don't put it in writing. That said, I was very consistent with running. On average, I ran 5-6 miles most days of the week. The meditation and hydration, however, fell through the cracks while I was working at The Worst Job Ever. I didn't have the headspace to make it all happen, and then later I just didn't feel like it.

4. Get my passport renewed. It didn't happen but it WILL happen in early 2020. I need to stop procrastinating on this. 

5. Comment on or share three posts, four times per week, and make $100 on the blog. I increased my bloggy interactions, but not to the extent I'd originally planned on. I'm a slacker. As for making money off the blog:

*SNORT*

I tossed this goal out the window as soon as Adsense stopped working on my site. But whatever. Adsense, you suck. I DIDN'T WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND ANYWAY. Also, I was (and still am) too lazy to figure out how to fix the problem because I was (and still am) too lazy to make money off this blog.

6. Read two books per month and log them on Goodreads. ...Do I even have a Goodreads account? I can't remember. In lieu of this goal, however, I did attend every single meeting of my book club. As a committed participant, I read approximately 1/3 of the books and sampled all of the wine.

7. Worry less. This is called Me Being Delusional. This is called Setting Myself Up For Failure. New 2020 goal: worry all the time. I can do that!

Here's the nice thing about goals: they can really help you see where your priorities lie. That's how it is for me, anyway. If I work towards the goal, I know that it means something to me. If I don't, it's likely because I don't actually give a shit and just wanted my list to look nice and well-rounded.

Stay tuned for a 2020 list in January!

What about you? How did your 2019 goals pan out?
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What I Learned From A Week Of Reducing My Plastic Use And Trying To Be A More Conscientious Consumer


Last week, I participated in the Tread Lightly, Retire Early Plastic Free December Challenge. The general goal of the challenge was to find ways to reduce plastic use, something I'm on board with one thousand percent. My family has developed and maintained a solid collection of environmentally-friendly habits over the years, but this is one area where I've long felt we should be able to do better.

Right away, I knew we probably wouldn't be able to go all-in on the challenge because plastic is so omnipresent at the one place we visit on a regular basis: the grocery store. There, plastic is everywhere. Plastic fruit cartons. Plastic bread bags. Plastic hummus containers. Plastic-wrapped lunch box snacks and cheese sticks. Meat in plastic. Cheese in plastic. Cereal in plastic. Yogurt in plastic. Inexplicably, sometimes even canned goods are bundled together in plastic.

It would be almost impossible to avoid plastic entirely unless every single person in the family was on board and willing to make major sacrifices - and I didn't want to ask them to do that, especially during a busy work and school week, and especially because I'm not the one who does the grocery shopping in our household. My partner does.

So instead, I decided to modify the rules and develop my own goals for the week while still maintaining the spirit of the challenge.

Here's what I came up with:

1. Continue implementing the environmentally-friendly actions that are already regular habits in our family (see below)
2. Buy milk in cartons instead of plastic bottles
3. Purchase dry goods from bulk bins, using plastic-free, reusable bags
4. Make more homemade food (such as bread, granola bars, and yogurt) to reduce packaged, processed stuff
5. Avoid all animal products


Current Enviro-Friendly Habits


As a family, we already make the following planet-friendly choices:

1. We drink water from the tap and use reusable water bottles. The water where we live is regularly monitored, safe to drink, and tastes great, so we don't see a point in buying it. Each family member has their own designated water bottle, and we've gotten accustomed to carting them around with us.

(Sidenote: I have a real problem with the bottled water industry because it takes a limited natural resource that should be available to everyone and commodifies it. Bottled water is absolutely necessary in some cases - for instance, in areas where drinking water is polluted - but for the most part, it's a total racket. Clean, safe water should be a right, not something that is transformed into corporate profits.)

2. We bring cloth bags to the grocery store. We have about 10 bags that we cycle through on a regular basis. At this point, it's a habit. If the occasional plastic bag sneaks into the mix at checkout, we don't sweat it, but cloth bags are so much more durable and so much better for the environment (assuming you're actually using them and not, you know, dumping boxes and boxes of them into a landfill).

3. We own only one car and fill the tank only about once a month. We can do this because (a) we live in a small town, so all of our usual destinations are close by, (b) my partner walks to work, and (c) I work from home.

4. I'm a vegetarian, and my partner and son have cut back on meat. Meat is an energy- and water-intensive product, so to us, limiting our consumption makes sense.


So How Did The Week Go?


I succeeded in maintaining my current habits and avoiding animal products. The only non-plant based food I consumed was half of a cheese pizza on Friday night. (I was really hungry and pizza is my favorite food.) We also met our milk container goal: my partner opted for cartons this week. They still contain plastic, but as far as I know, they contain less plastic than traditional plastic jugs. So... yay?

I completely bombed, however, at bulk binning. I visited a local organic grocery store that frequently boasts about its reduction in single-use plastics. It seemed like the perfect place to deploy my reusable cloth bags for items like beans, rice, and nuts. Turns out that the store has completely done away with its bulk bins and now sells - and I quote - "prepackaged bulk bin items." In other words, they wrap all of their products in plastic and sell them in pre-measured portions, just like every other grocery store in town. The produce section was tiny, and the rest of the establishment was pretty much a sea of processed goods. There was something extra depressing about shopping at an all-natural grocery store that's failing so hard at being good to the environment.

Not worth it. I won't be back.

I didn't get around to making bread or granola bars, though I'm hoping to do so this week. I did, however, try my hand at making cashew yogurt. This recipe turned out to be a smashing success! You just soak some cashews, blend them up with a little water, mix in a tablespoon of yogurt starter, and then let the nutty concoction sit in a low-temperature oven for 12 to 24 hours while the fermentation gets rolling. The yogurt is tart, tangy, and delicious, and it takes almost no time to mix up the ingredients. Best part: not having to spend $6 on a plastic tub of vegan yogurt.


What I Learned


1. I already knew this, but the Plastic Free Challenge underlined the fact that the grocery store is a minefield of single-use plastic. Even if you arrive at the store fully outfitted with your own bags and containers, you'd be hard-pressed to avoid plastic entirely. Berries? In plastic. Salad? In plastic. Cereal, rice, and other dry goods? Plastic (unless your store is still on board with "unsanitary" bulk bins). We could probably curate a wider array of non-plastic-packaged options if we were willing to visit multiple stores every week, but... we're not.

2. We're already making some excellent, easy-to-implement consumer choices. Obviously, there's always MORE one could do, but at the very least, we're grabbing the lower-hanging enviro-friendly fruit on a consistent basis, and that's something.

3. Consumers could make more environmentally-friendly choices if corporate entities offered more and better options. How often are we told that we as consumers are the ones holding the power when it comes to improving the health of our planet? How many times are we told that if we just use less water and less plastic, buy less stuff, drive less, etc. etc., the Earth will be a healthier place? How many times are we told that it's up to us? (Thanks for this link, Done by Forty.)

But how are we supposed to make better choices if our only options are mediocre ones?

Take the organic grocery store: I don't want to buy my almonds in a package. I want to pour some raw almonds into a cloth bag that I can take home, wash, and use again. That shouldn't be hard. But most stores where I live give me no way to do that. I'm practically forced to purchase all of my dry goods in plastic.

4. We need to stop pretending that consumers are entirely responsible for our environmental problems. I know this is going to sound totally depressing and defeatist, but the week made me feel a little less hopeful about the future. There's only so much that individuals can do. We need government involvement and legislation (especially for environmental issues that don't care about arbitrary, human-crafted boundaries), and we need corporate buy-in. We need the entities with the real power to use their power in a positive way and stop passing the buck to the little guys (us).

It's unfair and disingenuous for corporate and government giants to put all environmental responsibility on consumers. They need to take action and make changes, too. From a big-picture perspective, it's imperative they get involved.

In other words, we need systemic environmental change.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that you shouldn't make good environmental choices as an individual. You absolutely should, especially because your choices have positive impacts in your community. The less waste we create and the less plastic we use, the less crap that will end up in local watersheds. The more we walk or bike or bus instead of drive (if/when that's an option), the better our local air quality will be.

But unless the ginormous companies and corporations that are most responsible for this mess start cleaning up their processes and/or make it easier for us to create less waste, on a broad scale, I don't see how we're going to move the needle in a meaningful way.

I worry that the danger in putting all responsibility on the consumer is that it sets us up for complete and utter failure in the long run. It lulls us into thinking we're making progress when in fact, if we zoom out, we find we're being driven in the opposite direction. We must force the government and corporations to take just as much responsibility as we do. We need to change the narrative if we want to heal our planet.


Habits I'll Maintain


Aside from the long-term habits we've already cultivated, I can see myself making three changes after this week:

1. Eat an almost-vegan diet from here on out. I've never loved meat (the one good thing that comes from growing up with a parent who regularly served undercooked chicken and pork), so vegetarianism is pretty easy for me. However, I was surprised by how little I missed eggs and cheese this week (except on my beloved pizza). I plan to continue transitioning to a mostly vegan way of eating.

2. Make my own yogurt and make more of my own bread. The yogurt-making process is so easy and the savings are so obvious that it's worth it. As for bread, the only trouble with homemade is that my kid loves it and can eat half a loaf in one sitting. But flour is relatively affordable, so okay.

3. Pay close attention to the environmental platforms of political candidates and vote for those who have clear, actionable, meaningful plans to help the environment and mitigate climate change. If the environment is truly a priority for me and if I truly care about the well being of the planet for future generations, then the environment has to be a top consideration when I'm deciding how to vote.

What about you? Did you participate in plastic-free week? How did it go for you?

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Thoughts At The End Of November


Some of these thoughts have nothing to do with personal finance, but hey, at its core, this blog is a holistic record of our lives as we work to get out of debt. It's not always just about money.

1. Winter is here! We got hit with a Thanksgiving Day/Black Friday blizzard that dumped about 10 inches of powder at our house and more than four feet up in the mountains. I get so excited about water in any form now that I live in Arizona: the rain and snow that we receive in the colder months have a direct effect on the severity of our fire season the following spring and summer. The more substantial the snowpack, the less scary fire season is. I used to take precipitation for granted. Now it's like watching gold fall from the sky.

2. I avoided buying anything on Black Friday. One, we were trapped by the blizzard, so we couldn't have hit the sales even if we wanted to. Two, we've wrung our November budget dry; there's not much left to work with. Three, I didn't need anything anyway. That said, if I let myself spend too much time on social media, I start getting hypnotized by all the subtly advertised running gear being peddled by my favorite athletes. I have to check myself: no, famous runner, I do not need to attend your running camp. I do not need that watch, or that treadmill, or that skirt. *forces self to close Instagram*

3. The campground membership is fully paid off, and I'm still on a high about that. It feels good to have one less expense and $100 extra dollars a month to work with.

4. I don't know if I'll continue the Mental Health and Money Mondays series. I like the idea and feel there's value in it, but - and this is very on-brand - I got derailed a couple of weeks ago by a short bout of knock-you-over depression.

This unexpected episode was a reminder that it doesn't take much for me to get in over my head. I mean, the blog wasn't what made me depressed, but committing to one more thing on a regular basis is too overwhelming right now. (But it's just a few blog posts! you might point out. My reply: Yeah, tell me about it... but the message has been delivered loud and clear there's a difference between what I think I should be able to do and what I want to do, and what I can actually do.)

5. I'm feeling more and more ambivalent about Rover. I still love taking care of pets, but between the 20% that Rover takes and the ~30% that the government will take, plus the wear and tear on my car, I'm not sure it's worthwhile. For instance, the owner who hired me for my current gig paid just over $200 for my services. Rover will take $40. That leaves me with $160, and I'll stash about $50 of that into an account I reserve for taxes. I mean, yes, it's nice to have an extra $100, but damn, I did a lot of work and a lot of driving for that $100.

6. I'm facing a new work dilemma, one that's the polar opposite of the one I experienced at the end of last year when I was desperate to leave my shitty and soul-sucking - but well-paying! - full-time job (you know: the one I eagerly departed for a job that turned out to be sleazy, underpaying, and generally awful).

Now I have a highly creative and autonomous part-time job that I truly enjoy. I enjoy it so much that I worked over Thanksgiving and didn't feel resentful in the least.

But here's the problem: it doesn't pay enough. It especially won't pay enough when I go back to working 20 hours a week (from my current 30 hours a week) in January.

Basically, our combined salary will be sufficient to cover our bills and one or two inexpensive family activities per month. Beyond the retirement contributions that are automatically deducted from Fortysomething's paycheck, there will be almost no room for additional saving. Especially if our rent goes up again at the beginning of the summer. *pauses to headdesk*

Although I check the job boards every single day, the opportunities in my field are rather sparse. I know people are always talking about the low unemployment rate and the cornucopia of job openings out there, but... that's not my personal experience, perhaps in part because I live in a small and somewhat isolated town. This isn't Seattle or Phoenix. Job openings here are extremely limited in number and highly competitive.

Plus, I'm terrified of leaving a job I like for the unknown. I'm scared I'll end up in another awful situation. And I'm not entirely confident about my ability to work 40 hours a week (though if my current employer offered me a full-time role, I'd absolutely take it).

This isn't an issue that needs to be fixed right this minute. I have time to figure it out. All I know is that liking a job is great, but job security and being able to save for the future (especially when you're already behind) are also crucial.

Will I ever find that balance? Is it too late for me to find a job that pays well and that I enjoy?
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Another Debt Bites The Dust


Goodbye, Campground Membership


I'm just popping in to say that much to my surprise, we'll be eliminating one more chunk of debt by the end of the year. 

Fortysomething found out today that he'll receive an unexpected and rather hefty work bonus next week. It's truly a windfall. It's enough to cover the $1766 remaining on the campground membership loan that we acquired during our stint as full-time RVers.

The membership made sense back then: it allowed us to stay at full-service, RV-friendly campgrounds for several weeks at a time at no extra charge. However, we decided to stop RVing approximately two months after we took out the loan. Not a great financial move. We've been paying it off ever since to the tune of $108/month. 

(We still have access to the campgrounds in the membership plan, but they're not particularly close to where we live, so we don't make regular use of them. It's a terrible waste of money.)

I ended up paying off the balance today with my trusty REI credit card, which translates to some additional cash back that we'll receive in the spring with our REI dividend. When the bonus hits the bank account a week from now, I'll pay off the credit card.

I should note that I haven't included the campground membership loan in any of our debt updates (although I've always included the monthly payment in our budget reports). For a long time, I didn't want to acknowledge its existence. How's that for some warped and determined financial psychology?


Updating the Student Loan Repayment Plan


By paying off the campground membership, we'll be able to bring our monthly student loan payment from $400 to $508.

I just did the calculations. At that rate, the student loan will be gone in... drumroll, please...

a little less than eight years.


Wheeeeeeee.

I mean, I'm pretty sure we can do it faster than that - especially if we apply part of our future yearly bonuses to the balance - but that's the baseline, and it's fine for now.


Better Than Expected


We're almost at the end of 2019, and given that I went from making a salary of $60K back in January to making a current salary of more like $20K, I'm extremely pleased with our progress. No, we don't have enough in retirement. No, I'm not convinced my part-time job is sustainable over the long term.

But somehow, we're actually on track to meet the majority of our financial goals for the year.

I'll take that win.


Update


The payment went through! Take a look at this:

And now that it's paid, I'll admit that the interest rate was pretty high and we probably should have included it in our total debt stats. Oh well.


I'm just glad it's done. It really is a relief, and it'll be nice to have a little more wiggle room when my hours drop again in January. 
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Rainy Day Budgeting: November 2019


For the first time in weeks, we're getting some substantial rainfall here in Northern Arizona. It's chilly, it's pouring outside, and it feels like the perfect opportunity to settle in with some coffee and write about a topic I've been neglecting lately: our budget.

(Sidenote: I wrote this yesterday. It is no longer raining, which makes this former East Coaster sad. But it was nice while it lasted.)


Making the Most of Higher Paychecks


Right now, I'm getting paid for 30 hours a week while we wrap up a big project at work, so my paychecks have been more substantial than usual. In fact, because I don't receive employer-sponsored benefits and therefore don't have any related deductions, the amount I'm earning is roughly equal to what I was making at the shitshow job back in the spring. 

That means we have a little extra money to play with and plan with.

What we're doing with it:

1. Celebrating

As I was just sharing in a blog comment, October through December tend to be expensive months for us. We've got two birthdays, an anniversary, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For the past couple of holiday seasons, we've tried hard to limit our spending, and without fail, we've... kind of failed. We've found that it's far more difficult to tighten our belts at the end of the year than it is in, say, March.

We don't go overboard with presents, but we like to gift things that our loved ones will truly value and that will last for a long time. Oftentimes, those items come with a higher price tag. The hammock that Fortysomething gave me for my birthday is a good example: it was expensive, but it's a high-quality product that should last for years. 

We also tend to spend more than usual on food during the holidays. I used to look at other people's food budgets and feel bad for how much we allocate in this category, but I'm over it. We buy the food, we share the food, we eat all the food, and we enjoy the food.

You'll see. Our food line item is high.

Anyway, in 2019, I'm facing facts: we're going to spend. It's okay. I'll be realistic and build it into the budget.

2. Saving

I also want to make sure we're socking away some of our extra money while we have the opportunity. In January, my hours will drop back down to 20 per week, I'll make approximately $800/month less, and we'll be saving much less - maybe $100 per month, unless I find a higher-paying job or ramp up my Rover business again.

I'm always going back and forth on where to put our savings. Regular checking account? 401K? My little IRA? Although it's likely we'll increase Fortysomething's investment contributions in the next month or two, for now, we're being boring and putting the savings into our bank account. There's a part of me that still feels like I'm on slightly shaky employment ground, and I want to be able to access cash easily if we need to dip into our savings.


A Word About Rent: Can We Do Anything About It?


You know what bothers me more than our food budget?

Our rent.

As much as I appreciate the perks of where we live (walkable, close to Fortysomething's work, beautiful location) and renting in general (we don't have to maintain anything, and we don't spend our weekends fixing stuff), the amount we pay in rent is a thorn in my side. I am never going to be okay with it.

I've written before about why we choose to rent our place and why renting something cheaper isn't much of an option for us: one, even the least expensive rentals here aren't that much cheaper, and two, I can't deal with shared walls due to extreme noise sensitivity (blocky apartment complexes are out; in our current duplex, the only wall we share is in the kitchen).

Also, right now we can get away with having just one car. If Fortysomething had to drive to work, we'd need to consider a second vehicle.

So. 

We're trying to figure out if buying property is an option for us and whether it would save us money (or at least allow us to avoid yearly rent hikes). Whether we can get a home loan on 1.5 incomes that would allow us to buy something that isn't totally falling apart is questionable, but we're looking into VA and USDA loans, which may increase our purchasing power a bit.

That said, I periodically obsess over "should we buy?" and then drop it. Who knows if we'll actually make any progress here. But we're likely to have a rent hike in May, so if we're going to avoid it by moving into our own place, we need to start taking action now.


Anyway, Here's The Budget


Item Budget

Rent 
2205
Internet 65
Phone  80
Car Insurance 64
Student Loan 400
Campground Membership 108
Gas/electric/utilities  151
Food 850
Gas in car 40
Cat 40
Netflix/Hulu 27
Miscellaneous 400
Donation 30
Savings 725
Health Insurance 340

Total 
  
5525
Pretty standard, right? Other than Miscellaneous (which is higher than usual due to a birthday and our anniversary) and Savings, everything else is typical of how we allocate our money every month. I will admit that we re-upped Hulu, so that line item increased a bit. Health insurance also increased somewhat because I added vision insurance to my short-term insurance package.

How's your November budget looking? Does your budget change at the end of the year, or do you run a pretty tight ship, unlike us?
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Mental Health and Money Mondays: I Spent Money and I Liked It



Preface


I wrote this post and immediately was like, WOOOOOOO I have so much financial confidence! Look at me go!

Then, later, I re-read it and started having doubts. 

First of all, I worry that it sounds braggy, which isn't my intent, but still. Sometimes what a writer wants to say and how the reader interprets it are two different things. 

Second, I feel like The $76K Project is going to give people whiplash. One day it's like, LET'S PAY OFF ALL THE DEBT! And another it's, The system sucks, everything sucks, people can't get ahead! A few weeks later I'm saying, SCREW DEBT, who cares.

And now I'm gleefully writing a post about spending a significant chunk of money. So.

Yeah.

I'm giving myself whiplash.

Look, people, it's a roller coaster: not only the process of paying off lots of debt, but also the task of overhauling your money mindset and learning to trust your newfound financial know-how. And for some people, like me, money is a very emotional thing. 

So what can I say? My money journey is rife with ups and downs, and the blog is reflective of that.

Please keep that in mind, and buckle your seatbelts.


Our October Spending Spree


When all was said and done, October was a spendy month in the $76K household. Having met our emergency fund goal in September, we celebrated by dropping much of our disposable income on fun things:

1. Hotel + food + transportation for CentsPositive: $500

Relaxing in the room before CentsPositive began

2. Going out to eat + coffee: $110

3. Aquarium gear + fish for Kiddo (and let's be real, for the cat, too): $100

Living her best life with her new fish friends/prey

4. Birthday celebration (homemade cheese tray + wine + movie rental): $60

This. Was. Delicious.

5. Birthday present for me from Fortysomething (a hammock! I love it!): $110

New favorite activity

6. 25K race fee: $92

Spent almost $100 to nearly lose my cookies on this hill

Total spent on fun: Almost $975

Whoooosh. Not a typical month. Very little money went into savings. (I feel obligated to add that no money was removed from savings, either.) 


I Have No Regrets (For Once)


In the past, my ability to let go and sink into such a financially freewheeling month would have been compromised by the little voice in my head telling me that I/we don't deserve it, we should be putting every extra cent to student loans, I'm being selfish, I'm being short-sighted, I'm being stupid with money, etc.

In other words, guilt and shame would have undermined my financial confidence and diluted my enjoyment.

But after some reflection, I can say that I have no regrets about our October spending spree. Every dollar spent represents something that made or will make our lives better in some way. Every dollar spent represents an investment in things that we value: being together as a family, communing with likeminded friends, being outside, challenging ourselves, learning new things. 

And as we were spending this money, I felt... good about it.

Not guilty.

Not ashamed.

Not ambivalent.

Not stressed out about whether we could afford it.

I literally delighted - DELIGHTED! - in every expense.

Spending money sans negative emotions? Who am I?


Good With Money


Good is a word I'm not used to associating with money, but last month, I felt unapologetically good about our finances and good about investing in things/experiences we care about. I felt good about my ability to manage and deploy money. I felt good about setting ourselves up well enough that we could afford to let loose for a few weeks. I felt good about crossing the finish line of that expensive race, setting up that aquarium, inhaling that fancy cheese (and wine), sitting in the woods in that crisp new hammock, and getting a solid night's sleep at that downtown Seattle hotel.

Obviously, not all months can be like this, and we're dialing it back in with our November budget. Although our plans leave room for some frivolity, we're also earmarking a chunk of our earnings for our savings account. Time to get back to our goals.

But October showed me what a healthy relationship with money can be like. It gave me a taste of what financial wellness feels like and how liberating it can be. 

Going forward, that's my objective: financial wellness. 

What about you? How would you describe your relationship with money? And is there anything you've bought or invested in lately that made you feel like, YES, this was the best decision? If so, NO SHAME AND HIGH FIVE.
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Mental Health & Money Mondays: Finding Community


I've been thinking a lot about relationships, friendship, and community this past week, probably because I've socialized more than usual this month: I attended a women's financial retreat with 70 other people, visited family in the Pacific Northwest, gave a presentation to a group of middle schoolers, hung out with friends, and even bonded with a handful of other runners (whom I didn't know beforehand) during a particularly grueling trail race.

And you know what?

This introverted, awkward hermit thoroughly enjoyed those interactions.

The truth is that social connections and community play an important role in the mental well-being of every human, and they're worth investing in because they have long-term impacts on our health. So I figured it would make a good topic for the second edition of Mental Health and Money Mondays.


Social Bumbles and Relationship Stumbles


For most of my life, I've struggled to make friends and connect with other people.

In grade school, I was teased for being overweight and mocked for wearing the same clothes multiple days in a row. I often ate lunch by myself. (That time I farted in gym class in front of all of the other sixth graders didn't help matters.)

I caught a break when I found a close group of friends at my junior high church youth group. Most of them eventually faded from my life when I left the Christian faith and married an atheist, but they supported me during some difficult years, and their friendship was critical while it lasted.

Things changed considerably when I met my partner: finally, I had someone I could depend on, day in and day out, an anchor to keep me from floating too far off into myself, though as anyone in a long-term relationship can tell you, it's important to have a community beyond your significant other. No one person can be everything you need.

A decade ago, as a lonely new mom, I tried joining Mommy and Me groups to find other women going through a similar big life change. I longed to sit in a quiet coffee shop, sip a latte in peace, and talk about how to be a mom while building a career; instead, I found myself in the middle of endless debates about cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers and breastfeeding vs. formula feeding. I flunked out of three meetups before I finally gave up.

But I started graduate school soon after that and established close friendships with people who shared my passion for our field of study and the outdoors, and who doted on my son.

And now I'm part of the personal finance community, building relationships with other money nerds who, like me, value planning for the future, investing in the things they care about, and giving themselves the freedom to do the things they love.


Connection: It's Good For You 


Although my social experiences haven't always been easy, I think they are fairly typical: many of us struggle to connect with others once we're well into adulthood, and our friends and friend groups periodically change as we evolve as individuals. As a result, finding a lasting and reliable community can be extremely difficult, to say the least.

It's especially difficult for those of us with mental health issues. For example, when I'm in anxiety mode, I'm often less apt to reach out because I'm worried about saying or doing something stupid that will ruin it all and destroy my life forever (welcome to my brain). When I'm depressed, I'm often convinced nobody likes me, and therefore I don't see the point in trying to connect (nor do I have the energy to try).

But research shows that making the effort to build relationships is crucial. People who are connected to family, friends, and community generally live longer, happier lives and experience less loneliness, depression, and anxiety than those who lack those social connections. Even casual relationships and acquaintanceships can make a significant and positive difference.

In other words, your health - including your mental health - depends not only on your genes, your eating habits, your stress levels, and your exercise routine, but also on the nature of your relationships.


Making An Effort


It's tempting for an introvert like me to hide herself away, and I often do - mainly because I need and enjoy my personal space. But I keep working to build community in various aspects of my life because I know my long-term happiness depends in part on my interactions with other people.

It's why I play online board games with Done by Forty and a few other people on a regular basis, even though I usually lose. (In a very kind move, Done by Forty asked me to play during a time when I wasn't feeling all that great. Just the invitation and our trash-talking banter made a big difference.)

It's why I attend my monthly book club with almost religious devotion, even when I don't feel like it and even when I haven't read the book. (Nope, I haven't got the foggiest idea what happened in Middlemarch, but why don't you give me the rundown while I drink this fortifying glass of wine?)

It's why I'm active on social media, even though social media can be highly problematic. On some days, Twitter buoys me.

It's why I attended CentsPositive, even though I was initially overwhelmed at the thought of meeting so many new people.

It's why I try to see my brother once a year, even though getting there is kind of a haul and it's never cheap.

It's why I force myself to keep working on my blog, even when I wonder whether it's worthwhile. There's a community here, too, and I depend on it.


Your Community


What about you? What's your community like? Do you feel like you have the support and connection you need? How do you find and engage with a community - especially when you don't particularly feel like it or the effort seems like more work than it's worth?
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Finances After 40 #7: Investing In Herself (Dragon Gal's Story)



After a three-month hiatus, Finances After 40 is back! This time, we're hearing from Dragon Gal, a 42-year-old early retiree with a passion for travel, art, volunteering, and minimalism. Dragon Gal and her husband, Dragon Guy, write about FIRE and living/thriving with a chronic health condition (Dragon Guy was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia eight years ago) on their blog, The Dragons on FIRE

I'm very inspired by Dragon Gal - not only by her words of wisdom, but also by the way she lives her life. It's clear that she strives to align her lifestyle with her values. 

Thank you, Dragon Gal, for writing this piece. Take it away!


A Peek Into Early Retirement Life


I was an educator for 18 years before I quit in 2017. My husband, Dragon Guy, continues to work for now [note from $76K: It's been a few months since Dragon Gal submitted this post, and since then, Dragon Guy has solidified his retirement plans. His last day is November 1!]. I’ve been enjoying my early retirement—I like volunteering, exercising, reading, and writing.

I’m also big into the arts. I love art in all its forms: music, visual art, writing, dance, and theater. They are all a great source of inspiration to me! I love being creative and seeing others’ creativity! I have been in an improv theater group for 10 years, where I act and play the clarinet.

Healthy living is a top priority in my life. Ever since Dragon Guy was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011, we’ve focused on eating right, exercising, and having a positive attitude. We also believe it’s important to have community in cancer survivorship, so we are involved in a local cancer non-profit. 

"The FIRE movement has gotten us on the same page with our money goals, and for the first time in our marriage, we are really approaching our finances more as a team effort."

These past few years I’ve really gotten into minimalism. I started a declutter challenge of 1,000 items this year. This challenge has had a trickle-down effect in my entire life, as I’m looking to simplify my life and prioritize the parts I value most.

Dragon Guy and I write a blog together, where we focus on early retirement, living with cancer, and travel. We’ve been writing for over a year, and it’s been so fun to have a creative project together—it’s been a great bonding experience for us!

We've been married for 17 years, and travel has really defined our life together. We love learning about new cultures and seeing how others live. We enjoy nature and hiking and we look forward to visiting more places around the world!


Financial Wins and Challenges


I’ve retired, and Dragon Guy is close to retiring. I’m proud of all the changes Dragon Guy and I have made in our lives since learning about the FIRE movement in 2017. We’ve cut about 20% of our annual spend. We’ve had many productive conversations about our financial situation—I’ve learned so much about finances since catching on FIRE, and it’s brought us closer together as a couple. We never really fought over money, but the FIRE movement has gotten us on the same page with our money goals, and for the first time in our marriage, we are really approaching our finances more as a team effort. Whereas before, he managed our portfolio and most everything money-related.

"I think there is so much pressure from society for our lives to look a certain way (house, career, kids, etc). It’s exhausting to juggle all of these things."

We’ve paid off our mortgage and our cars. We don’t have any other debt. We were very lucky that both sets of parents paid our college tuition, and we are forever grateful to them for that. We don’t have any children, which we do believe has helped us get to this point in our lives financially.

Our biggest financial or finance-related challenges right now are:

(1) Healthcare for Dragon Guy. Dragon Guy and I have reached FI, but a big challenge for us is health insurance. Dragon Guy has chronic myeloid leukemia and is currently on track to get off his medication to see if he can remain in remission without treatment. This is great news!

At the same time, stopping his meds means more lab tests to monitor him, so there is some uncertainty surrounding what would happen to his care, because he hopes to stay with the medical team he’s been with for over 8 years. However, the current marketplace health insurance plans don’t cover the hospital where he’s had treatment. This is why Dragon Guy has continued to work, though he is considering quitting soon.

Dragon Guy is currently doing research on his different options for health care. We have drastically cut numerous categories of spending in anticipation of me going on the marketplace plans and for him to be on COBRA.

(2) Living in a house. We bought a big house with the idea that we’d have children. We’d considered moving throughout the years, but our mortgage was so low, and we felt the only reason we would move was to be in a nicer location (which would cost more).

Now, my parents have moved back to the USA and bought a house in the same neighborhood, so it seems silly to move away. So now we have this huge house, which costs over five figures every year in utilities, taxes, insurance, HOA fees, and maintenance. We are wondering if we should get a renter or if we should do Airbnb. But, we feel we have to renovate a bit before we can have others stay in our home. In the short term, we’ve decided to look into renovating with the thought that we could put it on Airbnb eventually.

"Invest in yourself, not things. The greatest asset in my life is ME! It’s not my house, my car, or even my portfolio."

As I’ve grown older, I’m starting to think about healthcare, aging, estate planning, dealing with assisted living costs and having a caregiver. Also: Who can I trust to take over my finances when I’m no longer cognitively competent? We have two nieces, but I’m not sure if it’s fair to rely on them as they will have their own parents to look after.


In Retrospect...


Looking back, I would not have done the following:

  • Bought a wedding band with diamonds. This cost $1,500. A simple wedding band would have been fine.
  • Had a wedding. This cost $10,000. While we made all of the money back via cash gifts, I think we should have just had a small reception.
  • Bought a large house. I didn’t want a “starter house.” I wanted my “forever home” so I didn’t have to move when we had children. I assumed we would have children. I assumed having a house was just a “thing” people were supposed to do when we became adults. I wished I would have examined my assumptions more before I acted.
  • I would not have shopped so much--and I don’t even consider myself a shopaholic! But I liked window shopping and browsing on the internet. And all of that took up time and also money!

But I don’t regret all the travel we’ve done. I think travel is very educational. Our style of travel has changed drastically now that I’m no longer working, and this has helped us travel more on a budget. We stay at AirBnBs, cook our own meals, and seek out free activities as much as possible.


Looking Towards the Future


In the future, I envision happiness and health! I try to eat right and exercise, though this is very hard for me at times; I’m not always good at this and there are plenty of moments where I fall off track. I want to do more things that make me happy. And fortunately, since I’m retired, I can be more choosy about the things I get involved in. I’m hoping to journal more, as this helps me mentally and emotionally. I’ve started reading more books and I find this makes me feel happy too!

"When I turned 40, something really changed for me... I started questioning everything and really reflecting on my life experience."

It’s taken me a couple of years to find my groove in early retirement, and I find I enjoy volunteering. So I hope to continue volunteering for the cancer non-profit that I’ve been with. Dragon Guy and I launched a healthy habits support group program this year with them, and we had a great first session. We hope to have more sessions.


Dragon Gal's Advice: Invest in Yourself


I think there is so much pressure from society for our lives to look a certain way (house, career, kids, etc). It’s exhausting to juggle all of these things. When I turned 40, something really changed for me. I thought, “This is the rest of my life, and is teaching what I want to be doing?” I started questioning everything and really reflecting on my life experience. And I wasn’t sure if I bought into some of the pressure from society for my life to be a certain way. This is why I quit my job. I’m still questioning what I want in my life as I move forward.

"I think the most important thing for women to do is to start talking to each other... I think if we sought each other’s help and counsel more, we’d learn so much!"

Invest in yourself, not things. The greatest asset in my life is ME! It’s not my house, my car, or even my portfolio. Invest in your education, in eating nutritious foods, in exercising, in your happiness, in having good relationships. Make sure your mind, body, and spirit are healthy. Have a good relationship with yourself!

Be confident, make good decisions, and be open to improving. Investing in my own well-being has become very important in the second half of my life. This is something I have to work hard at, as there are days where I don’t want to cook for myself or do yoga, etc. etc. (And I do slack off, don’t get me wrong!)

I’ve fallen off the path of eating well and exercising often, but I’m really trying to listen to my body better, and ultimately, I know this will pay off for me in the long run. Think about how you want to live your life. Everyone has different priorities, consequently, how each of us spends our money and invests is very different. We can read books and talk to other people, and at the same time, we need to consider how the advice fits into our lives (if at all).

I think the most important thing for women to do is to start talking to each other. This is something I need to do more of myself. I think if we sought each other’s help and counsel more, we’d learn so much! And feel more connected, as well.


Where To Connect With Dragon Gal


Blog: thedragonsonfire.com
Twitter: @DragonGuyAndGal


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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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